I've been humbled in recent months by the very kind attention given to my new book, "Veganist." As a result of the attention, I've been getting a lot of emails and inquiries, and perhaps the most popular question is some variant of "How did you do it?"
Obviously I didn't pop out of the womb a veganist.
In fact, I was born in the South and grew up on chicken-fried steak and cheesy grits. I loved nothing more than milk shakes and barbecue ribs. I had an appetite for meat like anyone else, and I didn't think twice about it. I wasn't a thoughtless person; I was just enjoying my life and eating what tasted good and what I was told was good for me. It wasn't until I was in my 30s that I started considering where my food came from.
When I made the shift to being vegetarian, it was gradual. I gave up eating one animal at a time. I'd come home and tell my husband, "I'm not cooking any more steak." He'd roll his eyes and say, "Whatever." And some months later, I'd be standing in the kitchen saying, "I can't put chicken on the table anymore" -- he was a little more perturbed about that. Later still, when I said I couldn't bring myself to buy cheese anymore, he thought I'd lost my mind.
Luckily, by then, I began hitting my stride with this lean toward a plant-based diet. I found so, so many delicious foods that were actually the same as our favorite meals, but without the meat. Sometimes I brought home meat alternatives (vegetarian versions of chicken or ribs, etc.) and sometimes I focused more on beans, legumes, and whole grains (like black bean burritos with guacamole or lentil soup with wild rice salad).
I began to love vegan food, and so did my husband, who said one day, "If I thought I could have eaten this well as a vegetarian, I would have gone that way a long time ago." There was no loss. No stringent diet or "bird food." We simply lightened up on the animal-based foods and replaced them with plant-based fare. It took a few years, but eventually, we had a vegan home and were entertaining friends and family with unbelievably delicious (and nutritious) food.
Hence, I became a veganist!
A veganist is someone who looks closely at all of the implications of their food choices -- to his or her own body, to the animals, and to the environment -- and then chooses to lean in to a plant-based diet. The suffix "ist" means "one who does" or "one who studies," so a veganist takes what he or she learns and puts it into action by eating things that grow on trees or in the ground. All of this said, the word is intended as a soft word, a forgiving word. It's all about progress, not perfection.
My husband coined the word veganist one day when I was going on with one of my usual schpiels about the virtues of a plant-based diet and he said, "Honey, you are a veganist!" (I told you it's a gentle word). Vegan used to seem odd, but today things are different (so much so that top chefs rated veganism as the hip new trend of 2010); being a veganist is about being passionate, aware, and solution-oriented.
Think of it this way: just like a violinist is devoted to learning more and practicing the violin, so does a veganist take an intense interest in all things vegan.
As I coach people on their way to giving up meat, dairy, fish, and eggs, I always recommend "leaning into it" (as I did here) so they don't get too overwhelmed by the changes. If you shift your eating patterns gradually, just by giving up eating one animal at a time (start by giving up chickens) or subbing out a favorite meal by veganizing the protein (opting for a black bean burrito instead of a beef burrito for instance), you have more breathing room to discover new food choices and menus. When I decided that vegan made sense, I was suddenly overwhelmed with what I didn't know, what I could and couldn't eat. So I just set my intention to be vegan, and then made the incremental changes little by little until I was entirely comfortable with the new fare.
Eating vegan is a substantial pillar to our health and wellbeing; it's good for us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Food is so foundational, so much a part of our daily routine. It reflects who we are and what we value. So eating a vegan diet is the perfect opportunity to put into action -- regularly -- what's important to us.