Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Challenge Of Going Vegan - My Opinion Of The New York Times Article By Tara Parker-Pope

How challenging is a Vegan Diet?

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The Challenge of Going Vegan
Several people asked my opinion about Monday's New York Times article, The Challenge of Going Veganby Tara Parker-Pope, about how switching from a meat-based to a plant-based diet “is fraught with challenges”. It was quite a dramatic article claiming that the “physical, social and economic challenges” were so great that they only be tolerated if one had a personal chef.

It went on to claim that the suffering experienced by sacrificing ones favorite animal-based foods was exacerbated by becoming a social pariah. She described the experience of switching to non-dairy milk as a “shock” to the taste buds. Really, she used the word “shock”. And the costs of eschewing meat and dairy products and buying vegan specialty foods were astronomical. Oh my, where do I start? 

What's Motivating This Life Change?
First of all, any time you make a big change in your life it’s going to be somewhat of a struggle. I stopped smoking 25 years ago. First I just quit buying. I’d smoke when I was around others who were smoking and willing to share their cigarettes. Then I quit doing that but still could hang out with smokers. At some point, I couldn’t tolerate the smell of smoke, would not even be in the same room with a smoker and couldn’t picture ever having smoked. It was a transition but I’m grateful that I made the change.
Changing what you’ve eaten your entire life is also going to be a struggle but not as awful as Ms. Parker-Pope describes. First of all, a person’s motivation has a lot to do with how easy or difficult this could be. If you have a severe medical problem that is driving you to a healthier diet, that should keep you motivated. If you are a person who just became aware of the cruelties of factory farming and no longer can bear killing animals for food, you will have an easier time passing up that Big Mac. If you just want to transition to a healthier cuisine because you want you and your family to live longer and avoid future medical problems, you’re probably making a gradual transition and enjoying new recipes, new restaurants and new food products.

Will I Be a Social Outcast?
Will you have to deal with some ridicule from your friends and family? Perhaps. You’re doing something that they’re not. Maybe they feel some guilt themselves about eating poorly. Maybe they don’t want to have to bother with fixing you a special meal the next time you go there for dinner. Maybe they don’t want their own belief system threatened as most people feel animals were put on this earth to be our food. For whatever reason, the best thing to do is just chill and do what feels right. If you’re at the stage where you are “mostly” vegan and eat meat or dairy occasional anyway, then eat it when it’s offered to you if you don't want to make a fuss. On the other hand if you are a strict vegan, for whatever reason, stick with the program. If you find yourself at a dinner where there isn’t going to be food you can eat, call ahead and tell them of your dietary preferences. If these cannot be accommodated, be polite, bring your own food if necessary and don’t get on a soap box. You don’t need to convert anyone. 
You may enjoy going to vegan potlucks or meet-ups in restaurants and hanging around with people who have similar diets. It's a good place to discuss recipes, how to answer questions like "where do you get your protein" that your friends and family will undoubtedly ask you. 

Will My Tastebuds Really Be "Shocked"?
With regard to vegan substitutes, like almond milk, being a “shock” to the taste buds, that’s just ridiculous. Mintel, a market research company, estimated the retail sales of vegetarian foods to consumers to be $1.4B in 2008 and forecasted to grow 5% a year. And this number doesn’t count food products sold to restaurants and food services businesses. The demand for this food is surprisingly from the semi-vegetarian segment, (estimated at 13% of adults who eat meat with fewer than half their meals) not the hard-core vegans. I don’t think people would be demanding more products like almond milk and tofu burgers if they were a “shock” to their taste buds. I’m not saying that some of these faux meat and cheese products aren’t bad – some of them are. But many more of them are delicious. I much prefer soy, coconut and hemp based ice cream over dairy ice cream. 

Will I have to Mortgage My House to buy a Tofu Burger?
The costs of some specialty vegan foods can be pricy but so can grass-fed beef or organic goat yogurt. Whenever you buy food that isn’t subsidized by the government, the prices are going to be high. But you can make a lot of wonderful vegan meals from beans, grains and vegetables that are very affordable. 

Do I Really Need a Personal Chef?
Perhaps the silliest part of the article was how overwhelmingly difficult it is to use vegan ingredients and cooking techniques. Is substituting a tablespoon of Earth Balance buttery spread for 1 tablespoon of butter difficult? Is stirring up a tablespoon of ground flaxseed in 3 tablespoons of water versus cracking an egg beyond your culinary capabilities? Is pouring a cup of soymilk in your smoothie more difficult than pouring a cup of low fat milk? Is substituting ground meat with a can of lentils or pinto beans in your chili too hard to handle? I think not. In fact you’ll find ~300 simple recipes in this blog that will not overwhelm anyone. Check them out!

Bottom Line
So if you are interested in eating more plant-based foods, don’t be intimidated or discouraged by Ms. Parker-Pope's article. And don’t feel as though you have to go hard-core vegan overnight. It’s a journey and you may never get completely there. But if you end up eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds and less meat and dairy than you did before, you have succeeded on many levels. You will be healthier. You will be a more compassionate eater. You will save the planet from the abuses from animal agriculture. Ignore the naysayers and take your own path. Do it for your own reasons. Develop some new culinary skills. Have fun with it and don't beat yourself up if you fall off the wagon and sneak a burger. Someday you may look back and wonder how you ever ate some of those unhealthy foods.

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