I’m not the biggest fan of the word ‘Vegan’. I don’t like how this daunting label tells you what I don’t eat (meat, fish, dairy, eggs, etc) rather than what I do eat. At times I feel limited by the term; I would rather say I eat as healthy as I can, with the knowledge that I have.

When people find out that I don’t eat any animals or animal by-products, they are usually very curious, although some do become put off. The inevitable question that follows is “what made you give up eating meat?” For this the answer lies within a short story and a long story. The short story is that a book changed my life and I haven’t looked back since.

The long story is as follows:

I worked at a large chain bookstore and during my lunch breaks found myself in the nature/wilderness section pouring over simple living books, edible gardening how-to’s and journals about sustainable environments. I consider myself blessed to have found “GO FURTHER: A guide to simple organic living” amongst the other myriad of books on the shelves.

This book was full of easily accessible information on plant-based diets, alternative energy, yoga, and activism, not to mention memorable quotes and pictures. I read about how every vegetarian saves an acre of forest each year by not contributing to the deforestation caused by the land needed to raise livestock. I learned that by not eating a pound of beef, I would save more water than if I didn’t shower for a year. This was very powerful information for me – to realize that I had more control over global warming and a sustainable future than I ever imagined. I read the book cover to cover and haven’t (knowledgeably) eaten meat since, (there was an incident about five months in when I was still eating fish where I mistook chicken salad for tuna salad. Oops!)

Technically, this was the starting point of my transition towards a plant-based diet because it was the first time I dared say I was a vegetarian, something so foreign to my very meat-friendly family and upbringing. But honestly it started earlier. Each time I bought soy chicken nuggets or almond milk at the grocery store, I was unconsciously starting my transition away from the affluent American diet to something better, something that promised me health instead of doctor bills, longevity instead of a premature death from heart disease or cancer. Instead of finding a low body weight and promised well being by counting calories or eating low-fat foods, this journey into nutrition and health has changed the way that I relate to food, the way I nourish my body with the fuel it needs.

I found myself starting to cook more instead of eating out. I tried new foods and different ethnic cuisines including Indian, Thai and a local favorite, Lebanese. These cultures (and menus) are easy to navigate for vegetarians and vegans alike, and I found them friendlier to the idea than other American cuisine based restaurants.

People often ask what I eat since a diet without any animal products seems so limited to the untrained eye. The truth is a whole world of new foods opened up to me that day I stopped eating dairy. I started putting hummus on my sandwiches instead of mayonnaise, spinach and vegan cheese instead of lunch meats. I started cooking with spices, tofu and whole wheat pastas to create colorful, healthy and mouthwatering dishes that even meat-eaters could enjoy.

I decided to eliminate fish from my diet about nine months after giving up meat. I had wanted to stop eating it earlier, but was worried about what I would order at restaurants. I didn’t want to be condemned to a life of bland dinner salads! The truth was, once I let go of eating fish, which it must be said was a lot easier than I imagined, dairy was the next inevitable step for my transition.

I had been using dairy in exchange for meat in my diet, spouting off mainstream sound bytes such as “well I need my calcium and protein, so I should eat lots of healthy, good for your bones cheese!” And then I read the China Study. This was given to me on assignment from Marilyn to read, summarize and then review. I couldn’t put the book down. There, in black and white, science and clear cut statistics were proving that Americans and those all over the world that had incorporated our toxic diet were killing themselves with their forks. Casein, a milk protein, is a known carcinogen, but people still eat it by the mouthfuls in dairy!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I used to love eating dairy. My three favorite foods were eggs, cheese and ranch dressing! But I had to make a choice on whether my taste buds and cravings would win over my mind and the knowledge that I had acquired. I slowly started phasing out cheese, replacing it with casein free soy and cashew versions by Follow Your Heart. Bottled ranch is now a thing of the past for me seeing that there are plenty of other healthy non-dairy dressings to choose from. Marilyn has a recipe in the book that tastes like ranch! And eggs, well, let’s just say I make a mean tofu scramble with tomatoes, avocado and basil leaves without all that unwanted cholesterol! This is coming from the former child who would rather sit at the table an hour after dinner ended rather than eat her vegetables. I’ve come a long way since then!

The hardest part of my journey is the lack of support from my family and friends. No one is vegan or vegetarian in my whole family, and eating around the holidays can get a little precarious. I usually offer to bring a dish even after the host insists that there will be something suitable for me, which may or may not be true.

My favorite mishap was at a family BBQ in late May. They were cooking sausages and beer with sides of sauerkraut, our German family favorite. I politely declined a sausage to which my Uncle Mike replied, “Oh, that’s right, you’re a vegetarian. Do you want a turkey burger instead?”

Just thinking of that story makes me laugh out loud. What did vegetarian mean to him? I had assumed that general public knowledge of the word implied that one didn’t eat any meat at all, but apparently between the media and the inconsistency of word of mouth, the term had gotten watered down. Add to the fact that I don’t eat dairy or eggs and people start getting confused.

By eating a plant-based diet, I have moved myself out of mainstream American into a very fulfilling, but sometimes lonely little world. People are quick to ask questions about my diet and I am more than happy to supply information, but at times it becomes overwhelming trying to give a five minute summary on why almost everything Americans eat is bad for their health. I can only try and live by example to show others that yes, at first it is hard to live without meat and dairy because of cravings, lack of other quick alternatives, etc. But in the end, being a vegetarian is the one thing in my life that I am most proud of. I have chosen a way to live that sets me apart from most other Americans, but every time I stop to eat, whether it is a little snack of edamame or a full blown eggplant and squash casserole, I am making a conscious decision to eat for my health and the health of our planet. And for those that scoff at my optimistic view of how changing my diet can help change the world I leave it to Margaret Mead...

“It’s amazing what a small group of committed people can accomplish to change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Kristy Steffens
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