My Vegan Transition: Part II

Click here to read Part I of my vegan transition!

If you read last week's post titled, "My Vegan Transition: Part I" then you know that I struggled with an eating disorder in my late teens. It wasn't until I had spent multiple years in therapy, restored my weight, and progressed significantly in my recovery that I felt ready to start exploring vegetarianism. And even then, the transition was slo-o-o-w. More than three years passed between the day when I decided to eat less meat and the day that I went vegan.

Easy Does It

There is no shortage of vegans in the world who will tell you that you should make the transition to veganism as quickly as possible. "The animals can't wait!" is the rallying cry across Twitter, Facebook groups, and YouTube channels.

On the one hand, these people have a point. Over 56 billion farmed animals are killed every year, and that doesn't even take into account the fish and sea creatures who we kill at such astonishing rates that their deaths are measured in tons rather than number of bodies. All it takes is one look at a counter marking the animals we kill each second to make it clear that when it comes to preventing animal suffering, time is of the essence. For the environmentally-minded among us, climate change is a similarly urgent reason to go vegan.

And yet, despite these statistics, I have never told someone that they should "go vegan," nor have I ever encouraged anyone considering the transition to do it quickly. The reason is that for me, and probably for a lot of other people, it's not always healthy or safe to be vegan.

I'm a physically and mentally healthy vegan now, but I think it's very likely that I would not have been able to be healthy as a vegan in the early stages of my recovery from my eating disorder. Many of us have chronic health concerns, be they psychological or physiological or both, that prevent us from being vegan for some or all of our lives. It's not that veganism itself is a physically or mentally unhealthy lifestyle; in fact, my experience of veganism has been the contrary. But I firmly believe that the reason that my veganism has had such a positive impact on my health and daily life is because I was careful and intentional with each change that I made. We live in a non-vegan world, and the hard truth is that veganism is not always easy. That means that for some of us, a slow and incremental transition can be the only safe path to a vegan lifestyle. And that's okay.

If you want to go cold Tofurkey, that can work too. One of my best friends, who was also my vegan mentor of sorts when I was starting out, made the shift in the matter of hours. A college student studying conservation biology, she was eating a sandwich with meat in it in our school's dining hall one day. Knowing the massive environmental impact of eating animals, she looked at the sandwich, put it down, and hasn't touched an animal product since. Obviously, she's a total badass. You might go vegan overnight like she did. If you do, that is an amazing feat.

If the thought of cutting out animal products from your life in a day daunts you, however, know that you're not alone. I made one of the longest and slowest journeys to veganism of all the vegans I know, and I still made it.

Animals Everywhere: Going Pescatarian

Starting to eat less meat upon my return from Spain in 2012 was a highly intentional decision. I'd consumed more jamón and chorizo during my semester in Madrid than I care to remember, and I was ready for a change. Less than a year out of treatment for my eating disorder and still periodically checking in with my therapist and dietitian, I was vigilant about avoiding a relapse like the one I'd fallen into the previous summer. I was worried about putting any sort of label on the way I ate for fear that it would become yet another twisted tool my eating disorder could use against me. I still warred with myself at mealtimes on occasion. Recovery was no longer an uphill battle, but it continued to be a steady trudge that required daily attention.

At this time in my life, I was interested in becoming vegetarian, but I was terrified of the possible consequences for my mental health. I decided that slowly reducing my meat intake was a good compromise that preserved the freedom and flexibility of my fork while still allowing me to inch towards a lifestyle I didn't yet trust myself to want in a healthy way.

I sequestered myself from any information about the ethical implications of consuming animal products. Like most people in the United States, I was vaguely aware that animal agricultural practices were far from morally sound. For lack of a better explanation, though, I shared the head-in-the-sand perspective that the industry banks on: I didn't want to know. Given my high sensitivity to violence, I worried that knowing what happened in slaughterhouses would make me never want to eat meat again. I wasn't ready to expose myself to the truth.

Then, a funny thing happened. Whenever I would put meat on my plate, I started seeing the animal that my filet/sandwich/stir fry used to be. I don't know why. Maybe it was subconscious osmosis from my vegan friend and the Veg Club dinners I would attend with her, or maybe my brain and heart were just finally waking up to what I had known all along: that far from an inanimate object to be consumed, animals are living, breathing beings with their own lives. Their own personalities. Their own capacity for suffering.

We all know this, of course. Just think about your family cat or dog, or the bunnies you coo at in adorable YouTube videos, or the animals that leave you awestruck at the zoo. On some basic level, we humans connect with non-human animals in important ways that imply we understand their moral status, even if only on a subconscious level. 

The idea that some animals are acceptable to consume and others are not is subjective and culturally constructed. Take the outcry over the annual Yulin Dog Meat Festival, for example. Meat-eaters here in the States are horrified that Chinese omnivores flock to Yulin to consume cat and dog meat, and yet parties centered around roasting the body of a dead cow are practically synonymous with one of our country's biggest national holidays (4th of July barbecue, anyone?). Most people draw the line somewhere with respect eating animals; the question of where that line rests is usually one of our own social norms rather than the objective moral status of certain animals as compared to others. 

Once my brain mysteriously absorbed this information, I started seeing animals everywhere. Pigs, cows, chickens, and turkeys crowded my mind's eye as I roved my college's dining hall on a daily basis. One day, I ordered a chicken sandwich, sat down to eat, and just couldn't take the first bite. Rather than my lunch, I saw a chicken pecking around a yard with her chicks (though that particular chicken was likely crammed into a disgusting warehouse with thousands of other birds, rather than roaming free like I imagined). The images of these animas, the animals I had been eating without a second thought my entire life, arrived involuntarily. They didn't stop. I had been so worried about limiting my enjoyment of food by not eating meat, but now I found the opposite to be true: I couldn't enjoy eating meat, no matter how hard I tried. 

I had never liked meat all that much, though, even as a child; seafood was my one true culinary love. Sushi used to be my favorite food, and I requested it every year on my birthday for as long as I could remember. I went to my dietitian and proposed a solution for my cognitive dissonance around eating animals: I would ditch the meat, which by then I didn't feel like eating, and be a seafood-loving pescatarian. Fish aren't as smart as other animals anyway, I told myself. They don't have feelings. It was okay to eat them. Right?

Fish Are Friends, Not Food: Going Vegetarian

I spent a year as a pescatarian, forgoing meat but eating all manner of seafood, dairy, and other animal products. When people would ask me why I was a pescatarian, I would tell them that I liked seafood too much to give it up. Internally, I squirmed. I'd stopped eating meat because of the animals. Could fish really be that different?

I pushed the question to the back of my mind for a full twelve months, repeating the abovementioned phrase to myself like a mantra: I don't want to know. I don't want to know. I don't want to know.

Then, one day, I did want to know. I was eating a tuna sandwich in the campus coffee shop, just a few days after kicking off my last semester of classes. I took a deep breath and opened my laptop. I typed "can fish suffer" into the Google search bar. What I read kept me from finishing my lunch. The short answer is that yes, they can, and they do (not to mention the dozens of other aquatic animals killed as a result of industrial fishing processes).

And so, I became a vegetarian. I talked to my dietitian about how to maintain a healthy vegetarian diet (spoiler alert, it's 100% possible) and assured her I was doing it to live in alignment with my values, not to conjure an excuse to restrict my food intake. If the ultimate goal of my recovery was to make peace with food, then I couldn't do it while eating animals. I couldn't enjoy meat or fish anymore. Seeing bodies on my plate brought me no satisfaction. For me, it really was as simple as that. Seeing the worried look in her eyes, I swore up and down that I would never go vegan. "Way too restrictive," I scoffed, and happily dove into a cheese plate that evening.

I was a healthy, thriving vegetarian for two years after that. I graduated, moved from California to Washington, DC, and taught myself how to cook without meat and fish. Given my access to grocery stores, money to purchase ingredients, and time to prepare nutritious meals, being vegetarian was a breeze. Slowly, I started phasing out certain products. I began to buy soy or nut-based milks because I liked the taste better. I discovered the joys of tofu and tempeh. I explored the many traditionally vegetarian foods I found in my new city, like Ethiopian injera and meat-free pupusas from El Salvador. My salary was modest by DC standards but allowed me to frequent health food stores and experiment with plant-based ingredients. I met more and more vegans.

I always knew that the logical extension of my vegetarianism was to go vegan, but at first I honestly didn't think it would be possible for me given my eating disorder history. Given how closely connected the meat, dairy, and egg industries are (at least in the United States), it didn't make much sense to me that I wouldn't eat meat for ethical reasons but was fine with products that often came from the very same abused animals. I held out for two years, continuing to grow in my recovery as a vegetarian. I allowed a certain fear-based prudence to hold me back from trying veganism. I avoided information about the dairy and egg industries in much the same way I had the seafood industry years before. I suspected that if I opened the floodgates and went vegan, there would be no going back.

Turns out, I was right.

Finally Vegan!

I decided to go vegan on March 27, 2016. My environmentalist friend, the conservation biologist who literally quit animal products cold turkey, visited me that weekend and inspired me to take the leap. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Now that you know my vegan story, I'm going to finish up this three-part series with a post on what to expect when you go vegan (no matter how long it takes you to get there). Stay tuned for that later this week, and in the meantime, read about the day that I finally took the plunge.