Polking Around

by Kemp Brinson

Stupid Vegan Questions

I’m a vegan. I am pretty low-key about it. It’s simply a personal choice that works well for me. Is it hard? It’s inconvenient sometimes, but it’s a lot less inconvenient than, say, type II diabetes.

Here’s my vegan story.

Why are you a vegan?

It’s a long story, and I’ll fill in some of the details as we go, but, briefly, here are my reasons:

  1. It’s better for the environment. (Another source, with citations). Going vegan cuts your carbon footprint, perhaps even as much as by one-half. Not too shabby.
  2. I’d rather my food not be tortured before I eat it. In my view, killing animals for food is not immoral, per se. However, modern factory farming conditions, even in the best cases, amount to the torture of animals. More on that later. I want no part of that system.
  3. It forces me to make better choices and eat healthier, especially about junk food and at restaurants. The drive thru is not an option.

I don’t think veganism is the one true religion. I just find it to be a better choice.

Are you one of those PETA people?

No. I look at PETA sort of the way that more respectable Republicans look at the Tea Party: it’s nice that we agree on some things, but I’m not jumping off the crazy cliff with you.

What is a vegan? What don’t you eat?

I do not eat:

  • Meat of any kind (beef, pork, poultry, lamb, fish, etc…)
  • Milk or dairy products like cheese
  • Eggs
  • Anything with animal-derived products in it

What do you eat? 

Plants, duh.

It’s all about substitution rather than elimination. When I cook, I try to eat well-balanced meals, just like you eat, except I substitute something else dense and filling for the meat, like whole grains, beans, or both.. I also tend to use spices generously for flavor. For example, this might be a good dinner for you:

  • Steak
  • Baked potato with butter and sour cream
  • Green beans
  • Texas toast

This is a comparable dinner I might cook:

  • Baked sweet potato, with dairy-free margarine and chipotle seasoning
  • A big helping of black beans with sauteed onions, probably dumped on the potato
  • Green beans
  • Whole grain roll

Are you an insufferable jerk when you go to someone’s house for dinner?

Definitely not. Well, yes, I am, but it’s because of my personality, not my diet. I usually have a snack before I go and insist that the host not make any special efforts for me. It’s my choice, and my problem.

What about restaurants?

It’s harder to be a vegan at restaurants. I do relax my standards slightly at restaurants, but not by much. Here’s what I mean by that: I never knowingly order anything with meat or animal products in it. Beyond that, I do the best I can.

For example, I tend not to get worked up about it if I discover, after ordering, that my beans were seasoned with ham, or that the “house sauce” at the Vietnamese place is fish-broth based. I scrape it away as best I can and enjoy my meal. 99.99% vegan is good enough.

At most restaurants, there is usually at least one good option. Asian restaurants are the best. Thanks to Buddhism, Thai and Indian restaurants have scads of options. Other Asian restaurants usually have several vegan choices, but you have to be careful about sauces.

American chains like Applebee’s and Chili’s are a vegan nightmare. But even at those sorts of places, I can order a plate of side items, usually consisting of some sort of beans, some sort of veggie (hold the butter), and rice. Sprinkle on a little hot sauce and you’ve got a meal! It’s good enough to eat and keeps me away from the other unhealthy crap on the menu.

Fast food restaurants can be really tough — which means I don’t eat a lot of fast food. (See reason #3 to be a vegan, above). A little googling quickly discloses what your limited options are. Subway is your friend.

Where do you get your protein?

This is the stupidest stupid question. Your body really doesn’t need all that much protein to begin with. Beans are a great protein source. Nuts, seeds, whole grains, and many vegetables have protein, too. Most Americans eat far more protein than the body needs. I don’t eat a whole lot of tofu or other soy-based products, but they are packed with protein. Protein is not a problem, not in the slightest.

What about (nutrient X)?

The only nutrient you can’t readily get from a vegan diet is vitamin B-12. So you take a supplement every day or three. Easy.

Vitamin D is not found in plants, but, like most vegans, I eat vitamin-D fortified foods, like breakfast cereals. I also enjoy the outdoors and get healthy amounts of sun exposure. Problem solved.

Cereal? What do you use instead of milk?

There are more types of non-dairy milks available at your local Publix than there are dairy milks. These include almond milk, soy milk, and coconut milk. Most of these come in several flavors: original (slightly sweetened), unsweetened, vanilla, and chocolate. Most of these are fortified with vitamins A and D and calcium, just like dairy milk. My favorite is regular (sweetened) almond milk. I don’t like drinking it straight, but it’s yummy on cereal and for dipping Oreos. (Yes, Oreos are vegan!)

Are farm animals really treated that badly?

Define “badly”.

There are a bunch of horrible documentaries by activists exposing insanely cruel practices at American farms. The most shocking and painful of these is called Earthlings, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix (vegan!). Don’t watch it unless you want to become a vegan tomorrow. Let’s ignore all that extremist propaganda and take the meat industry at its best, shall we?

Take, for example, this video proudly showing off the pork industry’s “humane” practices. In the video, you’ll learn that pigs are kept in crowded, laboratory-like conditions. Take special note of those tiny cages at around the 0:45 mark. I’m not 100% certain, but they appear to be what are called gestation crates. Breeding sows are put in them for most of their adult life. They cannot move, turn around, or even lie down, 24/7. They are banned in a few states, including Florida, and, only after intense pressure from animal rights organizations, some companies have pledged to eliminate their use. But they are still widely used. Sounds great doesn’t it?

Consider chickens. According to the National Chicken Council, broilers are raised in cages that provide eight tenths of a square foot per bird. They brag about how this exceeds the minimum industry standard of one-half a square foot per bird!

It’s even worse for hens raised for eggs. According to a virtual tour on the United Egg Producer’s web site, designed to show off their humane practices, “Modern housing allows for each hen to have 67-86 square inches of space. This amount of space gives them enough room to lie down, stand up, turn around and spread their wings.” Wow! They get to turn around and spread their wings! How luxurious!

These are just examples of one animal welfare concern: enclosure sizes.

These are complex, sophisticated living things. Pigs, in particular, are surprisingly smart. I don’t want to eat an intelligent animal that has spent its entire life in a tiny box. If I treated my dog this way, you would think me cruel. How is it any different if it’s a pig? And these practices are what they willingly show us in their own industry propaganda. As for what they don’t show us, the industry has lobbied for laws that criminalize filming their practices surreptitiously. Why do you think that is?

This is just the tip of the animal welfare iceberg. There is a lot of information out there about animal welfare on factory farms. Some of it is good information, some of it is misleading, and sorting out which is which is very hard. I’m not an extremist, but I am very concerned about the effects my choices have on the pain and suffering of other animals. I find it most ethically defensible to avoid any doubt by avoiding those products entirely.

So why not eat free range meat and eggs?

It’s a better option, I suppose, but I am not sure what sorts of standards are in place about what those terms mean. Google it and you’ll see what I mean. And, even if the chickens are happy and carefree until the moment they are electrocuted before having their throats slit (yes, that’s how they do it), that only takes care of one of my three reasons for being a vegan.

Is veganism really healthier?

That’s a very personal question, to which I have a very personal answer: I think it is the healthiest choice for me. You have to decide for yourself.

The most convincing book I have read on the health benefits of veganism is The China Study, which suggests that many modern diseases like heart disease and diabetes are caused by high levels of consumption of animal products, especially dairy.

But that’s not why I went vegan. It began as a quest to lose a little weight. My weight had crept up, and I went about losing it by counting calories.

When you count calories, it becomes obvious that you have to go easy on calorically dense foods, like desserts, dairy products, and meat, but you have more freedom to consume more nutritionally dense foods like beans and veggies in larger quantities. To help me make easy decisions that would exploit this, I made a rule for myself: I became a vegetarian for breakfast and lunch, and an omnivore for dinner. This worked especially well because I often ate lunch out at work, and this was the source of a lot of my unneeded calories.

To my surprise, I didn’t miss the meat at all. After I lost what I wanted to lose, I decided to drop the rule, but, to keep the weight off, I made a new rule: no meat except fish. This made me a “pescetarian”. I still consumed dairy and eggs. Fish is, in my estimation, the healthiest meat, and I loved it, so this was easy. I ate this way for about three years.

In the meantime, I did a lot more thinking and reading, and decided to give all-out veganism a try, for the reasons above. I quit fish and dairy cold turkey and haven’t looked back. That was sometime in early 2013.

If you want to try it, I highly recommend some version of an incremental approach.

How do you feel?

Great! I rarely get that uncomfortable stuffed feeling you get after a big meal and I don’t tend to crash after eating. My doctor says my blood looks good, and I have no health problems to speak of related to diet. I do have slightly elevated cholesterol, but that runs in the family.

Have you lost weight as a vegan?

No, but I sense that it would be easy to do so just by dialing my consumption back a little bit or replacing some of my carbs with more veggies.

Note that veganism is not a health or weight-loss panacea. You can be an overweight, unhealthy vegan. It’s easy: just eat a bunch of pasta, potato chips, and soda. To maintain a healthy vegan lifestyle you have to maintain other healthy eating habits: eat a variety of mostly unprocessed foods, eat whole grains instead of white grains, and eat in moderation.

Do you miss eating meat?

No, not a bit. A few times I have taken a bite of meat accidentally. Processed meat, like hamburgers, cold cuts, and chicken breast patties, tastes extremely salty to me. Eating meat feels, to me, about the same as eating dog, cat, or horse meat might feel to you: gross.

What I do miss, though, are things like cakes and cookies. There are amazing vegan cookie and cake recipes out there, but I’m too lazy to do much baking, so I just have to abstain. I’ve only cheated a few times, and every time, it’s been because someone offered me a homemade treat, usually around the holidays, and I couldn’t refuse.

Where can I learn more?

Vegan.com is a good resource. You might want to watch the documentary Forks Over Knives, which was on Netlfix the last time I checked. If you have any questions, leave a comment.

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