Author: Kelly Neukom
Pamela Anderson is one. So is Paul McCartney. Dennis Kucinich, Natalie Portman and Cesar Chavez are part of the group too. In fact, being vegan is a lot more common than you would think-around 1 million Americans say they are vegan, a study by Vegetarian Times said in April. Last week, the count would have been 1,000,001.
Yes, to be able to write a story about vegans on campus, I thought the best way would be to become vegan myself for the school week. Although a little bit apprehensive about what I would eat, I was interested in how the experience would change my view toward food. After all, not eating any animals or animal products (including dairy, gelatin, eggs and honey) would be a challenge for me, especially if you are aware of my undying love for the Marketplace chicken stir fry or Cooler chai lattes.
But it surprised me how many things I could eat even after my experiment began. I had to bid adieu to egg salad sandwiches and mashed potatoes, but I could still have pita and hummus, lemonade smoothies (without yogurt), cinnamon pita chips and bean burritos. I had always believed that vegans had little in their diet that extended beyond “rabbit food” (fruits and vegetables) and soy products.
The same misconception was held by many Oxy students before they became vegan as well. “I had always thought that being vegan was too restrictive and that I wouldn’t be able to get enough nutrients, and my mom was not about to cook entirely different meals just for me,” Caitlin Goss (first-year) said. Her mind was changed when her friend took her to Real Food Daily, an organic vegan restaurant with two locations in LA and Santa Monica.
“Some of the ingredients are definitely weird compared to conventional cooking, but that does not take away from the taste at all,” Goss said. “I’d argue the food has more flavor and is by far more nutritious because it lacks all the preservatives and processed junk.” She did her research on being a vegan and has now happily been one for three months, with plans to work at a vegan restaurant over the summer.
“Don’t believe the myth that it is too restrictive-that just means you haven’t researched all the options available,” Goss said. “Most of the stuff that makes up a vegan meal is part of a ‘conventional’ meal too. I love to cook and bake, and I have discovered so many new recipes and substitutions that have awed my family and friends who usually-after tasting what I’ve made-say, ‘This is vegan?!’ as if all vegan stuff is gross and weird.”
Kit Warchol (sophomore) agreed with Goss. “Veganism doesn’t mean you can only eat bland stuff,” she said. “It just means no McDonald’s Sausage Egg McMuffins in the morning. Big deal. You can still create delicious meals without meat.”
Warchol became vegan when she realized there were plenty of good reasons behind it. “I was actually against veganism for a long time because I felt like it was a constructed diet that you can only pursue in a rich nation like the United States, where people can afford grocery stores like Whole Foods,” she said. “But I realized quickly that isn’t the way it has to be. My friends eat vegan to be healthy, reduce their environmental impact and shop locally. I eventually realized these were excellent reasons, swallowed my pride and gave it a shot.”
Fascinated by the large number of vegans on campus (eight of them contacted me when I expected to find maybe two or three), I wondered why others had “given it a shot.”
Many said it was to support the ethical treatment of animals and to be more environmentally-friendly. “Global warming is a critical issue and over-farmed animals being raised for the meat-obsessed American culture are huge emitters of greenhouse gases,” Katie Davis (sophomore) said. “There is a vegan activist group out there whose motto is ‘A vegan in a Hummer is still more environmentally friendly than a meat eater on a bicycle.'”
A lot of the vegans on campus were vegetarians first and then became vegan because it was “the next logical step.” Then there are people like Joellen Anderson (sophomore). “I saw PETA’s video ‘Meet your Meat’ two years ago and never turned back,” she said. “I actually went cold turkey (so to speak!), straight from meat to no animal products whatsoever.”
I wondered if it would be as easy for me to give up non-vegan food when I started my experiment. My first day eating vegan, I bought way too much to fill myself up-a non-dairy bean burrito from the freezer near the soda fountain, a huge salad piled high with vegetables, an apple and a vegan chocolate chip cookie from the bakery. Intrigued by the latter, I ate it first and it wasn’t half-bad; you could tell it wasn’t a true chocolate chip cookie, but nothing tasted off about it. After the burrito and about half the salad, I felt stuffed. “Should I keep the apple?” I wondered. “Maybe for later.”
I was so happy that I did, because about three hours later I was famished. I had forgotten how much meat and dairy fill you up. Usually I can have a half-serving of chicken stir fry with rice at 12:30 p.m. and be set until right before closing time at the Marketplace (7:30 p.m.) I had discovered my first pitfall of being a vegan-it wasn’t finding something to eat, but finding enough to eat.
The Marketplace didn’t help much. Although they do have lots of vegan choices (labeled with a “v”), most are options that can’t be made into a true meal (like Brussels sprouts or zucchini). Also, most run out before you can even get to them. Despite there being a special glass box just for vegan bakery items, the one and only time I saw something in there was Monday, and that was one cookie. Every other day, I looked for more but never found anything. The night I went to Homestyle for mashed yams, they had just run out. When I discovered that the cinnamon pita chips in the Cooler were vegan, I went to look for them the next day and only found parmesan pita chips-a no-no because of the cheese. Anderson recommended that the MP have rice and black beans available every day, which I think would be a great idea; it would make crafting meals a lot less of a trial for Oxy vegans.
However, finding fewer vegan foods than I would have liked at the MP did mean that I ate a lot more fruits and vegetables to make up for it. I often found myself buying two or three pieces of fruit along with some type of vegetable just to have enough on my tray to consider it a meal. I felt so healthy and pleased with myself. I was actually following the FDA food pyramid recommendation of five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and felt like some phantom nutritionist was giving me a gold star every time I strolled to the cash register loaded with produce. Sometimes the MP would run out of apples or bananas, though, and my frustration would intensify.
Being a vegan also made me somewhat paranoid whenever I went to get food. I was automatically suspicious of anything with ingredients, scouring the list to make sure there were no milk, whey or egg derivatives included. I felt like a crazy person fearful of the CIA, only it was dairy that was out to get me instead. I avoided the Founder’s Day luncheon in the quad altogether, knowing most of it wouldn’t be vegan. If anything looked vegan, I wouldn’t want to be the annoying one tracking down every server in the vicinity and asking, “Does this have milk or eggs in it? What about milk-derived ingredients?” It just seemed like too much hassle.
I did feel a significant change in my body, though. This was strange to me, as I went vegetarian for the entire month of October last year and couldn’t tell a significant difference in how I felt. But within one or two days of being vegan, I felt clearer-headed and much healthier. Almost everything I was eating was good for me. It made me feel happier with myself when I didn’t even have the option to indulge in high-fat foods. My roommate’s friend came by with leftover Easter chocolate and I could say “no” without being tempted by it.
Other vegans feel this way too. “I like that [being a v
egan] forces me to think about what I’m putting in my mouth, which I think makes me eat a little healthier,” Davis said.
Warchol tried being a vegan at first and thought it would make her feel terrible. In fact, she felt the exact opposite. “My energy level is at an insanely high point most of the time, and I don’t stress about small things much anymore,” Warchol said. “It’s interesting because once you cut out all the fatty, junky foods from your diet and replace them with natural ingredients (which inevitably happens when you go vegan), you can actually feel how nutrients work in your body.”
The bane of my existence (and I’m assuming most vegans’ existences) was casein. Casein is a milk-derived ingredient (therefore not vegan), but since it doesn’t have lactose in it, products with casein in them can still claim they are “non-dairy.” I was tripped up by this when I found the horchata in the Cooler. The label read “dairy free” and “lactose free” and I was overjoyed. “Great!” I thought. “Something milk-like that doesn’t taste like pure evil.” (I cannot stand the aftertaste of soy milk.)
I went out to the Cooler lawn with my friend and began drinking it happily in the sun before I even thought to look at the ingredients list. Big mistake. There it was, casein, listed right below water and rice milk, lurking like a colorless, tasteless poison in a beverage I had thought was safe. (See what I meant about acting paranoid?) It made me wish that the FDA would make it mandatory for “vegan” to be first in the ingredients list for every packaged vegan food out there. It would make life a whole lot easier.
The day I stopped being a vegan, I bought ice cream to celebrate but felt kind of gross after eating it. I was surprised because I assumed it would taste like heaven, but really it just felt like something was off. I know this is a weird thing to say-I mean, I gave it up for only five days-but it was weird how much those five days had changed me. I found lots of new foods I liked too, including soy yogurt and gluten-free vegan ginger cookies (which sound like kindergarten paste but taste like sex, especially when you haven’t eaten dessert in four days).
Davis stressed that while vegetarianism is a dietary choice, veganism is a complete lifestyle. “The most dedicated vegans I know don’t allow any animal products into any part of their life so in addition to no meat or dairy that means no honey, gelatin, beeswax, leather, wool, silk, and even no pearls [. . .] or anything else that came from an animal,” Davis said. “The total vegan lifestyle is really inspiring.”
Even if people can’t go vegan for life, people should try to do whatever they can to lessen their dependence on animals (even if that means only giving up meat once a week). “Not everyone has to be vegan, but everyone should try to be aware of what they are eating,” Davis said. “We live in a very affluent, consumerist society, so it’s very easy to fall into a pattern of overindulgence . . . It’s not so hard to make a few sacrifices here and there.”
Isaac Cohen (first-year) agreed. “I like that [being vegan] helps me to pay attention to even the mundane choices I make and how they affect the world,” he said. “It reminds me of the amount of responsibility I have to the world.”
If you feel like trying going vegan, you couldn’t have picked a better place to do so. Most of the vegans I interviewed had nothing but praise for California and its vegan options. “Living in California is like a paradise for vegans, there are so many delicious vegan restaurants all over,” Alison Reed (senior) said. “Recently I went to Maryland, though, and it was rough. I ate a lot of questionably vegan bagels.”
Although I don’t think I will go vegan for life, I do believe I will think a lot more about the food I put in my mouth and possibly even eat vegan a few days out of the week. It made me feel special, included in a club that only a select few had the dedication to become part of. (After all, when else will I have something in common with Pamela Anderson?) When I met another vegan, I couldn’t help but feel like we were bonded in some way. It made me feel good that no animals were being killed or kept in cages for their entire lives to make my taste buds happy. But most of all, I adored those ginger cookies. Damn, those things rocked my world.
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