Confessions of a reluctant vegan

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I never thought I’d give-up meat.   Up to my mid fifties, I ate meat at virtually every meal, starting out with bacon and eggs in the morning; baloney sandwiches or a Big Mac for lunch; chicken or hamburger paddy at night.  Once a week I’d treat myself to a bucket of KFC chicken.  A steak was the right choice for special nights out.

Then it happened.  Karen shared an article she had just read in our local newspaper on the horrors of the turkey industry.  I’ll spare you the details, but it was pretty awful.

Both Karen and I then decided on switching to a veggie diet, though still including animal products such as eggs and cheese.  We made that decision the night before Thanksgiving Day, 1996, and we’ve been vegetarians now for close to 17-years and never looked back.

People choose vegetarianism for any of several reasons such as reducing weight, lowering heart risk, and promoting the environment.  We chose vegetarianism for ethical reasons, believing it wrong to inflict suffering on any sentient creature.  As the saying goes, always remember that the meat you eat once had a face.

The vegetarian diet, once you get past the meat cravings, is actually pretty good.  Sometimes it’s even too easy, what with all the veggie substitutes out there there for turkey, ham,  chicken and the like.  I can make a pasta dish complete with soy meatballs and fool people every time.  I can also fashion you a sumptuous veggie chili that tastes every bit like the original.  By the way, becoming a vegetarian doesn’t necessarily translate into a better diet than the ASD if you just gorge on junk foods like chips and sweets.

Transitioning to a vegan diet, however, has been a real challenge.  I chose to go this way about 15 months ago when a routine blood test showed my glucose at 108, meaning I was pre-diabetic.  It’s in this stage that you can make lifestyle changes that can prevent or delay the onset of diabetes.  I also found out I had high insulin resistance, meaning the insulin that the pancreas pumps out to handle blood sugar was having difficulty entering my cells, where it does its work.

I had to do two things in a hurry:  refine my diet even more by eliminating virtually all highly concentrated sugar foods such as soda, which I drank daily; candy, and baked goods.  I also needed to avoid refined, or processed, food products with their white flour, fructose, corn syrup and high sodium that are probably, along with meat and dairy, instigators of many of our health ills like obesity, coronary disease and, possibly, cancer.

I needed to eliminate foods having cholesterol content as well, which meant giving up cheese, one of my favorite foods.  Fatty foods clog the mitochondria, or cell gateways through which insulin accesses the cells, and obviously don’t do the arteries any good either.

Now I may surprise you when I say I don’t like going vegan–no more kitsch, or cheese, or morning fried eggs with buttered toast, or even pizza.  No more lovely potato salad.   No more sumptuous chocolate bars, cheese cake, apple pie.  Not even fruit juice.

It seems a diet made for hell, not heaven.  Frozen vegetables and mountains of lettuce just don’t cut it for me.  It’s like I’m turning into some kind of bunny.  It may have been ok for Gandhi, but hey, I’m not Gandhi.  Mexicans may love their beans, but day after day, it gets old for me.

What really makes things worse is that I’ve always been a slender guy not needing to lose weight.  On this diet over the past year, however, I’ve shed 15 pounds and have to cram nuts to steady my weight.  Weight loss may be great for most diabetics, who tend to be overweight, but not for yours truly.

At times I’m strongly tempted to compromise and resume the vegetarian diet, but then I remember it didn’t do anything for my insulin resistance, except maybe to encourage it.  Doing vegan, however, combined with aerobic exercise 5 times a week, I’ve cut my insulin resistance nearly in half, dropped my fasting glucose below 100, and have begun to transition from small LDL-p particles to the safer, large LDL-p particles.  Trigylcerides and bad cholesterol are way down;  HDL, the good cholesterol, is up sharply.  I think that’s where the second life style change kicks in.  You can’t just eat nutritionally dense foods.  You have to exercise vigorously 5 times a week for 30 minutes.  Even better, add resistance exercise 2 to 3 times a week.

But back to veganism.  Maybe it’s like being a baby again and Mama’s stand-by:  “Now eat up your veggies.  This bite’s for Mama.  This one for Papa.  This one for….

To put it frankly, I wish there were an easier, more appetizing route to good health.  But then again, all the studies that count show that diet matters and that a plant saturated diet does best for fostering good health.  The soundest dietary advice I ever got was put so simply by nutrition expert Michael Pollan in his fine book, In Defense of Food:  “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”  Though it isn’t easy, my own experience confirms its wisdom.


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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