Why I Went Vegan (And Still Am 18 Years Later)

It started with yoga. My teacher Sharon Gannon (or one of her disciples) would gently but firmly remind us not to put toxins in our bodies. Every day after class, it seemed, I’d meet someone who followed Sharon’s mantra and had removed animal products from their diet.

Inevitably they were in great shape and smiled a lot. I was impressed. Another big influence was Glen E. Friedman, my senior executive in charge of television development at Def Pictures.

Through their collective examples, I felt myself inching closer toward a healthier relationship with the world. I finally took a great leap forward on New Year’s Day 1997. I was staying on the Caribbean island of St. Barts, where I loved (and still love) taking a month-long vacation during the winter holidays.

Glen, as he often does, was staying with me at a villa I’d rented by the island’s clear blue ocean. I woke up New Year’s Day planning on hitting the beach, but a peek out the window at the overcast sky told me Mother Nature had other ideas. So Glen and I decided to watch a movie instead.

That really affected me. I’d had a lot of burgers and milk shakes over the years.

For months, Glen had been bugging me to watch a film called Diet for a New America. Once I watched it, he promised, I’d stop eating animal products and never look back. In my heart I knew he was probably right, just as in my heart I knew the yoga community was right too. I was primed to make a change.

Yet for some reason I’d been resisting watching the tape. Giving up drugs and taking up yoga and meditation had been a major transformation for me. Changing what I ate on top of all that seemed like just a little too much to think about.

Glen is nothing, however, if not determined (it’s probably one of the qualities that makes him such a great photographer). He’d brought the film with him to St. Barts in case such a moment would present itself, and now that it had, he wasn’t going to miss his chance.

“Russell, stop BSing and let’s watch this,” he said. “There’s nothing else to do today — nobody is going to be on the beach, the stores are closed, and all your friends are sleeping off hangovers. Enough with the excuses. Today’s the day.”

I knew he was right. “Let’s do it,” I said.

Glen popped in the VHS tape (remember those?), and I quickly learned that Diet for a New America was a PBS special hosted by John Robbins, named after the best‑selling book he’d written a couple years earlier. John’s father had cofounded the Baskin‑Robbins ice cream empire and John had grown up eating a “normal” American diet, heavy on meat and dairy.

I did want my life to be a statement of compassion.

After a series of illnesses, Robbins took a closer look at his diet. After years of research he came to the conclusion that meat and dairy were actually responsible for many of his health problems. He then dedicated his life to spreading the word about the dangers of consuming animal products.

As the taped rolled, I was struck by Robbins’s profiles of men in their thirties and forties who were on the verge of death because of the damage meat and dairy had done to their cardiovascular systems. Men who frankly looked a lot like me. A doctor spoke about how one of his patients — a man in his early thirties — dropped dead one night after eating a burger and a milk shake. His body just couldn’t take the abuse anymore.

That really affected me. I’d had a lot of burgers and milk shakes over the years.

I was also shocked to learn the degree to which the meat and dairy industries were responsible for polluting our nation’s waterways and contributing to global warming.

Equally powerful were the scenes showing the horrible conditions animals are raised in and the barbaric ways they’re slaughtered for their meat. I had always subscribed to the fairy tale that animals lived on farms, grazed in the sun, and ate grass. Watching chickens being thrown into grinders alive, cattle squirming on squalid floors after having their throats slit, and caged pigs desperately trying to reach their piglets, was the rudest of awakenings.

I was going to work at changing my life for the better.

After one such scene, Robbins said something that struck me to my core: “As a concerned citizen, as someone who wants my life to be a statement of compassion, when I see what’s done to the animals, it makes me look at my food choices in a whole new way. I have to question, is that what I want my contribution to the world to involve?”

The tape rolled on, but Robbins’s words had already led me to an epiphany:

No, I didn’t want to be involved in the torture and slaughter of animals anymore.

No, I didn’t want to drop dead in my forties from eating too many burgers and milk shakes.

No, I didn’t want to contribute to the destruction of the environment.

Yes, I did want my life to be a statement of compassion.

Which would be impossible as long as I was complicit in the torture and murder of billions of animals.

“That’s it,” I told Glen the moment the tape was over. “I ain’t eating this shit anymore!”

Granted that’s not the most articulate way to announce a major life decision, but it was how I felt then and it’s how I still feel to this day:

I. Ain’t. Eating. This. Shit. Anymore!

I hadn’t woken up that morning planning on becoming a vegan, but from that moment on I was going to work at changing my life for the better. There was no turning back.

This was excerpted from the book The Happy Vegan: A Guide to Living a Long, Healthy, and Successful Life.

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