How to Start Eating Plants, part 1 of 3

I could never go vegan because…. excuses.

1) “I could never go vegan, I love cheese too much.”

2) “I could never go vegan, I work out.”

3) “I tried going vegan, but I got too sick. It’s not for me.”

Things look good in threes so I’m stopping at three excuses. What each of these three statements says to me is the individual feels some sort of guilt or is somehow uncomfortable with their habits and afraid of change. A wall is put up about the word “vegan” which may stem from images of red paint thrown at people wearing fur coats or just knowing an aggressive vegan. As a dietary population, veganism is small and if you meet a vegan in the wild you will know because 50% of them will tell you after saying “hello” and you are left unaware of the other 50% remaining quietly content. Although the vegan population is small, it is growing at a surprisingly fast rate. Let’s take each of these excuses in turn. This is part 1 of 3…

“I could never be vegan, I love cheese too much.” Hands down, this is what I hear most often. This statement usually follows a look at a restaurant’s menu and I’m asked if I’d like to share an appetizer. When I respond with “sure, I’m vegan, do you want to share something we both will eat?” A look of discombobulation waves over them, followed by a few stuttered letters until, “okay, that’s cool.” Later in the meal the cheese statement comes out. I know some people like cheese, Wisconsin is full of it. I used to eat cheese myself before going to the green side. What I liked about it was it was a quick snack with crackers, when not confident with a dish I made just add cheese to hide it, cheese helped keep me “socially acceptable” at dinner parties. What I didn’t like about cheese was every time I asked for a vegetarian meal I basically got a plate of cheese with some noodles, eating pizza with the typical “American” amount of cheese made me feel heavy and all-over greasy, and cheese didn’t keep me socially acceptable - that would infer I was acceptable in the first place. When I decided to stop eating dairy products it wasn’t because of anything dramatic, like when I stopped eating meat. I just thought I’d try not eating cheese and other dairy because I couldn’t eat a lot of it anyway before I felt yucky. I didn’t throw out what I had in the fridge when I made that decision, I was just not going to replace it. I finished what cheese I had left over several days, didn’t buy it when grocery shopping, and a shocking thing happened. I was still socially awkward, but I felt good all the time, and I didn’t crave it. But, I did crave familiarity. Apple pie without whipped cream? Not possible. Through a google search I learned about coconut whipped cream. Dubious of the substitution I made it anyway and served it to guests. When I tasted it with my slice of pie I became very upset. It was so much better than any whipped cream I had ever tasted. I was upset because I felt I’d been lied to my whole life, coconut whipped cream had been possible this whole time yet no one introduced it to me and fed me substandard dairy whipped cream instead!? What else had I been lied to about?

There are lots of vegan cheeses on the market today, unlike when I first went dairy-free. It doesn’t mean they’re good for you, just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy. What I have found helpful is not looking for substitutions. It’s a mind shift, and takes practice, but look at all the food available to eat. No substitutions required. Want to make a moist and fluffy cake without eggs? Baking soda and vinegar, one option. Want omega-3 without the “bad” cholesterol? Flax and chia seeds. Chemistry is fun in cooking, and still happens without animal products. And… drum roll… tastes really good!

Short story to end part 1, many years ago I worked in an office. The owner of the company was on an irrational mission challenging me to a push-up contest. I was training for a half Ironman, and was vegan. He just had an obsession with working out and ate a no carbs, high protein, mostly meat, diet. I declined his push-up challenge again and again. Truthfully, I’d been in push-up contests before and won. They’ve never been about number, but endurance. On with the story… it was Thanksgiving and the office had a potluck lunch. I’ve always tried to keep all people in mind, particularly with food. I knew there was a co-worker with celiac disease, a couple other vegetarians, one person who was allergic to what seemed like everything - dairy, nuts, soy… I brought a favorite dish of mine, a type of bread made with chickpea flour and lots of herbs, zucchini and caramelized onions. Not only vegan but gluten free and allergen free. The owner was very busy during the lunch and would pop in to say hello, grab a hand full of food and duck out. He took a piece of my bread, not knowing I made it, only that someone told him it was gluten free. He ate half of what I brought for everyone before he said, “this is amazing! What is this? Who made it?” Everyone else in the office was aware of his constant fitness challenge to me, and they started to giggle. They all pointed at me, “she made it! It’s vegan!” He left the room, he didn’t come back for more hand fulls of anything. That day I was asked for the recipe by no fewer than 10 people (in a company with 20 total office employees). Later that day, my challenger sent me an email asking for the recipe. No grudges held, but he did stop the push-up challenge. From that day forward our working relationship changed. Although I was still just a Program Administrator and he the CEO, I seemed to become equal. Not to say I was talked down to or treated badly previously, but instead of the silly challenges (that he thought he would win) he asked questions and showed genuine curiosity. He became equal to me because he showed an openness to learn. I’m aware this sounds like a ‘Pollyanna’ type story, “and then the big bad wolf saw the error of his ways and became vegan.” No. Change doesn’t have to come from anything dramatic, it happens with or without one’s effort. Our jobs didn’t change, our work related agreements and disagreements still existed. Our views of each other as humans became curiosity instead of challenge, both teachers and students.

I realize I deviated away from a focus on cheese. Point is, it’s just an excuse. Excuses come from fear of the unknown, whether or not if one intellectually knows what’s good. As a fitness trainer, students come with all forms of excuses from having flat feet to not drinking caffeine. I tell all my students, remember your reason for showing up, not your excuse to quit. In the cheese case, food is a major part of every culture. The fear of not being able to participate keeps many people from making healthy choices. It that sense, participation with food is an absurd idea. I mean, we don’t chew food and pass it to the next person to chew. Meals with family and friends are social events, not imitation of mother bird behavior. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, with or without cheese, I’m still socially awkward.

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