Dr. Shenkman has followed a plant-based diet for nearly ten years and is an avid athlete, competing in triathlons of all distances, marathons, and ultra cycling events. She blogs at http://veganheartdoc.blogspot.com/ and can be followed on Twitter at @veganheartdoc.
What I Have Learned About Going Vegan
By Heather Shenkman, MD FACC
Hard to believe it's been that long since March 2005, when I paced the Strong Memorial Hospital cafeteria my first night as a vegan looking for what vegan thing I could eat for dinner and settled for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
From my own trials and mistakes, here's what I've learned:
1) It's not just about eliminating animal products. It's about including new foods.
It is hard to stick with something when the approach is "these are the things I cannot eat." But rather, it should be a journey of finding what you CAN eat! Try new foods. Have you ever had quinoa? Baked tofu? Seitan (not pronounced like the devil, but rather say-TAN)?
2) Screw-ups happen
In spite of your best efforts, you are going to eat something that isn't strictly vegan. It happens. I was at an event a few months ago and was noshing on some delicious crackers, and after the fact I found out that one of the top ingredients, to my dismay, was milk. Whoops. I didn't drop dead from eating the dairy-laced crackers. But now I know, if I see those crackers, I won't eat them again.
3) Don't sweat the small stuff
If a food has meat, dairy, or eggs in it, clearly it's out of the question. What about "natural flavor"? Or sugar, which is usually processed with bone char? Or most varieties of wine, which are clarified with fish gills, unless you get organic or kosher wine? Is that lecithin from animal or plant sources? Was that veggie burger cooked next to a meat burger?
I'm getting a headache thinking about all these minutia. When you drove your car today, you probably ran over a few ants and a few mosquitoes splattered on your windshield. Get over the details or you'll drive yourself crazy.
4) It's vegan. It's not gluten-free, oil-free, paleo, grain-free, additive-free, completely unprocessed, salt-free, strictly organic, nut-free, and so forth.
There have been a few prominent vegan bloggers who got so bogged down in eating so perfectly that their health became compromised, and they decided they could no longer follow a vegan diet. I can understand why a person with heart disease might choose Esselstyn's oil-free, nut-free diet, because it does reverse heart disease, but for most of us who don't have coronary disease we don't need to be so restrictive.
In my own diet choices, I aim for a whole-food plant-based diet. I do eat some processed foods every so often. Today I didn't have long for lunch, so I heated up a Tofurky Turk'y Broccoli Cheddar Pocket. The "Cheddar" is non-dairy, of course, and the "Turk'y" wasn't made of turkeys, as you might imagine. And every so often, for a special occasion, I may have a vegan cupcake (I love animals too much to eat a non-vegan cupcake). Or if I'm driving through Las Vegas I will have an apple fritter from Ronald's Donuts. I eat well most of the time, but I'm not perfect.
If my diet were perfect, I don't think I'd be very happy.
5) Don't push!!!
If you want to know why I'm vegan, I'll tell you why as simply as I can -- because I see the consequences of animal foods on peoples' health on a daily basis, and because I love animals and am horrified by how animals become food. I will leave it at that, and if you want to know more, I"ll tell you more. I think that if most people were aware of the details of how their slice of cheese or their chicken sandwich came to be, they would be horrified and disgusted.
I've been an influence for several people who chose veganism, and they come to that conclusion on their own, not because they were shamed or prodded.
6) Have a sense of humor
An animal rights activist once asked me, "What are your thoughts on the relationship of humans and dogs?" I thought it was a bizarre question, and my response was that they taste delicious with ketchup and mustard. Clearly I don't eat dog meat, as I am the proud owner of two adorable greyhounds, but the person who asked the question didn't think that was too funny. Oh well.
Or, people make silly comments that aren't meant to be a serious dig at veganism. And their response should be equally silly. "You know plants have feelings?" "Yes, I hate plants. I'm going to murder a bunch of plants for dinner and have salad."
7) Sure! I'll come to your birthday dinner at Morton's.
But you better come to my birthday dinner at Vinh Loi Tofu.
Any reasonable restaurant will make you a vegan meal. It may not be the most scrumptious thing you've ever eaten, but they'll come up with something. A chef at Morton's once made me a delicious tower of pasta and vegetables with a marinara sauce. Another steak house brought me a plate of plain steamed vegetables, and I begged for some soy sauce on the side to give them some flavor.
8) I'm vegan and proud!
There's the joke, "How do you know who the vegan in the room is? Don't worry, she'll tell you!" That's me. I feel great, I'm healthy, I'm a triathlete. And I feel amazing, thanks much in part to how I eat.