Erika Shevchek: Let's talk veganism

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Monday, October 9, 2017 - 4:59pm

It seems like a modern social standard to make jokes and jabs at vegetarians and vegans. As a vegetarian of almost two years, and now a vegan of two months, I’ve heard enough commentary from outsiders to write a whole book about it. But to be honest, many of them are funny or interesting or insightful, so I just roll with the punches.

Society is constantly mocking this diet for a plethora of reasons — one is the stigma that all vegans are bougie-ass, arrogant, “Save the animals!” activists that will spend a whopping six bucks on some organic celery stick. Another is that the U.S. has a heavy meat and dairy industry, and if you’re not eating some sort of animal product daily, you’re doing something wrong.

Some beg the idea that vegan diets don’t provide the same nutrients that animal-based products do (which is both true and false, though mostly circumstantial). And as an athlete, I’ve loved the “Well, how do you get protein?” question. Oh of course! How could I forget? Because the only protein source comes from a cow or a chicken!

My point here isn't to give comebacks for all the jabs and questions. I could throw facts or statistics out there, but that is why we have the internet and food documentaries. Instead, I want to reflect on my journey of becoming a vegan and how my body and mind has so far reacted to this lifestyle.

It was January 2016. I was a pretty toxic freshman by eating crappy foods, picking at my acne and partying on weekends. I felt nasty, both internally and externally, and I knew I needed a change. Luckily my best friend, Emma, had been a vegetarian for a few months at the time, and of course, she convinced me to do it too.

But it wasn't as easy as “Emma’s a vegetarian, so now I will be one too!” I come from the Philly area, which is known to be meat-heavy area: hoagies, cheesesteaks, pork roll, scrapple, etc. I’m also deeply involved with my heritage, and Ukrainian and Hungarian foods are loaded with meat and dairy products. Vegetarianism, and of course veganism, was not easy for me to do.

Nonetheless, after those first two weeks of not eating meat, I shockingly didn't miss it at all. The taste and the texture of it all, it already felt so foreign to me. Cheese was still my best friend though, and even now as a vegan, it is something I do miss once in awhile (especially when my housemates make a bunch of grilled cheese or order Domino’s pizza).

Flash forward to June of this year. I hadn’t eaten meat for eighteen months, I had lost weight, both from vegetarianism and a lack of weight training, and overall, I was feeling pretty great. I was exercising regularly and filling up on as much tofu as possible. But there was still something about myself that I still wasn't super content with: my skin, my constant tiredness, my lack of drive.

I visited Emma this summer, and she made us a delicious vegan dinner of baked cauliflower, salad and vegan chicken. I was so surprised at how easy that meal was to cook, and even better, how the meal turned out to be delicious. It was at this moment when I realized if I could eat delicious meals like this one, then there is no doubt in my mind that I could be a vegan.

So I started cutting down on cheese, milk and eggs. I ate one vegan meal a day, which usually consisted of a big bowl of black beans, edamame, tofu, chickpeas, peas and quinoa. Those once-a-day meals turned into two and then three. I began buying vegan cheese and meat to use in my cooking, and although it tastes different, it’s a taste I am acquiring quickly. Regardless of the flavors and the specificity of the diet, my body and my brain have never been better.

Now I feel fuller on just two meals, and I eat more vegetables and fruits than I ever have before. My skin cleared up drastically within the first month, and I cut down on caffeine because I realized I didn't need it — without lethargy, I now wake up ready to take on the day.

In a way, I simply feel lighter — in fact, I feel happier. Maybe that’s due to outside factors like friends and good classes, but regardless, I don’t feel weighed down like I used to when I ate dairy or meat. I look forward to every meal I make, seeing what I can add to my diet to make it balanced. I’ve opened up to new foods that I wouldn't eat in the past (hello, tomatoes and kale). And overall, this whole experience has given me a sense of sureness.

Having a vegan diet has truly changed me for the better. Beyond the great impact it has made to me physically and mentally, it’s made me a more committed person. There is power in committing to transforming your body, in saying no to foods that are wrong for your body and for the environment and in allotting time to cook new meals. I love seeing what my body and brain are capable of doing, and veganism has shown me how healthy and clean I can be.