Finding Willpower as Vegan

            We want what we can’t have. The saying that is usually reserved to describe the trials of love or yearning for objects and aspirations out of reach, but in this case, I’m referring to food of course. A familiar inner voice appears in your head convincing you to give into temptation as you fixate a longing gaze and a watering mouth on a certain food item you know you should refrain from, that you try desperately to stifle and silence. It seems like a cruel joke how the appeal and desire emerges ever more strongly, accompanied with a heightened sense of attention and awareness, when restraining one-self. Lately, fueled by frustration from struggling with non-vegan food cravings, the inner workings of self-control and the implications of having a lack of personal discipline have been heavy on my mind, striking my curiosity. It’s the ultimate test of willpower at play that all of us grapple with in various aspects of our lives on a daily basis.

            What I learned is willpower has, in fact, recently been discovered to be more than a mere metaphor. Scientists describe willpower as being a form of energy in the brain, similar to a muscle. Willpower can be strengthened with practice and use, however, it also progressively gets fatigued and decreases with use throughout the day. Whether it’s resisting food, decision-making, or completing a dreaded task, exercising self-control in different areas of your life ends up drawing from and draining the same source of mental energy. The key is in conserving your willpower for matters of importance, since you only have a finite amount of it each day. Simply putting food you’re resisting near to you, in your sight, aides in depleting your willpower. Whereas putting it across the room from you or not having it in your presence at all, makes restraint far easier because you are not actively resisting the temptation. A study even concluded that workers in an office ate a significant more amount of candy when it was placed on a desk inside a clear, glass bowl versus a non-transparent bowl. Proving the out-of-sight-out-of-mind technique to be an effective strategy.

            These findings came as no surprise to me, whose battle to follow a vegan diet while still in New Hampshire, came to be an impossible feat for me. Surrounded by non-vegan food not only at home and gatherings with friends, but also at the restaurant where I worked, I was constantly being challenged. Even after watching those horrid videos of farm animals being cruelly abused and slaughtered, I was hopelessly only able to uphold a vegan diet for a meager day or so, until I gave in and let all of my old habits and diet come rearing back in. Utterly discouraged, I concluded my goal to go vegan could not realistically be reached until my impending move to Hawaii. Where I’d be removed from my routines, the lure of my refrigerator, my mother’s cooking, the quantities of rich food available at the restaurant I worked for, and all the other surrounding influences and temptations that seemingly held me hostage. I’d be able to start from square one moving to Hawaii with the most extreme and ideal out-of-sight-out-of-mind set up available to me.

            I then had about a four month long postponement period before Hawaii and a vegan lifestyle that awaited me. I must admit, for a large portion of those four months, I was gravitating towards meat and dairy with a lust and desire like it was my last day to live. The guilt and shame associated with consuming meat and dairy was palpable, but in my head, what consistently prevailed was an overwhelming feeling of limited time. The dominating argument that I won’t be able to have this food/drink item once I follow veganism, so I need to enjoy it while I still can. It’s a mindset difficult to describe, which strikes a certain feeling of scarcity, finality, and fear producing a powerful desire that makes you want to cling to your old diet even more tightly. For the duration of the postponement of my transition to veganism, before my move, I focused on the traditional aspects and familiarities of meat and dairy, which I had consumed all my life. The notion that it is “normal” to eat these things, instead of reminding myself of the animal it originated from and pushing the new information and the unpleasant things I had watched to the back of my mind. Before my move, I only managed to cut down on my meat consumption slightly, while my dairy intake, I believe, increased to make up for my self-imposed meat limitations. I was feeling weak and defeated for my embarrassing, pathetic display of self-control and seemingly nonexistent willpower.

            Exhausting your willpower is a process researchers call “ego depletion”, in which everything, positive and negative, feels more intensely to you because your brain has lost some ability to regulate emotions. Thus, you respond more strongly to everything while cravings, frustrations, and desires build. In the short term, willpower is a limited resource where your mounting restraint and discipline overtax valuable space in your brain, making it that much more difficult to resist other temptation later on in your day. Fortunately, not all hope is lost for the ones, like myself, to put the “power” back into our “willpower”. Improvements can be made by frequent and consistent exercises in self-control. Observant religious people are a good example of this, often scoring higher in self-discipline than others, perhaps with personal religious practices involving willpower. One study found that students who were asked to pay attention to their posture for a week, performed better on other willpower tasks (not pertaining to posture) than students who had not been actively exercising control all week.

            Therefore, all these areas in your life that require some form of mental effort, will help build up and strengthen that mental muscle of self-control within you. The more you practice willpower and put it to the test, the more successful you will be in resisting temptation in the future.

            Now if you’ll excuse me, I will be beginning my day with the ultimate willpower exercise of passing the pastry counter, full of non-vegan delicacies at my regular coffee shop, with a new motivation that will hopefully extinguish my lingering urges to jump across the counter and devour each and every one of those buttery pastries. Best of luck in your willpower pursuits!

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Becoming Vegan – From New Hampshire to Hawaii

Becoming Vegan

 

When I initially decided to transition into becoming a vegan, I don’t think I was fully aware of the magnitude of it. Having only followed a vegan diet for a little over a week now, I’m still nowhere near the point of seeing the deep impact it will have on my life and all the changes that will occur in my body and mind alike. It isn’t simply cutting out meat and dairy, it’s a whole new way of thinking, it’s a lifestyle you follow.

I went through different stages of thinking about the change to veganism. The impending move to live with a very health conscience, wise, and convincing boyfriend whom happened to be an excellent cook helped tremendously. It seemed only logical and convenient that I would adopt veganism so we could eat the same meals, have similar groceries. Why not? All I had to do was cut out meat and dairy… it seemed easy enough. I feared it seemed easy enough because perhaps I was looking at it as another somewhat short-term diet, with which I had tried eating better in the past and had never lasted too long with my easily breakable will power. This change was going to be forever and I didn’t know if I could do it anymore. Maybe I could cheat a little here and there I thought.

Then came watching a few videos that illuminated the harsh realities of the cruelty to animals all in the process of getting meat and dairy onto our plates. I felt like everything I had thought and known was completely false. I was aware of the harsh conditions that baby cows endured before becoming veal. From the youngest time I could remember, walking the grocery store aisles with my mom, I can still hear her saying, “No, not that steak, that’s veal, a baby cow that they treat badly. We don’t eat veal.” And so it had been and I hadn’t ever eaten veal and assumed veal was the “bad meat” that only insensitive jerks ate and all other meat was okay. The rest of the animals lived long, happy lives with large fields to roam with farmers who loved them and when they were very old and it was there time, they would humanely be killed with a tear in the farmer’s eye.

 

That’s how I had pictured it all my life.

 

How could I possibly be so naïve? I felt like an awful human being for having any part in it. I wasn’t the one butchering, but I was the one consuming, which is ultimately the reason we all these innocent animals were being killed. Watching those helpless animals squeal and cry before getting slaughtered was indescribably heartbreaking and I couldn’t bare the thought of all these creatures dying solely for my selfish consumption. What a waste it all was. A living creature with sensitivities, feelings, some sort of thoughts, a life created, just to be destroyed a short time later. You could see the cruelty in the farmers’ eyes and how they kicked and harmed the animals, like inanimate objects, not living creatures. It was a nightmare. I didn’t want a single piece of meat to pass through my lips ever again.

 

The next night, my family had pork chops for dinner. I looked down at my plate and probably for the first time really thought about what I was eating. It had always just been a pork chop, perfectly normal thing to eat and tasty to most of society’s eyes, but I was about to be eating a dead pig.  A creature who I had recently watched been helplessly crying and squealing while hanging by its legs before being sliced to death. There was no getting around that now. I looked at my dog who was eagerly at my side begging for table scraps, and thinking what a mind she has. She outsmarts me to get her way, has her own motives, gets jealous, feels empathy, is in tune with humans and other animals’ emotions, curious, has all these complex feeling and emotions and a different bark and sound to try to communicate everything.

The fact that my brothers’ had told me swirling in my head, that pigs are actually smarter than domestic dogs. Guilt flooded over me. How could I treat this creature, this dog of mine, not only as a pet, but like a child, while consuming the other.  It didn’t seem right or fair in the least bit. I thought about trying to go back to the labels, “pork chop….. pork chop….” sweep it under the rug, but there was no unseeing or forgetting that cruelty.  At least not tonight I thought.  I only ate the potatoes and vegetables on my plate and made some excuse about not being hungry for the pork chop.

Then I had a thought some time after, after a few days of abstaining from meat, what if that was just a handful of factory farms, far away from my New Hampshire grocery stores. What if the picture in my head of happy, long-living farm animals was still accurate for the most part? I had seen the small, quaint farms of my town and surrounding towns with some farmers I even knew personally. They would never treat their animals like the farmers’ in the videos. They kissed their animals, they even made their facebook profile pictures be ones with their animals.  They took pride and great care in their hard work and were kind natured people.  Surely, this is how it was, for the most part, with a few horrid outliers.  The country, society, could not just stand by and let this kind of cruelty happen.

 

Mentioning this prompted another discussion and I was again reminded of my complete ignorance. The little farms of New Hampshire were the ones who were the exception. The little farms cannot possibly produce the huge unrelenting quantities of meat and dairy demanded throughout our country.  Factory farms are the easiest and fastest way, albeit the cruelest and most harmful, to meet that demand, and just like with any aspect of life, America has seemingly focused more about the fastest, cheapest way to an end product, rather than the care, effort, and process of getting to that end product.

 

Any means necessary kind of approach, even if it’s dirty, cruel, or harmful. And as Americans, we’ve seemed to have a hard time with change and awareness and sometimes are all too likely to tend to stay blissfully ignorant.

 

It was unsurprising in a way.  In another moment however I was shocked, stunned.  I couldn’t believe my ignorance.  It was a mix of emotions.  I thought of all the delicious foods I had eaten that had meat in it and I found myself trying to come up with excuses to cling to, but nothing really came to mind.  Perhaps I wanted to believe that happy farm life picture in my head and should’ve known better.  At the same time it’s difficult to shake that happy picture in your head that you’ve grown up with all these years and that no one has really questioned, let alone penetrated, the truth of it.

Maybe it was where I grew up, the hearty, meat and seafood loving New England.

 

Maybe it was my family, the mindset that you follow and obey your parents and eat what’s in front of you and the guilt that ensues if you waste food.

 

Maybe it was my innocent trust in humanity and how the world worked.  The happy picture was not completely shattered, probably because I didn’t want to fully accept the truth.  But I was definitely looking at things in a whole new way.  There was a lot of guilt in enjoying meat and dairy.  It was going to be difficult still to cut them out completely.  I was perhaps just as bad as the cruel factory farmer.