A year ago my partner and I decided to become vegan. We did it for health reasons even though neither of us have any obvious health problems. While I can’t speak for others, it’s been a positive change for us. We feel better, it’s good for the planet, and I no longer fear food.
When I first moved to Thailand about ten years ago, I wasn’t eating pork, also for health reasons, and I primarily cooked vegetarian meals at home. However, moving here changed that lifestyle as many apartments had nonexistent kitchens, or tiny makeshift ones. The language barrier was another excuse to eat what was easiest to order and what was available. Eventually I started to eat pork again.
Beef, at the time, was expensive and rare. Thais also cooked steaks on the overdone to shoe-leather range which further pushed it out of my diet. But one of the shocking things that most foreigners have to contend with here is the treatment of animals (and possibly in most of Asia).
The irony of this is not lost since Thailand is primarily a Buddhist country, but it’s common to see pigs and chickens transported in stacked cages or even slung over on motorbikes. My own Thai aunt and uncle boil and pluck feathers off of dead chickens in front of their house. I visited a Thai friend’s tea farm only to discover that they kept their chickens in cages so small they weren’t able to turn around. And don’t get me started on the treatment of dogs and cats.
When we moved to Rayong we were shocked to see that our local Tesco supermarket sold chicken meat in large open metal bins. Rolls of plastic bags and tongs sat on top of huge piles of raw chicken breasts, thighs and other body parts. When COVID hit, I thought surely they’d change this arrangement, but they didn’t.
But like many, I looked the other way. I told myself that I didn’t eat that much meat. I rarely handled meat at home, as I had always found it gross and without hot water on tap, I had to take extra steps to ensure that my cutting board and knife — or anything that came into contact with raw meat — was sanitized as best as possible.
It’s also taken for granted that one regularly gets diarrhea or food poisoning here, and I had a really bad case after eating some sort of mystery meat. So, when my partner announced he wanted to give veganism a try, I readily agreed. I’ve hated how we expats have accepted that food poisoning is a way of life here, and I was eager to clean up my diet, especially in light of the recent death of a friend due to high blood pressure.
In the beginning, the hardest thing to do without was cheese and eggs. The BF always had prompted me to buy eggs believing it was the ‘perfect protein’. Eggs are also common in Thai cooking, even if diary is not. So, for a time, we controlled our diets by cooking at home. Since then we’ve gotten braver and better about communicating our needs at made-to-order places. Happily, tasty plant-based meats have arrived in Thailand.
But before all that, here are the changes that happened for me.
More energy + better digestion
One of the first things I noticed was how annoyingly chipper and optimistic I was when I was teaching in the morning. Although now I don’t notice it anymore, I probably take it for granted. I certainly haven’t had food poisoning in over a year, which is a record for me in Thailand.
My partner regularly suffered from heartburn, and we both thought it was because of his excessive fondness for coffee. After going vegan, the heartburn mysteriously disappeared, even as his overindulgence in coffee persisted. Similarly, while diarrhea was a reliable feature of the landscape, it also vanished in the bargain. We suspect he may have had a dairy allergy but never knew.
These days, I don’t get that super stuffed heavy feeling in my gut, no matter how much I eat (and I like to eat). If I do overeat, the feeling of over-fullness subsides soon enough.
Meat and cheeses are simply much harder on the digestive system. [If you look up foods to avoid when having digestive problems, these come up. Also, meat and fish can take up to 2 days to digest.]
A waistline if you please
I’ve never had one. I’ve always been more on the goddess-belly side, and while that’s never really gone away, my obliques are more pronounced. And no I haven’t been doing more abs or anything.
And no, mom, I’m not super skinny. But it was definitely one of my concerns that on a vegan diet I would lose a lot of pounds which others have experienced. Neither my partner nor I have had any great weight loss, and we exercise regularly. I’d say the changes we’ve experienced were more subtle, so I wished we had done a full health check before becoming vegan.
Where No Vegan has Gone Before
I’ve been re-watching Star Trek: TNG, and in Gene Roddenberry’s future, not killing animals for food came up in an episode. As I’ve mentioned, I discovered a couple of plant-based meat products here and one of them is Omni Meat, a Hong Kong startup that won one of the Roddenberry Prizes for climate-change. Interesting coincidence, eh?
Here’s the episode that got me going down this rabbit hole.
A vegetarian friend maintains that we will look back at how we treat animals now a bit like the way we look back at slavery. That is to say, the way we treated animals was so atrocious that it’s unbelievable we practiced factory farming.
Back to school to learn new rules
One of the biggest things we had to do was unlearn a lot of what the food industry has taught us, like ‘you need milk for strong bones and teeth’ or ‘you need meat for protein’ or ‘carbs make you fat’. Asians have been eating a diet based on rice and noodles FOREVER and they’re among the slimmest people in the world. There have also been countless studies on longevity, and their diets and lifestyles. It’s no surprise that diets rich in fruits and vegetables are good for you.
Now, to be clear, just because you are vegetarian or vegan does not make you automatically healthy. But the learning curve has included making sure we are getting all the vitamins and minerals we need. This has made me wonder if you are not on any particular diet, do you even bother to look this stuff up? I didn’t. So you could argue that one of the reasons why vegans are healthier is they’re making sure they don’t fall into the ‘but you’re not getting any ___’ trap.
Open to new options + choices
When we ate out, we had to take a closer look at menus, and this forced us to try new things. Because, let’s face it, most of us simply order the same thing over and over again. I’ve also been learning a great deal about vegan cooking. This has expanded our menu, and it’s been easy too. Normally, people center their meals around a meat option, but without it, I’ve been enjoying cooking and learning new dishes and the tricks that help make veganism satisfying and delicious.
It turns out that eating ‘a rainbow on your plate’ is also one of the key ingredients to a healthy gut, and therefore, a healthy body. Even if you’re not interested in going vegan, I’d encourage you to eat a variety of plant-based foods for your health. Fiber Fueled, a best selling 2020 book, has recently come up on my radar, and while I have yet to read it, I’ve been checking out interviews with its author, Dr. Will Bulsiewicz.
Lastly, I wanted to mention something my partner said. As I was sharing my feelings for a deeper love for animals, he replied that it made sense because we probably live our lives pretending what happens in factory farms doesn’t really go on. Therefore, we carry background or low-grade negative feelings in an effort to be part of our culture and traditions. But what he said next really struck me. He said being vegan challenges what we assume to be human nature – we don’t need to conceive of ourselves as inherently predators, conquerors, or killers — and I agreed.
Eating meat is considered more macho, masculine, and Alpha-male. Vegans, on the other hand, are the jackasses, soy-based ninnies who want to spoil the party and all the fun. But aren’t we trying to be more inclusive, planet-friendly, and evolve from old ideas of us versus them? So, why all the vegan hate?
One of my Chinese students was talking about his interview for an international school in Singapore. They asked the candidates, “Do you believe eating animals is unethical?” I was surprised that this was one of three questions asked. I think whether folks want to eat their vegetables or not, the future of food is knocking on our doors. (Crickets, anyone?)
But as more and more people make the switch to more plant-based, I know the meat and dairy industry will double down on propaganda and ‘news’ to keep folks grazing on beef. [Hello, Google, my old friend.] My hope, however, is that we will choose compassion, empathy, and love. In other words, that we will choose to redefine what it means to be human.
- LiveKindly (a pop culture all things vegan organization that I follow on Instagram)
- Plant Based News (is exactly what you think it is, I follow on YouTube)
- Fiber Fueled by Dr. Will Bulsiewicz (how to heal yourself through the power of plants)