I recently became a (mostly) vegan. As a lifelong cook, doing so has required a complete reimagination of the way that meals are composed. In this blog, I’ll be sharing some of my lessons learned along the way, as well as my favorite, delicious, (mostly) vegan recipes. Before we get there though, I should mention the journey that brought me to this point.
Excuses & rationalizations
For the first 27 years of my life, whenever I met someone who told me they were vegetarian or vegan, I would immediately think to myself, “There’s no way I could ever do that.” I would come up with every excuse and self-rationalization not to stop eating meat, including:
Meat tastes awesome — there’s very little that can beat a good roast chicken or BBQ. And don’t even get me started on the deliciousness of fish fry, a staple of my Wisconsin heritage!
- Most restaurants serve really sad vegetarian/vegan options, and it sucks to order a side of steamed broccoli as your entree when everyone else’s meals look more appetizing
- The only time I’ve had a food cry (crying because the food tasted so good) was for a fish dish with caviar
- Who wants to eat salad all the time?
- Meat has protein, and protein is supposed to be good, right?
- Chicken soup is good for the soul and for helping to fight colds
- It’s hard to travel to other countries when you can’t eat 90% of what’s being served, or when people simply don’t understand the concept of vegetarianism. Here’s an example of an actual conversation I’ve had abroad:
Waiter: “Chicken is not meat, right?”
Me: “Yes, it is.”
Waiter: “Oh ok, but fish is ok, right?
- It’s cultural — most Taiwanese food includes meat, and it’s part of the flavor profile of my childhood favorite dishes
- It’s inconvenient for other people to accommodate your meal preferences — better to be able to eat anything
- I don’t actually eat that much meat*
* Lie. This is self-rationalization, obviously.
So what changed?
I love food, but food doesn’t always love me. I’ve always had a hard time controlling how much I eat, and would frequently overeat if something tasted great… only to feel myself sliding into a food coma, unable to do much except for veg out on the couch and groan about how much I ate. Over the last couple of years, I realized that salad could be a solution to my problem — it’s pretty much impossible to eat too much salad, and even if you eat a ton, there aren’t any lasting consequences. Of course, no one wants to eat salad all the time, but I found that I wouldn’t get uncomfortably full with other veggie rich meals, either.
Another contributing factor was my family history of high cholesterol. By the time I decided to go vegan, I had already mostly cut out red meat from my diet to avoid getting high cholesterol myself. While my cooking usually contained meat, I would alter the recipes to reduce the amount of meat and increase the amount of veggies.
The final push to be vegan came from reading The China Study, which systematically outlines how shifting your diet from meat and animal-products to a plant-based diet can help reduce your chances of getting pretty much every disease out there… including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and more.
The scientific evidence to support the benefits of plant-based whole foods diets was overwhelmingly convincing. (If you don’t believe me, read it and see for yourself!) So out of self-interest, I went from being a skeptic to being a believer. I decided to go 100% vegan.
The first thing I did was get rid of all meat and animal products in my fridge and pantry, and restock them with vegan-friendly options. Goodbye, chicken stock, cheese, and milk! Hello, beans, lentils, nuts, almond milk, and quinoa!
The first week of veganism was the worst. I felt frustrated in the kitchen since I didn’t know what to cook anymore. How could I make a filling, nutritious meal without meat as the star of the dish? I knew how to cook veggies as side dishes, but they weren’t as appetizing, and I had trouble staying full for more than a couple hours at a time. It was clear that I needed to think of a new way to build my meals to be nutritious and delicious.
Little by little, I began thinking of a new way to cook amazing and filling vegan food, involving fresh, seasonal ingredients. I stopped thinking of how to “replace” meat (I find “soy turkey” and the like to be pretty gross), and instead how to build delicious meals from the ground up. Within a few weeks, I had lost weight and started to feel better, with more energy and less bloating. Overeating was a thing of the past, since my metabolism sped up. My veganism was already paying off in terms of health benefits.
But in the meantime, I really struggled with depriving myself of things that I loved, including ice cream. And restaurants were a huge pain to go to. As a case in point: I went to a friend’s birthday dinner where the group split the meal, and the only vegan-friendly option was french fries — not exactly the picture of a well-balanced meal. I felt like I was spending so much time worrying on what to eat, instead of enjoying my meal and therefore enjoying life.
What’s a meat-loving vegan to do?
I was asking a friend recently if he was vegetarian all the time, and he told me that he considered himself to be an “opportunitarian” — vegetarian most of the time, except for when the opportunity arises.
And it struck me — this is genius.
The opportunitarian philosophy
To me, becoming an opportunitarian is a way to still get many of the health benefits of a plant-based, whole foods diet, while still getting to occasionally indulge in the other foods I love — when the opportunity arises.
I still cook most of my meals 100% vegan. But, it also means that my dietary needs don’t encumber friends who host dinner and don’t know how to cook a vegan meal. It means I can feel ok about not eating vegan at a restaurant if the vegan options are terrible. It means I’ll still try local cuisine when I travel. It means I’m going to eat wedding cake at a wedding. And if I’m really especially tempted by a little cheese, dairy, or egg, I’ll cut myself some slack.
Most important of all, being opportunitarian means that I’m still healthier on the whole, since I’m eating (mostly) vegan food and not worrying so much about what I eat all the time. If I can eat better 80%+ of the time, a little give on the 20% should be just fine. Since I want this to be a lifestyle change and not just a fad, that’s fine by me.