Monday, April 30, 2007

Veganism at work

I'm willing to bet that I'm not the only vegan who cringes when another co-worker says, "Let's go to lunch," or the boss says, "We're all staying late. Don't worry, I'm ordering food." Oh, I usually manage, but I'm likely not happy about it. Unless it is a vegetarian restaurant, not likely, or a vegan friendly restaurant, also unlikely, pickings are slim. I had only been at The Brownsville Herald for a couple of months when we had a meeting of all of the city editors from Valley Freedom Communications. In all, there were eight of us, and no one had a clue I was a vegan, and I'm picking at this miserable excuse for guacamole. "Is that all you are going to eat?" one of the other city editors asked me. "Oh, this is great," I said, trying to avoid additional inquiry into my eating habits but thinking to myself how miserable the food was. In situations like these, you can't help but think about what you'll be able to eat that night when you would get home for dinner. A meal with co-workers usually equals a missed meal or one sorely lacking. Also while I was at The Herald, it was an election night tradition to have the editor order pizza for everyone. I trained the editor to get me cheeseless, meatless pizza. It wasn't until recently, since I left the job, have I come to the realization that the pizza I was consuming wasn't vegan at all. Having experience making pizza at home, it never occurred to me that someone would put dairy into the dough, but Pizza Hut does. They use whey. I can't tell you how pissed I was when I found out. You normally can't check a restaurant's ingredients while you are there. You can inquire about it, but usually you get back a bunch of uninformed nonsense from the servers. I had actually checked with Pizza Hut, and a straining server brought me the huge box of sauce they use, and showed me that it was vegan. I didn't ask for the dough, too, dreading the server having to lug another huge industrial-sized container again. Besides, I was confident that the dough would be OK. Most pizza crusts are water, flour, yeast and salt, sometimes with a small amount of oil. That's it, but one day I was surfing the Internet and found out that you could check the ingredients in the menu for many of the chain restaurants. Needless to say, Pizza Hut was not OK. I did, however, find out that Papa John's and Little Caesar's had vegan crusts. Of course, before I even had a chance to get acquainted, on the first day I started working at the University of Texas at Brownsville in February, they took me to the country club for a meal. I had a baked potato and danced around the "Is that all you are going to eat comments." I fantasize that I will one day remark: "What else do you want me to eat? You took me to this meat-loving restaurant, but I don't eat any meat. Thanks."

Friday, April 27, 2007

The right to know

Like other vegans, I'm particularly sensitive to the ingredients of foods I pick up in grocery stores. There seems to be a whittling away of what we are allowed to know about. The almond industry recently announced that it would start irradiating raw almonds, but the information of what kind of treatments the nut underwent would not necessarily be revealed to the consumer. Despite the valiant efforts of vegan Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland, Ohio, we still are not allowed the information about which fruits and vegetables have been genetically modified. With these abominations, I'm concerned about the ultimate health impact it will have on the general population, the potential environmental damage it can cause and, since animal genes are often inserted into plants, it's another source for animal abuse, never mind the testing that's probably done on animals. Can you imagine the nightmare that could be caused if some gene of a major allergen were inserted into another plant and then blindly tested on the general public? It might do nothing, but it might just cause a lot of harm. Needless to say, I DON'T want to support this industry. I want to have the right to avoid it. I do buy mostly organic produce, which is supposed to be GMO-free, but there are times when I reluctantly end up buying conventional produce when I can't find an alternative. Roadside vegetable stands usually aren't certified organic, and I probably don't have anything to worry about, but I do wonder. GMO crops also have the potential to corrupt organic crops because of pollen drift. On the happy meat front, the Bush administration actually tried to weaken the dolphin-free tuna label, but an appeals court turned away their efforts. True, the deaths of both dolphins and tunas are horrible no matter how you put it, but it just reveals the extent that these maniacs in charge of our government will go to enrich their buddies at everyone else's expense. Some rich fish killer probably complained to a Bush lackey that the law cost him money and was inconvenient. The Bushies also fought tooth and nail to prevent the labeling of cow flesh to indicate where it came from. Maybe they are trying to protect producers from retribution when the next major disease outbreak strikes. Perhaps, they don't want consumers to be allowed to know what is being produced locally or not? Who knows their twisted reasoning for these things. Anyway, I'd like to see more voters become interested in the transparency of our food system. It really is an important issue, regardless of how you choose to eat. It's one thing to choose between organic or conventional; it's another when you aren't even sure what the choices are.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Not ashamed to be a vegan

For better or worse, vegans are given a bad wrap. Herbivore in its 13th issue printed an article by an animal rights activist saying the vegans he knows are confrontational and even elitist. I have never known a vegan like that. Most I have known are quiet about their veganism, afraid to experience the negative reaction to the word "vegan." Well, if the animal rights activist didn't like the confrontational vegans, I think the quiet vegans (probably including myself at times) should accept themselves for who they are. Quiet vegans should calmly proclaim themselves to be a vegan when appropriate. They shouldn't sneer the word "vegan." They shouldn't express themselves apologetically either. They should say, "I'm a vegan," matter-of-factly. To the vegan, it should be a normal circumstance to say it, and to the person hearing it, it shouldn't sound unusual. A born-again Christian would have no problem expressing her beliefs to others. Vegans should be proud of their decision to remove themselves from the industry of animal cruelty, to be kinder to the planet's environment and to minimize the personal risks of numerous diseases. It is wonderful to be a vegan, and we don't and shouldn't have to apologize to anyone for making the choice to be one.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Thoughtless, unthinking creatures?

Yesterday, we added a glass shelf in the bathroom and were able to get some items off the countertop. Normally, our cat, Snowbell, runs into the bathroom when we are there and jumps onto the countertop to get our attention. It's her spot, really. This morning, she runs into the bathroom and stops where she would normally jump up. She's got this confused look on her face, and she stretches her neck to look at what's on the countertop. She looks nervous. What's going on, she seems to be thinking. Finally, at my encouragement, she jumps up. She goes over to the glass shelf and takes a good look at it. She sniffs it. I guess it's all right, she seems to be telling me. She then relaxes and is back to her normal shelf. These are the moments when I think about the cruel machine churning out animals for human consumption. The prevailing attitude in our meat-eater culture is that animals are unfeeling and unthinking creatures. Get to know one. I bet you'd change your mind.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A health-food craze?

It's amusing how a study can come out about a healthy quality in a food and all of a sudden it's a health food. Over the last few years, we've heard about the wonderful qualities of beer, wine, coffee and chocolate. Since I love all of those items, I didn't mind being told about their health-giving qualities. I think I used those studies to rationalize the consumption of more of these products. "It's good for you," I'd say and I'd overhear others say. Well, I think we let the healthful qualities about these products outweigh our concerns about their negative traits. Beer, wine and chocolate are supposed to be good for the heart. What about what all of those extra calories and the pounds you are gaining because of too many of these products? Isn't being obese bad for the heart? And, chocolate (I only eat the kinds that have 75 percent or greater cocoa content.), is full of saturated fat, and when you get too much of that, you get elevated levels of cholesterol, which can lead to heart problems. Coffee is supposed to somehow help with diabetes. I know a few people who have diabetes and drink coffee religiously. As a side note, I used to get mouth sores all of the time, and I started to suspect coffee had something to do with it. I stopped drinking coffee for a while, and the sores went away. I started drinking it again after a while, and the sores came back. Of course, I quit for good. Now, I only drink green or white tea for caffeine, and I no longer have any problems with mouth sores. Who are we fooling? Having something that is decadent is OK rarely, but making a regular habit of it will only lead to other problems. Moderation is something we could all do more of. Don't forget, variety is the spice of life.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Cruelty Fest

Well, it's time for our city's annual animal exploitation festival, called RioFest. Dogs, snakes, lizards and turtles were prodded and poked and forced to perform for their human taskmasters. Dogs were made to show off their "hunting skills." Somehow, the fellow forcing the animals to his bidding says in the local newspaper about his show: "It's for the love of animals." Say what? Training dogs to either kill other animals or lead their human taskmasters to the bloody deed is certainly not animal love. In another case of animal exploitation, an exhibitor allows people to hold his 100-pound alligator snapping turtle, so they could take pictures with it. Says the lady who jumped at the chance to hold it: "I’ve collected and hunted a lot of snapping turtles," but she later adds that she "just always loved animals and nature." My idea of love is not killing and kidnapping.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Vegan Principles and Cats

I once had a good friend question my commitment to veganism because I had, and still have, six cats. He told me that just having cats would cause massive bird deaths in the neighborhood, and the food I would be purchasing would contribute to more animal suffering. Perhaps he had some points, but before I get into my cats, I would point out that the same argument could be made in befriending the typical human, who causes massive animal suffering. First of all, all of our cats, who are all females, were rescued. Two, Prissy and Calypso, came from a horrible looking pregnant cat in our neighborhood who came to us for help. The poor cats' mother, who we called Zingara (Gypsy in Italian), had exposed ribs, patches of missing fur and a dull color to the fur. After a week of feeding that long-haired cat, she looked healthy as could be. The she had a litter of five kittens. We kept two, and the three others ended up in good homes, all spayed and neutered, thank you very much. Zingara unfortunately left one evening, and we never saw her again. We looked for her and put up signs to no avail. Our next cat, Chelsea, came from the local kill shelter. Some evil person took this cute tortoise shell kitten to the kill shelter and gave her bad marks, saying she was a wild cat who caused lots of destruction. Whoever did this also chopped off her nails until they were bloody stumps. We adopted Chelsea because we knew no one else would. She is our most affectionate cat. Her nails, and that of our other cats, are all healthy and unclipped. Our next came to me when I was visiting a friend's house. This poor kitten was so hungry I felt I had to go to the store to get some food to feed her. She knew a good thing when she saw it and was insistent that I take her with me. This tuxedo cat, we called Calzetta (Socks in Italian. Get it? Chelsea Clinton had a cat named Socks.) When we took her to the vet to get looked at, she had all sorts of issues, from fleas to tape worms to ear mites. Our last two kittens came from a local wild cat who decided to give birth in our bushes. We suspect the mother of these kittens was related to Zingara. We called the two Tinker Bell and Snow Bell (I'm holding her in the picture). They have the sweetest meows. As for our vegan principles, all of our cats stay indoors, so no wild birds are killed. Unfortunately, we do not buy vegan cat food, even though we could order it through the mail. I understand cats need to be closely monitored when on that diet because of being natural carnivores. The vegan food costs three times as much as we currently pay for, and we buy among the most expensive cat foods in the pet supply store. We get Science Diet Nature's Best food because it is full of whole grains and doesn't have any of those horrible meat byproducts. There is a vegan reason to buy that cat food, as well. The first two ingredients are brewers rice and corn gluten meal, not animal products. So fewer animals are slaughtered to feed these cats, and interestingly enough, our cats eat less of it than other cat foods, and they seem healthier. Also, a gross point, but their litter boxes smell less with this food. So, it is tough in a way to have cat friends and be vegan, but we alleviated a lot of suffering when we adopted them and try to keep their impact to a minimum. They are our meat-eating friends, but we forgive them for it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Just Innocent Comments?

I was listening to Lime radio with Dr. Weil, and a woman with osteoporosis calls in to ask if the doctor had any suggestions. She said she followed a mostly vegan diet with very rarely a dairy product. Dr. Wiel says, I'm paraphrasing here, "I don't know how ethical you are but ..." He then goes on to suggest that she get a good source of complex omega-3 fatty acids, preferably in the form of fish oil supplements and to take vitamin d3 supplements (which are usually from animal products!). He also told her to see an exercise therapist for some weight-bearing exercises. Meat-eaters continue to ignore the weight of science in how healthy a vegan diet can be and how harmful animal protein is. I probably would have been a vegan a lot sooner had I not been fooled by all the fear mongering by people who are not even qualified to speak on nutrition. Look at the labels of those nutrition books that were written by Dr. So-and-So. How many of them have degrees in nutrition? Dr. Weil certainly doesn't. Medical school is not an adequate training ground for nutritionists. In fact, most medical schools barely touch on the subject of nutrition. So, why then, do so many people trust the likes of Dr. Atkins? It's simply because he has a Dr. before his name and the medical degree, and that's all. Doctors need to admit when they are not an expert on something and refer it to the person who can give the advice. You know nutritionists published studies in peer-reviewed journals about trans-fatty acids in the 1970s and early 1980s about how harmful they were, but it wasn't until the information came out 20 years later in the New England Journal of Medicine did anyone believe it. Now that's hokey. There are many plant foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Granted, most are not in their complex forms, but the body makes complex chains of omega-3 out of the more simple forms we give it. The sun is the best source of vitamin d. Don't take my word for it, see what nutritionists have to say about it, but please don't go looking to doctors for advice on what to eat. Educate yourself. Here is a good article about calcium from the Vegetarian Resource Group. Here's a discussion about vegans and osteoporosis by Jack Norris, a guy with a nutrition degree, and it isn't very flattering to vegans, unfortunately. Here's a discussion about bone health by Norris. The book, "Becoming Vegan," by Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina has a good discussion about bone nutrition. Both Davis and Melina have nutrition degrees. The book, "The Vegetarian Way: Total Health for You and Your Family," by Virginia and Mark Messina is also excellent and provides an overview of the studies done on bone health. Mark has a doctorate degree in nutrition, a pretty good qualification, and Virginia also has a degree in nutrition.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Vegan Health

Here I am a vegan fighting misconceptions about us, and now I have my own shattered. Listening to Vegan Freak Radio (66: The Vegan Health Show) yesterday blew my freaking mind. Bob Torres, a vegan and co-author with wife Jenna of "Vegan Freak," a book about being a vegan in an unvegan world, revealed that he recently found out he was a diabetic. This is a vegan who is the ideal body weight and eats fairly well, but he still was diabetic. He says the doctor actually told him to eat a low-carbohydrate diet. That's something no vegan wants to hear or can even cope with. The doctor said two tests of his fasting glucose was high, and his cholesterol was at 201, and his triglycerides were 197. The American Heart Association considers total cholesterol above 240 mg/dl to be high and between 200 and 239 mg/dl to be borderline high. According to the American Heart Association, normal triglycerides should be at 150 mg/dl. The American Diabetes Association says a normal fasting glucose is less than 100 mg/dl, but between 100-125 is pre-diabetes, and 126 mg/dl and higher is diabetes. Well, Torres gets educated about his disease and what he can do to be more healthy. He consults with a dietician, and he reads the book, "Dr. Neal Barnard's Program for Reversing Diabetes: The Scientifically Proven System for Reversing Diabetes Without Drugs," that reports on how a low-fat vegan diet can reverse diabetes. He and his wife stop drinking alcohol regularly, adding refined sugars to foods, and they cut way back on the amount of oils they were adding to their foods. They also start exercising everyday, no excuses. The way Torres puts it on his radio show is that his life depended on him exercising every day, so he had to make time to do it, even if it meant less time doing something else. In a month, Torres went back to the doctor and was retested. She tells him that he reversed his diabetes. What ever he was doing, he should keep doing it. In the five years I've been a vegan, I presumed that the mere fact I was vegan meant that I was healthy. Vegans should have low cholesterol because we don't consume cholesterol. Well, things like saturated fat and even white flour can raise cholesterol. So, maybe we were fooling ourselves some. Being a vegan doesn't prevent someone from being overweight, either. I'm 5'10" and weigh 225 pounds. I'm actually considered obese by our country's health standards, even though I don't really look like it. I had already been overweight before I became a vegetarian and then a vegan, but that doesn't make being overweight any more healthy. Interestingly enough, this is the sixth-straight week I've been exercising on my exercise bike at least five times per week for 30 minutes. About the same time we started exercising more, my wife and I decided to ax alcohol except on special occasions, such as a birthday or anniversary. We did the alcohol thing because of all of the empty calories you get on top of everything else you eat. So, we are making an effort to be more healthy. We certainly have a long way to go, but like I always say, you don't get overweight in one night, so you can lose it all in one night either. I think we need to slash the amount of sweets and fatty foods we are consuming and cut down on the oils we add when cooking. Of course, we already don't eat any white rice, white flour, white sugar or highly processed foods. So, that's a good start. Oh, Anita did get tested before we started exercising regularly. Her total cholesterol was 186, her HDL was 50, LDL 111, triglycerides 60, glucose 87 and thyroid-stimulating hormone 1.25. Basically what that means is she is not diabetic, and most of her numbers were in the ideal category, but her LDL levels were a little high. Torres pointed out on his radio show that a health expert said total cholesterol below 150 is where heart attacks and other heart diseases are unheard of. I would like to get my levels checked, as well, but since I just recently changed jobs, I can not use my health insurance until I've been employed for at least 90 days. Hopefully, I'll keep up with the exercising and the better diet at home, and I'll have some good numbers. We'll see. But with a gut check just now, I know it's still there, so I know I have plenty of room to get healthier.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My Vegan Birthday

My darling wife made me feel so special yesterday. It was my 34th birthday, and boy did I get a delicious vegan feast. My wife actually took off early from work to prepare the food. Anita made steamed spring rolls with a spicy peanut sauce as an appetizer, and for the main meal, she made a Szechuan-style stir fry with snow peas, bamboo shoots, broccoli, mung bean sprouts, shitake mushrooms, carrots, onions, fried tofu with brown rice. I was full, but I managed to eat two kinds of whole wheat brownies, one sweeter without frosting and the other with frosting. She bought me some neat books, including "A Vegan Taste of Thailand" by Linda Majzlik, "Buddha's Table: Thai Feasting Vegetarian Style" by Chat Mingkwan, "The True History of Chocolate" by Sophie and Michael Coe and a book by liberal radio host Ed Schultz. You can probably tell that I'm obsessed with Thai cooking. Thailand truly has an amazing variety of cuisine. What gets me is the number of sauces they have. You simply could never get bored with what they offer. The chocolate book also has an interesting story. You learn about the plant and how it was used in the Americas and what the white conquerors did with it. More than the incredible story of chocolate, the fact that the book was published at all was a testament to love. Sophie Coe wrote the wonderful book called "America's First Cuisines," which examined the foods that came out of the Americas, including tomatoes, chili peppers, bananas, potatoes, pineapples, pinto and black beans, of course chocolate and many others. Her husband, a famous archaeologist and anthropologist, wrote numerous books on the Mayans. Sophie Coe became terminally ill with cancer as she began to write the chocolate book. She died only three chapters into it, but her husband took the research she did and finished the writing. What a sweet love story.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Presidential Campaign

I can't tell you how frustrated this early Democratic presidential primary season has been for me. I support a candidate, Dennis Kucinich, who I believe to have the strongest credentials and the best ideas, but he hardly gets a mention in the mainstream media. Already, the media is deciding for itself who are the frontrunners. They've already anointed Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama and have given John Edwards an outside chance. I can tell you as a former newspaper journalist, every organization I've worked for, we've tried to be as fair and objective as possible in every local election we've had. No candidate in a mayoral election would get more stories than the others. Each candidate would be given equal amount of room to display his or her ideas. Of course, we would also do background checks on each candidate to check for bones in their closets. The idea, however sterile it might sound, was to present each candidate and their proposals and let the voters choose who was the best of the bunch. In this presidential race, we are being told who's the best by the mere lopsided coverage. Clinton and Obama might be decent candidates, but let's hear what they and the other candidates are really about. So far, the news coverage we have gotten has just been a childish popularity contest, not a battle of ideas. I can tell you I would put Kucinich's proposals on health care against any other candidate's. Bill Richardson, however, has got some pretty nifty ideas how to direct the United States' foreign policy. My point is, let the media coverage be about what the candidates are saying they want to do, not about what the latest poll is saying or the latest fundraiser. The problem with polls is the results influence who people are going to support. No one wants to support a loser, but the first polls are only the results of who the media is playing up in the news. Whoever has had the most favorable news coverage is usually the one with the best poll. Let's put these polls to the side and talk about what's most important. We've learned the hard way, that excellent presidents are only as strong as their ideas and vision. Please let the public hear the candidates out.

Land of Manteca

Deep South Texas in the McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville area is where two cultures meet. This is the center of Hispanic culture in a state increasingly Hispanic. More than 90 percent of the people who live in this Rio Grande Valley identify themselves as Hispanic. Besides Mexico, there are numerous immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Cuba. As a gateway to the United States, there are even a sizeable number of Chinese immigrants who pass through. I'm a vegan Anglo (This is what white European immigrants and their following generations are called here. I'm of Polish, German, Dutch, Czech and English heritage.), and I moved from the Austin area about a year and a half ago. I've had to adjust to not having things as convenient to me. No longer do I get to choose from numerous vegetarian restaurants, such as Veggie Heaven, West Lynn Cafe (which I'm sad to say closed to be replaced by another vegetarian restaurant called Cosmic Cafe), Casa de Luz, two Mr. Natural's, Nu Age Cafe, Mother's (which I heard recently burned down) and numerous other vegan friendly places. We also had a great selection of grocery stores in Austin, including two Whole Foods, Wheatsville, two Central Markets and two Sun Harvests. Here, we have no vegetarian restaurants and one good grocery store, a Sun Harvest, in McAllen, which is about 35 minutes from where I live in Harlingen. Some Asian restaurants in the Valley have items for vegetarians. Mexican food, obviously, is very important here. You would think a vegan could go to a restaurant and get say beans, tortillas and vegan taco fillings. It isn't that simple, however. It is common for pork to be added to the beans and for manteca (which looks like Crisco and is made from beef fat) to be added to nearly all flour tortillas. Most corn tortillas, however, are made without manteca, but I wouldn't be surprised if they put it in some of them. We are cooking more than ever at home and even got involved in probably the first community supported agriculture farm in the Valley. The other pluses from living here are the fresh avocados, which taste way better, tree ripened naval oranges and other citrus and the nation's first crop of sweet onions. There's a small group of vegans and vegetarians living here who are slowly but surely spreading the word about what it means to eat a meatless diet. There's probably no place more important than here with one of the highest rates of diabetes in the nation, but I'll save that for another post.