A vegan is a person who does not eat or use animal products or byproducts. That is, anything taken directly from an animal, be it something it produced or a body part. Leather, honey, milk, cheese, eggs, any kind of meat and gelatin make up some of the products that vegans erase from their shopping lists for life.
Most people take on a vegan lifestyle as an expression of compassion and animal rights activism. They consider it a sacrifice to their beliefs, a lifestyle choice made purely to reduce their impact on animals and the environment. But I am not most people, and I do not consider myself an activist. I went vegan on a whim. I made the switch one of my “Spring Quarter projects” and a test of my willpower. My original goal was to forgo animal products for – gasp – an entire week. Then it became a month, and that month morphed into a quarter. I’m in week seven of vegan living, and during this short time I’ve learned several things.
The first thing I found out was that for anyone interested in trying a vegan diet, there are few better times or places to do it than as a freshman at Northwestern University. The dining halls have been voted “most vegan-friendly” in America numerous times, there’s a Whole Foods within spitting distance and every coffee shop in town stocks soymilk. Despite some student complaints, the university really does make an effort to provide nutritious options for vegan eaters. In fact, after a hazy first week (after which I did some research into protein and unsaturated fats), a vegan diet in the dining halls has been so easy that I am shocked almost every day by the comfort that it has brought to my routine. I feel physically healthier, more energetic and sleep better at night knowing that I’m sort of forced to eat well in an environment that is highly conducive to overconsumption of Sodexo garbage (I say sort of because I have the hugest weakness for cocoa puffs and soymilk, a lethally delicious combination).
And it feels pretty damn good to be blameless. Watching baby animal videos took on a whole new meaning when I realized that I have done absolutely nothing, directly or indirectly, to hurt, steal from or otherwise violate them for my own gastrointestinal pleasure in over a month. I imagine that going to the zoo or watching a fast food documentary brings the same sort of glowing feelings – but I haven’t done so thus far. I’ll keep you posted.
So the actual eating part hasn’t been too hard, and seeing cute puppies on the street through rose-colored, albeit blood-free, lenses is a nice added benefit. So far, veganism sounds pretty sweet, no?
No. Not always. Because, crazily enough, another thing I learned was that a lot of people hate vegans. To an ironically violent degree. In fact, by far the most difficult aspect of my experiment has been the negative judgment. Whenever I order at a restaurant, I feel like an overly righteous, evil food hater. I drill the waiter on rennet, whey and egg whites. After a while he shrugs helplessly, confounded by my dissertation-length list of forbidden foods.
This reaction, while embarrassing, is far more tolerant than the one I usually get from my guy friends. Whenever the vegan thing comes up in front of a dude, I get the most absurd overreactions. I’ve been called an “idiot,” a “hippie,” “ridiculous” and an eclectic range of more violently disparaging terms. Nearly every guy with whom I have eaten a meal has been an asshole about it. Girls are usually cooler about it. In fact, many of them see the experiment as interesting and worth trying. However, a lot more seem politely incredulous at best. Most food lovers hate me; my aunt scoffs whenever we go out to dinner, remarking that I “can’t really eat anything” to anyone who will listen.
“But how could you not eat cheese?!” exclaimed a friend once. “What’s wrong with you?” Usually, I respond to these types of comments with some mixture of self-deprecation – “eh, I’m just being silly” – and a super-casual attitude – “don’t worry, I know it’s weird, it’ll be over soon.” These brush-offs are not reflective of how I truly feel about my experiment. They are gut reactions to being marginalized and mocked.
So I will now take the opportunity to reply to all the vegan haters with a hearty “fuck you.” Because if you want to do it, then why not? No one hates on people who give up their time for presidential campaigns or their money to the ACLU. I guess pizza is the deciding variable in whether to mock the ethically based lifestyle decisions of others; it’s just too damn delicious to rationally give up, and therefore any abstainers must be insane.
The stereotype of the “preachy vegan” is not something I want to perpetuate, so I’m not going to shove the moral argument down anyone’s throats. Plus, it’s easily researchable and not as relevant to my experience as it is to those of most other vegans. However, it’s pretty obvious that eating animals and their byproducts, at least in the way we do now, has a drastic, negative impact on the world. Factory farms are incredibly cruel to animals, even to the ones that are producing milk and eggs instead of getting brutally murdered, and the amount of water it takes to produce a single pound of beef – 2,500 gallons – makes me want to puke up the cheeseburger that I’m not eating.
Most of the time, I don't let these types of moral arguments faze me, but I have kept them in mind as I have experimented and they've reinforced my primary reason for sticking with veganism. As it turns out, being vegan is a lot of fun. Along with that rosy animal-video-induced glow I mentioned earlier, the limited options have forced me to be creative, to try almond milk in my coffee and invest in seasonings. And then, so many basic foods are vegan that you wouldn’t imagine at first. When most people think vegan they imagine a pale, spidery hippie hunched over a bowl of quinoa and raw spinach. A person can’t live off that shit alone. I dig peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, French fries and soy lattes. I’m only human, and humans need real food. I’ve made sure that my weight has remained stable, largely because I want my experiment to be about something cooler than dieting. Finally, the health benefits have become pretty clear, even in just a few short weeks. When my blood was tested in November, I was mildly anemic. After my fourth vegan week, my iron levels were in the medium-high range – an incredible turnaround for which I have leafy greens and raisins to thank.
I might be ending my personal challenge at the end of Spring Quarter, mostly because I don’t have the time or money to invest in it. Long-term healthy veganism involves plenty of soy protein powder, vitamin B supplements and stigmatization at fancy luncheons. Since I’ve discovered the ease of plant-based eating, however, I’ve decided to consume mostly animal-free foods whenever I have the choice. Which is most of the time, believe it or not. And whenever I meet someone who has given up some worldly pleasure for a cause – or just for kicks– I won’t treat him like he is insane, or an alien. I hope you do the same.