lots vegetables

Veganism Means Expansion, Not Restriction

It may seem paradoxical that eliminating anything from your diet leads you to a more varied  and adventurous diet, but in the case of eliminating animal products, it’s true. Contrary to the  common misperception that vegan diets are limiting, once you are freed of the habit of seeing meals as the standard “meat, starch, and a side dish of vegetables,” you become less culinarily limited. When you fill most of your dinner plate with vegetables and grains, formerly known as “side dishes,” your food curiosity and creativity will be liberated. You’ll want new ways to prepare your familiar potatoes and broccoli, and new foods to accompany them.  And if you’ve been cooking-challenged, there’s a good chance that if you go vegan you’ll learn to enjoy cooking.

So many people I know say that after they went vegan their diets became much more diverse and interesting. What explains the culinary expansions of new vegans? Aside from learning to cook, here are some other factors that may contribute to their discoveries of unexpected abundance:

  • Seasonal and local eating

Being vegan can prompt you to shop at your local farmers market, and therefore to eat with the seasons. If you do, you probably won’t eat the same kind of meal two days in a row. Trying all the foods of each season brings a natural variety to our diets. Even now in the “bleak” winter, I’m eating so much good local food: squash, kale, sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips, roasted chestnuts, beans….

If you shop at a farmers market in the northeast U.S., you could expand your range of foods and flavors every season. Try garlic scapes, pawpaws, kohlrabi, Jerusalem artichokes, black currants, gooseberries, or amaranth.  If your market has prepared food, you might get burritos, falafel sandwiches, and vegan brownies – something different every market day.

  • Buy locally, eat globally

Naturally, eating local food is best for the environment, but in this age of global information access, there’s nothing to prevent us from turning our farmers market purchases into exotic meals based on hundreds of food cultures. It isn’t hard to veganize international recipes. Since animal products, when unsubsidized, are expensive, many of the world’s populations already eat a primarily plant-based diet. We have cookbooks and restaurants from Thailand (coconut milk-based soups), Indonesia (tofu with toasted coconut), India (curries and lentils), Ethiopia (stew with flat bread), the Middle East (baba ghanoush, hummus), Mexico and South America (tacos, enchiladas). Of course there’s Chinese rice, vegetables, and sauces, and Japan gives us miso, tofu, tamari, umeboshi plum paste, seaweed, vegetable sushi, inari….

Many Americans don’t experience much of the global cornucopia of food. We eat kale and Swiss chard, but Chinese cuisine includes over 1,100 green leafy vegetables. We eat apples, but only a few of the 7,500 varieties that are grown around the world. There are over 2,000 varieties of peaches, and 18,000 kinds of legumes, including 8,000 kinds of beans (soy beans are only one of that wealth of options…) Nuts and seeds are often overlooked by meat-eaters – flax, chia, sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, millet, quinoa, and many others that you can sprout on your kitchen counter: mung beans, fenugreek, peas… And there’s hazelnut and cashew butter… 

  • Wild edibles

Breaking out of old routines stimulates curiosity, so new vegans are more likely to forage for edible plants in their neighborhoods: the ultimate in seasonal and local eating. This year I’ve tried garlic mustard, autumn olives, and 20 other wild plants – quite an expansion of edible options.

  • Many alternatives

When you start looking for alternatives to one product – cows’ milk – you can replace it with milks made from almonds, soy, rice, hemp, oats, coconut, or cashews, and flavored with chocolate or vanilla if you like. Give up burgers made from animal flesh, and discover burgers made from beans, oats, beets, and other vegetables. Give up cheese made from cows’ milk, and discover cheeses made from nuts http://treelinecheese.com/, tapioca starch http://us.daiyafoods.com/, and nutritional yeast.  Not to mention replacing animal flesh with tempeh, tofu, and truly delicious vegan meats from companies like Tofurky http://www.tofurky.com/ and Field Roasthttp://fieldroast.com/

  • Plenty to eat

If you replace animal products and processed foods with whole plant foods, you can eat more than you ever did! Whole plant foods are rich in fiber, which fills you up without excess calories. I feel anything but limited as I eat bowlfuls of vegetables, grains, and fruits, without worrying about gaining weight.

Vegan eating can of course be unimaginative and unhealthy: a diet of potato chips and Coca-Cola is vegan. But generally when people go vegan they tend to become more adventurous eaters, perhaps for the reasons given here. However, a diverse diet is a result of switching to vegan eating, not a motivation for it.

I choose to avoid foods that cause unnecessary suffering and destruction. That choice requires no more sacrifice than choosing not to inflict harm on any person or animal in any situation. Choosing to cause less harm brings me not restriction, but joy. Gary Francione said, “Veganism is not a limitation in any way; it’s an expansion of your love, your commitment to nonviolence, and your belief in justice for all.” Being vegan is about being big-hearted, seeing the big picture, and including all sentient beings, not just a chosen few, in our awareness and sphere of concern. It’s about being bigger, not more limited.

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