Paleo, gluten-free, keto, raw: In this day and age, various types of fad diets flood our social media feeds, making us question what truly is the most optimal diet that will transform us into immortal demigods immune to all illnesses. About 5 years ago, I began experimenting with different forms of eating, specifically gluten-free and pescetarianism, in search of what would make me feel my most optimal. Following a pescatarian diet satisfied me for a short while. However, I still craved the adventure of trying a new method of eating. After reading and watching videos of people experiencing a long list of health benefits from a plant-based diet, I decided to give it a go. Little did I know I would permanently swap my salmon sashimi for veggie sushi and adopt a lifestyle in which I strive to reduce as much harm to animals as realistically possible, in other words, veganism.
This month marks the 3 year anniversary of my vegan journey (and I still haven’t died of a protein deficiency contrary to popular belief). Over the past few years, I surprisingly learned quite a bit about myself and the world around me from delving into veganism. Here are the five most unexpected lessons going vegan has taught me so far.
1. There is not a singular way to eat a vegan diet.
Setting aside the other aspects of being vegan, there is a countless number of ways to pursue a vegan diet that I wasn’t aware of when first trying out plant-based eating. I recall most of the “vegan influencers” promoting a high-carb-low-fat, highly or fully raw diet when I decided to go animal-product-free. Since they all looked incredibly healthy and vibrant, I tried to follow in their footsteps by centering my diet around fruits and whole starches while keeping my fat intake at a minimum. Little did I realize this would turn out to be a mistake. I was eating more than I ever had and lost 10 pounds, causing me to become underweight and feel exhausted all of the time. It’s not surprising that several of these raw, HCLF vegan influencers have recently quit a vegan diet within the last few months, blaming their rabbit-like diets for their slew of health issues. After incorporating more fats like nut butter, seeds, and protein in the forms of legumes and tofu, I gained the weight I needed to reach a healthy BMI and even saw major improvements in my skin (which I will get more into later because that was a whole other beast). My point is: Plant-based diets can take on many different forms ranging from HCLF to WFPB to even vegan keto. I just had to figure out which one worked the best for me, even if it wasn’t the one all of the attractive, vegan influencers living permanent vacations lifestyles in Hawaii followed.
2. How to disagree with others and get along
It’s safe to say most people, at least in my life, view animal consumption differently than I do. The majority of them don’t take issue with using animals and their byproducts since they believe animals exist to nourish and benefits humans. Others verbally express concern for animal welfare but choose not to think about how meat or dairy end up on their plates, often making comments like “I don’t want animals to suffer but I can *never* give up cheese.” When you first adopt a vegan lifestyle, it’s very tempting to let the wave of anger and passion stemming from injustice towards animals sweep you away from those who continue to eat meat or wear makeup tested on animals. However, nothing positive comes out of isolating yourself from friends and family who choose to purchase animal products. Doing so only reaffirms the cliche stereotype that vegans are militant, judgmental elitists who think they’re holier than thou. Also, like most people, there was a time where in my life when I ate animals without thinking twice about it. *I* was the person who said word-for-word, “I could *never* give up bacon or sushi” and look what I did years later: exactly that. Knowing where I was 10 years ago and where I am today, I realize how capable people are of change. Even if there are people who will never open themselves up to the idea of reducing their animal intake, people are animals and, like all animals, deserve a chance at compassion. I never expected veganism to teach me the ability to agree to disagree with my peers and loved ones. Now more than ever though, I can openly listen to others with radically different views than mine even on serious subjects like politics and religion. Being vegan in most societies naturally makes you a bit of an outlier. You can either assume 95% of the population is terrible because their beliefs don’t align with yours or you can realize that people can still be ethical and share similar virtues as you even if they express them in different ways. I can’t speak for all vegans but I know I rather fall into the latter category.
3. Conscious consumerism goes beyond veganism.
Regardless of how much you actively try to embody a vegan lifestyle, avoiding animals byproducts 100% of the time is nearly impossible in our modern world. From animal-fat derived slip agents in plastics bags to stearic acid in car tires and drywall, escaping animal ingredients completely just isn’t realistic. Ultimately, trying to achieve purity by never coming in contact with any trace of animal byproducts isn't the purpose of veganism. All we can do is simply strive to choose the vegan option whenever reasonably possible. For me, this means buying cruelty-free makeup and hair care products absent of any animal ingredients, even if they cost a few bucks more. Typically, cruelty-free means products that were not produced with animal testing. Upon researching more about the topic, I found an article discussing the cruelty associated with fast fashion i.e. clothing designed to be simultaneously very trendy and very affordable. The article had mentioned a quote from “The True Cost”, a documentary that explores how fast fashion significantly impacts individuals in developing countries as well as the environment. Similar to when I first learned about the implications of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs for short), I couldn’t believe paying workers such low wages in terrible conditions was so normalized in this day and age. To add insult to injury, this production of cheap clothing floods landfills, often with garments made with non-biodegradable materials like polyester. By shopping at fast fashion retailers, I had partaken in this cycle for most of my life. Since watching the film, I’ve vowed to cut out fast fashion as much as I possibly can, opting for second-hand pieces instead. I also decided to not partner with fast-fashion websites for blog sponsorships like I had in the past. None of this is to say that I’m a flawless consumer by any means. Occasionally I’m an airhead and assume a product, like soap, is vegan when it contains milk (why is milk in so many things, argh!) and I definitely need to purchase less produce wrapped in layers of plastic. When these incidents occur, I have to remind myself that purchasing ethical products like ones that are vegan, fair trade, or eco-friendly isn't about obtaining perfection: It’s just about doing the best for others and the environment when we can.
4. Nutritional Yeast is pure magic.
This might be the most crucial point of them all. If you haven't tried it, immediately stop reading this article and do so. You will thank me later.
5. Conventional Beauty standards don’t represent the truest forms of beauty.
Like I had mentioned earlier, I initially switched to a vegan diet for ethical reasons. Health was a secondary motive as I did experience some health benefits when first incorporating a strict vegan diet (hello improved digestion and more energy!). Despite the plethora of perks from cutting out animal products, the experience wasn’t all sunshine and roses in the beginning. Acne never affected me before eating plant-based. I’d get a pimple or two around the time aunt flow would visit every month, but aside from that, I was blessed with porcelain skin during my teen years. I heard story after story of people finally clearing they’re acne after cutting out dairy, so naturally, I thought doing so would maybe give my skin a little more glow. What I didn’t anticipate were little demons known as cystic acne growing under the hollows of my cheeks and around my chin a few months after going dairy free. Although my acne may not have been considered severe, leaving the house without wearing foundation seemed like a nightmare. Any photo I posted of myself online needed a photoshop treatment to make my skin look smooth and blemish free like it used to be. I almost felt embarrassed that I was struggling with acne while I was first embracing the vegan lifestyle. It seemed as if I failed to adequately represent the cause because I didn’t have the radiant, impeccable complexion that a vegan diet was supposed to give me. A few months into my acne issues, I had a conversation with my mom about how I felt so frustrated with the state of my skin and how I desperately wanted my old complexion back. Her response shifted my perspective on the matter nearly instantly. She told me, “Lexi- Every time you get a pimple, think of it as a cow or chicken kissing you and thanking you for not eating them.” That comment gave me a newfound appreciation for my acne. Strangely, I almost started to think of my acne as pretty. It was my body's way of processing this change; a change that would lessen the suffering done onto non-human, sentient beings. My acne was symbolic of a new commitment to becoming a better person. Even though I no longer have any cystic acne, I don’t necessarily feel more or less beautiful. A few years ago, I was striving to leave animals alone who just want to live. Today my mission remains the same, and I want to act on these beliefs every day. To me, this daily intention is much more beautiful than having porcelain skin or an unattainable body will ever be.