By Dr. Tomi Wahlström |
As a longtime vegan/vegetarian, I have faced all sorts of challenges and peculiar questions through the years. I was only 17 years old when I first stopped eating meat. At that time in Helsinki, Finland, this was rather unheard of. It was nearly impossible to find any vegan meals in restaurants at the time and even more difficult to maintain my macrobiotic lifestyle. In addition, I had to make it through the mandatory military service in the elite light infantry troops of the Finnish Army while maintaining my diet. I think that I was the first one to do it so I was obviously a target of a lot of ridiculing and questioning. However, I was a boxer and gave some boxing lessons to my fellow soldiers and officers so my “toughness” was not in question. I only mention this because sometimes people stereotype vegans to be weak and non-athletic. The most common question people ask is “where do you get your protein?” They are not used to seeing a muscular and athletic vegan. I do not fit their mental image of vegans. I have lifted weights and boxed for most of my life. I am not weak or particularly thin. I have my issues with being overweight like my meat-eating friends.
Veganism has become more common in the recent years. However, it is still very difficult in some parts of the world to maintain a healthy vegan lifestyle. When I lived in Seoul, South Korea, I experienced some significant challenges. Korean cuisine is based on Mongolian barbeque and not very vegan friendly. Even within the US, there are areas where finding restaurants that serve vegan options is challenging. Here in Alabama, it is often quite difficult. When I lived in Los Angeles, I was able to find vegan and vegetarian restaurants almost everywhere. It was also easier when I went to college and graduate school in Hawaii. However, other than Denver, eating vegan in Colorado was a struggle during my years there. Even Florida was hard for me to live in as a vegan. It is actually quite surprising to me to find national restaurant chains like Ruby Tuesday that until very recently did not include even one vegan or vegetarian menu item. Somehow, they seemed to think that all we vegans want to eat is salad from their famous salad bar. For an over 220-pound vegan like me with some muscle, salad just is not enough. We need some calories too.
One of the strange things about being a vegan is that people need to know why. They think that there has to be a reason. Is it your religion, they ask? Is it because you do not want to hurt animals? I find it interesting because nobody seems to need an explanation for the rest of the people who eat meat. It does not appear to be easy for people to understand that veganism is simply a diet choice. It does not automatically imply anything else. Some vegans do have philosophical reasons, of course. Some think that it is the way to sustain the existence of human race (Albert Einstein). Some do have religious or environmental reasons. However, for many of us, it is simply a preference. It is not even just about health reasons because it is possible to be an unhealthy vegan as much as it is possible to be a healthy non-vegan. Vegans do not necessarily make better performing athletes but being an athlete does not also require one to eat meat and other animal products. In the end, veganism is just a simple dietary choice. It should not be a topic of questioning and debate. It does not determine one’s political ideology or worldview. It is just a nutritional preference and nothing else. I have had too many debates with bodybuilders who seem almost offended that I choose not to eat meat. Their dedication to eating animal proteins does not offend me but they do not seem to accept my choice of protein sources. I do not understand their defensiveness and the need for the debate. My only hope is that as veganism becomes more popular, people learn to be less judgmental and tolerant. Perhaps they could even join me for a tofu burger.
Dr. Tomi Wahlström is the Provost at the United States Sports Academy.