10 questions you've always wanted to ask a "vegan"
"Ah, you don't eat foods of animal origin? So what do you eat?"
Have you ever found yourself asking (or thinking) such a question when confronted with a vegetarian/vegan?
There are many prejudices on the subject from those who do not fully understand what lies behind such a food and ethical choice. I had some too, before I inquired about it.
Nowadays, more and more people are moving towards a diet that sees a drastic reduction of animal products, if not complete abolition. This is for a variety of reasons ranging from ethical-environmental issues to health issues.
So too, as I said, until a few years ago I was convinced that vegan was synonymous with boring. That the plant-based diet was all about chickpeas, lentils and salad.
In reality, it is so much more.
I started to drastically decrease my meat consumption and this led me to browse the supermarket shelves dedicated to vegetarian and vegan products. You cannot imagine how many nice discoveries I have made so far.
In addition to the supermarkets, I have also started following profiles of veg guys and athletes on YouTube/Instagram for inspiration. First of all @cucinabotanica (Carlotta - a soft-spoken and kind-hearted Italian vegan cook), whose videos are always a source of great inspiration for me. They are also followed by @deliciouslyella, one of the most followed international food bloggers and influencers when it comes to vegan cooking, and also the Australian CrossFitter (Fifth fittest man on Earth in 2019) @jamesnewbury, just to give you a few examples.
Over the past few days, I have collected 10 of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to vegan cooking and plant-based diets and put them to Jacopo (@jaasanti on Instagram - whom I thank very much for being so helpful). After all, who better to answer such questions than someone who has made plant-based a lifestyle?
1. First things first, what is the difference between a vegan diet and a plant-based diet? Do you belong to either 'category' or do you prefer not to put labels on your lifestyle?
Good question. I detest labels. Whatever kind they are. I find them limiting. Vegan has always bothered me. Either because in Italy (due to some phenomenon) one is compared to Al-Qaeda terrorism, or because (as Dr. Greger says) 'it is really banal and limiting to define oneself by what one does not eat'. This is perhaps why I have always preferred plant-based. The difference is that a vegan diet is generically defined as a regimen devoid of foods of animal origin. A whole plant based diet (as the name implies) is a plant-based regime consisting of whole (preferably) unprocessed foods. Let us say that the biggest difference between a plant-based diet and veganism is the quality of the food. Although, to be honest, quality was always the first factor I considered even (and especially) when I had to choose foods like bresaola.
2. What triggered the change in you that led to this change?
Let's start from the premise that I have never been a true carnivore. I mean, one of those who post pictures with 1.5 kg T-bone steaks. My meat consumption has always been very limited, especially during my university days. In Rome I spent months without touching meat and realised that the vegetarian turn was imminent.
3. How difficult is it to follow a diet that does not contain animal products nowadays? Do you notice differences in terms of product availability between small towns (like Pratola) and big cities?
It depends on what kind of vegan/plant-based diet you intend to follow. You can be omnivorous and eat junk food 24/7. The same goes for vegans. I am of the opinion that following a regime of 'whole plant based foods' is the best choice. At least for me. Regarding availability, obviously in areas like Valle Peligna (n.d.a. small central area of Abruzzo where Jacopo and I were born and raised) it is more difficult to have a wide range of foods available. But on the whole, you can find almost everything.
4. How much of an impact does this lifestyle have on your social life?
A lot. A lot. In Abruzzo, especially in Valle Peligna, going to dinner with a vegan friend is synonymous with extreme discomfort. With my group of friends when we go out to dinner there is always the 'Jacopo problem' from which I often feel obliged to free them either by not going to dinner or by forcing them to go to a pizzeria. If you also consider that I haven't drunk alcohol for two and a half years... well, you tell me!
5. When you travel, how do you organise yourself?
I travel alone. Of course I do. And it's a blessing. I have discovered some really cool places that I go to with no constraints whatsoever.
6. Have you ever thought of going back to a vegetarian or omnivorous diet?
Yes. Every now and then I think back to the kilos of sushi I used to eat (because varied veg sushi is still quite rare, at least in Abruzzo) and I shed a tear. I have always thought that the only certain thing in this life is change. So never say never.
7. Super popular question: how do you balance the macronutrients in your meals? I am particularly referring to protein, as the Mediterranean diet is heavily based on animal protein sources and there is not much knowledge of 'alternative' protein sources.
If you are on a first date with a vegan and you ask her where she gets her protein from, you are definitely getting off on the wrong foot. Paradoxically, it is fairly well known by now that those who follow a plant-based regime usually take in twice as much protein as an omnivore. In my case, working out in the gym 5/6 times a week, I don't think this has ever been a problem. The basis of the Mediterranean diet (the real one) explained in detail by Professor Franco Berrino is ancient grains, legumes, seasonal vegetables, local fruit, extra virgin olive oil, oil seeds, fish. Here, I think this should be the starting point for everyone. Vegans, vegetarians and omnivores.
8. How did your family/friends react to your choice? Have they been understanding?
My friends always support me in everything I do. This is a great blessing. I have never felt judged. Some of them have reviewed some unhealthy eating habits and are slowly trying to change them. My father. on the contrary, after two and a half years he still insists on asking me if I want some carbonara. But if he weren't such a pain in the ass, he wouldn't be my father!
9. Since following this type of diet, have you started monitoring your health more frequently? How do you feel physically now compared to before (more/less energetic, more/less light for example)?
I do blood tests two/three times a year. On an energetic level I feel much more present, alert, snappy. But I think the decision to give up alcohol has also had a big influence on this. I feel light and vital. It may sound like a cliché, but since I've been eating plant-based I feel much more connected to nature and what's around me. And if I then think that to have dinner on my plate nobody died, well I feel even better. The ethical/moral and health aspects are interconnected and interdependent.
10. What is never missing in your pantry?
In the pantry and fridge there is definitely never a shortage of pulses and cereals and tofu. Everything else varies a lot, especially according to availability and seasonality.
And you, what do you think of the plant-based lifestyle? Do you have any other curiosities about it?