Vegetarian_slides4_Sydney_HassIllustrated by Sydney Hass.
I’ve never been a “diet person.” I’ve never considered myself much of a “[fill-in-the-blank] person” at all; my high school yearbook quote, from my (hardcore punk) idol, Henry Rollins, read as follows: “I believe that one defines oneself by reinvention.”
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Even though that teenage angst has (mostly) abated, I still like to think I define myself not by subscribing to a certain label or way of life, but with a more mix-and-match, DIY approach. Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized I was gradually, but definitely, becoming a vegan.
Before I knew anything about it, veganism had seemed like an utter impossibility — a lifestyle reserved for hippies, UVM grads, and no-fun, hardcore straight-edgers. But, about a year ago, I knew that something was up with my physical body. I felt sluggish, even though my muscles were strong from practicing yoga regularly. I was exhausted, even after nine hours of sleep. My skin broke out in stubborn, red bumps on my forehead and cheeks. And, I was experiencing excruciating bouts of acid reflux.
Then, I threw up after eating a hamburger. It’s true that the culprit here was likely the extra whiskey-ginger I had chased it with — but, the unpleasant experience was the jolt I needed to wean myself off meat. I realized I had never paid as much attention to my body as I did to my emotional self, and it was time to amend that.
veganIllustrated by Sydney Hass.
First off the menu was red meat, which was easy; then came poultry, which wasn’t as difficult for my body as it was for my brain, since I then had to come up with a lot of new, healthy dinner options. Then, I ditched fish and seafood. And then, all of a sudden, I was a full-on, capital-V Vegetarian. My body felt better, for sure: no more mysterious fatigue, no more red bumps, and, to my unending relief, no more painful acid reflux. I felt like a lighter, cleaner, more vital version of myself.
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A few months later, while on vacation in Hawaii, I underwent a shocking, but actually sort of organic, realization: I could go vegan, probably. I wanted to go vegan. I wanted to feel the way I felt in Hawaii — energized. And, during each stage of my changing diet, as I gradually rid myself of animal products, I inched closer to that feeling. I felt happier and more comfortable within my own skin. Eating an increasingly plant-based diet had taught me a lot about myself and how I fit into the world. When I became more mindful about where my food came from, I no longer felt so much like a greedy cog in the machine.
But, I made sure becoming vegan was a process, not a hard-and-fast switch. Here’s what I learned: Veganism is only a scary-strict practice if you make it that way. If you’re easy on yourself, it’s easy — and that’s how I decided to approach it. Who says you can’t have a bite of a Levain cookie (most definitely made with eggs and butter) when your roommate lovingly brings one home? Who says you can’t put some milk in your coffee when Starbucks is out of soy?
Vegetarian_slides2_Sydney_HassIllustrated by Sydney Hass.
And, so evolved my Cheating Vegan Diet: my own version of veganism — spurred mostly by my inability to not eat cake with buttercream frosting. I maintain a vegan diet 99% of the time, composing my meals and snacks of clean, unprocessed foods. Mostly, that means trying not to put anything into my body that involves ingredients that a) come from creatures with faces and/or b) have names I can’t pronounce.
However — and it’s a big, meaningful however — I don’t beat myself (or the chef) up when someone forgets to hold the Parmesan on my spaghetti pomodoro, or if my friend bakes a cake and insists I try a bite. That said, I only "cheat" when I know the pleasure will outweigh the guilt (isn’t that the essence of cheating?). So, I’m still going to join my family on our once-a-summer trip to the best little ice cream shack in Connecticut. And, if I’m lucky enough to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant, I’ll be fine with some dairy on my plate. But, my own kitchen is 100% vegan. And, at a friend’s rooftop barbecue, I’ll say “no thanks” to cheese on my veggie burger, and opt for fruit for dessert.
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Another thing that was really important to me when taking on veganism was ensuring that my personal dietary choices wouldn’t impose on the people around me. I’ll suggest a vegan restaurant for a meal out with close friends or family, but I won’t turn down a group-dinner invite at a restaurant with not-quite-vegan choices. There are almost always vegetarian options available at New York restaurants. I can deal with a little bit of cheese if it means not losing all my friends forever.
Vegetarian_slides3_Sydney_HassIllustrated by Sydney Hass.
Although I hadn’t initially chosen to go vegan for animal rights or environmental aid reasons (I’d set out to feel closer to the earth, but not necessarily to save it) I am becoming more aware of the ethics associated with an animal-free diet. Vegetarianism and veganism radically reduce our carbon footprints. And, animal testing is a horrifying and normalized practice. If I can, I'd like to avoid contributing to the worsening climate change. I don't want to inflict suffering on living creatures, either. But, like my diet, saving the world is a process: I’ve recently switched over to cruelty-free skin products, but it’s going to be hard to find a replacement for my beloved Clinique High Impact Mascara.
Just five months into my new diet, I’m already finding it easier, and preferable, to choose the vegan option. Our bodies — if we give them the love and care they need — can be remarkably adaptive. I’ve learned that “cutting down” doesn’t have to mean “cutting out.” So, I’ve accepted the practice of occasional non-vegan cheats, reserved for special circumstances. It’s a matter of weighing the shortness of life against the undeniable power of a green juice. Usually, I choose the greens — but sometimes, it’s worth it to cheat with a slice of Momofuku Crack Pie.