What is A Vegan?

This Saturday and Sunday I had the chance to interact with people who aren’t vegan and have no idea what a vegan is allowed to eat. What I was reminded of very forcefully is that most people stigmatize vegans as people who just eat vegetables.

Friday night, as I sat at Red Robin, my sister-in-law asked me, “So, can you have any treats?”. As I sat there with my plate of unexciting-looking hummus with roasted garlic and olive oil with veggies, I realized the food I was eating didn’t look that appealing and wasn’t helping my case.

Today, Sunday, after church, my friend Elizabeth asked me if I was allowed to eat dairy or eggs or even egg whites.

These two discussions helped me realize two things:

1. I am spoiled by my close circle of friends who are vegan or understand what a vegan can eat and that they don’t just eat vegetables.

2. Sometimes people hear the word “vegan” and have a perception of a militant person, don’t understand it’s a lifestyle choice, and, most importantly, don’t understand what we choose to and not to eat.

Not all vegans are militant people.

Not all vegans act or want to have that stigma of militancy associated with themselves. Some vegans choose to use the words “plant-strong” or “plant-based” to describe their lifestyles. Stating that you choose to eat a “plant-strong” diet doesn’t create the same picture in a person’s mind that the word “vegan” does. You will see this example of “plant-strong diet” used a lot in Rip Esselstyn’s book The Engine 2 Diet. He doesn’t use the word vegan a lot. I do believe putting the words “plant-strong” on the cover of his book has helped his book sell better because there’s no stigma attached to that phrase about trying to save animals or factory farming or other things that people tend to think of when they think of veganism. I don’t believe the book would sell as well if he put the word “vegan” on the cover.

Stating that you eat “plant-strong” gets you away from having to fight the stigma most vegans are faced with: the moral and ethical reasons for why we chose not to eat animals. It’s an easier and much softer approach to eat plant-strong but not have the moral stigma attached to you. If saying “plant-strong” gets you to eat plant-strong then I support that.

So there is a way to say choose a vegan lifestyle without ever stating you’re a vegan: say you eat plant-strong and you won’t get as many questions.

Why are you a vegan?

I get asked this question a lot. It’s almost like asking me, “Well, what’s the point of what you do?” I always answer that people are vegans for either dietary reasons, moral reasons or a combination of both. For me, being a vegan started with dietary reasons and the more I learned about veganism, the more I became a moral vegan concerned with animal rights. It’s been a journey that’s snowballed for me into an internship for Mercy For Animals, a non-profit organization that works to promote veganism and works towards humane treatment of animals on farms.

A dietary vegan will tell you they are vegan because they believe it helps their athletic training: perhaps they are looking for a lean body or perhaps they have some sort of condition like diabetes or high blood pressure and they’ve heard that eating plant-strong will help their condition. Whatever the reason, dietary vegans follow the lifestyle and may or may not stick with it. However, whatever their reasoning at the time, there are definite proven health benefits to being a vegan.

I started as a dietary vegan and my journey led me to become a moral vegan: I would rather be called vegan than plant-strong. I believe that it’s unhealthy for humans to consume animals and their byproducts (the dietary perspective). I also believe that it’s wrong to eat other animals and their byproducts because the animal is hurt in the process. I believe it’s morally wrong to treat an animal without any respect for its life and also wrong to eat it for food. I believe animals can feel pain. I believe that all animals, including domesticated animals, are created equally. I wouldn’t eat my dog and I won’t eat a cow, pig or chicken. Just like I won’t abuse my dogs, I don’t believe that cows, pigs or chickens should be abused on farms either.

What do you choose to eat and not to eat?

Whether you’re a plant-strong, dietary vegan or a vegan that follows the lifestyle for moral reasons, we all eat the same things: fabulous, plant-based food. Vegans choose not to eat animals or animal byproducts. We do eat a lot of vegetables, pastas, rice, nuts, seeds and fruits. There are a lot of things that can be veganized (made vegan) with substitutes and some things come very close to the original non-vegan creation (like desserts) and some things just never taste the same (like cheese). But believe me, if it’s out there someone has tried to make it vegan. There are even vegan marshmallows! How awesome is that?

Honestly, when my sister-in-law saw me sitting there with a plate of vegetables and hummus, it probably looked like I was on a diet and trying to watch my waistline. The truth is that since I started on a vegan diet I don’t count calories and fat like I used to. I never obsess about whether or not I’m getting enough protein. And I never have to think about cholesterol! It’s the best lifestyle ever! The best part of it for me is that I am not harming anyone by choosing to eat plant-strong and I get all of the health benefits from a plant-strong diet. I really get the best of both worlds.

There are a lot of fun vegan foods—part of the fun of being a vegan is the discovery! For instance, did you know Oreos and Twizzlers are vegan? I didn’t say they were healthy, but they are vegan. Do you know how fun it was to discover that? Why? Because it’s kind of a shocker to people. And if someone like my sister-in-law asks me if I can eat treats I will tell her, “Yes I can have Oreos and Twizzlers, just to name a few.”

Most people don’t know that most chocolate is vegan. Chocolate with no dairy milk or milk derivatives in it is vegan. Cocoa powder is vegan and goes great in smoothies! And yes, I have a chocolate smoothie with fresh fruit and chia seeds for breakfast every morning.

But you can’t have milk, eggs, or meat…

Who the heck cares? Well, you might, but I don’t. I tried a bite of Pete’s pizza that he had at Comic Con just to see if I missed real cheese and realized…I don’t miss real cheese. I couldn’t stand the flavor or taste in my mouth. A lot of vegans will tell you cheese is the hardest thing to give up, and when I first started, I agreed. There wasn’t—and honestly still isn’t—a really good vegan substitute for cheese (in my opinion). So instead of substituting, I choose to go without it.

So for all of you out there that say you could never give up cheese, eggs, bacon, milk, or whatever: Yes, you can if you’re ready too. I did. You simply aren’t at that point on your journey.

I highly encourage you, as I was encouraged, to watch movies on Netflix like Food Matters, Food Inc. and Forks Over Knives, just so you can get an idea of where your food comes from and what processes it goes through so you can make your own educated decision on the matter. Try not to say, “Oh I could never do that.” Why doubt yourself that much? Instead say, “I have no desire to do that right now.” At least be honest about it. Everyone can be plant-strong but not everyone wants to. I believe if more people were educated about where their food comes from that they might choose a plant-strong, dietary vegan lifestyle too. And from that point, if they were to stick with it, well…who knows! The possibilities are endless! It could even lead them to a new career choice, like me!

Sara Sawochka