I want my friend Heather to describe all my meals to me. Listening to her rhapsodize about sweet summer produce and fragrant herbs would surely inspire me to eat better and maybe even embrace life without bacon. But delicious foods are only one of Heather’s reasons for going vegan. She does it for her health, to minimize her impact on the environment and because of her love of all animals. If those reasons – as well as gorgeous skin and a fit AF bod – appeal to you, maybe it’s time to investigate your own place in the food system. You might be surprised, like I was, what aspects of veganism Heather considers the best gift she’s ever given herself.
First, let’s talk about cheese. What’s life like without cheese? Because I like the idea of veganism till I remember cheese and then I camembert it. (See what I did there?)
Ha! Excellent question. This was my biggest fear of beginning a vegan lifestyle. I’ve been a version of pescatarian or vegetarian since my early twenties, so I’ve always enjoyed the pleasures (because it was indeed pleasurable) of cheese. However — and here’s an example of the joy of this journey — I’ve discovered so many wonderful vegan cheese options! I had no idea the flavors and textures that were out there. I’ve even learned to make an incredibly creamy cashew cheese that’s great with crackers or on sandwiches. I won’t lie. I missed cheese for a while. I missed stinky, earthy cheeses from France the most, but after a short while, it was no longer an issue.
All of the above. First, the ethical reason — I can’t wrangle with the idea of how we treat animals, whether it’s for fur, leather products, dairy or meat consumption. Not knowing how they are treated is a big issue with me. Far too often, as consumers, we willingly maintain our idiocy because it’s just easier than dealing with the truth. I’m unwilling to accept that. I would never mistreat my sweet dogs, or the cats we adopted into our family as I was growing up. Therefore, why on Earth would I be okay with mistreating other animals? As for the environmental issue, we use way less energy, grains and water resources in a plant-based food system. Too many studies back up this fact. Finally, I feel so much better, from the inside out. The difference is unbelievable. This lifestyle has encouraged me to dive deeper into recipes and new foods I would have never tried. It’s been the best gift I’ve ever given myself.
How old were you when you made the switch? Were you vegetarian first?
Yes, I was vegetarian or pescatarian for 12+ years. The switch wasn’t dramatic. As referenced above, my biggest challenge was transitioning from animal-based cheese to vegan-friendly cheese options.
Did you educate yourself on what to expect when you gave up animal products? If so, how?
I’ve been reading magazine articles, books and resources for years about the benefits of a plant-based diet. By the time I went 100% vegan, my diet was an 80/20 mix, with roughly 80% of my diet already plant-based.
What were the biggest challenges you encountered when starting out?
This is a wonderful question. I am fortunate that we have so many options these days for thousands of products that are now vegan-friendly — cakes, pies, cheese, yogurts, breads, etc. Living in Alabama, however, brings its own challenges. As Southerners, we absolutely love putting pork products in just about everything. We put bacon bits on salads, ham hock in collard greens or green beans, we put bacon in corn dishes and almost any bean dish will have ham. We love to put mayonnaise in potato salads, slaws and all our dips. I have to be extra careful when dining out; although, with so many restaurant options in Birmingham, we continue to see a rise in veggie-friendly dishes. Plus, in our grocery stores, I’m beginning to see a lot more vegan options and sections. This isn’t a deficit or a hard challenge, because I really do enjoy knowing I have the power to make decisions that impact this world for the better.
What animal product do you miss most? Cheese, right? My money is on cheese.
Ha! I swear, the vegan versions are really good! And it may be hard to believe, but I don’t miss it. Pizza without cheese is amazing! You can actually taste the toppings and it creates much deeper flavor experience — the spiciness of fresh jalapeno, the earthiness of mushrooms, the acidity of the red sauce and the sweetness of bell pepper.
How do you handle ordering in restaurants?
Since being primarily vegetarian since my mid 20’s, I’ve sort of blanked out on meat options. There are almost always options for vegans, but sometimes it may take asking the waiter to alter a certain order. The more chic restaurants will always have the chef’s vegan plate. You simply have to ask for it.
How does veganism affect your workouts?
Not much, if at all. During my last marathon training, I could tell there was a spell when I wasn’t getting a good combination of carbohydrates and protein. My muscles would give out on my longer runs. Though this had nothing to do with veganism, and everything to do with eating poorly.
How has veganism affected your overall health?
My cholesterol levels are amazing! Plant oils — avocados and nuts — really do lower cholesterol. Beyond that, everything on the inside simply feels good. Better than I’ve ever felt. That’s the easiest way to explain how my health is.
What’s something you wish someone had told you before you went vegan?
That Oreos are vegan.
Is your husband vegan? And if not, how do you two cook, eat and buy groceries together?
Great question. We usually adopt a meal with which he can easily add meat. However, most of the time, it’s a vegan meal and we both enjoy it. We’ve started cooking a lot more Asian infused dinners, using ingredients like rice noodles, tofu, coconut milk and lots of beautifully fragrant fresh herbs and vegetables, like cilantro, hot peppers and ginger.
Any advice for anyone trying to adopt a vegan lifestyle?
Give yourself a few days or just a week to explore and experiment. The concept is more than simply eating vegetables. There is a variety of reasons veganism is good — for our health, for our society, for our economy and for all animals. It’s worth reading about your consumption. There’s a quote I love, that I think fits very well into the answer of this final question — “Every time you spend money, you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want.” I have no idea who said that, but it applies here.
Got any questions for Heather or want to share your own tips for going vegan? Sound off below.