To a Potential Vegan in Saudi Arabia

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Last week, I got an e-mail from a reader from Saudi Arabia:

I am not a vegetarian or vegan but I have played with the idea for some time. I admire people who are able to give up meat and stick to it. I consider myself the healthiest junk food eater ever. I take my vitamins, make my smoothies and I enjoy almonds and almond milk, fresh veggies, grains and herbs are easy to come by here (I live in Saudia Arabia) but I have a weakness for some meats and sweets. Where do newbies begin? Do I have to change my entire life? The soaps, lotions, detergent? My husband no longer eats meat for health reasons. I have read your introduction and a few posts keep up the good work.

I can answer some of these questions, but before I do, let me ask any readers from Saudi Arabia to chime in and offer some region-specific advice in terms of restaurants, AR groups, etc.

Now, let me start with what I see to be the key question here, one that I sums up the trepedation a lot of people have about going veg: “Do I have to change my entire life?” The answer, in short, is yes. For the change to be meaningful and lasting, I think going veg does have to feel like a life-changing experience.

However.

The problem isn’t changing your life. If you spend your entire day kicking babies and one day you decide to stop, that’s a life-changing event, but it’s not one that should feel like deprivation. It’s a change in your life that’s positive, one that that you can embrace and feel good about. And that’s what going veg should be. If you focus on all of the things that you’re “giving up,” it’s going to feel like a sacrifice, like you’re missing out on something. What you’re doing is making a declaration about what it is and isn’t OK to eat, wear, and use. One thing I’ve noticed is that meat is no longer a food to me. I would no sooner eat a piece of chicken off of someone’s plate than I would eat their napkin. It’s just not food.

That said, do I think you need to go vegan all at once? It depends on the type of person you are. I think some people can only get to their end goal if they go from 0 to 60. If you can do it, it’s the best way to go. It ends the suffering now, no waiting.

But I know that if I had tried to go vegan when I first stopped eating meat, I think I would have given it up quickly and gone back, defeated, to my omnivorous ways. Why? Because I was a dummy and had no clue what I was doing. In time I learned, and once I did, I realized how important it was to go vegan, and that allowed me to make the change one that will stick for the rest of my life.

I realize that may not be a popular response, and I’m not fully happy with it, but I’d much rather see someone go vegan after being vegetarian for a few months than someone who jumps into veganism unprepared and then gives up and becomes one of those annoying “ex-vegans.” (That said, please don’t label me as in favor of anything that could be labeled an “incremental” step — for example, I don’t think free-range/cage-free/grass-fed/etc. does any good whatsoever in promoting veganism.)

Educate yourself. Learn about why it’s important to stop using animal products in your cosmetics and toiletries. Learn about how eggs and dairy not only inflict the most terrible of suffering but also directly result in the death of baby animals. Learn about new foods, nutrition, and cooking techniques. Immerse yourself from the start and it will become second nature before you know it.

I think you’re off to a good start. It sounds like you’re making food choices that are easy for you — the grains, herbs, vegetables, nuts and seeds, etc. that are part of your diet anyway. Plus, with a spouse that’s vegetarian, you have support from your partner which a lot of people don’t have when they decide to make a change like this. Find some support locally and online to keep you and your spouse from feeling like you’re alone. You can do it. Rah rah.

Tips for New Vegans: Dealing With Ex-Vegans

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(Sorry for the haphazard posting this week… it turned out to be a busier one than I expected. I’ll continue the series through the weekend.)

Veg Blog reader Charles sent this question:

I’m a fairly new vegan. I’m sure other new vegetarians or vegans are likely to encounter long time vegetarians who went back to eating meat “for health reasons.” They realize, sometimes after 10 or more years, that they are not getting enough protein or iron or whatever.

As a new vegan, I have no response to them because I figure they’ve been a vegetarian (for many years). Who am I – a new vegan – to question their conclusion?

How do new vegans handle ex-vegans who think the vegan diet is unhealthy?

This is an interesting question and I’m curious what other readers have to say about it. Here’s my take on it.

Whenever I hear from an ex-vegan or vegetarian, my gut reaction is probably a bit judgemental. After all, maybe there are some legitimate health reasons that certain people need to go back to meat, fish, dairy, or eggs. I’m not a nutritionist, so how would I know for sure?

But here’s the thing: most of the ex’s I’ve encountered that stopped being veg for health reasons were told to do so by their primary care physician. We all know that doctors don’t receive adequate nutrition educaton* (I’ve gotten the “how do you get your protein?” question from doctors a few too many times, myself), so I don’t know that I’d necessarily take their advice without consulting a knowledgeable nutritionist first.

If you’re comfortable enough in the situation, probe the ex-veg for more information. If they say they had to start eating meat again for the protein, ask them how much protein they need to eat in a day (the average man only needs 55-60 grams a day). I’m willing to bet that most don’t know. Then point out that it’s really easy to get enough protein if you’re eating a diet with varied beans, nuts whole grains, etc. When my wife was pregnant, she regularly got 80-90 grams of protein a day.

If iron is their thing, ask them about supplementing, fortified foods, or whether they tried eating iron rich foods with vitamin C (while avoiding tea and coffee) to increase absorption.

The point is, in most cases it’s not a lack of meat that’s the problem, but a lack of nutrients or a poorly planned diet. Look at Donald Watson. Dude was a vegan before there was even the word “vegan.” (Literally. He invented it.) Watson died in 2005 at 95 years old. If you can find some interviews he did in the last few years, you’ll be amazed at how sharp and insightful he was, right up until the end. In the last decade of his life, he “climbed many of the major peaks of the Lake District” in northwest England. If someone can be vegan for over 60 years, most of it during a time when there were no vegan convenience foods and less was known about vegan nutrition, I find it very hard to believe that a vegan diet can rationally be considered “unhealthy.”

Of course, this only handles the reasons behind health-related switches back to the dark side. How to handle this in a socially acceptible manner is a whole ‘nother problem. As with any time you’re trying to make a point that may be taken as a criticism, it’s all in the tone of your voice and how you present yourself. Gently try and get them to open up about not only why they started eating meat again, but whether it bothers them that they had to do so. Ask them whether they would give up meat/dairy/eggs again if they could do so without risking their health. Perhaps they’ll say yes, particularly if they were veg for ethical reasons. At this point, let it go.

Give it a few hours or a day and do a little research online. Then, drop them an e-mail saying, “I was thinking about our conversation earlier and came across a few articles that you might want to check out…” Enlist the help of the PCRM or a vegan forum. Get the idea in their head that, hey, maybe being veg again is possible.

Who I find really difficult to deal with are militant ex-vegans. They are far worse than any so called “militant vegans” I’ve ever met. These are the people who feel they have the experience and, therefore, the right to disparage veganism or vegetarianism because they “used to be one of those.” I don’t know about you, but I can never imagine giving up veganism and I can’t imagine any truly committed vegan ever going back to animal products and disparaging their former lifestyle at the same time. These militant ex-vegans with a chip on their shoulder may not be worth engaging in an argument. Let them blow off their steam and, in turn, look like blowhards to everyone else. Lead by example and just leave them with a simple phrase like, “Huh. That’s weird. I’ve always thought it’s pretty easy/healthy/fun being vegan.” There aren’t many ways they can come back against that without sounding like a fool.

To summarize… for those that are regretfully ex-veg: discuss, question, research, inform. For antagonistic ex-vegans: don’t get dragged into arguments. They’re not worth the trouble.

* Did I really just link to an article by the California Table Grape Commission as a source? Yikes. How about this one instead.

Tips for New Vegans: Restaurants

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Welcome to “Tips for New Vegans” week. For the remainder of the week, I’m going to feature tips on being vegan for the new convert. After the week is done, I’ll continue with occasional postings, as driven by your questions. Just submit ’em over here.

One of the trickiest things for new vegans is eating at restaurants. This isn’t particularly true when you’re the one choosing the restaurant, but it gets more difficult when, say, you’re out for lunch with co-workers at Sweetwater Tavern, where a friend once told me “the only thing vegan there is the napkins.” So, here are a few tips on dealing with these outings:

  • E-mail or call ahead: Even after being veggie for over six years, I still don’t like to pepper the waiter with questions before ordering, particularly when I’m with a group of people who may not be sympathetic. If you have enough warning, visit the restaurant’s web site. See if they have a list of ingredients, mention preparation techniques, or even list specifically what’s vegan. If not, drop them an e-mail or give them a call. You’re pretty anonymous this way, so it’s even a good way for introverts to deal with it. Before my company’s holiday party this past year, I e-mailed the catering company and asked about obtaining a strict vegetarian meal since none were offered. The head chef got back to me and let me know I was covered. What resulted was, by far, the best catered meal I’ve ever had. The downside with this technique, particuarly with e-mailing, is that it’s really hit-or-miss with the restuarants. I’ve found that a lot don’t even bother replying, which is frustrating. But at least you’re no further behind than if you didn’t try.
  • Go with the safe bet: If you find yourself at a restaurant and are feeling the pressure, you can almost always ask for a salad with no cheese and oil and vinegar dressing. Sure, it’s kind of lame, but it’ll hold you over and you can always grab something a little later. The main thing here is to keep a good attitude about it. If you make yourself feel like you’re sacrificing something, you’re probably forgetting why you went vegan in the first place. Veganism’s not about sacrifice, it’s about doing what you know is right.
  • Ask the chef to prepare you something: This is one that’s always recommended in “going vegan”-type books. “The chef will like the challenge!” the books promise. Honestly, I have a feeling this isn’t so true. While it may be true in certain types of restaurants, I suspect it generally leaves chefs grumbling under their breath. However, as long as you’re not asking them for the world, most are perfectly fine with making minor alterations to existing dishes.
  • Know what to watch for. This kind of goes with the last one, so you know what to ask them to leave out. For instance, in Thai restaurants, you always want to be sure to specify “no fish sauce” since curries and even the dishes labeled “vegetarian” will often use it. In Indian restaurants, ask if they can make your meal using oil instead of ghee. And if you’re in a Hungarian restaurant… um, just run. Everything’s probably made with lard.
  • Eat ahead: Jenna over at Vegan Freak Radio has mentioned this a few times on their show. It’s interesting, because I never really thought about this option much. But, yeah, if you eat ahead (and no one needs to know), you can order something light and not walk away hungry or feeling deprived. While I haven’t tried this option often when eating out, I often do it when there are catered lunches in the office. I’ll eat ahead and then just hang out with everyone else afterwards while having a drink. No one ever seems to pay any attention to the fact I don’t have food.
  • Bring a hibachi and cook up some tofu while everyone else orders. Just kidding. Bring tempeh instead.

Initially, eating at restaurants can feel like a hassle, wondering if that really is non-dairy margarine on your bread or if it’s butter. Or worrying that they’ve cooked your pasta-that-might-have-been-made-with-eggs in chicken broth instead of water or veggie broth. But I promise you that with time, it gets much, much easier. These days, it’s almost never an issue. I either make sure not to put myself in uncomfortable situations to begin with or take responsibility for myself and make sure I have something to eat if things don’t work out.

Tips for Beginning Vegans: Label Reading

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Reading labels can be one of the most daunting tasks for new vegans.   If you’re lacto-ovo vegetarian, you need to watch out for obvious things like chicken broth, but it gets a little more complicated when you commit to avoiding all animal products.  However, I have a few tips that you can use to help decide whether or not a product is safe for you to eat.

  1. Check the cholesterol.  Get yourself into this habit to make life a little easier on yourself.  If the product has any cholesterol, even 1mg, then the product is not vegan.  Since cholesterol is not found in any plant-based products, this means there is some sort of animal-derived ingredient.  However, if it has no cholesterol, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s vegan.  It’s the whole rectangle-is-not-a-square thing.
  2. Check the allergy listings/bolded text. Most (all?) foods have at the end of their ingredient list, a list of common allergens in the food.  This includes milk, egg, soy, and wheat (those not allergic to soy or wheat obviously only need to look for milk and egg), however I’m not 100% sure that all companies list egg.  Some listings also boldface the common allergens in their ingredient list to make them stand out more.  If anything non-vegan is listed, go ahead and put it back on the shelf.  Again, though, just because it’s not listed doesn’t meant that it’s vegan.  This is separate from the “may contain traces of…” or “is processed on the same equipment as…” notices.  Some vegans may avoid these products to maintain personal purity, others may not since the traces left over from the manufacturing process don’t contribute to suffering or demand.
  3. Look for “big ticket” animal-derived ingredients.  These are the most common ones: vitamin D3 is rarely vegan while D2 always is, whey, honey, anything with lactose (though most other lac- ingredients are fine), and casein (a milk protein) finds its way into stupid things like soy cheese.  Be wary of items with “natural flavors” but “artificial flavors” are fine (it helps to contact the manufacturer about their sourcing for natural flavors).  Feel free to list other common ones I’ve left out in the comments.
  4. Look for the “little things”.  These are the ones that will trip even experienced vegans up sometimes or ones that require some questioning of yourself (ie. “Should I buy this bread that has possibly-animal-derived mono and diglycerides in the ‘2% or less’ part of the ingredients list?”).

Another good rule of thumb is to look for products with the fewest ingredients.  Not only does it mean that it’s likely less heavily processed, but it also makes reading the label easier.

Like anything, with time, reading labels becomes second nature.  Sometimes so much so you have to remind yourself to periodically check stuff that was formerly “safe” but all of a sudden now has the mysterious addition of something like whey.

The main thing I want to stress to new vegans is: don’t beat yourself up over mistakes, even big ones.  Accept that at some point, you’re going to unknowingly ingest an animal product.  This doesn’t mean you should throw your hands up and say, “Then screw it!  I’m not bothering at all if I can’t be perfect!”  Instead, just use the mistakes you make as a chance to learn and remind yourself of exactly how non-vegan of a world we live in.  You’ll know for next time.