How do you make a vegan laugh? 

Show concern for their protein intake. 

Of all the curiosity one could muster about a animal-free diet, this is the primary inquiry from concerned onlookers. It’s like the protein police have been dispatched from headquarters, reducing this multifaceted dietary choice into one bland interrogatory point; like asking your friend who’s just returned from foreign travel what was served on the airplane.

Patricia O’Kane Ey, bright-eyed, snowy-haired, and radiant, hasn’t eaten eggs, dairy, or animal flesh in over twelve years. She doesn’t overthink the protein: “I don’t micromanage my protein intake, and I don’t have any aches or pains. I have plenty of energy and I sleep well.” 

Heath Scott, 43-year-old vegan ultra runner, concurs. “You need very little protein. American diseases are diseases of excess protein.” Scott’s voice oozes a light Southern drawl, and his mind contains a spreadsheet of pro-vegan points. On protein: “Protein leaches calcium from our bones. The countries with the highest meat and dairy consumption also have the highest osteoporosis.” 

Ten years ago in a routine health check, Heath Scott discovered he was pre-diabetic, eighty pounds overweight, and his cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose were off the charts. His doctor was busy penning multiple prescriptions when Scott asserted his wish to fix his health “on his own.” The doctor gave him three months and complete skepticism.

Scott was already vegetarian—“for a girl, which is normally why you do crazy things”—but his diet was heavy on pasta, bread, cream sauces, and french fries. When turning down the medication he didn’t have an exact plan, but went home and consulted more medical professionals (i.e. surfed the internet). Because if “metabolic syndrome” (the name for his cluster of symptoms, interestingly concomitant with modern American lifestyles) was caused by poor diet and sedentary behavior, surely it could be ameliorated by reversal of such. Heath Scott kept returning to evidence that an animal-free diet could radically turn his health around.

Scott immediately went vegan, then raw vegan, and ten years later eats completely vegan and mostly raw. He lost those eighty pounds within ten months and has never needed medication. For awhile he was mostly fruitarian, getting 80-90 percent of calories from fruit, while running 70-80 miles per week. In his experimental quest to maximize health and performance, there were days he’d eat thirty bananas, period. “I do love bananas, but to be honest, it’s tough to eat thirty bananas a day,” he confesses. The glycemic index of bananas falls short only of watermelon (which Scott considers “rocket fuel” for endurance races), so what about blood sugar? “I checked my blood sugar (during these experiments) and it was always below 100.” 

Best-selling food writer Michael Pollan asks in his book Omnivore’s Dilemma, “If we can eat anything, what’s the optimal diet?” And, in his next book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, he answers his own question succinctly: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Pollan cites researchers who’ve studied traditional diets around the world and found that although their diets vary (The Masai of Africa subsisted on meat, blood, and milk; Australian Aborigines ate a tremendous variety of plants and animals), all were free of modern disease. (Societies that had some wild meat in their diet were slightly healthier than those that ate a lot of cereal grains). One unifying factor is that traditional diets contain whole, unprocessed foods and wild foods, all of which have the highest nutrients available. (In fact, the much-touted diet of traditional Mediterraneans is thought to partially owe its superior health outcomes to the wild plants people foraged seasonally). Although wild weeds are readily accessible to most of us, to translate this requirement for a nutrient-dense diet into modern terms, Pollen says, “There are literally scores of studies demonstrating that a diet rich in vegetables and fruits reduces the risk of dying from all Western diseases. In countries where people eat a pound or more of fruits and vegetables daily, the rate of cancer is half of what it is in the United States.” (That pound would likely cover thirty bananas). About eating meat, Pollan says, “Small amounts of pastured meat doesn’t appear to increase one’s risk of disease, however there may be ethical and environmental reasons to exclude it from the diet.”

Patricia O’Kane Ey’s primary reasons for choosing a vegan lifestyle—yes, for her this goes beyond diet—is not wanting to be the cause of another’s suffering. She grew up on a midwestern farm, and eleven years after Charlotte’s Web was published, she discovered a runt born at the neighbor’s hog farm, soon to be “knocked in the head.” When she asked the farmer if she could take that littlest piglet home, the farmer, “a beautiful man,” said to the young girl, “This is the way of things, Patricia. But ask your parents.” Her parents consented and O’Kane Ey bottle fed “Paulie,” keeping him in a box by the wood stove until he was old enough to live outside with the dogs. O’Kane Ey couldn’t ultimately disrupt “the way of things,” and Paulie eventually went to slaughter, but the small amount of power she wielded to reduce or postpone the suffering in Paulie’s life marked a permanent shift in her thinking. 

O’Kane Ey sees life as an endless map of choices, and her vow of non-harming is a compass for how she moves through it. Everywhere, there is an opportunity to look below the surface. Dark chocolate is technically vegan, and yet, “You need to know where these things come from. There are children harvesting cacao.” She would never buy new leather, down, cashmere, silk or wool.

It’s easy to stay unconscious to the industries that commodify animals. Our American supermarkets display cuts of meat that fail to reveal conditions that might affect our appetites. Stories of industrial animal operations make us wince, and yet our attention span is limited. Why do we forget about breeding sows spending their whole lives in concrete-floored “gestation crates” when bacon-wrapped shrimp appears at the holiday party? O’Kane Ey always remembers. “I don’t ever need to watch another video about how horrific animals are treated.” What is it like abstaining from potluck offerings and birthday cake? “I don’t feel deprived ever,” she asserts. “I bring a vegan dish, and I go to potlucks and parties to be social. I can eat whatever I want. I choose choose to eat a whole foods, plant-based diet.”  It seems that for O’Kane Ey, living so close to her values nourishes her deeply, becoming its own sustaining fuel.

Allison Riggs grew up on hardy “meat and potatoes” Nebraskan fare. She didn’t even try tofu until adulthood. Before giving up animal products, she made choices based on environmental impact, including the weighty decision not to bring children onto a planet straining from overpopulation. “I felt sort of hypocritical taking short showers, recycling, and riding my bike everywhere when I learned that the fossil fuels released by animal agriculture eclipse any other industry.”

This is what moved Riggs to forego meat: one quarter pound, industrially-grown hamburger requires 13.5 pounds of grain and forage, 115 gallons of water, and 64.5 square feet of land for grazing and raising fodder (2012 study published in the journal Animals). One burger. This information has an impact. The 6,000 employee coworking venture WeWork announced they will no longer serve meat at company functions, nor reimburse employees who order meat at lunch meetings. The company’s founder, Miguel McKelvey, explains, “New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their environmental impact—even more than switching to a hybrid car.” 

The vegan diet seems to have coalesced around what one doesn’t eat, but what do vegans eat? Do they leave the house with a cooler of pre-approved food, or perhaps need an extra lunch hour to chew through acres of vegetables, only to be hungry an hour later? Heath Scott feels most energized when he eats a large fruit smoothie for breakfast, another for lunch, and a big salad for dinner; remarkably, he can get 2,000 calories from this daily menu. A typical smoothie includes three bananas, a bunch of mango, strawberries, maca powder, a handful of kale, and almond milk. Scott’s preferred choices may arouse suspicion amongst low-carb aficionados, but he maintains that carbs are not the problem if they are unprocessed and preferably raw, nutrients and enzymes in full availability. 

Allison Riggs remembers that transitioning from omnivore to vegan required a fair amount of dairy-free zucchini bread and faux meat. “The vegan bacon? Unreal. Tastes just like the real thing.” She now focuses on eating unprocessed food, and feels ambivalent about all the products masquerading as meat. “The ‘impossible burger’—it’s so good, so familiar. It’s pink inside even, maybe from beet juice. It’s almost too realistic. It kind of grossed me out.” (The impossible burger is a trademarked vegan product engineered from wheat and potato protein, and a genetically modified yeast designed to replicate every aspect of a traditional hamburger. According to their website, it bleeds and sizzles).

For Patricia O’Kane Ey, less is more. “At my age, I don’t need big meals.” A green smoothie (banana, kale, and hemp seeds) satisfies her half the day. She eats a hearty porridge most mornings of steel cut oats and quinoa flakes, swirling in some combo of coconut oil, raw apple, nuts, maple syrup, and goji berries. For her, it’s easy. She simply “veganizes” familiar meals: pasta, enchiladas, tacos, chili, soup. Her go-to snacks are bananas with peanut butter, or homemade hummus and crackers. Dinner is often a salad, but if she has company she ratchets up the offerings with “parmesan cheese” made from cashews, sea salt, and nutritional yeast or her vegan tiramisu, which has passed successfully on many omnivorous potluck tables.

It’s not unusual for cities to support at least one vegan restaurant. The Next Level Burger Restaurant (four stars on Yelp) offers “fast-casual vegan” in five urban locations. The menu boasts eleven vegan burgers and sixteen vegan milkshakes. Burgers are made of various combos of black beans, veggies, quinoa, black chia seeds, and mushrooms, and are served with sides of french fries, onion rings, or tater tots drizzled with vegan bleu cheese. As a reviewer said, “The 1950s called. And it’s vegan!”

Southwest Colorado is no vegan epicenter. A hand-painted sign stuck in a verdant meadow alongside U.S. Highway 160 reminds Riggs, who drives from Montezuma County to Durango for work, I’d rather see a cow than a condo. “I don’t want to see condos either,” Riggs explains. “But it’s the either/or message that I can’t get behind.” Riggs gives credit to ranchers who are trying to raise animals ethically, but the end game of death for our consumption is, for her, an insurmountable obstacle. She enumerates other options for landowners: solar farms, wind farms, vegetable agriculture, and wonders if because government can subsidize corn, soy, and beef farms, why not give breaks to people who choose to leave land alone for wildlife?

It turns out that the very act of modern eating, even mostly plants, is neither paradox- nor cruelty-free. Forests and their inhabitants are cleared for the next banana plantation; pesticide runoff from soybean production pollutes waterways; small animals are displaced and killed under the plow; a gallon of water is required to grow one almond; migrant farm workers are exposed to toxic loads of pesticides; and fruits and vegetables are transported on refrigerated trucks, requiring large outputs of fossil fuels. 

Perhaps it’s easy for us to forget about some of the inhumane conditions inherent in the livestock industry, because by the time the animal is on our plates, any fingerprints of possible cruelty have been wiped clean. Perhaps also, we’re hungry for something only found in meat. As Michael Pollan says, “Humans have been going to heroic lengths to obtain meat for a very long time.” However, as a culture, Americans have never had less involvement with our food. We’ve also never eaten as much meat (estimates range from 120-170 lbs/person annually). Surely, there is a connection.

And sometimes it’s confusing what choice actually creates the least harm. 

Last winter in the fragranced aisles of a big box store, I spent thirty minutes equivocating over a comforter for my son. Inherent in the goose down were the feathers which seemed to rightfully belong to the goose. The other available choice, polyester, is made from petrochemicals, and the current biggest source of micro-plastic ocean pollution are tiny particles shed from synthetic clothing (A 2018 study by the University of California Santa Barbara Bren School). Incidentally, cotton (which wasn’t an option at this store) is sprayed with more pesticides than any food crop, and one cotton t-shirt requires 5,000 gallons of water to produce (Water Footprint Network, 2015). I left with confusion, discouragement, and the polyester fleece blanket. 

Maybe it helps to move beyond either/or thinking to consider a spectrum of non-harming. What is possible? What is doable right now? Can we make choices out of care rather than guilt, so that our choices are sustainable? Can we be more curious and less forgetful?

Although Patricia O’Kane Ey sometimes fantasizes about living on a “vegan island” where everyone remembered all of the time the truth behind what’s on their plate, she also knows that judging others contributes to suffering. She’s aiming for less suffering all around. During a family reunion in Ireland, she ate homemade scones served to her family that she assumed were made with butter. “I saw that the cows were well cared for, I blessed them, and ate the scone.” She is an activist through modeling. “I don’t walk around wearing a vegan badge,” she says, though her husband, two adult sons, and other family members have adopted a vegan lifestyle through their admiration for O’Kane Ey’s bright health and commitment to her principles.

And really, we still want to know, what protein do vegans eat? The word is beans, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens (leafy greens: who knew?). Now you don’t have to ask.