Why Vegan?

September 9th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

Why go vegan?  Many people have asked me why I eat a vegan diet, so I’m long overdue for a post on this topic.  But before I dive into it, let me first say I’m not interested in trying to convert you to veganism.  While many vegans are conversion-happy, for me this is a personal lifestyle choice, not a religion.  In any event I’ve noticed that people tend to go vegan when they’re ready for it, not because they’re beaten over the head with statistics and health knowledge.  As the saying goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”  So take this article as an insider’s report on my path to a vegan diet rather than conversion rhetoric.

Going Vegetarian

After eating animal products for most of my life, during the early 90s, I started reading health books as part of my novice-level interest in personal growth.  My initial changes including adopting a low-fat diet and exercising regularly.  I switched from low-fat to skim milk, favored leaner meats, and reduced high-fat products like cheese and butter.  I also reduced my sugar intake, switching from regular sodas to diet sodas.  I took up running as my primary exercise and would run about 25 minutes per day, sometimes longer.  Overall I’d say I was in fairly good health — no major health problems or serious illnesses.  I never smoked in my life, and I shunned alcohol too except on rare occasions.

Eventually I got curious about the vegetarian diet after reading about it in a nutrition textbook.  I read that vegetarians supposedly live longer, need less sleep, and have lower risks of many major illnesses like cancer and heart disease.  That sounded attractive, but I really didn’t want to be a vegetarian for the rest of my life.  I figured that was a bit too extreme and probably unnecessary.  I had a vegetarian friend during my late teens — a skinny Indian guy — and I found it funny that he could never eat pepperoni pizza.  But he did seem fairly healthy and intelligent.  He would regularly whoop me when we played poker together.

In June 1993, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to try going lacto-ovo vegetarian for 30 days just to see what it was like (no animal flesh but dairy and eggs OK).  At least then I’d know, and I could be done with it.  I’d been through enough habit changes to know that a new mindset always looks different from the outside looking in than from the inside looking out.  So I wanted an insider’s perspective on the diet.  Otherwise, I’d risk going my whole life without knowing what it was really like.  I was 22 years old, so I figured I might as well have this experience now.  I fully expected to return to my previous way of eating after the 30 days.

I was surprised at how easy it was to go vegetarian.  I thought it would take a lot of discipline, but it really didn’t.  I just made obvious substitutions:  cheese or veggie pizza instead of pepperoni, pasta dishes, rice dishes, stir fry veggies, etc.  If I did this today, it would be even easier due to all the vegetarian products now on the market that weren’t available back then.  I acquired one vegetarian cookbook (which I still have) that helped me with a few recipes, but mostly I found that cutting out flesh was painless.

I didn’t have any withdrawal symptoms or detox effects (no headaches or back pain or anything like that).  I wasn’t overweight when I began this experiment, so I don’t recall losing much weight, but I did notice an increase in my overall energy level, and I felt more energetic during my morning runs.  I also noticed I could concentrate better, especially during meditation or while doing programming work.  These increases weren’t huge, but they were noticeable.

At the end of the 30 days, I had adapted well to the habit, and I found it so easy that I couldn’t think of a compelling reason to switch back.  After putting off my return to carnivorous life for several months, I eventually concluded, “Well, I guess I’m a vegetarian.”  I gradually lost my appetite for animal flesh, so those old foods no longer appealed to me.  I had no sense of deprivation because I was eating what I felt naturally drawn to eat.  It took no discipline to stay vegetarian, since I was simply eating what naturally appealed to me.  Over time the thought of eating animals became repulsive to me, not from a moral standpoint but from a gustatory one — I no longer wanted to put dead flesh into my mouth.

When I met Erin in 1994, she wasn’t a vegetarian.  In fact, her diet was pretty poor, consisting of large quantities of fast food.  But eventually she decided to try going vegetarian for 30 days too — without even telling me – and her experience was similar to mine.  After 30 days she simply didn’t want to go back.

Going Vegan

During my vegetarian days, I occasionally considered eliminating all animal products and going 100% vegan.  From what I’d read up to that point, I was convinced that the vegan diet would be healthier for me than a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.  I also went to Tony Robbins’ firewalk seminar in 1996 and learned about the Fit for Life diet, a book I later read.  Tony is the most energetic person I’ve ever seen, and he was pitching a mostly vegan diet.  I became curious about how a vegan diet would affect my energy level.

Erin and I were learning Tae Kwon Do at this time, and I was becoming interested in distance running, so the high-energy promise of the vegan diet appealed to me.  I’d already seen an energy boost after going vegetarian, so it wasn’t hard for me to fathom that going vegan would be even better.

As you can see, what motivated me to try veganism wasn’t animal rights or environmental issues — it was simply the possibility of enjoying more energy and vitality.  I wish I’d been the kind of person who’d have genuinely listened to those other arguments for veganism, but I have to be honest and admit that I wasn’t.  My curiosity was driven entirely by self-interest.

In January 1997, Erin and I both decided to try going vegan for 30 days to see what it was like.  Both of us were convinced, however, that the diet would be too hard and too fanatical to sustain in the long run.  We kept thinking about all the delicious foods we’d have to give up — the hardest ones for me were cheese pizza and veggie-cheese omelettes.  But we figured we could manage it for 30 days.  At least we’d know what it was like, and if the diet beat us down, we’d be comfortable concluding that it wasn’t for us.

Going vegan was very different than going vegetarian.  During the first 7 days, Erin and I lost 7 pounds each!  We were eating abundant calories and drinking plenty of water, so where did that weight come from?  Seriously, it went down the toilet.  A lifetime of accumulated dairy clog came washing out of our intestines.  Wow!  We had heard about detox, but 7 pounds in 7 days was beyond our expectations.  After the first week things settled down, and we lost a few more pounds over the remaining 23 days.

After the first week, my energy had increased massively.  This was a much bigger increase than when I went vegetarian.  I’d say that for the total increase in energy I experienced from animal eater to vegan, the change from vegetarian to vegan was about 80% of it.  This energy boost was most pronounced during Tae Kwon Do classes — I suddenly had a lot more energy during sparring — my endurance was much, much higher.  I also noticed it was easier for me to run longer distances without getting tired, and my breathing felt smoother and more effortless.  Exercising became easier, and I started enjoyed that runner’s high feeling much more often.

After doing 3-5 mile runs for several years, I gradually increased to 5-10 mile runs.  Running felt so good that I often didn’t want to stop, so it felt right to just keep going.  Within a year I was doing 14-mile runs down the Santa Monica beach, and in 2000 I ran the L.A. Marathon.

Despite the increase in physical vitality, the #1 benefit I experienced was a marked improvement in my mental clarity.  It felt like I was coming out of a long-term fog of brain — if you saw the movie Awakenings, it was similar to that, except that my starting point was the state we call “normal.”  I thought, “Wow… so this is what clear-headedness is supposed to feel like.”  Imagine the feeling of having totally clear sinuses after eating super-spicy food… but applied to your brain.

I noticed a significant improvement in my ability to do computer game programming, which was my career at the time.  I could solve challenging problems more easily.  The problems were just as hard, but my ability to tackle them had increased significantly.

Interestingly, Erin’s experience was different than mine.  I don’t recall her having as much of a boost in mental clarity or physical endurance as I did.  But she enjoyed a significant boost in her psychic sense.  I didn’t notice it at the time (because I wasn’t looking for it), but I also experienced an improvement in my intuitive clarity after going vegan.

Once again when the 30 days were up, Erin and I found it easy to keep going, and the benefits were so obvious that we’d never want to give them up.  By day 30 animal products had lost much of their appeal anyway, so we just kept eating the way that seemed most natural.  Again, it didn’t take any discipline to maintain the diet.  And to make the initial switch we used curiosity instead of discipline.  As you can see I really love the 30-day trial.

I get a lot of compliments on my depth of thought on certain subjects, and as odd as it may seem, I have to credit much of that to my diet.  The mental benefits are probably the #1 reason I decided to stay vegan.  I just can’t go back to the fog-of-brain I used to regard as normal.  People who eat animals often regard my diet as being deprived (outside looking in), while ironically I regard their lifestyle as being far more deprived (inside looking out).

While some people would regard my diet as severely restrictive, it feels nothing of the sort to me.  I’ve been eating this way for almost 10 years now, so to me it’s normal.  In some ways it’s a little odd eating out with people who still eat animals, since they tend to be a bit fanatical in their bloodlust for flesh… as if they’re vampires or something.  It doesn’t bother me when people eat animals in front of me — they’re free to eat whatever they want.  I do notice, however, that people often feel uncomfortable eating animals in front of vegans.  And I imagine the animals aren’t too comfortable with it.  :)

Post-Vegan

It was only after going vegan that I openly exposed myself to other arguments for veganism.  One of the best books I read was Diet for a New America.  I was amazed at just how destructive the habit of eating animal products is — to our bodies, to our environment, and to our politics.  If you’re the kind of person who loves data and stats, that’s the book for you, although the figures are somewhat dated by now.  At first I tried using these stats to see if I could convince other people to try veganism or at least vegetarianism.  None so righteous as the newly converted, right?  I ended up convincing a few people who tried it and got good results, but mostly it opened my eyes as to just how stubborn people were, even in the face of overwhelming data.  Of course, I was one of them for many years, so experiencing this situation from the opposite side was perhaps a karmic lesson for me.  I think it helped me become more open-minded and to recognize my own emotional resistance whenever I was refusing to acknowledge the truth.

As time went on, I started putting more thought into the ethics of veganism.  I wasn’t remotely motivated to go vegan because of ethical or environmental concerns, but after being vegan for a while, those aspects began touching me.  I watched videos of factory farming, and I was saddened by the animal cruelty, especially when I realized this is what most people contribute to every single day.  You can find such videos on Peta’s web site if you care to look.  I felt relieved that my decision would have a small but positive effect in reducing animal suffering and environmental damage.  I liked that every meal I ate was one that didn’t cause animals to suffer and die.  My wife and I started donating money to pro-vegan nonprofit organizations.

Gradually I began feeling more compassionate, not just towards animals but towards people as well.  I was never a particularly sensitive guy (sarcasm was more my style), but I became more sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.  I started to care about people and animals in a way I’d never experienced before, and to be honest I initially resisted this change.  This awareness shift grew stronger over time, as if something in my spirit had become unblocked.  If you’re into chakras, you could say that going vegan opened my heart chakra.  This feeling of compassion towards others continues to expand, and it guides much of my work today.

I think a compassion-minded lifestyle is a matter of degree rather than essence because no matter where you are, you can always improve.  I am still making improvements — it’s a never-ending process.  Just this summer I fully switched over to leather-free shoes and belts.  I accept the position that if you already own animal items like shoes, the animal has already paid the price, so you should honor its life by using them or giving them away to someone instead of throwing them away.  It can be rather challenging to avoid all use of animal items, since they’re so prevalent in modern society.  Even the glue used in the veggie crates can be animal-derived.  And what about squashing ants that raid your kitchen?  Everyone is at a different place on the compassion line, so it’s best to look within and decide what place feels right to you.  When you start judging others, it’s a sign that you feel your own position on the line could stand some improvement.

I was surprised that animal products lost all their appeal to me.  Today the thought of putting animal products in my mouth utterly disgusts me.  If I merely imagine taking a bite of steak, it induces a wave of nausea.  It’s like someone saying, “Hey, Steve!  Want a bite of this plague-ridden, pus-filled rat covered with vomit sauce?”  Not exactly mouth-watering.  A bowl of sawdust would be more appetizing.  So there’s no deprivation because I’m only eating what seems normal and edible to me.

I’ve genuinely never felt deprived as a vegan… just the opposite because my dietary variety increased.  As a meat-eater I’d eat the same foods over and over, but after going vegan I tried all kinds of new recipes.  I ate fruits and veggies I never ate before and found new foods I liked.  Today there are so many vegan products on the market that you’ll find quality substitutes for everything.  You can get vegan burgers, ice cream, cheese, sour cream, cream cheese, milk, butter, ground “beef,” deli slices (bologna, ham, turkey, etc), donuts, and so on.  I’ve even had vegan “duck.”  In 1997, many of these vegan foods tasted awful.  The dairy substitutes were especially bad — many of them tasted like liquid tofu.  But today the recipes have been perfected to such a degree that the taste is usually wonderful.

VegFamily

In the late 90s, Erin launched VegFamily.com to connect with other vegans.  Eventually it became one of the top vegan web sites — I’d say it’s the #1 site for supporting vegan parents and families.  The purpose of the site is to support vegans, not to convert people to veganism.  While the community is friendly towards people considering going vegan, the discussion forums are kept free of people who want to debate the merits of the vegan diet — there are plenty of other sites for that.  An interesting feature of the site is an enormous list of Why Vegan Stories where visitors explain their reasons for going vegan; there’s quite a bit of variety in why people make the transition.

One of the cool things about running VegFamily is that Erin and I received tons of vegan product samples in the mail for possible review on the site.  We also went to the Natural Products Expo as members of the press to try out the latest creations.  (Word of warning – never mix wheat grass juice, organic coffee, and vegan chocolate in an empty stomach!)  In the early years, many of the samples we’d get were pretty bad.  I’ve eaten more than my share of hockey pucks marketed as vegan energy bars.  But some of the stuff was incredible.  Rose City Chocolates makes some of the best fancy vegan chocolates I’ve tried.  And Allison’s Gourmet has delicious vegan cookies and brownies (my favorite is the chocolate mint cookie).

After a few years of this, we noticed a lot more people jumping into the vegan products market.  Erin eventually hired a product review editor to write up those reviews.  I do miss the free samples.  Now I get lots of personal development products in the mail, but the books, CDs, and DVDs just don’t taste as good as vegan brownies.

Last year Erin decided to create a compilation of VegFamily visitors’ best vegan recipes, with an emphasis on family-friendly recipes that both kids and adults will enjoy.  She received hundreds of submissions and then had her visitors test them, and the best ones became the Vegan Family Favorites cookbook.  We own dozens of vegan cookbooks, but what I like about this one (aside from the fact that Erin compiled it) is that the recipes all come from real families as opposed to a gourmet chef, so I can often find recipes that use on-hand ingredients rather than having to pre-plan for something unusual.  I even submitted some recipes of my own.  :)

Further Experiments

At various times I tried other subsets of the vegan diet.  I read a couple books on macrobiotics, including Dirk Benedict’s experiences in his book Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy, and it sounded interesting, so I gave it a 30-day trial.  On this diet I ate lots of brown rice, barley, soup, seaweed, and cooked veggies.  Honestly I didn’t detect any notable changes.  It seemed no better or worse than the way I was already eating, so in this case my 30-day trial ended on day 31.  However, I liked many macrobiotic foods, so brown rice and miso soup became staples in my diet after the trial.

Another time I tried an all raw diet.  The first attempt I only lasted 3 days before giving up.  But I learned more about this diet and discovered that eating nothing but salad and fruit wasn’t the best way to go.  I gave it another shot with a smarter approach that included lots of raw nuts and made it to day 30.  This was a hard diet for me to transition to though.  In the first couple weeks, I experienced strong cravings for cooked foods, especially bread.  But the cravings eventually subsided, and I felt absolutely incredible.  I’ve never felt so physically and emotionally energetic in my life as when I was on this diet.  I know it’s a big improvement over eating cooked vegan food.  However, I ultimately found this diet too time consuming.  I had to eat a lot more food to consume adequate calories, and it took me considerable time to do all the chopping, slicing, and juicing to make something more interesting than fruit and salad.  I concluded that going raw was more than a dietary change; it would require a major lifestyle adjustment, and I wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment.

Years later I gave the raw food diet another trial, this time for 45 days, and came to the same conclusion.  I had outstanding energy and vitality, but it was too much work for me.  I was sometimes spending two hours a day preparing food.  And I also felt hungry often.

After being raw for 30+ days, cooked food tasted noticeably lifeless to me.  Raw foods are living foods, so everything you eat is alive — nothing canned or processed.  Once you get used to that, in some ways it’s hard to go back.  I knew that returning to cooked and processed foods was a step in the wrong direction healthwise, but it was a lot more practical at the time.

What’s Next?

I’m committed to lifelong dietary improvement, so I’m always looking out for the next step.  I know that going raw would be a great step for me, since I’ve already given it two trials and enjoyed great results aside from all the prep time.  One problem I had is that my first two raw (un)cookbooks were both gourmet books with complex recipes, but I’ve since gotten a copy of Raw Food Made Easy, which has much simpler recipes… the kind that use 5 ingredients instead of 15.  This book has helped me tremendously, making going raw a lot more practical.

On September 4 I kicked off another 30-day raw trial, but I decided to make this one a bit more challenging.  For the next 30 days, I’m eating only raw veggies, nuts, seeds, cold-pressed oils, and low-sugar fruits like lemons, limes, avocados, tomatoes, and coconut.  I’m also cutting out the sweeter veggies like carrots and beets, so this is a very low-sugar diet.  Of course, most of the time I’m combining these to make interesting dishes.

Now if you happen to be one of those uninformed souls who feels compelled to ask, “Where do you get your protein?” (yes, it is a dumb question), then you should read The Great Protein Myth to unload some of that media conditioning and learn that even veggies are abundant in protein.  Broccoli, for instance, gets about 50% of its calories from protein.  Of course, there are certain marketers who’d prefer you not know that.  :)

Anyway… I’m just finishing up day 6 on this diet and doing OK with it.  I’ve had some major swings in my moods and energy levels this week, which I also experienced during my first week of each of my raw food trials.  I remember that I felt lousy the first week of those trials and then fantastic afterwards, so I’m hoping week 2 follows the same pattern this time.

One reason I’m doing a stricter trial this time (giving up bananas is really hard), is that if I make it to day 30 and decide not to continue, I can downgrade to a less restrictive all raw diet by adding back all the sweet fruits and veggies.  So this tougher trial may provide a way to make raw foodism a permanent pattern for me.  I’d love to head in that direction, since I really want that long-term vitality boost I’ve experienced twice before — it’s easily worth the effort.  I just need to find a way to make this practical enough to stick.

As you can see, my dietary improvements are motivated largely by self-interest:  more energy, more mental clarity, more vitality, more endurance.  If a diet sounds worthwhile to you, give it a 30-day trial to experience the results for yourself.  Then you can decide whether to abandon it, adopt it, or integrate it.  I have no idea whether my path will work for you, so ultimately you’ll have to carve your own path through this maze of ideas.


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