This is the essay that I wrote for inclusion in the newly published anthology, The Reducetarian Solution, by Brian Kateman, with a foreword by Mark Bittman. Other writers with essays in the book include Gene Baur, Dr. Melanie Joy, Paul Shapiro, Seth Godin, Gene Stone, Robert Cheeke, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and Ginny Messina, MPH, RD. The book is controversial because it does not insist on making it all the way to veganism right off the bat. I see it as something like stepping on the moving walkway at an airport: once you’re on, you’re moving forward and even though a single moving walkway is unlikely to get you all the way to your gate, you’ll definitely end up closer than you would have without it. In any case, I hope you enjoy this essay. I loved writing it. It was one of those times when the words simply flowed. If you’re a writer, you know how good that feels.
My name is Victoria and I am, in the interest of full disclosure, a vegan. It reminds me of the old commercial for “deodorant soap” that asked “Aren’t you glad you use Dial? Don’t you wish everybody did?” I am happy that I live and eat as I do and, yes, for a long list of reasons, I wish everybody did. I’m also aware that becoming vegan is, for most people, about on par with becoming Amish — admirable in many ways, but extreme, unusual, and culturally alien. I get it, because I’m a vegan now, but I wasn’t always.
I grew up in Kansas City on its eponymous steak and barbecue. I loved animals the way most children do, bringing in every stray dog and cat, and attempting to save injured birds and orphaned baby squirrels, naive efforts that often ended in a backyard funeral.
I also had a strong interest in nutrition because my dad was a diet doctor and I was a fat kid. I read in one of his med school textbooks, when I was no more than nine, that the most nutrient-dense foods were collards, kale, mustard greens, arugula, Swiss chard, and spinach – that last entry being the only one I’d ever heard of, let alone tasted, and the spinach had come from a can.
Even earlier, I recall returning home from first grade and reciting the 4 Food Groups, the dietetic gold standard of the day, to my grandmother. Not one to readily accept government-sanctioned doctrine, she snorted, “Some people never eat meat. They’re called vegetarians. I could take you to a certain restaurant and get you a hamburger made out of peanuts. You’d think you were eating beef.”
She never took me this curious cafe, but that word, vegetarian, struck a chord. I adored food in all its forms and presentations, so the idea that someone would cut out an entire “food group” was shocking. I certainly wasn’t going to do it, but I found it intriguing that some people did. Gandhi had been vegetarian, I learned later – and Tolstoy and da Vinci. But they were famous and men and grown-ups. I was a girl from Kansas City.
It was an interest in yoga that developed in my teens, and a move to veg-friendly London for a fashion course after high school, that inspired my initial change. I didn’t know the term “reducetarian,” but that’s what I was, letting go of poultry and red meat when I was eighteen, and fish at nineteen, although I had fishy relapses off and on. I didn’t see water-dwelling animals as having self-awareness and feeling pain. Contemporary science contends that I was profoundly wrong on that, but at the time I was more interested in magic than science, and fish were said to hold some weight loss magic. It made no sense, then, that I kept getting bigger.
In my mid-twenties, a wise friend told me that I wasn’t just randomly heavy. “You’re a compulsive overeater,” she said. “You’d stop if you could, but left to your own devices, you can’t.” Her words soaked in the way a houseplant takes up water when you get back from vacation.
Of course I’d stop if I could. I knew that. I’d do a lot of things. I wouldn’t just be a vegetarian: I’d be a vegan, that steel-willed oddity who wouldn’t drink milk or eat cheese because lactation requires pregnancy, and dairy calls for the separation of mother and babe and the ultimate slaughter of both. Yes! Count me on the side of the weird and valiant. I will do this.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t make it to lunch at work most days without a trip to the office building’s snack bar where I wasn’t thinking of cows and calves, but of a craving for ice cream or a pastry rich in butter and eggs. Some people say food isn’t a real addiction. I know different.
Like any other addict – any lucky addict – I stumbled onto recovery: take some steps; have a spiritual awakening; do it a day at a time. It sounds cliché in some circles, and more religious than rational, but after thirty-two years without a binge, it works for me. It gave me the power of choice around food, and once I had that, I chose vegan. I wasn’t perfect. This was a long time ago, when eating out as a vegan was tough and traveling seemed close to impossible. I sometimes didn’t ask what was in a prepared item that may have been vegan or maybe only vegetarian. But I kept at it. In time, choosing vegan on a consistent basis became easy and natural, and even when it wasn’t, animal products didn’t seem like food anymore, just like sadness.
So, should you reduce your consumption of animal foods or go vegan? Well, what are you willing to do? If you’re over fifty and terms like “heart attack,” “stroke,” and “Alzheimer’s” seem less theoretical than they once did, I’d suggest going all the way simply to lower your anxiety level. My diet today, in my sixties, is a feast of age-defraying antioxidants and disease-preventing phytochemicals from whole plant foods. If I’m offered a vegan cookie, I may eat it, although I’d prefer a kiwi or a mango that will actually do something in addition to taste good.
But you know what? Most of the plant-based experts contend that, health-wise, ninety percent whole plant foods should do you.
Ethically, every little bit helps. Not a single plant-sourced meal fails to contribute to lives saved and suffering averted. Don’t let yourself be guilt-tripped into doing nothing by the “vegan police,” amnesiacs who can’t recall that they were once where you are right now.
On the other hand, be aware that the day may dawn when you realize that you’ve developed vegan values. This is the day you see a piece of chicken for what it is: part of a bird. This is when a carton of yogurt is less about calcium and convenience than a mother cow and her baby crying in the grief of separation. (Calcium, by the way, is abundant in dark leafy greens, non-dairy milks, and calcium-cultured tofu.) Just as you stood up to the vegan police before, hold your own with the omnivore army now. They’ll ask where you get your protein (answer: from whole plant foods) and suggest that animals may “take over the world” (they won’t; we breed them). You have every right to eat as you wish and live as you choose. If these choices happen to enrich your life and save many others, so much the better.
Victoria Moran is a vegan of 33 years. She writes books, hosts a podcast, and runs a school that trains Vegan Lifestyle Coaches and Educators. She is shown here with Adeline the turkey, a resident ambassador from The Gentle Barn Sanctuary in Tennessee. Follow Victoria on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @MainStreetVegan.