MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, on Thursday, tens of millions of us celebrated Thanksgiving. And it's not just a day that celebrates food. It's also the beginning of a holiday season that focuses on food. And when we say food, be honest - we usually think first about the meats - the turkey, the ham, the brisket - you name it. But, for many people, meat is no longer the center of attention. According to The New York Times, the percentage of vegans in the U.S. has risen to 6 percent from 1 percent in just the past three years. And they have more options than ever.
Now, that wasn't the case back in 1992 when Bill Muir went vegan. He says that back then, it was hard to find vegan food, especially once he joined the military and was deployed to Afghanistan as a combat medic. He writes about all of that and more in his new book "Vegan Strong," and he's with us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif.
Bill Muir - or Sergeant Vegan, as he likes to call himself - thanks so much for joining us.
BILL MUIR: Thank you very much for having me.
MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit about why you decided to go vegan to begin with?
MUIR: So for me, I accidentally kind of walked into this whole thing. I gave up meat for Lent back in '92 kind of as a joke. I was a punk rocker, a little bit rebellious then. And people said that I was going to die. People thought that it was going to be the end of my life just not eating meat. And I - after the end of Lent, which is only 40 days, I actually got healthier, and I felt great, and I thought, maybe there's something to this. And around that time, too, I started thinking about what I was doing and what it all meant, and I decided that I was doing this for the animals, and I realized that it was also very good for the environment as well, and for my health.
MARTIN: And one of the, I think, most surprising things about your story and, frankly, what got my attention is the fact that you maintained a vegan diet when you joined the army, when you went through basic, when you were deployed in Afghanistan. What was that like?
MUIR: Well, it actually depended on what I was doing at the time. During most of my training other than basic training, like when I was - I was a paratrooper, so I got paid to jump out of perfectly good airplanes. And, during that training, it was, hey, eat what you want to eat. Go where you want to go - other than, obviously, you have to jump out of planes still, and you still have to train.
MARTIN: OK. But it wasn't always easy. I mean, basic, for example, or boot camp, as it were, was particularly difficult. You lost weight, and...
MUIR: Oh, yeah.
MARTIN: You had a hard time getting enough calories. You were actually malnourished at one point. Why was it so hard?
MUIR: Well it's just the lack of vegan options was really, really difficult to deal with. And I probably was working out I would say about 18 hours a day on 1,500 calories or less.
MARTIN: And so what was the attitude there? The attitude was that you're here to learn to conform and no variation - you eat what we give you.
MUIR: Exactly. And, to be honest, it wasn't like what I thought it was going to be where someone was standing and yelling in my face that I have to eat this, I have to eat meat. Nope - none of that. So that's why I was able to maintain being a vegan. It wasn't like people were trying to hold me down, push food in my face. It was just that, well, there was nothing that I could eat that was vegan.
For breakfast, I would often have Frosted Flakes. So they had cereal that was vegan, but, of course, they didn't have soy milk, so I would have my cereal either plain, or then I started branching out into using orange juice or fruit cocktail. And none of that is delicious. It's all pretty bad. And, after a while, you just kind of get bored of eating because it's an unpleasant exercise.
MARTIN: Now, we just celebrated Thanksgiving this week, and a lot of people in the weeks to come are going to be surrounded by tempting foods and, you know, let's be honest, pressure to eat whatever Aunt Betty cooked. So do you have some advice for people who would like to maintain a vegan lifestyle about how to handle these next couple of weeks?
MUIR: So I would say bring your entree with you. So you're going to have your either Gardein, Tofurky - there's so many different options. Field Roast - I could keep naming them. But have your entree. Number two, there's many different types of margarine. So Earth Balance is a great one, and there's many others, so bring some of that so you can make the vegetables. And, lastly, bring a dessert for everybody to share.
So when you have all that, you're not going to be as tempted because you're already going to have your entree. You're not going to be sitting looking over and saying, hey, I wish I was eating something more than mashed potatoes because you're going to have a roast. You're going to have vegetables. You're going to have your dessert waiting for you. And it'll take a lot of pressure off the host, too, thinking, oh, like, we've got this grumpy vegan coming. No.
MUIR: You're going to be bringing food. You're going to be helping to cook. And you're going to talk to the host before you show up at their door, you know, with demands. They're going to know what's going to go on, and it's going to all work out.
MARTIN: And, in the book, you return often to the idea of being a good ambassador for veganism. Talk a little bit about what that means.
MUIR: So the reason why veganism didn't spread for so many years is because when people had this picture of this skinny, scrawny hippie that was always grumpy at everything that they had seen sometime in the '80s, that image permeated. And it kept even 'til today because, at one point, it was honestly true. People were like that. But nowadays, vegans are bodybuilders. Vegans look good. Vegans are healthy. Vegans eat delicious food. And spreading that image, that idea that that's what we are and being true to that - and with a little less of the negativity. And that's what I mean by being a good vegan ambassador - looking good, feeling good, eating delicious food, maybe not being as angry.
MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. OK. And I think delicious food goes a long way to making you less angry (laughter).
MUIR: Exactly. Yes, ma'am.
MARTIN: That's Bill Muir, also known as Sergeant Vegan. He's author of the book "Vegan Strong," and he's with us from NPR West.
Sergeant Vegan, Bill Muir, thanks so much for talking with us, and happy holidays to you.
MUIR: Thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it.
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