This summer will be 20 years as a vegan for me. When I was in high school my best friend became an ethical vegetarian, and introduced me to the The Smiths, and their album Meat Is Murder. The intent of the lyrics is obvious, and it worked on me! I read books on the subject, like Diet for a New America by John Robbins and Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. This was in the fall, and when Thanksgiving rolled around, my family offered me a slice of turkey and I declined. “Okay, next time,” they said. I replied that no, I will never be eating an animal again. As I got older and went to college I learned about veganism and I knew it was for me. But at that time, 1992, a college dorm cafeteria or dining hall had very limited options even for vegetarians, and eating a vegan diet would have been impossible without sacrificing nutrition. So I moved off campus as soon as I could, and in 1994 in my own apartment I taught myself how to cook and never looked back!
Is the vegan diet a healthy lifestyle for a man?
Traditionally our society has believed that animal protein, and meat in particular, are the source of male virility and strength. There is no science behind this belief; in fact quite the opposite. It is cultural conditioning and the negative consequences to the American people (heart disease, obesity, etc.) are staggering. Personally, I am vegan primarily for ethical reasons, but the benefits to my health are almost as compelling. When I stopped eating dairy products, my energy increased, and the severity of my seasonal allergies greatly diminished. As a label reader, I know that a huge majority of the highly processed snacks and food products in the supermarket contain animal ingredients and are thus eliminated from my diet. I spend most of my shopping time in the produce section and none of my time in the cookie aisle. That is definitely a healthy lifestyle for a man!
As a school teacher, do you have any opportunities to share information about veganism with your students? If yes, how have they reacted?
I work with elementary school age children, so I have to be mindful of offending parents. “Mommy, Mr. Engel said eating meat is bad!” But I’m always honest about it, and teaching compassion is always a good thing. This year my school has a dedicated nutrition program in the classroom, introducing the children to healthy foods. Unfortunately some students in low income neighborhoods get their food from the corner store, and that often means a bag of salty chips and a juice box that is really just colored sugar water. Believe it or not, many of them at the start of the program didn’t even know that meat comes from the body of a dead animal! Now, they know what a vegetarian is, and the seeds are planted that it is possible to make compassionate dietary choices. In fact the most important thing I teach is to think about the world around you and not just do what everyone else does! I have taught older children in the past, and you can have even more of an effect on them. I remember once I was telling a group of 4th graders about why I’m a vegan, and I looked at one of them, and on her face you could see the paradigm shift happening at that very instant. Later that week I was grading their vocabulary tests, and for “boycott” she wrote “I will boycott meat because it hurts animals.” Moments like that give you hope for the future!
As a long term vegan, do you have any special advice for people that are beginning to embark on their journey towards veganism?
Everyone is different, and perfection or purity is not the goal. In fact, it is not even possible, so just relax and don’t stress about it. Take it as quickly or slowly as you need to feel comfortable. I enjoy reading labels because I don’t want to support those products economically. But if label reading is a drag for you, don’t do it. I get really sad when I hear, “I was vegan for a little while…” because that means it felt like work to them and they’ve given up. I’d rather hear that people are “mostly vegan” or “usually vegan” and it’s easy and they keep it up, because it shouldn’t feel like work, it should make you feel good!
Thank you Michael!