In February I attended an intensive 10-day yoga teacher training. As part of the training we were strongly encouraged to follow a vegan diet in the month preceding and during the training days. As a semi-vegetarian most of my life where I’ve cut out beef and pork due to personal preference, I didn’t think I’d have too much trouble. I mean, hey, I always treat myself to the local vegan spot whenever the Mr goes out of town. But you learn quickly how animal-based foods play a prominent role in the foods we eat. And I also soon began to miss those foods in my life.
Vegetarian and veganism are two of the fastest growing diets in the US. Vegetarian Times identified that 7.3 million Americans (3.2%) are vegetarians, while 1 million (0.5%) are vegans. Additionally, 22.8 million people (10%) of Americans follow a vegetarian-inclined diet. The majority of people who follow plant-based diets have cited health and weight loss/maintenance as their primary reasons, along with animal rights and environmental concerns.
In relation to my yoga teacher training, veganism is rooted in the primary principle of yoga known as ahimsa, which is “do no harm”. While yoga is often associated with bendy people doing fancy handstands touching feet to their heads, the physical aspect (known as asana) is only one part of the practice. In the 8-limbed approach to yoga, there are also ethics (yamas and niyamas), breathing (pranayama), and meditation practices (prathyahara, dharana, and dhyana) that also come into play to fully embody the yogic lifestyle. And the idea that no harm should be done to yourself or others is the root of all yoga practice and lifestyle. There is a lot of room for interpretation, and everyone is encouraged to find what works best for them.
Learn by Joining
I have a lot of friends who are vegans, and I love them equally as much as my non-vegan friends. As a dietitian, it’s important to be familiar with popular diets people follow in order to provide guidance. In the case of vegetarianism – and especially veganism – there are risks of being deficient in iron, calcium, and vitamins B12, A, and D due to the reduced or restricted intake of foods that are naturally higher sources. So I liked having the opportunity to immerse myself for the month to truly learn about the vegan lifestyle and how to guide people towards making smart choices with their meals. It also gave me a chance to give the diet a fair shot to determine that it’s simply not for me. However, during my time I learned quite a lot about veganism and the subsequent lifestyle:
1) Vegans need the company of other vegans.
To put it bluntly, following a strictly vegan diet is hard. And when you’re surrounded by those who are not vegan, it becomes even more of a challenge. In case you didn’t realize it, many social events are centered around food. And if you can’t eat the food being served, it makes for a pretty lame time (not to mention having to be extra careful with how much wine you’re drinking on an empty belly). Being surrounded by like-minded people takes away that stress. Plus, there’s a higher likelihood of vegan treats to enjoy. Which bring us to…
2) Vegans are forced to be creative.
Sure, it may be easy to cut out steak or chicken in your life. But eating salads non-stop is boring, so creativity is key when it comes to a vegan lifestyle. You don’t realize how many recipes call for milk, eggs, and cheese until you’re forced not to use them. Suddenly, I’m looking for new ways to moisten and bind food. Unsweetened almond or reduced-fat soy milk became the new staples in my house. Egg substitutes included chia seeds, ground flax, mashed bananas, and Neat Egg. I learned that cauliflower can be made into buffalo wings, oyster mushroom stems can create a scallop-like dish, and seitan can take many forms. Tofu is truly the blank canvas of food because it can take the shape and flavor of anything. It became a main source of protein when making breakfast scrambles, tacos, and even sandwiches. Oh, and I also learned that vegan cheese is gross (except for cashew cheese if made well).
3) Dining out is not fun.
My husband and I went out to brunch one morning while a friend was in town. Do you know how many options are available for a vegan on a brunch menu that features 90% egg dishes? Zippo. Even the salad had goat cheese on it. Plus, who the hell wants to go out to a nice brunch and get oatmeal (which most likely has milk and/or butter in it)??? I went with pancakes, which I’m sure had eggs and milk in it. I convinced myself it was OK if I couldn’t see the ingredients. Plus I was hungry.
I’m lucky that we do have some delicious vegan restaurants near my home (see below). However, convincing the Mr to go was the bigger hurdle. He did humor me one morning by going to the local vegan restaurant for brunch, but I think it will be awhile before I can get him back again.
There are limited take-out options for vegans of the world. For Japanese, there’s miso soup, seaweed salad, and veggie rolls. Indian became a popular cuisine when we went out to dinner because there were main dishes I could order that were actually filling. And don’t be fooled that salads are vegan-friendly – most have meat, cheese, or a cream-based dressing. A good old-fashioned bagel with a smear of PB for protein was my breakfast when we were on the go.
4) Vegans are extremely tolerant because they’re almost always the minority.
Namaste means “the light in me sees the light in you”. When you can understand where someone has been, it’s easier to see where they’re coming from. As stated above, vegans are always the first overlooked when it comes to social situations. From being a dietitian, I’m always aware of people’s food preferences/allergies before I host an event. Unfortunately, not everyone makes this much of an effort. For this reason, I was starting to eat meals before going to any party or event so I wouldn’t be leaving starving or pigging out on chips out of desperation. I admire my vegan friends with who are not afraid to speak up and let their food preferences be known or just say “F it” and bring their own food with them. However, there are a few exceptions where judging comes out on both parties. Remember that everyone has their reasons for following a chosen eating lifestyle – don’t preach, nag, or food shame someone.
5) Vegans need to be smart label-readers.
I spent way more time in what the Mr calls the “crunchy section” of my local supermarkets than I ever had prior to my vegan experience. What I learned is that there are A LOT of junky foods out there hawking themselves as “vegan-friendly”. Pre-made and pre-packaged foods are the biggest offenders, loaded with sodium, fat, and unnecessary ingredients to make them just like their non-vegan counterparts. Sticking with fresh produce and whole grains is the easiest way to keep the junk out.
Vegan Dining at the Jersey Shore
If you’re curious about dabbling in a vegan diet, looking to cut back on animal-based foods in your life, or want to treat your vegan friends to a meal they can eat, check out some of these spots at the Jersey Shore if you’re ever in the area:
Cinnamon Snail, various locations (food truck and catering)
Cookman Creamery, Asbury Park (homemade vegan ice cream!)
Good Karma Kafe, Red Bank
Kaya’s Kitchen, Belmar
Local Urban Kitchen, Brielle & Point Pleasant Beach
Papa Ganache, Matawan (vegan bakery)
Seed to Sprout, Avon-by-the-Sea
Talula’s, Asbury Park
Twisted Tree Cafe, Asbury Park
Are you vegan or did you experiment with a vegetarian/vegan diet at some point? Share your experience in the Comments!