I am vegan.
There is a lot of baggage associated with that word, it shuts down conversations and can seem radical or extreme. But ultimately, the definition is up to each individual and doesn’t need to be out of reach. Broadly speaking, I don’t consume, and try not to use, animal products.
Obviously, eating meat is out of the question, but being vegan affects my consumption habits in less obvious ways. Leather is difficult to avoid entirely. Beeswax and animal testing is commonplace in the cosmetics and personal hygiene industry. Milk finds its way into a surprising variety of yummy things in colorful bags and canned soups lining grocery store shelves. My loss of Pringles is a personal tragedy. Gelatin is hidden in just about every sugary junk food under the florescent lights. I’m looking at you, Pop Tarts and Frosted Mini Wheats.
My reasons for choosing this lifestyle boil down three main objectives: to preserve the environment, to preserve my health, and to alleviate the suffering of all animals, humans included. Yep, that sounds like a bunch of fruffy hippie dippie shit, but you know what? I believe it. I regularly ask myself, “If everyone lived like I do, what would the world look like?”
Raised by vegetarian parents, getting to this point has been easier for me than most, but it is still a struggle and I have work to do. I’ll refuse to eat goat cheese from a local farm down the road, but gladly consume blueberries shipped, at great environmental cost, from South America. I hike in socks made with wool taken without asking from confused sheep. I rely on the down feathers of ‘responsibly’ plucked geese to keep me warm every night in the backcountry. Most of the shoes and clothing I churn through contain plastic that will end up in a landfill, or maybe the ocean. I still struggle to avoid food made with palm oil. A vegan lifestyle isn’t perfect and demands endless contradictions. No one is perfect. We are all hypocrites in one way or another. I am in many more ways than one. But the more I learn, the more I can become the change that I want to see in the world. It starts with education, being open to learn and try new things.
In the scope of my hiking, veganism is relatively new to me. On the PCT in 2015 I ate whatever I wanted without restriction. Beef jerky, salami, cheese, ice cream, and mayo were all staples of my diet. By the time I made it to the Alps in 2018, I was vegetarian, still enjoying the local cheeses of the Swiss countryside (thanks, Romi!) and the buttery pastries of Chamonix. But shortly thereafter, the film Cowspiracy presented facts that I could not ignore. I decided to support the environments that I love to explore by making responsible decisions at the check-out counter. By the time the CDT rolled around in 2019, I was practiced, though no master, at scanning ingredient lists at the supermarket. I was confident that my body would not only survive a hike across America on a vegan diet, but that it would thrive.
Thru-hiking on a vegan diet sounds really hard to a lot of people.
It’s not. I still ate a lot of crap on the CDT (Oreos, chips, vegan ice cream, etc.), but my body enjoyed better fuel than on any other hike before. Simpler, more wholesome, less inflammatory. And I finally figured out how to answer people when they asked me how I was getting enough protein. A balanced diet that avoids deficiency among the myriad other essential nutrients is all but guaranteed to satisfy the protein quota. In other words, the laser focus on protein is misplaced. Protein is not a problem for vegans. Balanced nutrition is a problem for everyone. But if I didn’t want to say all that, then peanut butter. Peanut butter is a hiking vegan’s best friend.
But what do I know?
The following is a list of the films, the paper, and the person that have profoundly influenced my consumption habits to date. For the most part, they emphasize the same message: You have the power, the knowledge, the tools, to influence the health of your environment and body. For better or worse. Human to planet, human to animal, human to human, we are connected to it all. Please consider watching these films, reading the paper, and doing your own research. Even if the message doesn’t resonate with you as much as it did with me, it can’t hurt to know more.
Learn. Live your truth.
Don’t become a vegan. Become someone who you think is doing the right thing. Seek knowledge and find that person. And freaking watch out for gelatin. It’s in EVERYTHING.
Cowspiracy: This is the movie that convinced me to go vegan. It examines the environmental cost of our modern animal agriculture system to our planet and, ultimately, all the living things that call Earth home, including us. The food system is broken, but I don’t know why that surprised me.
What the Health: From the same director as Cowspiracy, this documentary looks at the same disturbing and corrupt food system, but with a focus on how it undermines personal and societal health.
In Defense of Food: Based on the book with which it shares a title, this movie tries to answer a basic question. What should I eat to be healthy? The conclusion is not that everyone should go vegan. It’s simpler than that. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
The Game Changers: This one is for all those folk who worry about getting proper nutrition on a vegan diet, especially protein. This excellent documentary focuses on the elite athletes that have made the switch to a plant-based diet and still break records and win medals. There are more of them out there than one might think. Even Schwarzenegger gets in there. The film also touches on all the other indisputable benefits of going vegan. Vastly improved environment and personal and sexual health. This is a must see. Watch it.
Sustainable: This movie doesn’t push a strictly vegan agenda, but rather a better food system that is sustainable for the planet and humans long into the future.
Forks Over Knives: With so much money spent on healthcare today, why are we, as a society getting sicker? More diabetes, more heart disease, more cancer. Perhaps what we eat is at the root of the problem. Another personal health look at ditching animal products.
The True Cost: This documentary exposes a lot of the nasty stuff that goes on in the fashion industry. Slavery, poisoning the environment and people along the supply chain, and a bunch of other depressing crap. Not my typical subject of interest, but it got me thinking about how every choice I make as a consumer has the power to inflict a ton of damage. Even buying a T-shirt has consequences. Organic cotton saves lives.
The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government recommendations Miss the Most Effective Individual Actions (click here to download)
This is a short, but very interesting paper that examines what individuals can do to limit their climate impact. It concludes with the four most accessible and impactful ways for people to reduce their carbon footprint: “having one fewer child, living car-free, avoiding airplane travel, and eating a plant-based diet.”
Rob Greenfield: This dude is one of my heroes. He has been calling attention, through extreme actions, to just how extreme our ‘normal’ consumptive practices are. Rob has ridden a bamboo bike across America eating dumpster food to highlight food waste. He’s worn all of the trash he produced over a one month period. He’s lived an entire year only eating what he could grow or forage, and helped start the Free Seed Project. And he is not vegan, he’s smarter than that.
Avoid palm oil at all cost: I don’t know much about this and need to do more research, but a drastic increase in global demand for palm oil, which is in just about every processed food in supermarkets, is responsible for mega deforestation in southeast Asia. Carbon released from burning of rainforest in this region is a huge contributor to global warming, not to mention the cause of an ecological tragedy felt by the animals and communities that call it home. Check ingredient lists.
Just Mercy: Another movie. A really good one. On the surface, this has nothing to do with being vegan. However, how we treat one another is just as important as how we treat animals. Let’s not forget that.