Whenever the “v-word” comes up in conversation, things get weird.
“I could never do that,” people say, eyebrows raised and doubt evident on their faces. “What would I eat?”
Well, everything but animals and their by-products, which includes meat, fish, dairy and eggs. Veganism is considered to be an extreme lifestyle choice, akin to giving up all worldly possessions and moving to a shack in the mountains, or becoming an ultra-marathoner, or only wearing clothes made in America. Nonetheless, veganism is becoming—relatively—more popular. According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, in 2009 only 1% of the U.S. considered themselves vegan. Three years later, that percentage was up a percentage and a half.
I’ve been a vegetarian since fifth grade, but it wasn’t until the summer before my freshman year of college that I considered going the whole hog. (Excuse the pun.) Then I arrived on campus, and realized with dismay that almost everything I could buy with my ridiculously overpriced meal-plan was decidedly not vegan-friendly. In fact, it was hard enough finding food without meat in it. My college, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, receives a “C” grade for its food on College Prowler, with one anonymous student warning, “Campus dining sucks. It’s doable, but barely.” Out of 1,389 schools ranked for their vegetarian/vegan-friendly options, Cal Poly is number 1,341. There went that idea.
But recently, I decided to give veganism a shot—for a week anyway. My rationale is that if I can make it work at this campus, it’s feasible for the majority of college students.
T-minus three days: My first step, somewhat ironically, is eating all the dairy products in my fridge. Although it might seem to contradict the mission, I’m still a poor college student who can’t afford to waste food. As I type this, I’m spooning up some delicious blueberry yogurt and trying not to picture the cows that suffered for my sins. Oh god, the vegan guilt has already begun.
T-minus two days: How did I not notice how much cream-cheese I had? I don’t even like cream-cheese.
T-minus one day: Four bagels later, and I’ve moved on to the cheese-sticks.
Monday: Operation No Meat No Dairy has begun. Which is good, because I just crammed a month’s worth of milk products into three days.
For breakfast, I enjoy my usual bowl of oatmeal with almond milk and banana slices. This is great! I don’t have to change a thing!
Tuesday: I take that back. This morning, my alarm fails to go off on time, and consequently, I don’t have time to grab any food before I clatter down the stairs of my apartment and run to class. English class is only a quarter finished before I start experiencing spasms of pain in my empty stomach. Hurrah! There’s an emergency protein bar in my bag! I breezily scan the ingredients list, confident it’s safe to eat—and spot a huge vegan no-no, whey protein. Hopefully nothing we cover in class is on the final, because I spent the rest of the time concentrating on not scarfing down the illegal bar.
For dinner, my friends and I go to Tacos To-Go, our campus’s mediocre version of Chipotle. No cheese or sour cream for me, so I’m stuck enjoying a lovely pile of shredded lettuce, salsa and clumpy pinto beans. Bon appétit.
Wednesday: Greek yogurt is one of my favorite snacks, so I decide to fill its vacancy in my diet with some cultured coconut milk yogurt I find in Cal Poly’s grocery store. It’s delicious, and after mixing it with pecan granola, I’m ready to convert from my tried-and-true Chobani. The only downside? One miniature six-ounce tub costs me a little over a buck and a half.
Lunch heralds another vegan triumph. I make a modified version of Rainbow Pad Thai, a recipe I found on the vegan food porn blog Oh She Glows. It’s made of fresh carrots, red cabbage, green onions, edamame and spiralized zucchini, topped with a dressing of peanut butter, tamari, maple syrup, sesame oil and ginger. Easy, healthy and so good I think my roommates hear me moan.
Thursday: Physically, I don’t feel any different. This is probably because I’ve always eaten a nutritious diet, typically getting eight or nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Plus, I’m making sure I’m still hitting the daily 2,000 calories recommended for my age, height, weight and activity level. It’s a little harder to eat that many on a plant-based diet, but for help I turn to energy-dense nuts and nut butters. Never has eating PB by the spoonful felt so justified.
I do notice, however, that my skin is clearer and my hair is a little shinier. Goodbye Proactiv and Pantene; hello pineapple.
Friday: There are about five vegan meals I can buy with my meal plan. One, a flatbread sandwich with vegetables and mustard; two, a plain bagel with peanut butter (but no honey, as vegans don’t exploit any animals, including bees); three, salad from the dining hall’s salad bar, with some quinoa and steamed veggies on the side; four; the aforementioned “burrito bowl” from Tacos To-Go; and five, pasta with pesto or marinara sauce. After rotating through these options a couple times, I’m already sick of them.
Saturday: Today is the first day I come close to cheating. The only thing getting me through a two-hour public speaking lecture is the fantasies I’m having of the creamy, rich, chocolate froyo I’m planning on buying after class, festooned with cookie dough bites and Snickers chunks so decadent even the air around the bowl has calories. Upon arrival, I realize I conveniently forgot froyo stands for frozen yogurt.
Watermelon sorbet is the only non-dairy option. It’s sour enough my tongue admits defeat halfway through. I can’t help staring at my friends’ delicious concoctions—pretty sure my unwavering gaze starts to freak them out.
Sunday: Almost there! And surprisingly, it feels pretty easy. Maybe because I know that I’m this close to the finish-line… but I think I’ve begun to get into the hang of veganism. At the sandwich place, I no longer reach for a cottage cheese cup to round out my meal but instinctively grab an apple or orange. There’s a jubilant moment when I realize the bagel shop sells vegan chili. My salads have started to become more and more ornate, to the point where they are entrees in their own right.
However, my original hypothesis still holds true. The limits of the meal plan mean it’s just not practical to be vegan my freshman year of college. But after one and a half more quarters, the dreaded plan is no longer mandatory. That means the “v-word” just might start popping up in my vocabulary once again.