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Lack of knowledge hurts intentions

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While driving to work one morning last week, I was listening to Bob & Tom, and they were interviewing a comic who admitted he was vegan. That caught my attention. He spoke about how on the West Coast he had no issues eating out because there were plenty of restaurants that offered vegan options. But the further east he travels, the more limited his options become, especially when he spends time in the Midwest.

I share his dilemma ... sort of.

In January, I traded my lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, where you eat eggs and dairy in addition to veggies, for a vegan one. I took the plunge and opted for a diet that includes no animal products whatsoever. Considering the limited amount of dairy I consumed, it wasn’t much of an adjustment. Although I have to say it was surprising, and a bit appalling, to me how pervasive animal products and byproducts are in our lives. Call me naive, but I was horrified when I found out what really puts the jiggle in Jell-O.

I have several friends who’ve taken the vegan path, and suffice it to say social networks, such as Facebook, can be a saving grace. Plant-based dieters offer suggestions of the best places in town to eat. As a vegan, it frequently comes down to compromise. According to a recent Gallup Poll, only 5 percent of Americans consider themselves to be vegetarian. By comparison, a mere 2 percent call themselves vegan.

When eating out, salad is an obvious option. There are plenty of restaurants that offer vegetarian dishes I regularly order minus the cheese, sour cream and other dairy favorites. And that’s OK. I made the choice to be vegan; I’m not frustrated or angry with the options, or lack thereof.

What I do take issue with are the liberties restaurants take in offering vegetarian options that aren’t truly vegetarian.

It’s obvious consumers are more informed about their dietary choices as of late. Calorie counts are accompanying menu items, and across the nation there are calls for healthier menu options and ingredients, such as substituting canola or vegetable oil for lard. Even the iconic Happy Meal is going greener by including apple slices and fruit drinks instead of the beloved fries and soda we grew up with.

It would seem the push for healthier lifestyles is in good faith. But what I want to know is, how much do we, as consumers, really know about the foods we’re eating?

The choice to become vegan is mine alone, and I’m not one to preach or push others to go the way of the herbivore. It’s a personal decision. However, I do believe that if you make the choice to pursue a healthy lifestyle, you should be well informed. But the frequent absence of information can sabotage even the best of intentions.

When you walk into a restaurant, you trust the item you’ve ordered in good faith is what you’re told it is. For instance, if you are a vegetarian and you order a veggie burger, what’s it cooked in? Is it prepared in vegetable oil? Or lard? If it’s cooked in lard, it’s no longer vegetarian, is it?

Every day, people order menu items based on the number of calories listed beside the item. So is it such a stretch for restaurants to be more forthcoming about how the food is prepared?

Making the commitment to a healthy lifestyle is laudable, but if you’re vegetarian or vegan and you consume foods that, unbeknownst to you, aren’t 100 percent veggie-friendly, does that make you a “bad” herbivore? Of course not. But don’t be afraid to ask questions. You probably won’t like all the answers you get, but at least you asked.

It is my hope that alongside the health-conscious moves restaurants are making, they will be more inclusive about all aspects of the foods they’re serving. Again, it’s merely a hope.

I don’t believe it is a matter of carnivore vs herbivore. I think it comes down to this: Regardless of your dietary choices, to make informed decisions you need to have the right information, across the board.

Jennifer Willhite is a staff writer for The Republic. She can be reached by phone at 379-5671 or by email at

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