Sustainable Alternatives: Veganism
If someone had told me a few years ago that I would be a plant-eating enthusiast, I likely would have laughed openly in disbelief. Having been raised in a family of omnivores with two good home-cooks for parents, I have eaten and loved countless meat and dairy centric dishes that I still appreciate today. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I became a vegetarian after learning about factory farming. Between pictures of pink slime and articles about hormone injections in cow’s meat, I started to worry about what I was putting into my body and the practices I was unknowingly supporting by purchasing and consuming meat & poultry. When I found myself unable to separate thoughts of factory farming practices from the food I was eating at mealtimes, eliminating meat from my diet seemed to be the best course of action. I viewed the diet change as a temporary solution until someday the meat & poultry industry would be forced to change its ways or at least I would be able to afford and ensure that all the animal products I consumed were locally sourced, organic, and humanely treated.
After almost 4 years of happily eating as a vegetarian, I unexpectedly found myself at crossroads again with my diet after reading about the harmful environmental impact caused by the overconsumption of not only animal products but their byproducts as well. I’d heard and laughed along with the rest of the world when environmental scientists published research identifying cow farts and burps as significant sources of methane in our atmosphere, however, I never acknowledged humanity’s role in creating a meat industry so large and powerful that gas released from cows accounted for 20% of human-related methane produced by the US. On the same note, I hadn’t previously made the connection that the mass production of animal byproducts as seen in commercial dairy farming were as much to blame for inhumane and harmful environmental practices as the meat & poultry industry.
I knew the question of whether I should consider veganism was inevitable, but I resisted the idea on the basis that I probably couldn’t even afford the groceries necessary for a well-balanced nutritious vegan diet. It was my college roommate that made the switch first and proved that she could maintain her grocery budget at $80 per two weeks of only plant-based groceries. Knowing that I could afford the change meant that I had to re-evaluate my reasons for not trying veganism, and upon doing so, I couldn’t rationalize why I should continue to eat animal bi-products when the same reasons I avoided meat & poultry were applicable to them. The newly learned information about the environmental impact of the over consumption of both animals and their bi-products didn’t help the non-vegan case either.
In March of last year I finally made my choice: I had to at least give veganism a try. My expectations of success were rather low, and I told myself that after a month I could give it up if it seemed my health was affected negatively or a cheese-less life ended up being absolutely unbearable. Fast forward a little over a year later and I am happy to report that I continue to eat a plant-based vegan diet. From avoiding dairy I learned rather quickly that my digestive system functions a LOT better without lactose. I grew up drinking cow’s milk like it was a replacement for water and frequently suffered from stomach aches that seemed to be an inevitable consequence of eating food, but I never thought that perhaps dairy was the source of those pains. Not only do I rarely have stomach aches anymore eating a plant-based diet, but I’ve also experienced higher energy levels throughout the day. Veganism ended up being the right choice for me, but I can understand firsthand why transitioning to a plant-based diet may seem all too intimidating or outright unappealing. If you’re interested in plant-based eating, the following 4 tips are things I’ve found from my experience to be helpful in making the switch to a more sustainable diet.
- Redefine veganism for you!
There’s a lot to be excited about when entering the world of plant-based eating, but this doesn’t mean that giving up certain foods is easy for everyone at first. It also takes time to adjust to cooking nutritionally balanced vegan meals that will leave you just as satisfied (if not more so) than what you may be used to eating. Although there may be those in the vegan community who disagree, I personally don’t think veganism has to be a black and white, all-in or all-out life choice. Maybe you start by cooking vegan meals one or two days a week or decide to eat plant-based foods on weekdays and allow yourself a more lenient diet on the weekends. And if an all-in or nothing approach is more your style, still make sure to not be too hard on yourself if you make a “mistake” and forget to specify almond milk in your morning latte order or you can’t help but eat a slice of the three cheese pizza your friend just ordered. At the end of the day, what’s important is that you are consciously thinking of how your food choices impact the world around you. Give yourself the freedom to dip your toes into veganism however which way makes you feel good about your decisions.
2. Establish your motivators.
During the first couple of months that I made the switch to veganism, I avoided using the label “vegan” to describe myself. In addition to feeling apprehensive about categorizing myself with a community that can have a less than favorable stigma, I was nervous if I made a mistake and ate a non-vegan food item in front of friends that I would be chastised for talking the talk but not walking the walk. Whenever people inquired why I didn’t put cheese in my Chipotle burrito bowl or questioned my polite refusal of freezer pizza and Easy Mac at a friends’ apartments, I would dance around the term “vegan” and instead hold on tight to terms like “mostly plant-based” or “slightly lactose intolerant” to describe my change of dietary ways. It took at least 3 or 4 months of avoiding meat and animal byproducts before I became frustrated with my inability (or fear) of explaining my reasons to omnivores who could potentially feel distanced by my choices.
By this point in my transition to veganism, I had fallen in love with the benefits of a plant-based diet. Not only were my frequent stomach pains and digestion issues completely alleviated, but suddenly I had more energy, felt stronger, and had discovered a previously unknown passion for cooking. Every time I blamed my new diet solely on a lactose intolerance and didn’t tell the other half of the story, I felt guilty that I wasn’t taking the opportunity to educate others on the reasons that really got me hooked on plants. In order to lose that guilt and feel more comfortable in explaining my eating choices I decided to form a mental list that best summarized my reasoning:
- I couldn’t look at food the same way after learning that livestock and animal byproducts account for 51% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, far exceeding the total environmental cost of all transportation.
- As a consumer, I don’t want my purchasing power to contribute to the unsustainable over consumption of animals and their byproducts.
- I believe that individual and collective action are two of the few effective options we have to change the world around us. My choices may not be able to solve the world’s problems, but I can still make a productive difference by reducing my environmental footprint.
- Perhaps most importantly, after finishing a yummy plant-based meal I can feel good about what I put in my body. The last few times I ate meat and cheese, I couldn’t stop thinking about the thousands of acres of the Amazon that had been destroyed for animal agriculture purposes or that 55% of water consumption is for animal agriculture while only 5% is consumed in the US by private homes. If I can still enjoy a meal and avoid the guilt I feel when eating un-sustainably produced foods, why not choose the guilt-free option?
My reasons will not necessarily be yours, but figuring out exactly what inspired me to eat plant-based was crucial for building a personal sustainability around food. I never want people to feel criticized by my food choices which is why I used to avoid the topic, but it is more than feasible to explain your reasons-to-be-vegan in a positive way without shedding a condescending light on others. Tell people why it works for you so they can think about it for themselves.
- Learn to cook delectable meals that all your dairy and meat-eating friends will envy. I can’t tell you enough how much cooking has changed my entire outlook on vegan food. Cooking my own meals means that I can still eat a melty grilled cheese, a decadent chocolate cake, or creamy alfredo pasta – the ingredients just may be a little different from their traditional versions. A snap judgement from many omnivores often groups vegan food with rabbit food, but I am here to tell you that veganism isn’t a nightmare of gnawing on lettuce, carrots, and celery sticks. One look at the following recipe blogs of a few of my favorite vegan foodies will certainly break any misconceptions people may have about the vegan diet:
2. Focus on all the foods you CAN eat that are plant-based. Personally my vegan food day-dreams are filled with Falafel wraps, Sweet potato fries, and Chipotle burrito bowls (sans cheese, meat, and sour cream but extra guac please). I’ve always been a food fanatic – if I’m not presently eating food, I’m thinking about the next snack or meal in my future. It’s rare that I find a food that I don’t like, and I’m all about big flavors whether it be spicy, tangy, salty, or sweet. When I decided to transition to veganism, my number one concern was that I would feel like I was depriving myself of certain foods that couldn’t be matched or veganized. It’s important to note that at the time I was considering nixing all animals and their bi-products from my diet, I had already been a vegetarian for 3 years. My cravings for meat-centric dishes had more or less subsided after watching a few too many documentaries about factory farming. Giving up dairy though, was an entirely different story. Time after time I’ve had many friends, peers, and family members tell me that giving up meat wouldn’t be all that difficult but giving up cheese, yogurt, and ice-cream? Unthinkable. As someone who once feared the elimination of dairy products would leave a deep hole of sadness in my culinary and dining pursuits, I am here to assure you that a life without dairy is a life well worth living especially in the 21st century. Not only are there more and better vegan alternatives for both dairy and meat products showing up on grocery store shelves at an unprecedented rate, but also one should not underestimate the power of plants and their ability to create the same satisfying rich and textural qualities you appreciate in certain non-vegan foods.
- Craving pizza? Pick up the same pizza dough you normally would (you can usually count on pizza crust to be vegan) or a package of plain naan bread as well as a bag of shredded Daiya dairy-free cheese carried in almost all grocery stores. While other vegan cheeses arguably can boast a more authentic cheese flavor, Daiya is one of the few brands making vegan cheeses that melt into gooey, stringy layers of goodness. To amp up the cheesy flavor notes, I recommend making this Vegan Parmesan Cheese recipe ahead of time to sprinkle over the Daiya. Using the too “cheeses” layered over a tomato base and your favorite sauteed veggies, you will have created a pizza lover’s dream after a quick bake in a hot oven.
- But what about grilled cheese? Butter your bread with Earth Balance and use a couple layers of Caou sliced dairy-free cheese (I usually go for the tomato cayenne flavor, but I’ve heard all of them are good). Growing up my mom always added a layer of cream cheese to one side of the sandwich and I continue her ingenuity with Follow Your Heart (vegan) Cream Cheese. If ripe avocados are available, half of one is the perfect creamy compliment to your cheesy delight. Because vegan cheese doesn’t melt as easily as their traditional counterparts, I suggest keeping a lid over the pan for best results.
- Wings for Game-day? You may have to take a leap of faith with me on this one, but when baked properly, cauliflower can be transformed into a basket of hot wings that when dipped in a cooling vegan ranch dressing makes for quite the crowd pleaser even in a room full of diehard meat-lovers. Try out Hot for Food’s recipe and rejoice in the glory of finger-food magic that doesn’t involve nibbling on chicken bones.
Finding new recipe hacks to make plant-based cooking undeniably delicious can be exciting and oddly satisfying. If your new vegan diet focuses only on the elimination of certain foods without introducing new ones, it’s more likely for one to resent the change and revert back to old eating habits. The more foods you discover to be equally, if not more, appealing to you, the fewer opportunities you give yourself to lament over foods of your past.
–Claudia Jos, Sustainability Intern