“Well, then what do you even eat?” This is the most frequently asked question I hear when I tell people that I am vegan. It’s funny, because my go-to response is “rice, beans, pasta, fruit, and veggies”. However, the truth is that I eat more processed vegan crap than I care to admit. In fact, when I first went vegan, I actually gained weight! It doesn’t help, of course, to live in Philadelphia, a city filled with amazingly delicious vegan food options like vegan cheesesteaks, vegan buffalo wings, vegan pizza, and vegan donuts all within walking distance of my house. And don’t even get me started on the plethora of decadent food options now available through delivery apps like Caviar and GrubHub. Of course, I LOVE living in the city, and I often cite the fact that I live in a vegan food mecca as one of my main reasons for never wanting to leave; but I have to admit my dirty not-so-little secret: I am NOT a healthy vegan!
I became vegan because I could not ethically consume animals or animal products knowing the environmental impact of the meat industry on the planet and the horrors of animal abuse endured by animals living on industrialized farms. I DID NOT become vegan for my health. I did, however, falsely assume that I would become healthier once I cut dairy foods out of my life - I used to eat A LOT of cheese, which I knew was loaded in artery-clogging fats. Unfortunately though, trading cow cheese for Violife and Daiya, although the right choice to make for animals and the planet, did not greatly improve my health.
When I first went vegan, I could care less about eating unhealthy processed vegan foods. As someone who used to down a pint of ice cream without thinking twice and described myself as a “only running when chased” type of woman, I never chose my foods (or exercise) for their healthiness. Food was always about taste – and once I went vegan, my goal was to prove that vegan food could be delicious; I never thought much about whether what I was cooking or eating was healthy for my body.
However, just a few years ago, my lean, physically fit, energetic father – albeit a big meat-eater- suffered a massive heart attack due to an artery that was 99% clogged. He managed to survive, but it’s been a rocky road ever since. And there was something about seeing my physically fit father almost die that made me question my own mortality. I may be a healthy body weight, but so was my dad. The food I put into my body matters, and eating processed crap, even processed vegan crap, is probably doing long-term damage.
Now, I want to be clear that I recognize that eating processed vegan cheese is still better than eating cow cheese and that eating processed vegan “meats” is still better than eating cow meat. However, I know I can do better for my body.
Last night, while reflecting on our 30-something and 40-something faces and bodies, my husband said, “We need a fountain of youth, but it doesn’t exist.”
“Yes, it does,” I replied. “We need to eat lots of raw fruits and vegetables.” And if you don’t believe me, look at pictures of people in their 60’s and 70’s who are raw-foodists. If that’s not a fountain of youth, I don’t know what is.
But here is my conflict: As someone with many relatives and friends suffering from severe health challenges, I recognize that without our health, we have nothing. Yet, at the same time, food is a major form of pleasure for me, and there are few things that get me more excited than a delicious, greasy, salt-laden vegan meal. How do I balance my love, dare I say addiction, for crappy food with the need to treat my body better? How do I say no to those cravings? And, perhaps, hardest of all, how do I raise a healthy family in a world that showers my children with sugary crap and equates pizza, cake, and candy with normal “children’s food”? How do I help my children, who already eat differently from other kids, now add this new emphasis on healthy, unrefined foods to their daily lives?
My tentative answer to these questions is that I have to start, not by abruptly changing my family’s eating habits, but instead by changing my own. Then, in time, as I learn how to cook healthier vegan food options, I can start incorporating them into my family’s daily meals.
I’m not holding myself to a strict whole-foods plant-based diet. I have a sitter this weekend, and I’m going to enjoy some of Philly’s finest vegan grub while celebrating a well-deserved night out. But at home, I need to value my health more, and that requires making changes to my lifestyle. I know I have limited control over most things in life, but the one thing I can control is what I put into my body. It’s time for me to take better care of myself, and I plan to start today.