In the coming weeks, WSN’s Features Desk will be rolling out a series we’re calling “I Tried…” Each piece will feature a member of our staff who’s added something new, weird or a little crazy to their lives. In the first entry, Deputy News Editor Diamond Naga Siu tells the story of her ongoing quest to eat vegan on a meal plan.
Starting Dec. 1, I went cold turkey on my diet and turned vegan. But veganism does not actually allow cold turkey, since the dietary practice eliminates meat, dairy and any animal products (including eggs, butter, cheese and milk). Rather than changing my eating habits for my health or body image, I decided to go vegan for a month to help advocate for animal rights.
Watching the documentary “Vegucated” during a dorm event spurred my sudden activism. To be honest, I only went for the free empanadas — apologies to my RA — but the horrific images of the industry’s unethical practices changed my perception of animal product consumption. I saw newborn chicks stuffed inside grocery bags, animals sorted via conveyor belts and cows milked on massive scales.
But I watched the documentary right before Thanksgiving and could not bear sacrificing meat and mashed potatoes on this sacred day of eating, so I started my vegan experiment in December.
Though some friends called my sudden decision to go vegan stupid and others taunted me with pictures of creamy, meaty and cheesy treats, the controlled dining hall environment provided a perfect setting to test this new diet.
The first meal was rough, since my normal breakfast of coffee and a bagel with cream cheese from Dunkin Donuts was not allowed. Instead of getting my caffeine fix, I visited Downstein for more options, but as I surveyed the selection I realized I could not eat most of it — yogurt, cereal, omelets and even French toast use animal products.
Wandering the dining hall listlessly, I finally settled on cereal with soymilk but after my first spoonful, I realized I had overlooked the possibility that Rice Chex could contain eggs or butter. With some panicked Google searching, I was relieved to find the cereal animal-product free.
To give the dining halls credit, they do a reasonable job of labeling their food: most are named, a few provide allergen information and some even note dishes that cater to special diets. Often, though, I relied on common sense — and many online searches — to determine a dish’s “vegan-ness.”
However, the dining hall’s labels were sometimes incorrect so I would try taking advantage of those mislabels. At one of my lower points, I looked to my friend, whose family is largely vegan, and begged, “If the chicken soup is marked vegan, I can have it, right?”
She shot me an amused but disapproving look, so I caved and opted for a salad instead. With my friends keeping me in check, I got used to eliminating cheese (note: no Mexican food) and avoiding Palladium brunch (with all its milkshake and pastry temptations.)
But then winter vacation came, and the impossible happened: veganism became even harder. NYU’s meal plan includes over ten locations, and each boasted many unique food choices. However, my family’s traditional Chinese cooking made it impossible to avoid eating meat, eggs and fish over break. I reevaluated the situation, dropping my veganism and creating a New Year’s resolution to go vegan every other month during 2016.
After settling back into school, I commenced my resolution in February, and I adopted the mantra, “new month, new vegan.” To better equip myself, I assumed new habits along the way — including educating myself about the dietary practice and journaling my meals.
I spent time learning how many foods were compatible with my new diet, which left me less hungry and more content. Rather than grabbing a plate of cucumbers and a cup of Jamba Juice for lunch and dinner, I learned that I could find burgers, noodles and even sushi that conformed to my diet. By scrutinizing before selecting dining hall food, I consumed vegan burritos and ice cream; these treats transformed my month.
Striving for greater food awareness, I started tracking my food consumption. This not only made me more calorie conscious, but it also made me feel guilty if I ever slipped in my eating behaviors.
I used an app called MyFitnessPal to record everything I was eating, but it set unrealistic weight loss goals, which was not my reason for turning vegan. So going old school, I recorded my all my meals and snacks in a planner — even if I accidentally ingested animal products or if I granted myself a cheat day.
While articles and studies support veganism’s cost-friendliness, it is hard to replace cheese, ice cream and milk on a tight budget. NYU dining locations include dairy-free ice cream and alternative milk options, but outside this controlled environment, meat and dairy substitutes are impractical in terms of cost and convenience.
I discovered this during brunch on Valentine’s Day, when nothing on the menu of the restaurant I was eating at was vegan so I acquiesced to my meat, butter and egg cravings. After a full two weeks of abstinence from animal products, I was surprised to feel greasy and unsettled from eating two eggs.
My foray into veganism taught me how to eat cleanly and how to recognize what is in my food, but its sustainability is questionable. My vegan diet lacks nutrients such as calcium, zinc and iron, but it’s also critically low in vitamin B12, which almost exclusively comes from animal products. Since I only attempt strict veganism every other month, I see no harm in continuing my New Year’s resolution, though this might change when I abandon my meal plan next semester.
As this month comes to an end, I will continue observing veganism, just with less vigilance. I might occasionally eat omelets, burritos and sushi (with fish!), but after finding meat relatively easy to cut out and a balanced diet the most satisfying, I think I could go without cold turkey in my life.
Email Diamond Naga Siu at [email protected]