Ten years ago, while working for the ACLU, Amy came to see the operations of the meat industry as a civil rights issue. She became vegetarian, and eventually, after years of battling significant gastrointestinal issues, found a near-immediate cure through veganism. Here, she talks about making sure she doesn’t trick herself into thinking vegan = healthy, choosing a diet for her dogs, and her approach to hosting non-vegans in her home.
You grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and now work for the ACLU in Maryland. When and where in that journey did you first think about going veg?
Working on the eastern shore of Maryland, it was hard to work on civil rights issues, and not realize what was happening on local chicken farms.
I read about migrant farm workers who catch the chickens, and face a really high rate of lung disease and cancer. A Johns Hopkins research team had published reports that this was happening because of the chicken [feces]. The chickens produced a lot of waste, which dried, became a dust, and then got breathed in by the migrant workers. It was highly carcinogenic – worse than smoking, some reports said.
That was my very first moment of seeing the meat industry as a human rights issue, or a civil rights issue.
With that knowledge and those images in your head, what did you decide do?
I thought, maybe I’ll try to go vegetarian. I didn’t know anyone who was vegetarian. But, with what I knew about where my chicken was coming from, I didn’t want to support those guys, anyway. So, I decided to cut chicken out of my diet. And, within a couple of weeks, I decided I might as well be vegetarian.
How did you manage the transition to vegetarianism?
It was very easy. I had no problems at all. It’s so easy to eat nachos without meat on it. Every restaurant in Annapolis had at least one sandwich without meat on it. That was almost ten years ago. I was very happy.
So then, when and why did you decide to take it one step further to veganism?
Ever since high school, I had very, very strange gastrointestinal issues. It wasn’t regular. It didn’t follow any pattern. I would wake up in the morning, have a bagel, and then right away I’d have to go to the bathroom. I would be late for school. It was embarrassing.
By my senior year of college, I had lived with enough people in my life to know that the urgency was not normal. I went to the doctor, had some tests done, was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and was put on medication that was supposed to fix it.
When I moved to Maryland, one of my new friends was a 75-year-old British vegetarian woman - she was a volunteer with the ACLU. Within the first month of knowing her, I revealed to her my stomach issues, and that I was on this pill.
One day, she came into the office and said, “What is that medication you’re on for IBS? Because I just heard that the FDA pulled some medication off the shelves - a number of women have died.”
That sounds terrifying.
Well, what I didn’t tell anybody at the time, because it’s really horrible to talk about, was that I had not pooped in nearly a month. My doctor had just told me to take some ExLax. But, I was eating ExLax like it was dessert. So, I heard this, and I immediately stopped taking the medication.
So, I started to consider that maybe I was lactose intolerant. Not all dairy products created an immediate problem. But, I figured that the only way I could figure this out would be to cut dairy out and see what happened.
And, what happened when you cut the dairy out?
Sure enough, it was a very quick result. I went from having problems all the time, to not having any problems.
Amazing that you resolved years of struggle and humiliation by going vegan – and that it was more effective than that dangerous medication!
You said the transition to vegetarianism was really easy for you. Was it the same with veganism?
When I tried to become vegan, it was really, really hard. Whereas it was easy to buy vegetarian, cook vegetarian, and eat out vegetarian, becoming vegan, when nobody else was vegan, was really hard.
I felt like I made everyone else uncomfortable and stressed when we went out to eat. I hated being the one person at the table that everyone else was focusing on, and worried about.
So, how did you stay the course?
I met a couple of friends who were both vegan, and one of them invited me to a holiday party at an animal rights organization – Compassion Over Killing. I came home with all of these pamphlets and brochures, and left them on the table. Pete [my life partner], who was also vegetarian, woke up the next morning and grabbed the brochures to read while he was eating his cereal.
During the day, I called him at work – I didn’t even know that he had read them – and he said, “I’m vegan. No more dairy.”
And, I said, “What are you talking about?”
“I read the stuff you brought home from the COK event,” he told me. “You know, it’s all stuff I knew, I just needed someone to remind me.”
And, I could not have been more happy. Because, I felt like I needed just one person to be vegan with.
How did Pete going vegan change things for you?
Being vegan became easy. It was fun to live with someone who could experiment with vegan cooking. And, it was easier for me when we went out to dinner. To have him next to me, doing the same thing – I wasn’t alone anymore.
You had a clear incentive to stay vegan – eating otherwise would make you sick. But, it clearly wasn’t easy for you. How do you handle the idea of “slipping up?”
I do not feel like the definition of vegan is that you never, ever, ever, have anything that harmed an animal in your diet, ever. For me, I feel like I am making a huge impact by being 99% vegan. I’m not hard on myself for times when I might have eaten a little bit of butter.
I’m actually more worried about getting to the point, where I think vegan = healthy.
You don’t always think that your vegan diet is healthy?
Vegan does not equal healthy all the time. We sometimes get into the habit of eating tons of processed soy crap. And, I love my processed soy crap every now and then – it tastes delicious.
But, I have to make sure I’m not tricking myself into thinking that just because there are no animal products in it, that it’s healthy, or good for the environment.
I love vegan sausages and burgers, too. How do you regulate the amount of “processed soy crap” that you eat?
I try to make sure that I’m not eating too much of any one thing. Just like if you had a family member who ate nothing but meat and potatoes, you’d think, “You can’t just eat meat and potatoes,” – well, you can’t just eat soy and potatoes, either.
Looking at my vegetables, my beans, my fake meat, and my grains – I really try to diversify that in every way. I try to make sure there are vegetables of every color in my refrigerator. I could just buy bread and rice. But, I also look for quinoa, bulgur wheat, etc.
You’re a marathoner. Did that happen before or after you went vegan? How does your diet impact your training?
I got into marathon running after I quit smoking. I quit smoking and became vegetarian in the same year. Quitting smoking was the hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life. I’ve gone through the deaths of close friends, and emotionally, it was still the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
So, when I quit, I felt like, if I can quit smoking, I can do anything. My first thought was – could I run a marathon? I was not a runner. I had run three miles in my entire life. But, I ran my first marathon in Alaska, and I was totally hooked. I’ve now run 11 marathons and 3 Ultras – 31-milers.
I laugh when I hear people talk about vegan athletes and wonder if that’s healthy. First of all, the world needs to know that vegans aren’t starving. You can be a very healthy vegan if you pay attention and get everything that you need.
You have dogs. Are they vegan, too?
When we got our first dog, we thought about a vegan diet. But, I just don’t know enough about canine nutrition to feel like it’s fair to make that decision for my dog.
The reality is, there are carnivores in nature. I just didn’t find any information, that I felt like I could trust, that showed me that I could feed my dog a vegan diet and my dog would be healthy. So, instead, we try to buy sustainably-produced, organic food that doesn’t come from the factory farms whose practices we oppose.
Going out to eat with others can be tough, but at least you’re on public, neutral ground. What do you do when you’re hosting non-vegan friends and family members in your home?
I do get grossed out by raw meat in my house. But, I don’t worry about things like cooking pre-made hamburgers on my grill, or my veggie burger being on the grill after that hamburger – because I’m sure that’s happening behind the scenes at restaurants when I go out to eat, anyway.
I just feel that it wouldn’t do anyone any good, me being so strict. With my parents, I feel like I’ve made some progress by getting my dad to switch to soy milk and my mom to only buy free-range chicken. Had I been coming at them with that kind of, “all or nothing,” “you can’t have meat at my house” attitude – that’s just rude. And, it’s going to turn people off.
We all come to these decisions on our own. Nobody turned vegan because their family member preached to them to do it.
Converting to a plant-based diet often requires more cooking. What if someone doesn’t really have time for that?
Find one thing that is easy to make. Make a couple variations of that item, and have that be your “busy night” meal. My dish was stir-fry, with three different sauces that I could either buy or easily make. You can get frozen vegetables, get one or two fresh vegetables, add a pre-made sauce, and put it all over rice or noodles. It really doesn’t take that long.
If time is really a concern, there are plenty of options for vegan frozen meals. Or, you can order a pizza without cheese, and have a vegan cheese at home that you throw on there.
But, I think it’s worth it for your health – the extra ten minutes.
If you’ve got those ten extra minutes, stay tuned - Amy’s recipe for a Mexican Topopo (or “Volcano”) Salad is coming up!