Lessons learned from two years of veganism

As of today, I have been vegan for two years, so it seems to be a good time to reflect on my experiences and recall what I have learned.

While veganism isn’t entirely about food, much of the time I spend thinking about veganism is devoted to food, so I’ll start with that. To the uninitiated, it would appear that veganism is a limitation — after all, it is perhaps most commonly described by what one cannot (or should not) do. In fact, this appearance is highly illusory and misleading. Immediately after becoming vegan, I started looking out for all sorts of new foods that seemed interesting. Admittedly, some of them were not worth trying again. (Bitter gourds, for example, should probably not be tried a second time, but I am glad I was willing to try them once at least.) However, some of them, including okra, horchata, cherimoyas, and pineapple guavas, were delightful and have become favorites of mine. Even more importantly, I had persimmons for the first time since I was a little kid, and I fail to understand why I neglected this favorite food for so many years. Okay, that’s a lie. I don’t really fail to understand: I know that I was used to a certain very limited way of eating, and I never thought to break out of it. I must credit veganism for giving me the impetus to learn more about what foods exist.

It isn’t really that my ideas about what food is and what meals are have changed since becoming vegan. Rather, my ideas about them before at least becoming vegetarian in 2006 were almost entirely nonexistent. Certainly I liked to eat, but I don’t think I was terribly concerned about what I ate, within reason. But it’s much more natural for one to think about food as a vegan, or, more generally, when one has to give some thought to what is edible and what is not. Actually, now I think about what food is much less than I did when I was just getting started, since I have become accustomed to my relatively new lifestyle. Animal products are simply not food to me. If someone tells me that something contains eggs, ey might as well have said that it contains cyanide as far as my processing goes: it’s something other than food, and I have absolutely no desire to eat it.

More interesting than what isn’t food is what is. I eat a lot of Indian food. Perennial favorites include lemon rice (of which I make a large batch most weekends), channa masala, dal palak, bhindi masala, and palak “paneer” (with tofu instead of cheese). They’re all easy to make and make the house smell wonderful! And, of course, they taste fantastic. There are many other foods I eat, but Indian food has become my main go-to food when I am not feeling terribly inspired. Thus, the quality of food I eat now is consistently much higher than what I have eaten at any previous point in my life. It helps that I have learned how to cook and can therefore eat exactly what I want.

Veganism has also forced me to learn about nutrition. I might not be all that interested in the subject, but it is important to know a bit. Vegans must know enough to ignore the “advice” of the shockingly large class of people who become nutrition experts as soon as they find out someone is vegan. One will (probably) not keel over dead in a few months after becoming vegan, as many omnivores would have us believe. Neither does one need to combine proteins, or even pay more attention to getting various nutrients, Vitamin B12 excepted, than do nonvegans. However, since few people, vegan or otherwise, really get all the nutrients we ought to from our foods, taking a daily multivitamin is advisable for everyone. Of course, everyone, vegan or not, would do well to have a certain rudimentary knowledge of nutrition, but for me, being vegan encouraged me to learn what I need to know on the subject.

I have also become much better at standing up for myself. I get a lot of practice, since there are lots of people who want to challenge me. I have therefore become at least a bit better at talking convincingly, and thus probably also at teaching. I have also learned that I never need to feel guilty for being myself rather than pretending to be someone else. I would, however, like to become a bit better at providing people with information perceived to be of negative utility. If you have any suggestions for how this can be done effectively, please let me know!

Similarly, I’ve become much more courageous. I was never really the sort of person who would mindlessly accept the conventions of society, but I’m much less scared to diverge from normalcy now that I have seen in practical terms that it can be done fairly easily and without detrimental consequences. I think it’s important to challenge the stupidity of society whenever one encounters it, since it is unlikely that the world will ever improve if people do not first make steps to modify their own beliefs and behaviors first. Also, other people are likely to re-evaluate their previously unconsidered beliefs and behaviors upon encountering a relatively clear-thinking person who has already thought about these things very carefully and come to conclusions not generally endorsed by society.

I have, I believe, also learned how to be a good host. Almost any vegan knows how nice it is when we are invited to dinner by someone who makes an effort to cater to our needs. We also know how unpleasant it is not to be considered seriously. Therefore, I am always more than willing to cater to any dietary restrictions that any guest of mine has. I like to do this by asking two questions: 1) What do you not eat? 2) How tolerant are you of spicy food? It is my opinion that the job of a host is to make guests feel comfortable, and one is unlikely to feel comfortable if the meal is unappealing to em. Thus, I try to make sure that this will not be the case. Further dietary restrictions on top of mine rarely pose difficulties: There are so many delicious foods out there that it is almost unfathomable that a few people could fail to find common ground for a single meal.

Of course, being vegan gives me the same great benefits as it gives almost every other vegan. Most important to me is the knowledge that I am not needlessly killing or torturing sentient beings for fun. (I do not like to derive pleasure from the suffering of others.) But also important is that I am eating much more efficiently, using far less grain and water to produce my food, thus doing my part to help the 1.5 billion people around the world who are on the brink of starvation and simultaneously causing much less damage to the planet. Also, my health thanks me and is likely to continue doing so for many decades to come.

While veganism may be, by definition, a refusal to participate in the exploitation of animals, it has taught me so many lessons beyond that. I see it as fitting into a larger paradigm, one of standing up to injustice and apathy, and of living in a way that is truly consistent with the person I wish to be, to the best of my ability. I may have learned some of these lessons eventually anyway, but they came so naturally as a result of making conscious decisions about what I eat. In these two years, veganism has played an overwhelmingly positive role in my life, and I look forward to many exciting new lessons it will teach me in the future.


About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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6 Responses to Lessons learned from two years of veganism

  1. sthira_sukha says:

    I remember learning that you had become vegan via your LJ at least a year ago and being happy for you; it’s so nice to see someone very intelligent be so thoughtful and convicted. We need more smart vegans. I’m very happy veganism has worked out for you and appreciate your contemplative anniversary post.
    I have been vegan for most intents and purposes for more than four years. I qualify this due to rarely eating things that contain honey, having a wool coat and a couple wool-blend sweaters, and reluctantly supporting some biomedical animal testing. The wool apparel is what I feel especially guilty and hypocritical about.
    Unfortunately, I feel veganism hasn’t been so positive for me. In the abstract, my philosophy and feelings mirror much of your own, but in reality my history of eating disorders and neurotic, immature behavior and the various oppressions that mainstream groups like PETA indulge in and the tendentious falsehoods sometimes spread about, say, animal research have adulterated the concept for me.
    My trouble with eating disorders really started nearly two years after becoming vegan after I was sexually violated by someone I trusted though I’m sure I was prone to ED behavior all my life. While I’m also sure my psychiatric problems seep into all facets in my life, and veganism certainly can complicate recovery–it can be harder to eat food, or balanced, satisfying meals, out with people, vegan junk food and baked goods have a sort of novelty that makes them more appealing than widely available SAD confectionaries–it wasn’t a primary factor in my ED or dissimulation for it, as it is for some people. (I wish I hadn’t gotten into the Fat Free Vegan blog and been introduced to the Eat-2-Live diet, though.) I resent the diet part of veganism being highlighted and personal gain via weight loss with potential its fat-shaming and sexist implications being conflated with an anti-oppression movement. Because veganism is so inextricably intertwined with eating disorders in some people’s minds, with my history it feels awkward to publicly advocate, not to mention the fact that depression and psychiatric problems indelibly mar my past–I have trouble visiting the city that I once inhabited, driving near the uni from which I dropped out of grad school, the places where my friends who deserted me (and v.v.) live, where all my doctors were. I avoid previous interests, like yoga, and hanging out with people, past hobbies and habits, in which I engaged while my latest psychiatric debacle was nascent, and as my freakiness tinged my veganism, it seems only natural not to advertise. As I don’t drive myself anymore, I also feel guilty for making my parents take me to the grocery store and occasionally buy me pricier vegan convenience food. With my seizure disorder (luckily I generally haven’t felt the need to avoid using the stove though) and severe depression (really severe), my kitchen is also a mess, which severely hinders my cooking. (I infrequently eat commericial wheat bread that contains honey, e.g., occasionally putting tofurky on a plain veggie delight Subway wheat sub. It’s much easier on me ED-wise to eat wheat than white bread, I need the convenience, and while honey is sort of “gross,” I am not dogmatic about avoiding insect products, as to my mind right now it just really
    hypostatizes the pathetic fallacy, as offensive as that is (sorry)–and I don’t want to restrict my food without good reason.) Being reliant on my parents as much as I am now, I have also visited Walmart with them infrequently, which I hadn’t done in three years, and used some toiletries made with (flagrant) animal testing.

  2. sthira_sukha says:

    Additionally, the more I have learned about anti-oppression movements and the concept of privilege over the past few years, the more I have come to disrespect PETA, which has commodified oppression against women, people of color, Jewish people, trans-people, and probably every minority group, along with promoting some policies I do not feel are vegan (“euthanizing” shelter animals, promulgated though the fact is by the CCF; espousing Singer as the father of animal rights, whom from what I know I sort of despise; cronyism in supporting humane slaughter methods that animal agriculture industries would have incorporated anyway due to finances and lauding KFC for adopting CAK, etc.), in their attempts espouse ethical vegetarianism, or rather to line their coffers, as well-intentioned as some of its members are. I am almost more incensed at PETA than actual abbatoir corporate boards now! And although I know many vegans do not support PETA and are active in other movements, I am very reluctant to be associated with the face of AR in the eyes of many non-vegans and almost feel guilty for it.
    Something that would put me at odds with pretty much every other AR organization and activist, though, is my belief that animal research is a fraught issue, and while the exploitation of the animals mirrors that of other patriarchal oppressions, and I am sure some egregious abuses slip past IRBs, I do think some biomedical testing is necessary in current research and the reduce/refine/replace methodology is more practical than abolition at this point. I am a student of biochemistry and am interested in medicinal chemistry, so I feel guilty about, again, being associated with ARA who violently oppose animal research and some of the statements about animal testing and alternatives that I see repeated by ARA and others that lack substantiation. Confirmation bias is a strong force, one to which I am definitely susceptible, along with everyone else; it’s all too easy to avoid an uncomfortable ambiguity, cognitive dissonance, at all costs. I suppose I’m a deep skeptic at heart. The death of Dr. Tiller and the complicity of the media really hit home for me this year, and I also feel that even with, say, Honeybaked-Ham protesters being targeted by the FBI and the AETA, one cannot support violent actions by the ALF against researchers just because they are our own and no one has died yet. At the very least, animal rights advocates need to honestly confront the science behind the research and avoid letting passion obscure “sensibility” or incite incendiary actions, although I guess this is a really glib interpretation. It’s odd that I can oppose “humane slaughter” but let animal testing slide to a degree…I suppose my ethical theory is informed by not only animal rights but also animal welfare and what I would deem ethics of care. It’s sad that this sentiment aligns me with the People Eating Tasty Animals contingent, though.
    This all is not to say that I will start eating animal products or wearing leather–I’ve moved from a metropolitan area to a more rural area where it is more difficult to eat the convenience foods I used to eat or find like minds, but I’ve spent so many years eating vegan and find it such a lynchpin of my personal value system that it’s not hard to continue–but that it’s nothing I brag about. Perhaps if I were less depressed I would feel prouder of it, but at least my sour opinion precludes me from engaging in sanctimony as much. Anyway, thank you very much for reading and giving me an opportunity for catharsis. I appreciate it.

    • Simon says:

      Wow, you said a lot! I’ll try to respond to as much of it as I can.
      I also find that when I am going through periods of depression, I am not so happy about veganism. It’s sufficiently ingrained in my understanding of who I am that I’m not going to stop being vegan or come particularly near to doing so, but when I am less positive about life in general, I’m also not likely to be positive about veganism either.
      I have to admit that I know very little about veganism and eating disorders. But of all the reasons I can think of for why someone might go veganism, an eating disorder is the only one I really don’t want to see. I suppose most of the fat-shaming in the vegan community comes from Skinny Bitch (a book I have not read and do not intend to) and various PETA advertisements (and I’m sufficiently culturally illiterate that I do not hear about these until people complain about them on online vegan fora). I’m glad to see that you have elected not to emphasize your veganism when you cannot be entirely positive about it.
      At some point, I imagine I’ll write an essay on my (admittedly limited) impressions of PETA, but here’s a summary of my thoughts about them. It seems that everyone else in the vegan community hates them, but maybe I see things a bit differently. First of all, I don’t like much of what they do; a lot of their programs seem ineffective and designed to offend people more than to accomplish anything. (I absolutely do not think that offending people is a bad thing to do as a general principle, but when one is offending people for the wrong reason, that doesn’t seem likely to be terribly helpful. It has to be carefully calculated.) However, they’re an organization that is trying to do exactly one thing, at any cost. While individual members of PETA probably care about other things, as an organization, they have agreed to deal with animal issues at the exclusion of everything else. The way they go about doing it is a bit weird, but it must work better than anything else anyone knows how to do. One striking way to measure their success is to note that for most people, the only thing they know about AR is what they have been told by PETA.
      Furthermore, many vegans (possibly including me, but I didn’t know enough back then to notice) became vegans at least in a large part due to a PETA program. So, why should we turn around and hate them once we have crossed the line into veganhood? Surely there are other people out there who can benefit and learn in the same way we did. If we destroy that, all we’ll accomplish is to leave a large hole where PETA was in the AR community. Unless someone else who has better ideas than Newkirk, et. al., steps up to take PETA’s place, all we will have done by that is to throw out the largest and most influential organization that is even remotely close to our side. (On the other hand, while I am glad that PETA exists, I may be reluctant to admit this to nonvegans, at least without a lengthy explanation!)

    • Simon says:

      I find that medical testing is a much more complex issue than food, clothing, and cosmetic testing. On the latter three, I do not believe that an intelligent person can make a thorough analysis of the facts available and come out thinking that using animal products for food or clothing, or using animals for cosmetic testing is a rational thing to do. (This is why I say that veganism is the only logical consequence of an increase in knowledge. People don’t believe me, but I completely agree with this statement.) On the subject of medical testing, however, I do believe that rational people can come to different conclusions. In this case, there is a tradeoff. These tests are sometimes (if rarely) effective, and they do help to save human lives. So, there is some potential benefit to us of performing medical experiments on animals. We must weigh that against the obvious downside of causing a lot of harm to animals. How much harm to animals is equivalent to saving a certain number of human lives? I am not prepared to answer that question. However, I would like to point out that society feels that performing wildly speculative medical tests on humans with the goal of curing other human diseases is unacceptable. Is society right? I have no idea. But if it is, we need to give a lot of thought to exactly why human testing is unacceptable, but animal testing is. Again, I propose no answers to these questions. It’s much easier to stick to food, clothing, and cosmetic testing, for which the arguments are so overwhelmingly one-sided.
      Regarding the ALF and illegal activities, I think I agree with you. The last thing veganism needs is more bad press. We get enough of it every time the meat industry manages to find some idiot who by some unfortunate accident happens to be vegan and who does something suitably stupid and manages to blow it completely out of proportion, with the thinly veiled threat “Look at what will happen to you if you stop eating meat/dairy/eggs/whatever.” Similarly, we don’t need people who are going to blow up buildings or otherwise vandalize property, even if no people are harmed in the process. And, while I do not advocate doing illegal things, from an activist’s perspective, probably the most intelligent illegal thing to do if one wants to promote veganism is to steal meat from grocery stores: stores presumably keep track of how many of each item is stolen, and it would be nice if they considered selling meat to be a potential money-loser, or else raises the price to compensate. (If the price of meat were to triple, while vegan foods remained at the same price, I would be delighted! How many more people would understand the ethical arguments if their bank accounts could also feel the discomfort of buying meat?)
      Okay, that was way longer than I intended it to be! I hope you don’t mind.

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