A Detour on My Vegan Journey

The Today Show on CBS is airing a series this week on "trendy diets" and which one is good for you. When I saw vegan in the list, I was surprised. For me, eating a plant-based diet is so much a part of who I am as a person that I don't think of it as a diet for losing weight, getting healthy, or helping the environment, even though for some people it is.

You all know me as a runner (and a big purchaser of workout clothes, ha ha), but everyone who knows me in real life knows me first and foremost as an animal lover. I don't talk about that or being vegan much on this blog not because I don't care. It's just the opposite. I care so much that I don't want to think or talk about animal issues or else I get really depressed and upset to have to live in a world that is so cruel to animals. So to cope, I push it all out of my mind. I cannot watch the news because there are frequently animal cruelty stories on. When I volunteered at a shelter, it was (very gently) suggested to me that I take a break from volunteering and fostering because I would leave the shelter in tears every time. When people start telling me an animal story (which is often), I stop them and demand to know if there's anything upsetting about it and then ask that they stop talking if there is. I have always been this way as long as I can remember, back to when I was a little girl and my dad had to stop hunting because it would upset me so much I physically got sick. Because I know that the only real effect I can have on the factory farming industry that tortures animals to make a profit is to not support them as a consumer, I do not eat animal products.

All this is background to say that I care A LOT about animal welfare and live my life to help animals as best I can. That's why veganism is not a trendy diet to me! It is also not a restrictive diet to me. I eat everything I love and nothing I don't. Recently during a night out, a friend's husband who does not know me was giving me the third degree about being vegan. I tried my best to explain that I do not want to eat animals and that animal products are not appealing to me, after he repeatedly asked whether I crave meat. Finally, after a quite a while of this, I resorted to saying something very upsetting. I know it's upsetting and I don't say it often, but sometimes it's the only way for people to understand how I feel. I told him that to me eating animals would be the same for him as eating babies and children--and not just eating them, but knowing that they are painfully separated from their mothers and then forced to live in miserable conditions--before eating them. His eyes widened, he said, "Oh," and then didn't ask any more questions.

Given all this, it may be surprising to know that I've been considering veering away from a vegan diet and, in fact, ate both fish and eggs in the past few months. This is huge and just pretty crazy for me. It all started when I was training for the Pittsburgh Half Marathon and practicing fueling for long runs like I would for the race. I ate more carbs and restricted high-fiber beans and veggies. I quickly realized that I felt so much better without all the beans. I had been eating a lot of beans daily and realized that the painful gas and stomach cramps I often had were a result of all the beans. I do eat lentils a lot, which are more easily digestible than beans, and I like tofu but try not to eat it too much because it's a processed food. So, if I wanted to limit beans, don't wait to eat lentils and tofu every day, what do I do for protein?

I started to think about eating fish. I would not be supporting the factory farming industry, which is the main reason I eat vegan. But there were still some problems with eating fish:
  1. Overfishing is a huge environmental problem that I don't want to contribute to.
  2. I don't actually like fish. We never had fish when I was growing up, and the only fish I have ever liked are the unhealthy kinds--fried, battered fish sandwiches and tuna fish.
  3. It's still eating a dead creature, which is very gross to me.

Still, I thought I would try it. Every week I would buy a can of tuna fish at the store, and every week I ended up giving it to my dog and cats. Then I researched it more and found that canned tuna fish can be high in mercury and low in Omega 3s but that there are better kinds with low mercury and high Omega 3s. That led me to buying $5 cans of tuna from Whole Foods. I figured if I was spending so much money on it, I wouldn't give it to my pets. Well, that's true only in that the two cans are still sitting in my cupboard. I just could not bring myself to try it.

My next experiment was eggs. Joanna from Next Gen House had told me that freshly laid eggs have a protective film over them to keep out the blood, poop, and afterbirth. That was the main reason I never considered eating even eggs from pet chickens. So, when someone who has pet chickens offered to give me eggs, I accepted. I had an egg salad sandwich. It tasted good, exactly like I remembered. The problem is that smell really got to me. I kept smelling it on my fingers even after I washed my hands repeatedly, and I just felt really gross after eating it. It's funny because eggs have never grossed me out before! So, that was the end of the egg experiment.

Finally, though, I did eat fish when we were in Boston. We were at a restaurant that served really fresh seafood, and I got a beer-battered cod sandwich. I was so pleasantly surprised! It was so flaky that I didn't even have to chew it, which was great because I worried about the texture. It also really didn't taste much like fish. I ate it easily and didn't feel gross at all afterward.

I've also been trying soaking and cooking dried beans instead of buying them canned, and it makes a huge difference. I don't have the same stomach cramping and gas as I do when eating canned beans.

That's where I am today. I ate eggs once and fish once. Will I eat them again? I'm not sure. I think eggs are out for me given my experience, but if I were traveling or at a restaurant and had no other options, I think I would eat fish. But on a day-to-day basis, I don't think I will, especially since I've found that cooking my own beans works well. Plus, there are several different types of vegan fish fillets that I really like. They taste very faintly of fish, which is exactly what the actual breaded fish sandwich I had tasted like. Sure, the vegan fish fillets are a processed food, but I think I'd prefer to eat a processed food every now and again instead of a dead creature.

The fact that I explored this at all is pretty huge for me given my feelings about animals. As I told my good friend, who is also vegan, I felt like I was going through an existential crisis! I have been wanting to share this but, to be honest, it's hard to publicly admit all this. But now I'm happy I did look into it because, if anything, it confirms to me that I'm not missing anything by sticking to a plant-based diet and, in a pinch, I could eat fish if I absolutely had to.

I'm curious to hear what you all think of this! All of my friends who I've told about this seemed very excited that I was considering fish and offered advice on the least-fishy kinds (Funny that different people have different opinions on this! One friend insists I'd love scallops and another insists I would hate them.) and offered recipes. I am grateful that I have friends who have helped me explore this path.

And, because there are still so many misconceptions about a plant-based diet, I'll close with some facts.

Is a vegan diet really healthy and provides all the nutrition I need?
Yes. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics--the largest professional organization of nutritionists--put out a position paper a few years ago stating that vegetarian diets, including totally vegan diets, can meet all the dietary recommendations for good health and also prevent and treat a lot of health conditions: "It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes." What's interesting is that the academy has not promoted any other "trendy" or "restrictive" diet and has come out against the paleo diet.

Do you get enough protein in a vegan diet?
Yes. From that same position paper: "A concern that vegetarians, especially vegans and vegan athletes, may not consume an adequate amount and quality of protein is unsubstantiated. Vegetarian diets that include a variety of plant products provide the same protein quality as diets that include meat." This article from the same academy provides more info on plant-based protein.

But what about vegan athletes and runners?
From Today's Dietitian: "The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein for the general adult population is 0.8 grams per kilogram per day. Protein recommendations for endurance athletes range from 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram per day. During times of intense training, including resistance exercise, this recommendation increases to 1.6 to 1.7 grams per kilogram per day. Most athletes do not experience difficulty when trying to achieve recommended intakes. In lacto-ovo vegetarians and vegans consuming adequate amounts of plant and vegetable proteins, severe protein deficiency is uncommon. In fact, a vegetarian diet can supply all essential and nonessential amino acids from plant foods alone if a variety of these foods is consumed over the course of the day and with adequate amounts of energy." The No Meat Athlete blog also has lots of info on this topic. He says it's really a non-issue: "If you’re eating enough for your activity level and consuming a variety of whole foods, you will get all the protein you need. Guaranteed. No need for supplements!"
If you’re eating enough for your activity level and consuming a variety of whole foods, you will get all the protein you need. Guaranteed. No need for supplements! - See more at: http://www.nomeatathlete.com/vegetarian-protein-primer/#sthash.hDF3UsZi.dpuf
f you’re eating enough for your activity level and consuming a variety of whole foods, you will get all the protein you need. Guaranteed. No need for supplements! - See more at: http://www.nomeatathlete.com/vegetarian-protein-primer/#sthash.hDF3UsZi.dpuf
f you’re eating enough for your activity level and consuming a variety of whole foods, you will get all the protein you need. Guaranteed. No need for supplements! - See more at: http://www.nomeatathlete.com/vegetarian-protein-primer/#sthash.hDF3UsZi.dpuf

Don't animal rights organizations make up lies about how animals are treated?
Believe me, I wish this were true. In fact, I researched this for years before actually deciding to go vegan because I didn't want to believe it. Now, the cruelty is pretty commonly acknowledged. Countless undercover videos have revealed very disturbing practices in pretty much all types of factory farms. And just within the past few years, for example, California passed legislation to ban gestation crates for pigs, where pigs are confined to crates so small that they cannot move or turn around. This practice is still legal in most places. But when I was looking into it, nothing like that existed. It was reading the book Creating the Best Life for Animals by Temple Grandin that made me realize that I had to stop eating all animal products if I did not want to support industries that are cruel to animals. Grandin is not a vegetarian or an animal rights activist at all. But her job is to consult with farms and help them figure out how to more humanely work with animals. In the book she matter-of-factly described the current conditions of farm animals and what should be done to improve their lives. It was in her book that I learned about the horrific conditions of milk-producing cows and egg-laying chickens and realized that being vegetarian wasn't enough.

I don't want to support cruelty to animals, but I don't want to become vegan. Is there anything I can do?
Yes! Reducing your consumption of animal products is one of the biggest ways. Even going meatless once a week helps. Another very easy way is to not support fast food restaurants. The reason that factory farms exist at all is in large part because of the fast food industry. I don't have the statistic on hand, but I know at one point McDonald's was the biggest purchaser of either beef or pork in the country. And when I say don't support, I mean don't even so much as buy a drink from them. Drinks are actually their biggest profit margin! Another option is to buy from local farms instead of from a grocery store, where the meat and dairy come from factory farms. My local community supported agriculture (CSA) program regularly offers meat and dairy from local farms, and farmers' markets also usually have good options. 

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