Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Grand Vegan Experiment

So I've been trying this thing with being vegan. I've been vegetarian since grade school, but I've always been a lacto-ovo vegetarian (meaning I eat eggs and dairy but not meat, including fish). I love animals, always have, and I can't stand the idea of them being killed for me to eat. I'm really strict with myself about it; since the day I chose to become vegetarian (probably around fourth or fifth grade) I have never knowingly slipped. However, I'm also careful not to force my beliefs down anyone else's throat. I tell people when it comes up in conversation, or when it's necessary (such as when I'm going to someone's home for dinner), or when they flat out ask, but I'm pretty sure there are some people who know me pretty well who have no idea. It's an important part of who I am, but it's also my thing. Very few of my friends are vegetarian, and that's fine with me.

However, just because I don't want to push others into my beliefs, doesn't mean I don't want to push myself. Over the Christmas break I watched a documentary on Netflix called Vegucated (watch it if you get the chance). While I'm not opposed to eggs and dairy on nearly the same level as meat, I've always been a little uncomfortable with what I know about how most chickens and cows are treated in the industry. I do buy free-run eggs, but I'm certainly not naive enough to believe that free-run egg farms are chicken paradises. The documentary does address dairy and egg farming and re-affirmed a lot of that discomfort.

So, as of New Years day, I am vegan for the month of January, 2013. I already know that it won't stick beyond that, and I don't intend for it to. But I want to see how difficult it is, and hopefully by the end of the month adapt my diet to include less dairy and eggs going forward. If I can cut back on my dairy and egg consumption, I'll be happier with myself, and probably healthier too.

Being a lacto-ovo vegetarian is actually really easy in Toronto. Almost everywhere has vegetarian options these days, and many places clearly label vegetarian dishes on their menus. However, being a vegan is much, much harder. My close friends know the limited selection of places they can't go with me, but it's actually a really short list. Unfortunately, when you take cheese out of the equation, that list becomes much, much longer. No more pizza. No more submarine sandwiches. No more pizza. No more grilled cheese. Did I mention no more pizza?

What is left includes a lot of "hold the cheese." Veggie burgers with no cheese or mayo (eggs) or tzatziki. Indian food with no paneer (I already really miss palak paneer). Pasta with no cheese. Lots of soup, but nothing made with milk or cream. Also an awful lot of falafel.

I always knew I relied on cheese as a huge component of my diet, but it's astounding how hard it can be to find something without cheese (or meat), especially late at night (though less late night eating might not be such a bad thing). I thought I relied on cheese by choice, but I'm starting to question that. Milk was really easy to give up; I drink a ton of coffee, but I've been drinking it black since high school, and soy milk is a perfectly adequate substitute for cereal and most cooking. No eggs makes eating breakfast out basically impossible, but otherwise it's almost a non-factor. But cheese. Cheese is everywhere, and in almost everything.

Also difficult is the number of things that contain dairy by-products like whey. Once again I have to carefully check the ingredients of everything I buy. Unfortunately, sometimes I just have to relax about this one. Just like I can't worry about getting free-run eggs from every diner I go to, I can't worry about whether restaurants used dairy in their veggie burger bun, or whether they fried the vegetables in my pasta in butter. When I know, I avoid it, but when I can't know I try not to worry about it. I don't know how real, dedicated vegans manage to eat anything they haven't cooked themselves though.

Also key to this experiment is a commitment on my part to abandon all my predetermined notions on anything vegan. Vegetables which I believe I don't like I will try again. Early returns have actually been very positive in that regard; it turns out I might have just been an idiot when I decided I didn't like them.

I've got another three weeks to go, but so far it's been a very positive experiment. I still have no illusions on continuing as a vegan long-term, but I'm accomplishing everything I set out to so far.

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