29 May, 2017

Why I'm Vegan (and You Should Be Too)

Many of you will already be aware that I've been a (sometimes more, sometimes less strict) vegan for more than two years. To anyone who knows me this decision shouldn't be a shocking one; I've always loved animals and I've been a vegetarian at various points in my life, including during my final year of college. So veganism was simply the next logical step, and I often wonder what took me so long to get here.

I say "sometimes more, sometimes less strict" because the transition to veganism was often a hard one. As with any decision that puts you at odds with the mainstream, the temptation to backslide and eat meat or dairy products—which I am well aware taste delicious—is all around me, and my willpower wasn't always strong enough to let me say no. There were times when my resolve weakened and I ate cheese multiple times a week, followed by periods of renewed enthusiasm for my cruelty-free, eco-friendly eating style in which I dutifully ate only plants. Over the last several months I had come to what I considered a happy medium of mostly-veganism combined with the occasional indulgence in dairy or meat.

And then I read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.

The book is based on years of research into the meat industry, numerous interviews, visits to factory farms and family farms alike, contributions from both farmers and animal rights activists, and the author's desire to make an informed decision about whether to raise his newborn son as a vegetarian. Through storytelling and a no-nonsense presentation of verified facts and statistics, he comes to the damning conclusion that factory animal farming, the source of 95 to 99 percent of various types of meat in the US, does massive harm to animal welfare, the environment, workers' rights and rural communities all while lining the pockets of ultra-powerful corporations. In short, basically my worst nightmare.

This book didn't tell me much that I didn't already know, at least in theory. As a budding vegan, I watched all the right documentaries and could name multiple studies and books which outline the benefits of a vegan diet (also known as a plant-based diet*, see note at bottom of post). I already knew, for example, that animals on factory farms, which produce the vast majority of meat in industrialized countries, are treated horribly and suffer sickening abuses both on the farm and during slaughter. I already knew that animal agriculture contributes more to global warming than the entire transportation sector, leads to clear-cutting of forests and subsequent erosion, and funnels massive amounts of food that could be eaten by humans into the mouths of livestock. I also already knew that the mass consumption of animal protein and fat is a direct contributor to obesity and major health problems like heart disease and cancer. For me, what this book did was fill in many of the day-to-day details of what those vague, broad facts actually mean, and did so in a straightforward but heartrendingly powerful way.

It's the details that really hit home: It's one thing to know that chicken meat in the United States is dipped in chlorine to disinfect it, but it's another to know that this is only necessary because the meat becomes so smeared with feces and chicken guts during slaughter that it would be unsafe to eat (and even with the chlorine bath it still causes tens of thousands of cases of food-borne illness every year). It's one thing to know that factory-farmed chickens are so genetically messed up that they can't even stand, but it's another to know that the slaughterhouse workers who handle the chickens can often feel the birds' bones snapping in their hands. It's one thing to know that animals in factory farms are treated like profit-generating commodities and not like living beings, but it's another to know that the runts in litters of piglets are killed by smashing their heads against a wall so hard that their eyeballs can pop out, and then they are simply thrown in the trash, some of them still alive. And one thing I didn't know: when the animal waste (feces, urine, vomit, blood and dead animal parts) from a factory farm overflows the fields where it is stored**, some farms simply spray the toxic sludge into the air, where it forms a mist that settles on surrounding towns, causing a massive wave of health problems and contamination.

I could say that I'm not telling you these things to try to disturb you, but I would be lying. You should be disturbed, and maybe even nauseated, as I was at several points while reading Eating Animals. The meat industry is disturbing and inhumane, and anyone who eats meat needs to know the types of practices they are supporting with the money they spend on chicken nuggets and steak. And while the book focuses on meat, with sections also dedicated to eggs***, industrial fishing, and factory fish farms, the horrors of factory farming methods can be extrapolated to dairy products as well. In that sense, the purchase of milk or yogurt is just as much a vote in favor of these horrors as that hotdog from IKEA.

Reading this book has convinced me more than ever that being vegan is the right choice, and it has placed me firmly within the "more strict" camp. Any one of the reasons this book presents for not eating meat (animal abuse and slaughter, contamination and food-borne illness, proliferation of drug-resistant pathogens, environmental degradation, destruction of rural economies and agricultural traditions, chronic health problems, workers' rights abuses and workplace injuries, and the list goes on) would have been enough to renew my conviction not to eat meat, and taken together they make me as certain as I can ever be that I will never knowingly ingest meat again. And since dairy cows and egg-laying chickens are kept in just as awful conditions as meat animals, I am committed not just to avoiding meat, but to avoiding eggs and dairy as well. This is my contribution toward making the world a better place, not just for animals but also for people.

When I say "making the world a better place," I'm not exaggerating. In addition to contributing to animal welfare and human health, eating vegan also saves literally tons of resources that would otherwise go to raising animals for consumption. Animal agriculture uses a staggering one third of the available land area on Earth, and tons of fresh water go toward animals and crops to feed animals instead of to people. In that sense I could even go further and say that going vegan doesn't just make the world a better place but could save it, and I wouldn't be wrong. According to a report from the United Nations published in 2010, a global shift toward a vegan diet is the only way to save ourselves from the ravages of global warming. As quoted in the Guardian, the report states that "A substantial reduction of impacts [of global warming] would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products." In other words, if you want this planet to continue sustaining human life, including yours, you'd better change your diet.

I'm telling you these things not simply to get a reaction, but hopefully to motivate you—yes, I mean YOU—to turn that reaction into action. The best thing that you as an individual can do to mitigate the ethical, environmental and health issues inherent to modern meat production is to go vegan. Some people have slightly different definitions of what being vegan entails (for example, some vegans don't eat honey or wear wool), but to me it means not eating meat, dairy, eggs or any product that contains those things, and using vegan shampoo, soap, toothpaste etc.**** It is a comprehensive lifestyle change that requires time, willpower and a rethinking of how you approach food, but I keep myself motivated by seeking out new and delicious vegan recipes to make eating exciting and by reminding myself of the positive impact my choices have on the world. It's easy to get discouraged by how much of my life and consumption habits (showering, heating my apartment, using the microwave, buying packaged food and goods) has a negative impact on the world, but this is one area in which I know for sure I'm making a positive difference.

Up until now I've been fairly quiet about my veganism because I didn't want to come across as an annoying activist vegan who won't stop talking about animal abuse. Other than writing a previous blog post about being vegan in Germany and occasional conversations with friends and family about my decision when I've told them I'm vegan, I haven't made much of an effort to bring other people on board. I've drawn a line with Maxim that I will not cook meat or eggs for him, and I've considered refusing to buy animal products for him as well, but that has been the extent of my activism. I still don't want to be that annoying activist vegan, but I also don't want to be quiet about it anymore. I want to encourage other people to follow in my footsteps and make a commitment to a less cruel, more humane and more environmentally friendly lifestyle. "Annoying" activists are necessary for any sort of social change to be successful, so if I come off as one occasionally, then so be it.

If going vegan or vegetarian is something that interests you but you feel that it would be too hard (which, I have to be harsh, is a pathetic excuse for causing harm), you don't have to do it all at once. As I mentioned earlier, becoming fully vegan for me was a two-year transition process, and taking that sort of time is completely fine. The most important thing is that you consciously reduce your animal product consumption. You can start slow by simply adding in a few vegan meals per week, or you can go vegetarian instead of vegan. Both of these approaches make a difference, although if you want to have the greatest possible positive impact going full-on vegan is your best bet. If you want some tips on how to get started, this video is a great resource:

As I mentioned in my previous post about being vegan in Germany, being vegan is not as hard as it sounds. Every supermarket and grocery store carries the stars of a vegan diet—fruits, vegetables, grains and beans—and even discount supermarkets have started carrying more vegan products like non-dairy yogurt and plant milks. For the more "out-there" ingredients that vegan cooking can lead you to, like nutritional yeast or tempeh, health food stores are a great resource. Restaurants, especially chains like Vapiano, have also started to be more aware of their vegetarian and vegan customers and are likely to have a few vegetarian and vegan dishes on the menu, or at least dishes that can be made vegan with little extra effort.

All I can do at this point is ask you to simply give it a try. If you think you will just die without meat (you won't, it's the animal who dies in that arrangement), then try it for a week or a month and see how it goes. If you think you won't find anything to eat, I can assure you that that won't be the case. I actually eat a wider and tastier variety of foods and dishes now than I did before I became vegan, because I've learned more about cooking since then, simply out of necessity. I've become a much better cook as a result, and I eat even healthier than I did before. And if you are still not convinced by any of the other arguments, maybe this will sway you: Since I became vegan, I've lost weight without even trying while still eating as much food as I can stuff my face with. The people I've talked to who have also become vegan have experienced the same thing, and so can you (as long as you eat more than just pasta and bread).

In the end, the decision to eat animal products in general, and meat in particular, knowing what we do about where it comes from, is a staggeringly selfish one. How does the momentary, fleeting pleasure of eating a cheap cheeseburger justify the lifelong suffering, torture and murder of literally billions of animals each year? Are we as a species really that selfish and cruel? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. I want to change the answer to that question, and I hope you will join me.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you have any questions about my approach to veganism or if you would like any tips for how to implement a vegan diet in your own life, please feel free to contact me, either in the comments or through my Contact page. Below I've listed some resources that have been helpful or motivating for me as I've transitioned to a vegan lifestyle, which I encourage you to check out. If you are fellow vegan and there are resources you've found helpful that I've missed, share them in the comments!

Edit: Although I didn't focus on the health benefits of a vegan diet in this post, there is growing evidence that a vegan diet can prevent and even reverse diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. Although I am not a medical professional and cannot directly endorse these positions, this was brought to my attention by one of my readers who sent me information to share on the topic. To find out more, check out the information on mesothelioma.net (the information applies to all types of cancer) as well as several of the sources listed below.

Helpful Resources:


Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell
I have to admit I haven't read this one yet, but it is THE comprehensive study of vegan vs. animal-based diets that is quoted in many other resources and very clearly demonstrates the health benefits of a vegan diet.

The Engine 2 Diet by Rip Esselstyn
This book advocates for a specific type of vegan, low-fat and low-oil diet that is intended to reverse heart disease. Since I don't have heart disease or a specific health issue that I'm trying to improve I find this diet a bit too restrictive, but the book is a good read in any case. The author also has several other books that I haven't read yet.

Deliciously Ella by Ella Woodward
This cookbook is filled with completely vegan and gluten-free recipes, so if you are gluten intolerant and think being vegan as well would be too limiting, give this book (or the website) a try. In addition to recipes the book gives a run-down of a wide variety of vegan ingredients and how to use them. This author has also written three other books since this one came out.

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
This book explores the problems associated with the American fast food industry, including such diverse topics as the history of fast food, chemicals and additives in the food, conditions within the meat industry, and marketing of fast food to children. Although not specifically about veganism, it presents a very strong case against the fast food chains that supply so many people with animal products.


Note: I watched all of these on Netflix, but since Netflix's catalog varies by country I can't make any guarantees about availability.

Forks Over Knives
In my opinion, if you watch only one of the documentaries on this list it should be this one. Through interviews with various experts it provides a compelling argument for animal-free eating and the health benefits such a diet provides.

This documentary follows the experiences of three erstwhile omnivores who decide to give the vegan life a try. It's an interesting and entertaining look into the challenges faced during the transition to veganism, factory farming, and the connection between food and family.

Supersize Me
Many people will have heard of this one, and while it's not directly about veganism it does make a strong and compelling case against fast food, the majority of which is meat-based. It follows the director on his 30-day fast food challenge, where all he is allowed to eat is food from McDonalds, and the health consequences he suffers as a result.

Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead
This documentary tells the story of one man's attempt to cure his chronic illness with fruits and vegetables while also traveling around the US talking to people about food.


Vegan food blogs have been a HUGE help to me as I've transitioned my diet and learned how to cook all sorts of new, exciting and flavorful vegan recipes. A big shout-out and thanks to all the wonderful bloggers listed here.

Pinch of Yum
While not strictly vegan, most of her recipes are, and they are so tasty. One of my favorite recipes ever is her Bangkok Coconut Curry Noodle Bowl recipe.

Minimalist Baker
Again, not strictly vegan, but most of their recipes are both vegan and gluten-free, without compromising on flavor one bit. I just made the Roasted Vegetable and Quinoa Harvest Bowl yesterday and it was so simple yet fantastic.

Oh She Glows
This one is a strictly vegan blog, and I have so many of her recipes on my to-try list that it's getting ridiculous. One of them is the Butternut, Sweet Potato, and Red Lentil Stew, which I'm just waiting for butternut squash for.

As the name implies, this is another vegan food blog and was one of the first that I discovered after deciding to try being vegan. The very first recipe I tried ended up being one of my favorites to this day: the Coconut Curry Lentil Soup.

pumpkin & peanut butter
I just discovered this blog recently but I already like what I've seen. Once again, the recipes are mostly vegan with the occasional vegetarian recipe. On my list to make from this blog is the Smashed White Bean, Basil and Avocado Sandwich.

Healthy Happy Life
A fully vegan food blog, this one has an amazing Easy 5-Ingredient Asparagus Soup recipe that I made recently and loved. She also has several vegan cookbooks.

Simply Quinoa
This blogger describes her recipes as "gluten-free, refined sugar-free and primarily dairy-free." So far I've found great vegan recipes that I love, like the Vegan White Bean and Mushroom Soup.

The Simple Veganista
As the name suggests, this blog is filled with simple vegan recipes. To give you just a hint of what you can find here, the most recent recipe is for Chocolate Chia Pudding. Yum!

This blog is run by two vegan runners in Germany who write about veganism, recipes, and running. They also have a podcast by the same name, where they just released a great episode about the misconceptions they had of veganism before they became vegan. (Blog and podcast in German)

The Colorful Kitchen
This food blog features "plant-based recipes that are colorful, not complicated," which I can definitely confirm. A particular favorite of mine is her mushroom gravy recipe.

* Some people prefer the term "plant-based diet" because it emphasizes the aspect of a vegan lifestyle specifically related to food. They see the term "vegan" as encompassing more than just food and also including avoidance of leather and wool clothing, fur, personal care products with animal ingredients, and goose down bedding. While I understand that these two approaches can be quite different, I don't like the term "plant-based diet" because the word "based" could be wrongly interpreted to mean that the diet also includes things other than plants, which is not the intended definition.

** In the United States, farms are not legally required to treat the waste they produce or even dispose of it properly. That's like a sewage treatment plant simply dumping all the human waste it collects into the neighboring field or river and leaving it there. The mixture of farm waste described above is so toxic that if you fell in you would die (and people have).

*** While most people consider eggs to be vegetarian, I've come to consider them as a type of meat and therefore unfit for a vegetarian diet. I've also seen this approach in a few other places, including the dietary markings on some restaurant menus which mark dishes containing eggs as non-vegetarian.

 **** I've gone back and forth about whether using vegan personal care products (shampoo, soap, toothpaste, deodorant, etc.) and cosmetics is really "necessary" to consider myself vegan. In principle I think it is necessary, because in the strictest sense being vegan means not consuming anything that comes from an animal. However, on the other hand, if animals are already going to be killed for meat (let's face it, the whole world isn't going to go vegan or even vegetarian overnight) then the byproducts from meat production might as well be used for something. Interestingly, I feel the same ambivalence about leather sometimes but never for fur. Ultimately I've decided to seek out vegan personal care products and use them whenever they are available. There are many brands now that list "vegan" right on the package. In Germany a few of these brands that I like are lavera, alverde, and Sante. (Links not sponsored, these are just the brands that I personally like and use.)

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