My vegan experiment is finished. From the end of October to about two weeks ago, I abstained from all animal products with the exception of honey, and I returned to eating meat about two weeks ago. I think that, in general, the experiment was highly successful It provided a new perspective which changed my perspective on animal ethics. My thoughts on the matter are complex and long-winded, so I’m going to organize this into two posts. This one will run down the things I learned over the course of the last month, and the next one will explain the new view of animal ethics that I think has come out of the process. Without further adieu, then, here is a summary of the biggest impressions I have taken from a month of veganism.
1. It was much, much easier than expected.
When you hear meat-eaters talk about vegetarianism and veganism, they tend to defend their eating habits partly on the grounds that they simply could not live without animal products, and that they would be succumb to the temptation to eat a steak almost immediately. I expected to face that challenge, but the anticipated overwhelming temptation never really materialized. Veganism very quickly became quite routine and enjoyable. I made lentil curries and stir-fries, and I developed a truly wicked vegan chili recipe. When going for meals along Manchester’s famous curry mile, I would have falafel instead of my usual chicken kebab, and I discovered that a fried tofu and vegetables with black bean sauce on rice noodles is actually better than any meat dish I’ve ever had at a noodle bar. I even tried some of that weird soy-based imitation meat in the form of some “chicken” satay skewers at a bar, and found it surprisingly like the real thing. When I returned to meat, and ate some barbecued chicken kebab (are you noticing a theme here? Manchester has a lot of kebab places), it was not a glorious return to food I had desperately missed for a month, but rather, just a fairly tasty but not terribly exciting meal.
My previous mostly-vegetarian diet probably played a role here, but I think there is something else at work that is worth noting. I have come to the conclusion that I enjoy most of the meat I eat not because of the meat itself, but because of the way it is flavoured. The aforementioned kebabs on the curry mile was exciting for me because of the chili sauce and spices, not for the chicken meat. The same thing goes for burgers, which, for me, are really more about the toppings, with the patty being easily substituted for one made of beans. I’m a big fan of spicy food, and Sriracha sauce provides the same awesome taste of fiery deliciousness regardless of whether it is squeezed over chicken or chickpeas. There are a few exceptions to this, such as fish (especially sushi), a good steak, and (of course) bacon, but for the most part, I have realized that all the same delicious flavours can be applied just as effectively to either meat or vegetables.
2. There were unexpected difficulties.
While the temptation to eat meat was much more manageable than expected, I had a lot more trouble identifying which products actually had animal products in them. Vegetarianism is easy, as meat is usually instantly identifiable in even the most processed foods. Dairy and eggs, however, are not so simple to detect. I found myself staring dumbly at the labels of convenience-store flapjacks, using my smartphone to discern whether a particular obscure ingredient was derived from milk or not. Restaurants posed a unique challenge, as it felt kind of awkward to ask minimum-wage waiters at a curry house whether their naan bread had ghee in it. The whole thing was awkward, annoying, and time-consuming, and I found myself thinking that a standardized system of food labelling should be agreed on, and perhaps even made mandatory by law. This would cost virtually nothing, and would make it easier for people to keep to their dietary choices.
As it is, though, I would have to decide, were I to go fully vegan, how strict I would be about uncertain cases. Would I have an obligation to be certain that a particular food is vegan before eating it, or could I plead ignorance in certain cases? I’d be eager to hear how full-time vegans approach this issue.
3. Near as I can tell, the health claims of both sides are not true.
This point comes with an important caveat. If I were really serious about scientifically evaluating the effects of veganism on my life, I would have gone for weekly blood tests, tracked my weight, had my cholesterol checked, and so on. I did none of these things, and so my perspective on this matter is incomplete. The health claims made both by vegans and ex-vegans, however, go suggest that such scientific scientific measurement should be unnecessary. Vegans suggest that the drop in fat and cholestrol gained from switching to a vegan diet will lead to you feeling SO MUCH BETTER as soon as you stop eating meat. Anti-vegans, meanwhile, suggest that the lack of protein in a vegan diet mean that you will feel SO MUCH BETTER as soon as you cave and start eating meat again. I cannot speak for everyone, but I can say with confidence that I did not feel SO MUCH BETTER upon abandoning animal products, or upon re-introducing them into my diet. I did not feel a sudden surge of energy after stopping eating meat, but neither did I feel the debilitating effects of protein deficiency. With both a vegan and a carnivorous diet, I went to the gym, went on all-day hikes up and down mountains, dodged traffic on my bike, and read dozens of papers. None of these activities felt any different.
It is possible, and even probable, that the effects of meat in my diet are more subtle, and that they would make a serious difference if I adopted a vegan diet in the long-term. It is probably safe to say that I would see a beneficial decrease in cholesterol, for example. Maybe a month was too short for this experiment. If nothing else, it’s safe to say that a more scientific approach would be needed to truly determine the health effects of the switch, but as for the everyday feeling of health, the two diets were indistinguishable for me.
4. I’m still pretty hesitant about the social aspect.
Veganism was easy for me as a single student in a new social circle, but I think it would get a lot more complicated in different circumstances. My graduation week, in which I returned to meat eating, would have been very difficult to negotiate if I had remained vegan during that time. A trip home for Christmas or a summer vacation would be even more complicated. Could family dinners ever really be the same if I have to eat different things from everybody else at the table? And what of outings with friends? Ordering pizza to a party would obviously be a no-no, and the Korean Barbecue parties that have become traditional among my Markham friends upon my return there would be in jeopardy. First dates, work outings, and travel would also become a lot more complicated. This is another question I would like to pose to my full-time vegan friends: how do you negotiate all this stuff?
5. It was actually a lot of fun.
All in all, I am very happy that I went vegan for a month. It forced me out of a culinary box that I had worked myself into, leading to a lot of experimentation in the kitchen, and the learning of a whole host of new and delicious recipes. It also prompted some fascinating discussions about animal ethics with both vegans and carnivores, and both online and in real-life. Finally and more generally, veganism shook up my routine in a way that subtly impacted all aspects of my life. The introduction a new dietary restriction felt like it was broadening my horizons rather than shrinking them. Whatever your feelings about the environment or animal rights, I can strongly recommend trying veganism temporarily, if for no reason than the challenge.
That’s the gist of my thoughts on my experience itself. I realize that they are probably not completely satisfactory either to vegans or to skeptical carnivores, so I’m eager to hear about the similar experiences of others with this kind of thing. My next post will outline my new philosophical approach towards ethical eating, which I call Kantian carnivorism. Stay tuned.