Up until two months ago, I was one of those people who swore that butter was my lifeblood and that I would absolutely die without cheese. My favorite thing to cook was pulled pork in the slow cooker, and my husband had just perfected sous vide steak. Then, in an afternoon, I decided none of that was for me anymore. I didn't find out I had an allergy to dairy, and I didn't have any health scares to encourage me to avoid meat. No, I watched a YouTube video, and bam — I was a vegan.
Okay, it wasn't quite that simple. I suppose I have always been a little curious about vegetarianism and veganism because the killing of animals isn't something that I get excited about. When I would read books describing or see pictures of animal slaughter or hunting, I would always get a sinking feeling in my stomach. I couldn't fathom how people could commit such horrible acts of violence against animals ... but then I would turn around and have a burger for dinner. I was able to ignore the gruesome realities of where my food came from because, well, meat tastes good.
The farm-to-table movement has made those realities more difficult to ignore. Trends like grass-fed, free-range, and organic meat, eggs, and dairy are actually making people confront where their food is coming from. And once I found myself becoming concerned about the welfare of the animals I would be eating, it was a short leap to ask why I cared how the animals were treated when they were just going to be killed in the end.
Whenever I was confronted with that fact, my brain would try to justify meat consumption in some way — meat protein is good for you; it's the food chain; everyone eats meat — and I spent hours online researching and trying to find any logical, compelling arguments against veganism.
The Vegan Trifecta
After a while, nothing was enough to overcome what I now call the "the trifecta" of why I went vegan: ethics, environment, and health.
This summer I had the opportunity to visit several organic dairy farms in New England. Right in front of me, for the first time, were cows that I could reach out and touch. They had names and mothers. I knelt right down beside a four-month-old cow named Mya and looked into her beautiful black eyes. I saw a calf that had been born just days before, and her mother who was hooked up to a milking machine.
At every farm I visited, the cows seemed to be treated well and were able to graze in fields most of the year. But despite all the information I was given about the cows' healthy diets and the lower environmental impact of organic dairy farming, two things emerged: One, even cows held to organic standards spend a lot of their time shoved into milking stalls, separated from their offspring; and two, once the cows stop producing milk, they are slaughtered for burger meat.
A couple months later, I was invited to meet with some local poultry and egg farmers. I asked what were possibly impertinent questions about organic, free-range egg farming versus traditional farming. One farmer raised both kinds of chickens and told me that cage-free chickens are often worse off because they walk around a coop in their own waste, whereas when the chickens are in cages, their feces falls through, which keeps them cleaner.
We also discussed the bird flu that has plagued poultry farms recently, and I learned that if one bird is found to have the flu, all the rest of the chickens on the farm legally must be killed to prevent the spread of disease. One farm, I was told, had to kill 11,000 chickens. This number was meant to elicit sympathy for the farmer who had lost his source of income, but all I could imagine was a pile of 11,000 dead birds heading for the incinerator, and my mind went numb.
Going Vegan and the Environment
I don't consider myself to be exceptionally environmentally friendly, but I suppose we try. We use cloth diapers; we dropped down to one car a few years ago, and my husband bikes to work; we try to buy local or organic; we grow some of our own food; and we recycle and we compost — most of the time. If I'm feeling lazy I will admittedly not make the extra 15 steps to take containers and food waste to their proper bins. I also confess: My showers are too long, I drive too fast, and I've been known to crank the AC.
Despite my shortcomings in some areas of environmentalism, going vegan seemed like a relatively easy way to make a significant impact. While cutting out animal products may not have as big an effect as driving less or making your house more energy-efficient, it still packs a punch. Red meat is especially harmful to the environment, thanks to all the resources that raising cattle requires and the methane and other polluting gases that cows and other livestock naturally emit. I've also found that going vegan has been a reminder to be more conscientious about my other bad habits — which means I'm less likely to leave the sink running.
Is Veganism Healthier?
As someone who has struggled with weight my whole life, I was interested to see how veganism could help my diet. Both of my parents have had their gallbladders removed in the past few years and are now on medication for high cholesterol, and I'd like to avoid the same fate if I can. Now, it would be easy to have a crappy vegan diet and eat nothing but spaghetti, French bread, and vegan donuts every day. But I figured that going vegan would at least take pork and cheese out of the equation, which I ate in alarming quantities pre-veganism.
Two months into the switch, I've lost a few pounds (over the holidays, no less), but more importantly, I feel better after eating. When I would eat a cheeseburger, it would sit in my stomach for hours, and I would get chest pains. So far, no vegan meal I've eaten has produced that effect and I'm hoping the long-term effects will be even more pronounced.
The Final Push
The more I learned, the more veganism seemed like the only option. But I had no idea how I would make the transition on my blog, which focuses on desserts and baking and has historically relied heavily on butter and eggs. What's more, I thought I would have to relearn everything I knew about baking, and that terrified me. Then, I met a woman in my ceramics class who is a baker at a local vegan bakery. Meeting and talking to someone who made vegan desserts for a living made it seem so much more doable. She was living proof that veganism didn't have to be a baking death sentence.
With all of that information and emotion swarming around in my head and heart, I happened upon a YouTube video called "101 Reasons to Go Vegan" which detailed some of the horrors of animal agriculture, as well as the the environmental impact, and the benefits of veganism to human health. When my husband came home that night, I said, "I think we should go vegan," and he said, "Okay, let's do it." I didn't even have to convince him or persuade him. Unbeknownst to me, he had been going through the same internal struggle.
Could You Go Vegan?
Honestly, I was convinced that by the third week I would lose my mind and inhale 15 cheeseburgers — but it didn't happen. It was about six weeks before I finally craved meat, and then I resorted to a commercially prepared vegan burger and cheese. Surprisingly, it did the trick (once I doused it in barbecue sauce).
Outside our home, I did stumble a bit at first, taking a bite of a non-vegan cookie out of politeness when I was asked for my opinion and not daring to ask for substitutions to my meal when dining out with friends who I hadn't told about my veganism yet.
But overall, it was surprisingly easy.
This week I'll be sharing some tips for eating vegan and my thoughts on the hardest part of transitioning to a vegan diet.
Do you think you could do it? What would be the hardest thing for you to give up?
(Image credits: Maria Siriano; margouillat photo/Shutterstock)