Plant-based diets are all the rage right now, which is generally good news for the planet. According to a 2018 study from the University of Oxford, eating a vegan diet — one that omits all animal-made products, including meat, dairy, eggs and even honey — can reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by nearly 75 percent, depending on where you live.
The raw figures can belie the nuance of the issue. For example, a 2015 study from Carnegie Mellon University showed that not all plant-based diets are created equal when it comes to carbon emissions, while some meat producers have managed pastures in such a way that absorb more greenhouse gases than they emit.
Regardless, the current levels of meat consumption are generally accepted as unsustainable. Yet another 2018 study showed that to keep global temperatures from rising above the 2 degrees Celsius threshold that scientists agree will lead to catastrophic climate change, sweeping eating changes are needed. The average world citizen needs to eat 75 percent less beef, 90 percent less pork and half the number of eggs, while tripling consumption of beans and pulses (read: protein-rich beans, lentils and peas) and quadrupling nuts and seeds.
“That’s not so bad,” I thought when I first saw the study. I could meet these goals while still getting to enjoy the tasty meats and cheeses from my favorite Maine farmers.
But then I took stock of the animal products consumed in my household on an average day: bacon and eggs with buttered toast for breakfast, turkey sandwiches with mayonnaise for lunch and perhaps chicken enchiladas, grilled pork chops or pasta with sausage for dinner on a normal day. Rinse and repeat, seven days a week. The only plant-based resident of my little Bangor apartment is Hector the rabbit.
Through my mental inventory, I realized I don’t really know how to cook without animal products. Most of the meals in my household are centered around meat. My go-to lazy meal always seems to involve eggs in some way, whether it’s a quick omelette or pad thai with chunks of scramble. Butter is my … well, my bread and butter.
I needed a reset on my eating habits, and to gain a few more plant-based cooking skills. I decided to try eating vegan for a week. Even though I am unlikely to become a full-time vegan, I figured the challenge would be like a cleanse for my culinary routine. Here’s what I learned.
1. Finding a vegan mentor will make the transition easier (and more fun).
Perhaps the most intimidating thing about deciding to eat vegan — or even more plant-based in general — is that first trip to the grocery store. There are so many mysterious packages with “vegan” labels, and yet even more opportunities to screw up because of a hidden egg, milk or honey on seemingly plant-based products.
Fortunately, I found a mentor: Natalie Williams, the Bangor Daily News’ visuals coordinator who has been vegan for more than a decade (and recently helped me out in making homemade nut butter). Natalie actually participates in a program called Vegan Outreach, where she helps mentor new vegans, so she was already a seasoned pro in guiding newbies on their plant-based journey.
Natalie took me shopping at the Natural Living Center in Bangor one Saturday afternoon. All of a sudden, the daunting task was a fun weekend adventure. She pointed out some of her time-tested favorite products, and we even went halfsies on some new vegan treats that she had been meaning to try. How else would I have known which chocolate bars at the checkout are vegan, or that there is one vegan mayonnaise that reigns supreme?
2. Eating vegan is not as expensive as you think it is.