Sunday, 27 November 2011

003: But how do you get...?

As a vegan, a question I find myself constantly being asked is in relation to nutrition, usually in the form of: “but how do you get...?”  I don’t see it as a particularly challenging question, although I do know it is (more often than not) asked with the intention of somehow catching me off-guard and thus reducing me to a stuttering wreck who mutters something about lettuce and vitamin tablets before turning bright red (or beetroot, as us vegans prefer, har har).  No, I’m afraid what I eat isn’t challenging at all.  People want it to be.  They want veganism to be difficult to get right, difficult to follow.  It gives them another reason to label it as a “fad diet” or “extreme lifestyle”; incidentally, the way it is portrayed in the media (thank you Natalie Portman, Megan Fox et al).  This gives them another excuse to say “oh, I could never be a vegan, it’s too hard”. 

Following the “but how do you get...?” question is usually a changeable, but repeated, list of suffixes generally highlighting certain aspects of food which we have been told from Day One that we can only successfully acquire from the big Meat-and-Dairy diet.  The main suffixes usually proceed thusly: “[but how do you get] your protein/calcium/iron?” Well, I guess the easiest way would be to show you.

Where do you get protein?

The biggest sources of protein, we are told by GPs, the media, the food industries and so forth, are: meat and fish, eggs and cow’s milk.  An interesting fact worth noting here is that, where vegan diets are proven to provide correct and adequate amounts of protein to one’s diet, omnivores tend to eat more protein than is required or healthy.  And yes, too much protein is in fact a bad thing.  It is linked to kidney problems as well as kidney stones, to causing a calcium imbalance which can cause mineral loss in bones, as well as leading to higher levels of cholesterol and fat.  Furthermore, soya protein is actually equivalent in biological value to animal-derived protein. 1  This completely nullifies this idea that one must consume meat and dairy in order to have high levels of protein!

Vegans, on the other hand, obtain their protein from pulses (peas, beans, lentils, soya products), grains (wheat, oats, rice, barley, buckwheat, millet, pasta, bread), nuts (brazils, hazels, almonds, cashews) and seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame).   Personally, I don’t see anything in there that’s particularly faddy or extreme, just good, clean, wholesome proteins designed to fill you up and aid in muscle growth.  Ah, wonderful protein. 

Where do you get calcium?

Everyone knows the answer to this one.  The best source of calcium is milk, right? Wrong.  Put down that glass of white stuff, people.  There ARE other ways to get calcium in your system without aggravating your body with another species’ baby juices.  Just 42g of almonds provide 100mg of calcium, or a 54g serving of brown bread will get you the same. 2  Leafy greens, spinach, broccoli, curly kale, watercress and spring greens also contain calcium and have the added bonus of being from vegetables, which aid calcium absorption.  Tofu also contains calcium, and most dairy-free milks such as soya and rice milk are fortified with calcium.  It’s never been something I’ve worried about as a vegan.

Where do you get iron?

Another easy one.  Red meat, duh.  Oh, and liver.  Mmm, yummy liver.  Again, there ARE other options out there. Nuts, for example – particularly cashews and pistachios.  Lentils and chickpeas also have a high iron content, as well as wholemeal bread and even dried apricots.  So, there’s really no need to worry over a vegan’s iron intake.  In fact, studies show that iron deficiency in vegans is no more prominent than in meat-eaters.  What is interesting to note, is that with meat, up to 22% of the iron is absorbed, whereas around 1-8% from plant foods is absorbed.  What increases the absorption of iron in plant foods is the presence of vitamin C, found in foods such as oranges and cauliflower amongst many others.  In fact, it tends to increase the absorption levels by three-fold. 3 And since a vegan diet is commonly high in vitamin C levels, vegans are able to maintain or exceed healthy iron levels, often without even consciously trying.

These are by no means an exhaustive list of the nutritional questions I come up against as a vegan; I have merely found them to be the most common, and also the ones in most need of being myth-busted.  As a vegan, one is generally more actively involved in what goes into ones diet, therefore allowing for a more conscious effort to be aware of nutritional content.    

Friday, 5 August 2011

002: Speciesism.

Many people will accuse a vegan of caring more about the rights of animals than the rights of humans, and this is simply not true.  It’s sort of an equal amount of caring to be honest.  You see, we tend to see the world as made up of beings – we’re all sharing one planet together, and everyone and everything should be allowed to live happily and without harm.  Therefore most vegans, if not all, will grimace and groan at the notion of speciesism; this is, after all, where animal cruelty seems to stem from – humans thinking that, because they’ve managed to become top of the food chain in their urban environment, it somehow means they can treat other species with nothing but cruelty and contempt.  Power begets corruption, it seems. 

Speciesism, in case you are unaware (like I was mere months ago), is the assignment of different levels of power and rights to one species dependent on their specific qualities as a species.  It is a term coined by British psychologist Richard R. Ryder in 1973.  In his book Victims of Science: The Use of Animals in Research (1975) he states:
 "I use the word 'speciesism’ to describe the widespread discrimination that is practised by man against other species ... Speciesism is discrimination, and like all discrimination it overlooks or underestimates the similarities between the discriminator and those discriminated against."

In short, it is a form of discrimination.  Think of it this way.  For centuries, humans have divided themselves into sub-sects dependent on different qualities of our own ‘humanity’ – race, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, amongst hundreds of others.  These divisions caused wars, and still do.  Racial discrimination led to slavery, religious discrimination has resulted in holocausts; it’s all around us in the history books and on the current news.  People believing themselves to be of higher worth removed the rights of people deemed of lower worth.  Speciesism is another sub-sect, another forced removal of rights from living, feeling beings simply because people have decided they are of lesser worth.  And how do we measure worth? Well, by usefulness to us as humans, of course.  We love to exploit lesser beings, and lesser humans.  Where less worthy humans were able to rise up through political protest and eventually acquire their own equal rights, animals are without this platform.  They can’t speak out against the injustices done against them.  But does that make them any less deserving of the right to live? If a child is born deaf, and blind, and dumb, do we discard it as useless? No.  We go out our way to accommodate them; we have specifically developed programmes for these children to live fulfilling lives - and rightfully so.  No one person should be measured by what they can offer to society, and neither should the rest of the inhabitants of this world.

But this is exactly what we do with animals.  We measure their worth by what we feel they can offer to society.  Are they edible? Then over-breed them and send them to the slaughterhouses.  Do they produce goods which are edible? Then over-breed them, force them to overproduce these goods, take these goods and send the animal to the slaughterhouses when they’re all used up.  Do they produce or possess goods which can be manufactured into clothing, fashion items and other household products? Then over-breed them, strip them of these goods, send them to the slaughterhouses or dispose of them if inedible.  But what of those animals that are cute, cuddly, or demonstrate the ability to show a form of affection towards a human? Well, over-breed them, sell them as stock and put them in the home for companionship purposes.  After all, just as we need to eat and cover our bodies in clothing, we also require a basic need of companionship and to feel loved.  All animals can offer love, affection, companionship, but we only choose to accept this from animals which fit into our home lives and which fit the criteria of cute and/or cuddly.  After all, who wants an ugly, un-cuddly pet?

Of course, many people will and do support speciesism, either actively or unconsciously.  Humans are capable of self-awareness, of logical, rational and philosophical thought, of creating and inventing, seemingly more so than other animals.  Because of this, people believe we are naturally superior.  But what I’m hopefully conveying here is that, even if we are superior in many ways, does that give us the right to exploit those we have deemed inferior? I certainly think not.

Richard D. Ryder coined another interesting term more recently that more eloquently echoes what I have been discussing.  In an article featured in The Guardian, entitled All beings that feel pain deserve human rights: Equality of the species is the logical conclusion of post-Darwin morality (August 6 2005), he wrote:
“Our concern for the pain and distress of others should be extended to any 'painient'—pain-feeling—being regardless of his or her sex, class, race, religion, nationality or species.  Indeed, if aliens from outer space turn out to be painient, or if we ever manufacture machines who are painient, then we must widen the moral circle to include them. Painience is the only convincing basis for attributing rights or, indeed, interests to others.”

This blog entry is by no means exhaustive.  There are many angles, arguments and subtext in which to take into account.  Hopefully, I’ve provided a decent overview of speciesism.  Here are a couple of useful links if you feel inclined to read further.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

001: Introduction.

I decided to start a blog to link in with my Twitter account, mainly because I seem to only use my Twitter as a platform to moan about daily life, which I realise can’t be that fun for other people, least of all me.  So, as you can probably tell by my handle, I’m vegan, I’m Scottish, and yes, I’m a girl.  So, allow me to expand.

I became vegan in December 2010 after a long process of “the switchover”, i.e., the switch from vegetarian to vegan.  I went vegetarian in January 2008, mainly because I’d always wanted to be vegetarian, but had never bothered to really commit.  So, I took the step, announced to my parents that I would no longer be eating meat, and thus a vegetarian was born.  I was so pleased with myself, openly and proudly announcing when offered a meat-based meal “no thank you, I’m Vegetarian.” I believed vegetarianism to be the way forward.  Don’t eat meat, and immediately save the planet.  I shuddered at the thought of veganism – bunch of hardcore hippies in their hemp clothing munching on beans and salads – why would you not eat dairy? The cows were already producing milk, so what would be the point in not drinking it? Who would that be helping? Then we’d just have all of this surplus milk lying around, and that seemed awfully wasteful to me.  So I continued to be vegetarian, and shun veganism as “extreme”, and I was quite content in my little bubble. 

My vegetarian life slowly began to unravel as time went on.  While working in Starbucks, I was chatting to a friend about whatever night out we’d just had, discussing the different drinks we’d (regrettably) had.  Then one co-worker pointed something out that really stuck with me: “What I don’t get, right, is that people say they are vegetarian, but then you see them drinking a pint of Tennent’s.” I was immediately baffled by this statement.  What was so wrong with drinking Tennent’s, that wonderfully cheap Scottish lager? Well, my co-worker pointed out, her vegetarian friend had informed her that the filtering process in which most beers and wines go through contain a harmless-sounding element named “isinglass”.  Never heard of it? Neither had I.  Well, I was rather disgusted by what I found.  Essentially, isinglass is dried fish bladder.  Yummy.  It’s used to make the beers and wines appear clearer, so that they’re more pleasing to the eye.  Here’s more on isinglass if you so choose to peruse. So began my first trek of the internet for vegetarian-friendly fare.   Most beers and wines were out, and I now had a list of alcohol to memorise to ensure I only drank vegetarian beer or wine.  This may sound like a hassle, but it wasn’t.  I’ve always maintained that one of my main secrets to the success of my veganism is the baby steps I took in getting there.  My vegan journey began in January 2008; I just didn’t realise it at the time.

Now that I knew there were “secret” ingredients out there, I began to tread more carefully.   I mean, isinglass? Why not just call a spade a spade and label it fish bladder? Oh right, because ignorance is bliss; people would much rather consume isinglass than fish bladder.  It’s ridiculous, but you know it’s true.  It’s the same reason you shut down a vegan before they can “ruin” your favourite meal, even though you know deep down that the meal is already “ruined”, and the vegan’s words would make no difference other than bursting that bubble.   This is around the time I happened across a wonderful site called Volentia. It was dubbed as a social networking site for vegetarians and vegans, and I immediately fell in love with it.  You created your own profile just like Myspace or Facebook, uploading pictures and updating your status, but there was also an option to choose whether you were vegan, vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, and so on.  Again, this was an eye opener.  There were different kinds of vegetarians? Why? Well, this was all down to eggs and dairy.  You see, an ovo-vegetarian includes eggs, but not dairy; a lacto-vegetarian includes dairy, but not eggs, and a lacto-ovo vegetarian contains both dairy and eggs.  So, realising I fell into this category, I clicked the option and went on my merry way, introducing myself around the site and making new friends who all shared this common interest.  The more I explored this site, the wider my eyes were opened.  For years, I had thought the main divide in diets existed between meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters.  But I was astounded to find that there was a sub-division; that between vegetarians and vegans.  Don’t get me wrong, we’re on the same side, but I got the distinct notion that vegetarians were regarded as “baby vegans”.  Essentially, future vegans in the making.  I read all the forums, the posts and rants between vegans and vegetarians, and the more I read, the more unsure of my vegetarian life I became.  I had always thought that the meat industry was the one big evil in the world, but this was sadly naive of me.  The dairy industry, the poultry and egg industry, the fur and leather (not to mention wool and silk) industries, even the entertainment industry (circus, anyone?), seemed to all be in this together, exploiting animals in any way they could for a profit.  I was sickened.  How could I be so naive? Walking around, calling myself vegetarian, yet wearing leather shoes, made from the same skin of the animal I proclaimed too sentient to eat? Why was I allowed to make that kind of distinction? I wasn’t, and I couldn’t.  I started cyber-stalking all of the self-proclaimed vegans, reading their blogs about why vegetarianism just isn’t enough.  I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again; it was eye opening.  I slowly started to realise that vegans were not extreme, hardcore hippies.  They were just everyday people who cared so much about the planet and all of its inhabitants that they chose not to exploit them in the name of diet, fashion and comfort.  This didn’t seem extreme at all.  This seemed like the most sensible decision anyone could make.

So, by the beginning of 2010, I was already on my way to becoming vegan.  I made all the necessary arrangements; selling off all of my old leather and suede shoes and belts and replacing them with a kinder alternative, finding internet sites that gave clear and concise advice and support on being vegan (again, Volentia was amazing here), I purchased a few books on veganism, and I informed my parents.  I live at home, and any major changes in lifestyle have to realistically be run by them first.  I informed them that this wasn’t a fad, or a phase, and it certainly wasn’t a diet; this was a decision that I was making for myself, and I was just being courteous in letting them know.  They scoffed at first, calling me extreme and a hippy, but they’ve slowly taken to it over time and now they’re both dab hands at vegan cooking! All the time I was doing this, I’ll admit I was still eating certain dairy items.  As I was phasing out my clothing etc in stages, I decided to phase out my non-vegan food items in stages also.  First to go was milk, replaced with soy milk.  I have to say, I’m not the biggest fan of soy milk.  It’s quite thick and the aftertaste leaves much to be desired.  After lots of “researching” (drinking LOTS of vegan milk!) I settled upon rice milk.  Try it, it’s delicious, especially in cereal.  So, this part was easy.  The next to go was cheese; my one true love.  I was NOT happy about giving up cheese, I’ll say that right now.  Macaroni cheese? A stuffed crust extra-cheese margarita pizza? Cheesy pasta salads? Cheese savoury Big Softies from Greggs? Even now, my mouth salivates at the thought.  Cheese is delicious, there’s no way around that.  It’s addictive! I was having a hard time quitting, especially after many nights out where I was in the chip shop and the only thought my drunken mind could seem to form was “chips and cheese!” But then, I had my moment.  My epiphany, if I may be so spiritual.  I watched a video about the exploitation of animals.  It was a behind-the-scenes documentary, narrated by celebrity-vegan Joaquin Phoenix, and it was free to watch online.  It showed everything from slaughterhouses to hen houses, the milk farms to circuses.  And the one recurrent them throughout the whole film was pain.  I was in tears throughout.  I have never been so moved by a piece of film before.  This film was called Earthlings, and it changed my life. 

So, I’m going to round this introductory entry up now by explaining what my future blogs will entail.  I plan on discussing what it is like being a vegan in Scotland, a major meat-and-dairy country.  I’ll also be showing what it’s like to be a vegan on a budget, and some of my purse-friendly meals that I have created (along with the help of my dad).  Being a girl, being vegan also affects those girly essentials: cosmetics.  I’ll show you all my different products that I use, as well as any tips I’ve picked up along the way.  I’m also a major advocate of clothes-recycling i.e. second-hand shopping.  My favourite way of doing this is through ebay, so I’ll also show you guys my wonderfully cheap ebay purchases, as well as how to effectively buy and sell on ebay.  I also plan on doing reviews, beginning with a review of Earthlings, and of the different vegan books I have purchased, along with the best websites for being a vegan girl, a vegan Scot, or just a vegan in general! Hopefully this sounds interesting, and thanks for reading my first ever vegan blog.