Most people adopt a plant-based lifestyle for one or more of the following reasons: better health, animal liberation, or environmental improvement.
Better health ignited my plant-based journey but along the way I have learned many other benefits to a plant-based lifestyle, all of which are now integral to my commitment.
A few things before we get started…
1. I prefer the term plant-based over vegan. (Although I do say vegan often.) From my experience, vegan has a negative connotation (unfortunately). More often than not, when I tell people I am vegan, they assume I am a hippie-dippie, tree-hugging, radical (and not in a good way). The term veganism is also also associated with elitism and privilege. Which, at it’s core, veganism does not represent. But it is a privilege to choose one’s diet.
The term vegan focuses solely on the absence of animal products. The term plant-based, alternatively, focuses on the presence of plants, in addition to the absence of animal products.
Plant-based is inherently healthy, vegan is not. Many traditional American junk foods, including Pop-Tarts, Captain Crunch, Oreo’s and Lay’s Potato Chips, are considered vegan, but would hardly classify as plant-based (chemical-based maybe?).
Vegan implies the complete elimination of animal products and can be a helpful term when checking ingredient labels or eating at a restaurant. Yet to call myself a vegan isn’t fair because I still occasionally eat honey (which is an animal product) and wear leather shoes.
Don’t get me wrong, I am far from being 100% plant-based either (I ate a Pop-Tart yesterday). But I feel that the term plant-based better encompasses my lifestyle goals (we’ll get more into that shortly).
2. Whole-food means real, whole, food that hasn’t been processed and is free from additives and other artificial substances. Whole-food (little “w”, little “f”) is not synonymous with the grocery store chain that is often referred to as Whole Paycheck, or with food elitism. Whole-foods are simple, real, whole, foods- that’s it. However, access to whole-food is a privilege!
3. I am not a medical professional, spiritual guide, farmer or environmental scientist. The information provided in this post should not be taken as medical advice or spiritual guidance. The ideas I present here are my opinions, based on personal experience and research.
As I learn more about plant-based living, my opinions, and therefore my choices, may change. I take full responsibility for any aspect of this writing that is incomplete, has the potential to change, or reflects a lack of understanding.
With that said, as of this writing, this is what I believe, in mind, body and soul, to be true, right and good.
4. Becoming plant-based is a journey. I have to continuously and consciously re-commit to this lifestyle with every choice I make. A good portion of this post follows my plant-based journey thus far. As you will see, it ebbs and flows as I learn and grow. Sometimes I take two steps forward to take ten steps back, it’s all part of the journey!
The Journey Begins | Circa 2013
It’s not easy to to change everything about the way you eat and think about food. Like I said before, it’s a journey. In 2013, at the age of 23, I started to take care of my body for the first time in my life. Two major factors forced me to prioritize my health (outside of having the time to do so now that college was over).
The first was weight. I know, anyone who knows me is probably thinking WTH, you’ve always been skinny! You are right, I have been, and that is the problem. When a friend of mine started to openly analyze her health, in preparation for weight loss surgery, I noticed some similarities between her and I. I did all the same things that she claimed caused her to gain weight. I overindulged in processed and sugary foods, ate fast food, ate junk food… you name it, I probably ate it- unless you say salad, I never ate salad. I overate and didn’t workout. At all.
I was wreaking havoc on my body but because society said “You’re skinny, that’s good,” I didn’t pay it much attention. Her wake-up call was my wake-up call. (It was also a wake-up call to society’s body image issues but that’s a whole other thing).
The second factor was my unhealthy family. My dad was sick most of my life and ended up dying when he was 56. I was 24. He had a tumor in his intestines when he was a kid, leukemia, dementia, I’m pretty sure he had a stroke, and probably a whole bunch of other stuff that I either didn’t know about or have forgotten about. Almost all of my aunts and uncles have had or currently have cancer. My first cousin died of pancreatic cancer at 45 years old. My grandparents on my mom’s side had heart problems, diabetes and dementia and my grandma on my dad’s side died of a brain tumor.
I used to think I was destined for one or more of the same fates that my family succumbed to because, well, genes, until I learned that genetics are not the sole indicator of future health.
Making Changes (Two Steps Forward)
Forks Over Knives, a documentary based on the China Study, shows how a whole-food, plant-based, diet can prevent, and in some cases reverse, heart disease. I have also read several stories about people who reversed cancer with a whole-food, plant-based, diet. What we put (and don’t put) into our bodies matters. Food has the power to influence the expression of certain genes and, possibly, postpone, prevent, or even reverse certain health complications.
In the fall of 2014, I cut out most processed food, meat, dairy and eggs.
This is by no means is a fool proof plan. Even if, from that day forward, I ate 110% whole-food, plant-based, (which you will read in a moment, I have not), I may still suffer from the same health issues that my family did (or completely different ones). But, for the sake of my sanity and my family, I have to do what I can, here and now.
Eating Anything in the Name of Travel & Experience (Ten Steps Backward)
About a year after eliminating (most) processed foods and meat I went on a trip to Europe. I gave myself a free pass on food in the name of culture. I ate beef goulash in the Czech Republic, turkey legs in Germany, herring in the Netherlands, Foie gras and escargo in France, cheese and gelato in Italy, and Shepherds Pie in England.
I thought for sure when I got back home, things would go back to normal. The new normal I’d created before I left. No meat. Lots of green smoothies. Little processed food.
Well, they didn’t.
Europe was a turning point in my life. A reality check. An experience that let me know, like a bag of bricks to the head, that I needed to make a change in my life. A big one. But I didn’t know what that change was or how to make it.
For the next 6 months I just plugged along with the gray cloud of impending change lurking over me. I tried to carry on as the Las Vegas socialite I had once been, but I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to live like that anymore. Amid the confusion and stress, unhealthy foods (comfort foods) crept back into my daily routine.
By the time I figured out that I needed to close my salon, leave Las Vegas, and travel, my eating had gotten out of control again. Eating whatever, whenever, wherever.
Thailand & Vietnam
When I got to Asia in 2018, I was open to eating anything and everything. I thought this was a good thing. It left me open to new cultural experiences, respectful of local norms, and able to go with the flow. (I completely ignored everything I’d learned about health a few years earlier).
When I ate meat in Europe, it was an occasional thing, once every other day or so. In Asia, I was eating meat for almost every meal of the day. Pork mostly.
I was eating more junk food than I’d ever eaten in my adult life (and if you knew me in my late teens/ early twenties, when I could down a whole box of Oreos in one sitting, you’d understand how significant this statement actually is). Several times a week I stopped at 7-11 for a grilled cheese sandwich, Koala Yummies (chocolate filled cookies), and a Pepsi!
I was out of control!
At first, I didn’t notice.
Once I did, I ignored it.
Looking back, I have no doubt that my eating habits were a reflection of my mental and emotional health. When I realized the life I’d created for myself in Las Vegas wasn’t right for me, I kind of freaked out. I couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten there, or where I’d gone wrong. My life was pretty much everything I thought I wanted. I had a successful salon business, a nice house in an awesome city, and great friends.
Why didn’t I belong there?
What was wrong with me?
When I finally decided to leave behind my life in Las Vegas, to travel indefinitely, I was met with resistance at every turn. Fighting against it, to eventually walk away from everything and everyone I’d ever known, was exhausting. I didn’t let anyone, not even myself, know that underneath my confident exterior, I was scared. Terrified, really.
I masked my terror with food.
I justified my over-indulgence in unhealthy food as part of the solo-traveler experience. I was much more comfortable exploring street food markets and restaurants than hiking to the top of a mountain by myself. Plus, I have to eat, right? So spending money on food was more justifiable than on excursions or entertainment.
Before long, I started to feel sick. Not debilitatingly so but that constant, annoying, kind of sick. I was always bloated and had horrible congestion. I know these symptoms could have been caused by a variety of factors, even so, I know the way I was eating (and drinking), wasn’t helping.
Meeting Vegans and Vegetarians on the Road
Thai Yoga Retreat
I went to a yoga retreat in Northern Thailand that was completely vegan. While the yoga instructors did prioritize their health, it was clear that the driving force behind their choice to go vegan was animal liberation. I learned so much about the mental and emotional capacities of farm animals and the horrors of factory farming. While I thoroughly enjoyed the food, believed and understood everything I learned, and admired the healthy, compassionate, vegan, yoga instructors, I thought being vegan was too “unrealistic” for “real life.”
It was an excuse.
After the time I had spent as a quasi-vegan a few years prior, I knew how restricted my life would be if I went vegan, especially on the road. I wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice.
I biked the Ha Giang Loop in Vietnam with a 22 year old guy from Belgium. He had just graduated university with a double major in biology and philosophy. His intelligence and perspective was inspirational. He was vegetarian for environmental reasons, a concept completely unknown to me at the time. He taught me that the food industry has a more detrimental effect on global warming than the entire transportation industry does! More of the earth is covered in factory farms than I ever would have guessed. My Belgium biking buddy taught me how to order phở ăn chay (the vegetarian version of a traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup). At this time I was constantly feeling bloated and greatly appreciated the break from pork!
Brazilian Presidential Election
I made friends with a Brazilian girl in yoga teacher training and we stayed together in Rishikesh for a few weeks after the course ended. This was in October of 2018, during Brazil’s presidential election. She was following the election closely and would complain about this really evil man running for president. She referred to him as “the Brazilian Trump.”
At this time, I knew next to nothing about international politics (my knowledge of US politics was nothing to brag about either). Whenever people would talk about Trudeau (a name that I forced myself to learn because he came up all the time in casual hostel convos) I’d get quiet and hope the subject would change.
On October 18th 2018 Bolsonaro, aka “The Brazilian Trump,” won the election and became the President of Brazil. My friend was devastated. Her reaction to Bolsonaro’s election compelled me to do some research. This is how I learned (among many other horrible things) that Bolsonaro supported the intentional burning of the Amazon forest to expand the farming and logging industries.
Large-scale factory farming is literally burning up the earth.
The election of Bolsonaro also made me realize how much politics, home and abroad, effect us all, even when we’re too full of privilege to think they do.
These seemed like a quirky travel anecdotes at the time, but now I know they were important stops along my plant-based journey. It’s crazy to think only 15 months ago I was completely ignorant of things I passionately advocate for now. They say hindsight is 20/20, right?
Goodbye Meat, Hello Ghee!
As cliché as this may sound, traveling to India completely shifted my paradigm. I knew it would but can’t tell you how I knew or why it did.
Just before my arrival in India I quit drinking and stopped eating meat (again).
I didn’t make a sweeping declaration that I was quitting either of these things, it just kind of happened. Drinking, and being around drunk people, had been annoying me for months. I figured yoga teacher training would be the perfect time to take a break from alcohol. That one month break turned into 6 months, then a year, and now I don’t know if I can really call it a break any more?
Much of India is vegetarian. The entire town of Rishikesh, where I took my yoga teacher training course, is vegetarian. My friends who I spent Diwali with are vegetarian. Meat just wasn’t an option in India and I didn’t miss it.
To my demise, I replaced meat with bread, sweets, ghee (clarified butter) and cheese. Every meal I ate in India, while delicious and meat free, was heavy. The bloating and congestion only got worse.
My last few days in India were marked with terrible stomach pains and diarrhea from overeating heavy, sweet, and dairy-filled foods.
My Last Three Months in Asia (A few more steps forward)
I left India knowing I had three months to get my eating habits under control before going home to The States. At home, the peer pressure to “eat normal,” and cravings for familiar foods would impede any progress I’d made. Which, other than eliminating meat again, didn’t feel like was much.
But progress had been made. Realizing that my eating habits stemmed from my head and my heart more than my mouth and my stomach was progress. Learning about the well being of farm animals and the negative impact of factory farming on the environment, was progress.
I was determined to use my last three months in Asia to get my mental, emotional and physical health under control and to define my eating habits for myself, by myself, before going home.
Those three months were as peculiar as they were vital to my success. I spent one month in Thailand, between Bangkok and Koh Samui, and two months in Bali. I deleted social media and kept a very disciplined schedule. I woke up and went to bed early. In the morning I worked out and practiced yoga, I read and wrote during the day and taught English at night.
Outside of my roommate, a fellow American, online English teacher, I had little contact with anyone. Even she and I kept to ourselves most of the time. We did go to the local market and grocery store for fresh produce, together, twice a week. She had been vegan for ten years and taught me a thing or two about plant-based eating. During this time, I would occasionally eat eggs and would eat meat whenever our Balinese landlord gifted us a traditional Balinese dish during a festival. I was sorting out what I wanted to include in my diet, and what I didn’t, through trial and error.
Is vegan too extreme?
Isn’t vegan kind of bougie?
Wouldn’t it be rude to not accept gifted food?
Isn’t cage-free, organic chicken better than fried/processed vegan food?… But… that’s still not good for the chickens, is it? … Or the environment?
Vegan junk food must do a number on the environment too?
What about eggs? Are they healthy?… Oh, wait, the chickens?
If I do go vegan, will it actually be better for my health? The animals? The environment? Humanity?
How do vegans/ plant-based people stay respectful of cultural norms and traditions while traveling?
These questions were rhetorical. Instead of asking them directly to myself, or others, I tried certain foods and took notes on how they made me feel- mind, body, and soul. I read a lot about food, health, the environment and philosophy.
When I left Indonesia on February 7, 2019, I was committed to becoming plant-based. It’s amazing how sitting seemingly still (I felt like I was doing nothing during those last three months in Asia) can end up catapulting you along your journey.
(in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist tradition) respect for all living things and avoidance of violence toward others.
Ahimsa looks very different for different people. A traditional yogic diet, outlined in ancient yogic texts, includes ghee and milk. Jain monks take ahimsa so seriously that they wear a piece of cloth over their mouths to avoid inhaling, and therefore killing, small organisms while speaking. Based on my own journey and what I have learned about factory farming, avoiding the consumption of animal products is the way I choose to practice ahimsa (still working on dumping the honey and leather shoes).
It is vital to the ahimsa discussion to mention that vegans can, and often do, violate ahimsa, by disrespecting, and perpetrating violence against, fellow human beings. Caring about animal rights more than human rights, not acknowledging that access to healthy and fresh food is a privilege, and food/ body shaming are all ways in which vegans can inflict harm on other humans, therefore violating ahimsa.
Reckoning with Privilege and Veganism
I was headed towards a plant-based lifestyle while simultaneously waking up to my many unearned privileges. I had a hard time moving into a plant-based lifestyle because veganism, especially by way of Western yoga culture, is steeped in white privilege, capitalism, gentrification, and cultural appropriation, all things I was consciously trying to separate myself from. I had a really hard time figuring out how to adopt a lifestyle that I knew was good for my health, the environment, and all living beings without being “one of those” vegans.
I researched plant based eating from a variety of perspectives and sources including Dr. Sebi, an Afro-Honduran alkaline plant doctor and Professor Margaret Robinson, an Indigenous American vegan professor. I follow vegans and plant-based advocates from a variety of backgrounds on social media, and pay close attention to what they stand for, how they speak, and how they act.
I have learned that the poorest and most marginalized people of the world are the most negatively impacted by factory farming. The Indigenous people of Brazil continue to be displaced as the rain forests burn in an effort to clear land for industrial cattle ranching. In North Carolina, poor, black, communities receive the brunt of the heath and environmental side effects caused by the release of feces from neighboring industrial pig farms.
This alone makes me want to stop contributing to the mass production of meat! But, even then, my choice to instead eat healthy, whole, plant-based food, is a privilege in itself. Food-deserts, more recently referred to a food-apartheid, is a term describing the food access disparities between wealthy, white, communities and poor, black and brown, communities throughout the USA. From discrimination in farming subsidies to the segregation of well stocked grocery stores, racism is at the root of food injustice in America.
How do I stop perpetuating these problems and become part of the solution?
I don’t know.
But I am starting by acknowledging my responsibility to the whole and working towards an in-depth understanding of my cultural frame of reference. With this awareness, I will continue to listen to the people impacted by food injustices. I will continue to study philosophy, history, health science and modern day food production. Not getting political is not an option. I have to check my privileges and use them, in whatever ways I can, to mitigate these disparities.
Climate justice, and food justice, are racial justice.
This is just the beginning. I am a work in progress.
Plant-based eating is not (and should not be) synonymous with over priced, trendy, vegan food. Vegans don’t have to be bougie. I am not saying you won’t ever see me out at my favorite vegan hot spots, because you will from time to time. But that’s not what it’s about.
Becoming plant-based is a conscious simplification of food consumption in an effort to improve individual health, the well-being of humanity, and the environment. My goal is to consume a whole-food, plant-based, diet the majority of the time. (Did I just define my eating for myself, by myself? I think so! Woohoo!)
Although I do avoid all meat, dairy and eggs scrupulously as of this moment, I am not an absolutist. If a moment arises where I feel compelled to eat something with animal products, for whatever reason, I will. There are certain things I can’t imagine ever eating again- like steak. But some days I pretend I was never told that there is honey in a traditional Starbucks Chai Tea Latte and sip it alongside a brown sugar Pop-Tart.
Sometimes health is my main concern and I eat leafy greens and vegetables around the clock. Other times I emphasize the importance of animal liberation and the environment while eating Coconut Milk Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream and vegan cheese (don’t even get me started on vegan capitalism, that’s a whole other issue).
Since committing to a plant-based lifestyle, I have yet to be in a cross cultural exchange where turning down a meat, dairy or egg-based dish would be disrespectful. If/when that moment arises, I will do whatever inflicts the least amount of harm on myself and others.
A Plant-Based Homecoming!
My sister and brother-in-law have been on their own plant-based journey for years. They committed to the lifestyle around the time I returned to the states to stay with them and watch my newborn nephew. It has been an absolute blessing to not only have their support, but also their joint commitment on this journey. My mom, although not plant-based herself, is very supportive!
While I am still far from my goal of a truly whole-food, plant-based diet, I have already seen so many health benefits from eliminating animal products and eating more plants. My congestion has completely cleared up. (I can’t even tell you how bad it used to be!) My skin is the clearest it’s been since I was a kid. I rarely suffer from bloating and when I do, I can pinpoint it to vegan junk food. I still get sick here and there (as a matter of fact my throat is sore right now) and I may not be able to prevent more serious illnesses down the road. Even so, this lifestyle makes sense to me right now.
As for the animals, humanity and the environment, it’s not a matter “if” I have an impact, but “how” I am making an impact. Me, little old, individual me, impacts all living beings and the Earth with every choice I make.
So, I must continue to ask myself, what kind of impact am I making?
I hope my journey inspires you to do your research, draw your own conclusions, and do what makes sense for you!
(I am creating a plant-based resource page, it will be available soon!)