Ideas sometimes come from weird places.
For example, just before the office Christmas party, where I planned to eat my weight in ham, turkey and cheese, I got an email from a publicist for something called “Veganuary.” The email read:
“The worldwide Veganuary campaign is back, and they want everyone to try great food, feel fantastic, reduce animal suffering, and tread lighter on the earth.
“People in 115 countries pledged to try veganism this past January. The final tally: 71 percent of participants felt an improvement in their health in just one month, 65 percent learned something new about animal agriculture, and a whopping 51 percent said they’re staying vegan permanently. Best of all, organizers say, Veganuary 2015 saved the lives of 1,596,180 animals.”
After snickering about another hippie marketing campaign, I took a second to think about it — what did I know about vegans or veganism?
Not much, really.
Most of my ideas about vegans largely come from unpleasant communications with folks associated with animal rights groups, who tend to send me tersely worded emails and light up my phone whenever I write about the circus (even when I write about the clowns).
The rest come from what I’ve seen on television and in movies, where vegans are never the hero, but typically the too-serious killjoy who occasionally gets eaten by something as comic relief.
But thin. I remembered that. Vegans are thin. They are always thin.
So, basically, I knew nothing. But the publicist’s email certainly pointed to reasons why someone might quit meat and animal products. You might do it for your health or to lose weight. We frequently hear that eating a vegetarian diet is better for us.
Choosing to eat broccoli over beef is supposed to be better for the environment, too. Save the planet and all that.
Also not eating meat means fewer dead animals.
None of these seemed to be bad reasons.
So, I thought I could give that a try — go vegan for a month and see if I could live with it. But then the conversation evolved. January is often a month for New Year’s resolutions and ambitious plans for change and growth.
What else did I not understand?
The answer to that question turned into the plan for a year-long mission, a goal to explore twelve different topics over the next twelve months.
We’re calling it, “One Month at a Time.”
To be sure, some of the ideas on the list have a certain double-dog-dare-you quality to them, like trying veganism, sleeping outside for a month, or going a month without caffeine.
I have not committed to that last one. I like my coffee an awful lot.
Others may be more serious.
Along with the Sunday pieces, which will look at different aspects of each topic, there’s also a companion blog that will include additional information, related material and who knows what else. You can find it at: http://blogs.wvgazettemail.com/on emonth/.
For Veganuary, look for recipes, pictures of what some of these vegan dishes look like when prepared by people who don’t have culinary school training, reviews of products, conversations with everyday vegans and who knows what.
You can probably go to the blog right now to see the prequel to this feature.
Feel free to check back often.
Full disclosure: This isn’t entirely new ground for me. I used to be a vegetarian, but I was a lousy one.
When I was 20, I gave up meat, including fish, but didn’t give up much else. I heartily consumed eggs, cheese and ate ice cream out of half-gallon cartons like a cartoon bear digging through a bee hive for honey.
Being a vegetarian didn’t make me healthier or thinner, but did allow me to be obnoxious and condescending at family dinners and barbecues.
Beverly Glaze, a dietician and Coordinator of Child Nutrition for Kanawha County Schools, has met people who approached vegetarianism like I did in college.
A vegetarian herself, she said going vegan or vegetarian to lose weight and get healthier can be very effective.
“But most people don’t do their research,” she said.
Usually, Glaze said, people think if they just eat a bunch of vegetables, the weight will just melt off. What often happens is they just get very hungry.
“They eat salads and salads and more salads and pretty soon they’re starving,” she said.
Glaze explained that trying to live off “rabbit food” the weight might come off, but if you’re not taking in enough calories, you lose lean muscle mass, not body fat. Eating a diet that’s strictly vegetables can actually make you less healthy.
Like any diet, she said, it’s important to get enough protein, which really isn’t all that hard even if you’re not eating meat. Meat substitutes can be found at most grocery stores and at some outlets, the number of products offered is astonishing.
There are parallel soy products for nearly every kind of animal product under the sun.
“But they can be expensive,” Glaze allowed. “They can cost a little more than the meat products they’re supposed to taste like.”
Vegetarians and vegans also rely on nuts, which are high in fat and calories, but Glaze said, “I probably eat a pound or a pound and a half of almonds every week. That’s a lot of nuts, but I don’t eat a 12-ounce steak every day, too.”
Complementary proteins are also a good way to get the necessary nutrients and calories — and they don’t cost a lot.
“That’s just adding grain to beans,” Glaze said.
Beans and rice are cheap. Beans and cornmeal are cheap, and there are a countless varieties to work with.
To avoid feeling hungry, Glaze also recommended the humble, much-maligned potato.
“Our ancestors lived off of potatoes for years,” she said. “But they didn’t deep fry them or cover them in butter. They just ate them.”
How vegans and vegetarians sometimes trip up the healthier parts of their diet is by martyring themselves to the cause.
“You say to yourself, ‘because I ate carrot sticks for lunch, I’m going to eat 15 Oreos tonight,’” she said.
Oreos, surprisingly, are vegan, but that doesn’t make them healthy. Lots of candies and sweets contain absolutely no animal products, but they are chock full of sugar, dyes and chemicals.
Glaze added, “People will also hit the bread basket pretty hard.”
And too much bread can tack on the weight, too.
The nutritionist said giving up meat makes a lot of sense to her, but it is really just one step on a very long path. It would be better if people chose fresh food rather than pre-packaged, processed foods.
“We don’t eat anything fresh,” she said. “No one wants to take the time to cook. It all comes out of a box, a bag, a can and is on the table in 20 minutes.”
Fresh fruits and vegetables don’t contain preservatives and additives and are largely safer than factory processed foods, which seemed less secure to her.
Glaze said, “It seems to me that it’s a lot easier for something to happen at the meat processing plant than in a field full of squash.”
Glaze said going vegan — properly — should increase my energy and overall health. She said I’d feel better, that my low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol should go down and my high-density lipoprotein (HDL) should go up.
LDL is bad. HDL is good.
“I think after a month, you’re not even going to crave it,” she said. “I’d be surprised if you went back.”