What is a vegan (and why I became one)

I have to admit - for me, the hardest thing about going vegan was the social aspect. The moment someone discovers that I am vegan (or "plant-based"), they have so many questions. What is vegan?

What's the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian?

Why are you vegan? How is that any healthier than eating meat and dairy?

What do you eat?

Where do you get your protein?

How do you go to parties?

How do you live without ____?

The questions even tend to get personal and inflammatory. Are you saying that I'm unhealthy? Well what would you feed to your child?

Do you expect me to eat a veggie burger around you? Do you really think that you not eating meat is saving animals?

Are you one of those activists now?

For a while, I thought people were just trying to make me feel like an extremist. What do you mean, how do I live without cheese? I just don't eat it! But lately, I've discovered that these are not loaded questions. People really and genuinely do not understand how I live such a deprived life, void of anything fun and tasty, where I am chained to broccoli all day.

But here's the thing - I don't. I'm not. It's actually pretty great.

So many people hear the word "vegan" and only think of the things we can't have. However, there are two issues with this type of thinking:

1. It's not that we can't, it's that we choose not to.

2. For each and every thing that we eliminate from our diet, there is a healthier and equally tasty vegan option. (Vegan pizza, vegan ice cream, vegan cookies, vegan cheese, vegan hot dogs, vegan pancakes... the list goes on and on.)

So bear with me for a few minutes and let's dive into what all of this vegan stuff is really about.

What is vegan?

Veganism is a way of eating that avoids all animal products, such as meat, dairy (milk/cheese/cream/yogurt/etc.), eggs, fish, poultry, and for some, honey.

What is the difference between vegan and vegetarian?

Vegetarians don't eat meat, but still consume dairy products and sometimes eggs.

Why are you vegan? There are many different reasons that people choose to go vegan, but the big three include: 1. Health: a plant-based diet has been proven to prevent (and even cure) diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc. Veganism also helps manage bodyweight and composition; lowers cholesterol and blood pressure and prevents the intake of hormones and antibiotics present in animal proteins. Did you know that processed meat is classified as a group 1 carcinogen, the same class as cigarettes and asbestos?

2. Animal welfare: I don't think that I need to go into detail about the brutalities of slaughterhouses, or how pigs are as smart as dogs. However, you might not know about the horrors of the dairy industry, or how even "cage-free" or "grass-fed" doesn't mean that the animal had a decent life before it was slaughtered. You might not know just how miserable the life of a dairy cow is, or how disgusting the conditions are that chickens must live under before they're made into nuggets (the female ones, that is, because the boys are useless since they don't lay eggs and are tossed into the grinders after hatching).

3. The environment: Animal agriculture, or the raising of animals for food, is the number one destroyer of the planet, far worse than airplane and car travel combined. The methane gas produced from farm animals is 20x more powerful at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Nearly half of all the water used in the US is given to animals raised for food and more than 260 million acres of US forest have been cleared for animal agriculture. This system is completely unsustainable. Think of it this way: It requires 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat. If we simply used that grain to feed people instead of animals, we could end world hunger and save the environment without having to drive hybrid cars or cut our showers short.

Personally, I initially went vegan because of my health. My husband initially went vegan because of his love for animals. Now, we both appreciate and care very much for all three reasons.

And how has it worked out for us? In just about three months, I've lost 12 pounds and my husband has lost 35 pounds. Simon used to have terrible Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, which has completely gone away. I used to barely be able to handle teaching 2 cycling classes a week because of knee joint inflammation, and now I teach 12+ classes a week and do heavy weight lifting at least 3 times a week. Before we went vegan, we signed up for our first half marathon, scared to death that we wouldn't be able to finish it, but last weekend we completed MORE than a half-marathon during a training run and wish we had signed up for the full marathon. We have more energy, we sleep better and we don't suffer from annoying health problems anymore.

Nothing else about our lives has changed except for the food that we eat.

How is eating vegan healthier than eating milk and dairy? There's a fork in the road at this question, so let's explore both paths.

1. If you're forgoing meat and dairy for French fries and Oreos, it's not healthier at all. Trust me, I was one of those vegans once upon a time in college. Just because a food happens to be vegan does not mean it is healthier.

2. If you're forgoing meat and dairy for whole, plant-based foods, it's significantly healthier. Meat and dairy are both extremely high in saturated fat, which clog your arteries and cause things like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. Dairy is extremely inflammatory and can exacerbate issues like arthritis, bloating, acne, joint pain, water retention and acid reflux. By skipping these foods and opting for more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, you're guaranteed to see your health improve and your weight go down.

What do you eat?

This is my favorite question because it always comes from a place of depravity - how could I possibly live in the real world if I don't eat what everyone else is eating?!

Here's a very short and incomplete list of some things I like to eat:

Apples, bananas, oats, peanut butter, avocados, strawberries, blueberries, kale, pasta, beans, lentils, legumes, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, hummus, tortillas, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, bell peppers, almond milk, vegan cheese, vegan cookies, vegan chocolate chips, vegan veggie burgers, salad, vegan "chicken," vegan pizza, fruit smoothies, etc.

As you can see, my diet consists mostly of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, with the occasional "veganized" treats (pizza, cookies, cheese, chocolate, etc.)

Anything you can have, I can have healthier. It's not 1970 anymore - if I want cheese and crackers, I don't have to suffer, I'll just buy my own block of cheese that's dairy-free.

My favorite recipes include:

Sweet potato lasagna, tempeh marsala, chickpea "tuna salad," sweet potato "cheese" quesadillas, tofu "ricotta" pinwheels, avocado smash sandwiches, tofu calzones, vegan BBQ pizza, homemade veggie burgers, acai bowls, peanut butter banana overnight oats, etc.

Where do you get your protein? Before we address this, let's talk about where you get your protein from.

Protein from animal sources is literally secondhand protein - you're getting the protein from what the animal ate before it was slaughtered, not from the animal itself.

So I get my protein from nearly the same place you get yours from... I just don't wait for something else to digest it first.

Just like a cow, I get my protein from beans, legumes, grains, vegetables, nuts, tempeh, tofu, leafy greens, seeds and (non-dairy) milk.

Believe it or not, there is more protein in broccoli than beef.

How do you go to parties?

I promise that I am not a hermit and that I am fully able to exist in the real world. And don't worry, alcohol is vegan.

In all seriousness, when my husband and I go to parties, we have a few options:

1. We can eat before we go to ensure that we're not hungry. This is often a good idea for parties where we know we'll be drinking so we don't wind up drinking on an empty stomach.

2. We can bring a veggie tray with hummus. This works out well because it's something that we know we'll eat and other people usually enjoy having a healthier option to the normal chips and pretzels.

3. We can just go and eat what's there like anyone else would. While it might initially seem like nothing in life is vegan-friendly, there are so many everyday foods that are totally vegan. If it doesn't have meat or dairy, it's fine! We've been known to make plates of bread, salad and pasta and be absolutely satisfied.

How do you live without _____?

This is my favorite question. Here's how I used to answer it:

It's hard, but whenever I get the craving for _____, I just go to the store and get the vegan version! I don't feel deprived at all.

And while that is still true to this day, here's how I answer the same question now:

No amount of ____ could ever be worth feeling that crappy ever again.

And that's the part of this whole "vegan thing" that people seem to misunderstand - it's not a sacrifice to live without these things when you no longer have health problems.

I have been sick. I have been fat. I have been depressed. I have been in pain. I have had health problems. I have disliked the way I looked. I have had acne. I have felt uncomfortable. I have been bloated. I have relied on medication to make me feel normal.

You couldn't get me back there again for all the cheese and chicken in the world.

And as far as what you eat, what you feed your child and where you choose to eat beef - I truly and genuinely don't care. I just want you to know how amazing it feels to be healthy. I hope you can experience it for yourself someday.

Thinking about going vegan? I can help! Reach out at Gab.BolinPT@gmail.com

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