Foodprints for the Future

How to go vegan: 5 lessons from a meat-eating Midwesterner

In the environmental field, we’re constantly trying to reduce our carbon footprints: reusable bags, public transportation, less flights. But the most impactful individual step we can take for the planet doesn’t start with any of these. It starts with what we eat.

Animal agriculture accounts for at least 15 percent of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, much of which is due to land use, deforestation and natural resource depletion. Animal agriculture is also the single largest emitter of methane, a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent over a 100-year period than carbon dioxide.

So, if we’re trying to slow climate change, it makes sense to change our diets, right? Especially since it’s such an easy solution. We’re not talking about building offshore wind farms or restructuring a national power grid — we’re talking about eating less meat and dairy.  

I know what you’re thinking: “I’m happy to be a steward for the environment, but I draw the line at people telling me what to eat.” I get it. Meat tastes phenomenal. And so does cheese. Up until about six weeks ago, I lived for this stuff, relying on several uninspiring foods on repeat: frozen pizzas, chicken tenders, burgers, takeout.

That’s why my boss challenged me to go vegan for a week, and then write about it. If I could go vegan —with my processed, frozen and carnivorous appetite — then anyone could. Six weeks later, I’m more surprised than anyone that my diet is still fully plant based.

Here’s why I stuck to this diet and what I’ve learned on this brief, but ongoing journey to swap out meat and dairy:

1. It’s not all or nothing

What’s your culinary kryptonite? For some people it’s eggs. For others, it’s bacon. Bring up veganism, and you’ll often evoke passionate retorts, like, “I could never do that. I LOVE cheese.” But our diets don’t have to be all-or-nothing decisions.

One of my friends has been vegan for 4 years, but for her first year, she made exceptions for pizza to ease the transition. Another friend says the success to a plant-based diet is cheating occasionally.

American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, in his latest book, We Are the Weather, wrestles with his own meat consumption and his personal guilt — both environmental and moral— associated with eating animals. He ultimately argues for a plant-based breakfast and lunch.

No matter, a vegan diet doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing affair. You may go to a restaurant or attend a party with few to no vegan options. You may go to Texas with a hankering for some brisket or travel to Maine with a lust for lobster (or some of New England’s wicked good chowder). Why not embrace the culture? No one’s keeping tally on what you eat and don’t eat.

2. Start with simple swaps

In the last month and a half, I’ve embraced plant-based substitutions that I previously didn’t even know existed. And many times, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to make some simple swaps.

I think that butter made from olive oil pretty much tastes the same as traditional butter. Same with milk and cream alternatives, like oat, almond, soy and coconut. So, if you drink coffee with cream and eat cereal with milk every morning, you can go completely plant based without compromising taste and, in most cases, price.

I’ve never really liked eggs, but I have made a lot scrambled tofu with nutritional yeast (another thing I didn’t know existed a month ago), and it tastes great. We can go down a rabbit hole of meat alternatives — and trust me, there are a lot — but you get the point: Once you start picking up plant-based options, you’d be amazed how easy it is to start making easy switches. Try it next time you’re in the grocery store.

3. You need culinary creativity

The biggest jump I’ve made in the last six weeks has been my embrace of cooking. Six weeks ago, my culinary skills started and ended with making pasta and tomato sauce (the store-bought kind). In other words, my kitchen skills were boiling water. There was nowhere to go but up.

To go straight plant based took some creativity, some cookbooks and the Internet. No longer reliant on my previous processed, microwavable fare, a plant-based diet also forced me to learn how to use my kitchen.

I bought my first blender and my first set of knives (and soon after, got my first cutting injury). I bought way more produce than I’ve ever had in my life and pretty much an entire spice rack’s worth of seasonings to accent said produce.

I also learned some important lessons along the way:

  • Chickpeas and garbanzo beans are the same thing (and apparently you can make vegan mayonnaise with the leftover bean water?)
  • Some breads have eggs in them
  • Honey may not be vegan (that didn’t stop me from drinking my favorite hometown Christmas ale)
  • But dark chocolate is
  • Food processors and blenders are different (my chunky hummus can attest to that)
  • So are strainers and steamers (I burnt a hole in my plastic colander trying to steam a potato in it)

What I’m saying is that the whole cooking concept was brand new to me. But going plant based showed me that I kind of like it. I like the therapeutic aspect of cooking. I like the feeling of knowing exactly what goes into my food. And at the very least, I like catching up on podcasts as I make these dishes. Food for the body and the mind.

4. There’s a community out there

I started this plant-based experiment several weeks before Thanksgiving. Coming from a very Polish (read: kielbasas and pierogi) and Midwestern (read: cheese) family, I was nervous about staying vegan over the holidays. But when I went home, my family was supportive, and my plant-based diet even allowed for some constructive conversations about the carbon footprint of animal agriculture.

I was also surprised how many people I knew were vegan but didn’t openly talk about it (putting to rest for me the “preachy vegan” stereotype). I was fortunate to rely on these people for advice, especially early on. The first month I made recipes given to me from friends, family, coworkers, even an ex-girlfriend.

As cooking and eating are naturally communal experiences, you might think going against the norm would be isolating. Instead, I’ve come to be more social with this diet. A couple vegan coworkers invited me over for dinner, something I hope to do again soon, and I’ve had weekly movie and vegan nights with a friend.

At the same time, I’ve read a lot. I’ve made veganism a hobby just as much as a habit, reading books, watching documentaries and overall learning more about a diet I never really considered. Learning other people’s plant-based stories — in a book, on TV, in a documentary — feels like its own kind of support.

Every time, I’m craving meat or dairy — which though less than expected, is still not an insignificant amount— I tell myself, I need to read this book first, or watch this documentary. It buys me some time while keeping me plant based.

5. Why I’m still vegan

I wasn’t going to go vegan for more than a week — and by the time you read this, I may not be vegan anymore — but the more I’ve learned about the animal agriculture industry, the more I’m uninterested in going back to meat and dairy.

If I do return to a more relaxed vegan diet, I don’t really see myself eating much meat again, if ever. I can’t justify knowing what I know about climate change and continue to eat animal products every day. And I also can’t justify the greenhouse gases from animal agriculture simply because animals taste good.

The impacts of animal agriculture are so undeniable that even an international body of scientists advocated for plant-based diets as they released a landmark report on agriculture and climate change earlier this year.  

Aside from the climate change aspect though, there’s the moral argument (factory farming), the lifestyle argument (I don’t really get that sleepy post-lunch feeling anymore) and the health argument —individual nutrition needs get tricky, but I think many of us would agree that eating a plant-based diet certainly isn’t bad for you.

It also doesn’t hurt that veganism is trending upward now. According to GlobalData, U.S. consumers who identified as vegan grew from 1 percent to 6 percent between 2014 and 2017, a 600 percent increase. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers are cashing in on this trend, bringing meat alternative to supermarkets and restaurants across the country. Not only is going plant based hipper than ever before; it’s easier than ever before, too.

But it’s still tough

Nonetheless, I can’t say that this transition is simple for me. As I write this, I’m craving a pizza — the greasy, extra cheese and meat lover’s kind. These cravings probably won’t go away anytime soon, and I know I’ll go to a restaurant soon and non-vegan options will inevitably tempt me.

This should be expected. I’ve eaten animal products my whole life. I like hot dogs at ballgames, burgers and brats at family barbeques and ham, turkey and kielbasa over the holidays. I like wine and cheese nights, and I like pizza and beer days.

But now I know more about the environmental impact of meat more than I ever had before. I also know that I’m capable of a plant-based diet for more than a blip on the calendar — though I still have a long way to go. At the very least, veganism will never again be intimidating or out of reach for me.

Transitioning to a plant-based diet can be viewed as a sacrifice, or it can be viewed as simply a change. And we’ll need a lot of changes to tackle global warming, the biggest threat humanity has ever seen.  I’ll struggle with this diet, and I’ll surely cave a lot, but I’m trying my best given what I know about our planet’s predicament.

If I can go plant based — someone who previously had never used a kitchen appliance more complicated than a can opener — so can you. Or just try it for a week. And then maybe six weeks. Who knows? You might have fun, all while doing your small part to save the planet.

For more plant-based tips, check out Earth Day Network’s campaign Foodprints for the Future. There you can learn more about how Earth Day Network is working to a build a future where everyone has access to low-impact, healthy food that’s good for us and for the Earth.