by: Mariann Devlin
I know a lot of people who respect the ethical decision to be a vegetarian or vegan but don’t believe they can actually do it. Not true! As someone who first dedicated herself to vegetarianism when she was 12 (unsuccessfully), and as a relatively new vegan, let me take this opportunity to dispell some common myths about going meat or dairy free.
1. You Can’t Eat Meat and Dairy
You’re not going to hear this from many vegetarians or vegans, but you’ll hear this advice from me. It’s also my first piece of advice — because its the most important.
If you’re having an excruciating craving for a cheeseburger, just eat the damn thing. The worst thing you can do, if you’re trying to go 100% veg, is make your lifestyle feel like a painful deprivation. It’s why it took me over a decade to get to a place where I felt my diet was ethically sound. Since I was twelve, I’d go through periods where I’d vow to never touch meat again — but when I caved into my cravings, I treated it like a relapse. That is, I binged and gave up on vegetarianism entirely.
I heard about a vegetarian who eats one meat dish every weekend to keep herself from going crazy. My hat’s off to you, madame. It takes a strong character to admit your own limitations.
We don’t hand out gold metals to the vegetarian who is most veg (at least, I hope nobody does that, because they’d seriously need to get a life). It’s about cutting back on the economic demand for meat and dairy. One less burger, one less reason to kill a cow for its part. With that said, sometimes if we don’t indulge our cravings we’ll do what I used to: give up.
Plus, did you know Tropicana Orange Juice isn’t vegetarian? It contains fish gelatin. Chances are, even those who profess to be 100% veg probably aren’t. So, don’t feel bad for letting go every once in a while. It’s better to try and fail sometimes, then throw your hands up completely.
2. It’s Expensive
(Note: I don’t live in a food desert, thank my privilege, so I understand that the advice I’m giving is only useful if you have access to a variety of different grocery stores.)
I don’t live anywhere near a Whole Foods, nor would I want to spend that much money on food even if I did. I do, however, live next to an Aldi’s and two independently-owned markets that sell cheap produce, and I’ve learned that being a vegan can be inexpensive if you’re willing to make two grocery shopping trips instead of one.
It’s a myth that to be vegan, you have to spend an insane amount of money just to have a full meal. A lot of small grocery stores sell cheap produce, and if they don’t, Aldi’s or Target can assist you in buying inexpensive frozen, dark green vegetables that you can (and should) eat with frequency. Spinach, brocolli, kale, collard greens and the standard dark leaf salads are my staples, and I’ve found them at ridiculously cheap prices at stores like Morse Market and Devon Market in Rogers Park. These places also tend to sell super cheap tofu. I get mine for $1.49 at Devon. Find out if your neighborhood has similar stores!
Certain vegetarian and vegan staples are cheap, too. Peanut butter and beans/legumes (chickpeas and black beans are my favorite) are some of the most inexpensive foods you can buy and are very versatile. I smear peanut butter on everything. As for beans, you can throw them in salads, make soups out of them, or wrap them up in a tortilla if you’re strapped for time. Vegans can still eat tacos, man.
3. It’s Unhealthy
Neither is meat-eating, for that matter. What’s unhealthy is not making conscious decisions about what and how much you eat. Vegans are generally more heart-healthy than meat and dairy eaters, but the key is to make sure you get enough protein and iron lest you turn into a pale-faced anemic. It’s also important to eat enough. You can’t subsist solely on apples and salads with olive oil dressing.
However, if you’re cognizant about eating well, note this: by including protein and iron rich foods into your new diet, you will be healthier than the average American. Your cholesterol will plummet, and you’ll be consuming more healthy fats like omega-3s, instead of saturated or trans fats.
Who knows, maybe you’ll even lose an inch or two from your waistline without even trying!
4. You’ll Be A Social Outcast
I hate being a bummer to my friends. The worst thing about being a vegetarian isn’t that I’m not eating yummy foods, but the looks on my friends’ faces when they remember I don’t eat meat or dairy. “Oh, we can’t go to this deep dish pizza place, ‘cuz what about Mariann?”
It’s called french fries and a side salad. Yeah, it’s not the most exciting dinner choice but it beats either packing a peanut butter sandwich or sitting at home. I don’t know of a single restaurant in Chicago that doesn’t sell some sort of fried vegetable.
Going back to my first piece of advice, there’s nothing wrong with just eating a slice of that pizza every once in a while. If I’m in a communal eating situation, where someone’s ordered a table full of Korean BBQ nom-noms or if I’m at a conference and there’s a tray of free cream-filled donuts in front of me, you can bet I’m going to feign an ethical struggle — only to snatch one of those suckers up.
It makes my lifestyle bearable for the next day.
5. Vegetarianism and veganism are ethically-sound choices, but so is just cutting back.
Even if you’re not committed to cutting most meat or dairy out of your diet, the advice I’ve given can work for anyone whose interested in at least scaling back, for health or ethical reasons. Good luck!
Mariann Devlin is a journalism school graduate from Loyola University. She’s a reporter for Patch.com, and a volunteer contributor to Streetwise magazine, a publication dedicated to ending homelessness. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Mariann moved to Chicago four years ago and still complains incessantly about the cold winters.