Vegan. What comes to mind when you hear this word? Vegetables? Extremists? Maybe people who could gain some weight? Weird food? How about someone who is weak or fragile? Definitely a person who doesn’t have a lot of fun?
Well, I am a vegan. Although I classify myself as part of this interesting set of people who subsist on plants, I do not feel as though I am missing out on any of life’s pleasures. I have been vegan for one year and have been committed each day since making that decision. I believe veganism is one of those decisions you can’t help but be fully engaged in once you make up your mind to do it. The additional factor, which has helped propel me through this journey, is that my boyfriend and I began this together. Through the dedication in both our lives to wellness and my expertise and interests as a registered dietitian, it seemed natural to explore the possibility of adopting this purportedly healthy lifestyle.
So, why would someone even want to become vegan? Vegans don’t consume meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, honey or anything that originates from something that walked, crawled, flew or swam. They also cannot wear leather, wool, silk or down. Many times it is also expected that vegans do their part to preserve resources (reduce, reuse and recycle), protect animals (take a stand against animal mistreatment) and become advocates for the vegan lifestyle. I’ve even found that I don’t like receiving or accepting gifts from others that may come from animals (sorry leather clutch, goodbye box of chocolates). Yet the one flame which burns inside me is knowing I have made one of the most compassionate decisions a human can make by becoming vegan.
I started this journey in October 2011 after watching the documentary “Forks Over Knives” (compliments of my boyfriend) and being very moved by the content and its research regarding animal versus plant nutrition. Immediately after watching it, I decided to forego red meat and eggs in my diet. Removing these two foods would certainly get me going in the right direction. I was able to succeed at this task, and step two, just a few short weeks later, was getting rid of poultry and fish. I used to eat quite a bit of these foods: chicken salads, grilled chicken, chicken soups, turkey sandwich slices, whole turkey, as well as salmon and cocktail shrimp whenever I got the chance. Eliminating these foods posed a little more difficulty! Nevertheless, I persevered and chose satisfying substitutes, all while enjoying my yogurts in the morning, cheese by day, and ice cream by night.
The last stop was dairy, the food that can make or break a hopeful vegan. Gradually, I began by finding coconut milk-based frozen desserts instead of ice cream, traded in my yogurts for soy or almond yogurt blends and found some vegan sour creams, cream cheeses and shredded cheeses, which were savory enough to appease my taste buds. Once I felt comfortable with these various options, I incorporated them into dishes and even found some vegan cookbooks I had the confidence to start using in my own life.
I’ve found that becoming vegan not only forces you to try other foods which might not have been standard in your diet previously, but can also inadvertently change your palate. Some of my new favorite foods such as edamame, cauliflower, soymilk, cashews, red pepper, tempeh (fermented soybean), avocados and cucumbers make it into my diet at least every few days, not only because I have discovered their flavors but also because I now desire these tastes as preferred alternatives to the richness of animal products.
Gary Yourofsky, a well-known public speaker and vegan activist, says there are four reasons humans eat meat, milk, cheese and eggs: “Habit, tradition, convenience, and taste.” I don’t think there is much argument with this, other than maybe a fifth reason being that many people are simply unaware of the impact and gratification of a diet that doesn’t include these foods. Yourofsky has also presented information which includes the fact that approximately 3,000 more gallons of water are used daily to produce food for a meat-centered diet than a plant-based one and that herbivores use only about five percent of the total agricultural acreage required by an omnivore for their diets.
There are several questions people have for me when wanting to find out more about veganism. Question number one is how we get enough protein. Many people don’t realize there is an abundance of protein found in plants. Quinoa, lentils, seitan (wheat gluten), nuts, seeds, brown rice, oats, beans and whole wheat breads and pastas all contain this macronutrient, with most having thirty to forty percent of their total calories as protein. Soy foods are even a complete protein. Another common inquiry is if vegans manage to have enough calcium or iron in our diet. Calcium is found in foods like spinach, broccoli, tofu and calcium fortified beverages, and is actually somewhat more bioavailable for our bodies than animal-derived calcium. Dietary sources of iron (in a “non-heme” form) can come from plants, and can easily be worked into a vegan diet in adequate amounts. Vegans also enjoy a lifelong diet free of cholesterol as well as one that is likely full of fiber, minimal in saturated fat and higher in antioxidants.
What other single, permanent decision can you make in your life that sustains our environment and resources, saves living creatures and helps battle major diseases? My unanticipated bonuses are my newfound appreciation for Mother Earth, a renewed sense of self, and the knowledge that ultimately I’m doing the right thing for me. I think that there should be purpose and impact behind every decision we make.
Molly Hembree is a dietitian for The Kroger Company, providing nutrition, diet, food safety, allergen, and other health education to customers, partners, associates and the community. She obtained her BS in Dietetics from Eastern Kentucky University and is a current graduate student at the University of Cincinnati towards her MS in Nutrition.
Molly is a Certified Food Safety Manager by the FSP National Registry and holds two weight management certificates from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In her free time, she enjoys Zumba, learning about vegan nutrition, and finding new, exciting ways to put fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes at the center of the plate!