Monday, January 31, 2011

The No-Dairy Fairy

One of the things I'm excited about when it comes to this project is to see how my body will react to not having dairy for two months. I've given up meat for long stretches before, but never dairy. I drank soy milk pretty regularly in my teens and also ate soy cheese, but have never made a conscious decision to cut dairy completely out of my life until now. It is definitely something I've thought about though, for a few different reasons.

For starters, I think I'm probably lactose intolerant. If I'm really honest with myself and stop to notice the signals my body gives me, I realize I do always feel pretty crappy after consuming dairy. Just a few sips of milk makes me nauseous and uncomfortable. My brother believes he's lactose-intolerant and has shunned dairy for years; there's no reason why it wouldn't run in the family. In fact, according to page 35 of Alicia Silverstone's The Kind Diet, it's estimated that most humans probably are lactose-intolerant, and that "those of us who can digest cow's milk are thought to have a genetic mutation that occurred thousands of years ago so we could survive on a herd's milk under harsh conditions." It's simple: humans aren't really supposed to drink milk from other animals. Alicia puts it like this: "Pandas don't drink gorilla milk...dogs don't drink goat milk...Even cows don't drink cow's milk once they've grown up--they wean themselves naturally."
Which brings me to my next point. Another reason I've wanted to give up dairy is because, simply put, it makes you fat. (And I'd be lying if I said that losing a few pounds wasn't part of what motivated me to do this vegan project in the first place.) Milk meant for babies to drink while they put on weight fast, in order to grow up big and strong. But you're not really supposed to drink it after you're a baby. We obviously don't drink human milk after a certain time in our lives, so why drink a cow's? Our bodies just aren't built for it. As Alicia says, "Remember: cow's milk is designed to turn a baby calf into a 400-pound cow." Milk is high in protein and fat, but low in carbs and completely devoid of fiber. It's not really of that much use to us, nutrition-wise. And besides, there are plenty of other places in nature to get calcium other than milk, and more per serving even: Chickpeas, soybeans and almonds all have more calcium milligrams per 100-gram serving than both butter and whole milk.

Milk also contributes to, exacerbates, and/or causes a whole host of health problems, including allergies, asthma, and even cancer! On page 36 of The Kind Diet, Alicia says, "The medical world acknowledges that some of the biggest factors in breast cancer are fat, animal protein, and excess estrogen. Well, since milking cows are pumped full of extra estrogen to make them lactate, dairy is your best and cheapest daily source of all three."

Don't even get me started about all the HORRIBLE stuff I've read in this book about the poor milking cows. They must be kept pregnant at all times in order to keep lactating (they don't lactate unless they are pregnant, just like humans), and when they give birth, their babies are taken away from them immediately, and the separation anxiety and sense of loss they have about their children being taken away is felt just as acutely by them as it would to us. The females are then raised to be dairy cows like their mothers, whereas the male calves, for six months, are "chained to little veal crates, not allowed to stand up, fed synthetic formula, and then slaughtered. And that is how we get veal. So if you use any cow dairy products, you are helping perpetuate the veal industry."

There have been times I've had to literally put this book down and cry while reading about the barbarism, the  injustice, and the torture we inflict on poor, innocent animals in dairy farms and slaughterhouses across the world every day. It's godawful. I know I was talking about dairy, but I'm going to go on a rant here for a minute.

I can't stop thinking about the stuff I read about the egg industry, for instance. It's just brutal. I'm going to quote directly from page 31 of The Kind Diet here: "More than 95 percent of eggs sold in the United States come from birds confined in wire battery cages so small they can hardly move. They are virtual laying machines who are sick, abused, and often starved. After all their hard work,  these birds end up so spent that the meat can only be used to make soup, chicken pies and pet food. The rest of the hens are in such bad shape by the end that they are beaten to death, gassed, or thrown live into wood chippers.

"Other victims of the egg industry are male chicks; because egg operations need many more hens than roosters, baby male chicks are routinely disposed of in one of two ways: Either they are thrown into dumpsters full of other baby chicks, left to suffocate, or they are put, live, through meat grinders to be fed to other livestock. Female chicks have their beaks ground off with a hot blade at 1 or 2 days old."

I can't get that phrase out of my head: Female chicks have their beaks ground off with a hot blade at 1 or 2 days old. No matter how you slice it, no matter what your opinion is about the consciousness or intelligence level of an animal, that is so wrong. I do happen to be one of those people who believe that animals have souls--however you define a soul, I believe they have them. But even if you don't believe that, there is no way to deny that animals, even little baby chicks, can feel pain. They're still living creatures. No matter how teeny of a brain a living thing has (compared to yours), no matter how low-ranking on the food chain or in your consciousness that creature might be, it is downright barbaric and wrong to grind its beak off with a hot blade at 1 or 2 days old. Not to mention throw it live into a wood chipper, or leave it in a dumpster to suffocate with hundreds of others of its kind. It's despicable.

"The greatness of a nation...can be judged by the way its animals are treated." --Mahatma Gandhi

I don't even know what to do about the stuff I've read: stories of cows not being properly stunned in the line and being skinned alive, kicking for freedom as their legs are cut off. Stories of pigs who, when they didn't measure up to industry standards, were killed by being picked up by the hind legs and bashed against the floor. That is just disgusting. If my resolve to eat no animal flesh or by-products ever wavers during this time, all I have do is think of these stories, and I am moved to help in any way I can. And the best way I can help right now is to not support the industries that perform these atrocities in any way. Which I am doing. Okay, deep breath. Back to dairy.

The reason I haven't given up dairy yet is simple: I love it. I love butter, cheese, milk and sour cream. I love Lay's Sour Cream and Onion chips to an insane, inappropriate degree. I've known for a while that giving up dairy would probably be the right move for me, but I've just never felt strong enough to kick it. And when I say "strong enough," I really mean it. Dairy is actually addicting. Alicia explains: "Milk contains a protein called casein, which breaks down in the body to become casomorphins, as in 'morphine.' Casomorphins have an opiate effect on your body and--like all good opiates--make you feel relaxed and happy...And that makes biological sense. Casomorphins were designed by nature to make a baby feel wonderful while attached to her mother." Which does, like she says, make good biological sense, but if that's so, it doesn't seem to make as much sense for a human to drink this same milk well into adulthood.

Luckily for me, there is such a thing as vegan butter and vegan sour cream. For the past few days, I've been relying on meals of a baked potato with Earth Balance buttery spread, Tofutti "Sour Supreme" (“Better than Sour Cream”), Athenos Cucumber Dill hummus, and alfalfa sprouts, with a side of Black Bean Chili that I made in my crock pot earlier in the week (recipe here: I used pintos and chickpeas for the contrasting beans. It turned out deliciously!). Baked potatoes have always been one of my absolute favorite foods, so it's been nice to eat so much of them again lately. When I was seven, a baked potato with butter and sour cream was my favorite snack. Now, as a 24-year-old aspiring vegan, I can still have this snack, albeit with a few veggie tweaks, which honestly, I hardly even notice. All I notice is baked potato-y goodness. All of the flavor and none of the nasty repercussions that come with consuming dairy.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

In The Veganning...

Hello. Welcome to the record of my dietary journey for the next two months. For a project for my Creative Nonfiction class, I am going vegan, using the book The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone as my guide. My blog title is a play on the phrase "in the beginning." It works on two levels, because not only am I writing about the beginning of my transition to a vegan lifestyle, but the phrase could serve as an accurate description of the process I'm actually going through as I do this. I'm "in the veganning," so to speak.

I was vegetarian for a while as a teenager, so some of what this diet entails is not new to me. I've already been schooled in how to mix and match different foods in order to make a complete protein. I eat a lot of rice and beans as it is, and am used to needing to survive on them. (I usually put cheese on them too but not so with this diet. Unless it's soy cheese.) I know there are lots of other ways to get protein without meat that I will be exploring along the way, but rice and beans are always a basic (and cheap!) way to go. I acquired quite a taste for foods like black beans, tofu, and sprouts during my time as a teenage vegetarian, so I think I have that in my favor when it comes to going vegan. These are foods that a lot of people have to get used to at the same time as getting used to not having meat and dairy as a large part of their diets, and I'm glad I've already experienced that in life so it's not such a shock to me now.

Going vegan is important to me because of how strongly I care about animals and their welfare. I am also always searching for the perfect way to nourish myself, and my instinct tells me it's not by trying to fuel myself with dead animal flesh. It's never seemed right to me, and my teenage vegetarianism was an attempt to really declare that about myself. I was vegetarian from ages 13-16, when I started eating meat again just because (short answer here) it was easier. I've always kind of felt like I was a vegetarian on hold, though: that even though I had fallen back into eating meat, I would get back to how I really wanted to be--vegetarian--some day. In fact, I have spent much of my life doing this: going along with whatever was around me even if it wasn't good for me, putting my real self on hold until I was sure, somehow, that it was safe to bring it out.

Well, now is the time, and this blog project is the perfect opportunity for me to try something I've always wanted to try: being vegan. I already feel better in the knowledge that for the next two months at least, I will be doing my best to consume no animal by-products or flesh. It takes a load off my mind and makes me feel calmer and more at peace with myself. It also makes me realize how much of my mind this issue normally occupies, and how important it really is to me to do something about it.

I will be sharing recipes and descriptions of fabulous vegan meals along the way. I am already convinced that there are more than enough delicious vegan foods in the world to choose from and that, if I plan well, I shall never feel bored or deprived following a vegan diet.