Vegans of Ottawa - Susan Macfarlane
In this series, we chat with vegans from around the region to find out what it’s like to be plant-based in Ottawa, discovering tips and tricks for living a like a local - vegan style.
Susan Macfarlane is no novice when it comes to veganism. Having been a vegan for about eight years, she is a registered dietitian nutritionist at the Nepean Sports Medicine & Physiotherapy Centre in Ottawa. Originally from Russell, Manitoba, Macfarlane spent six years in Saskatoon before settling down in Nepean in the neighbourhood known as Queensway Terrace North. We spoke with her about nutrition and community.
Ottawa Life: What inspired you to become a vegan?
Susan Macfarlane: My mom was vegetarian growing up and rescued many stray cats in our small town. She instilled the values of compassion and non-harm in me at an early age and taught me the importance of always helping an animal in need. However, even though she was vegetarian, my mom believed that she needed to give me meat to grow. But I didn’t want to eat it. I didn’t like the way it smelled, looked, or tasted. I wanted to be like my mom. And once I made the connection between the meat on my plate and the animals that I loved, I swore off meat and became a vegetarian as a teenager.
I always believed that vegetarianism was sufficient as the animals did not need to be killed for me to enjoy cheese, yogurt, and eggs. When I met my first vegan, and saw videos and images of battery hens, calves being taken from their moms, and cows with swollen and inflamed udders, I realized that if I truly cared about the welfare of animals, I shouldn’t be consuming their by-products.
I like to say that I came to veganism for ethics, but stayed for the health benefits. When I transitioned to veganism, I naturally lost about 15 lbs from my average build. Currently, I am dabbling in body building and find that my plant-based diet helps me to stay lean, put on muscle, and recover quickly from my workouts. Lastly, I care a lot about doing my part to stop climate change and create a greener world for humans and non-humans alike.
Was it difficult for you to make the transition to veganism? Why or why not?
When I first went vegan in 2007, I struggled a bit with the diet, as I was the only vegan I knew and found it challenging to find vegan foods in Saskatoon, where I was going to school. I was in school for nutrition and dietetics, so had the knowledge I needed to ensure my vegan diet was healthy and balanced, but struggled with the lack of community. None of my friends understood my lifestyle and I often felt isolated from others. I flipflopped a bit between vegetarian and vegan until I moved to Ottawa in 2011, where I met many other like-minded individuals.
When I moved to Ottawa, I discovered that there was already an established vegan network. Meeting other like-minded individuals made the commitment to veganism easy and enjoyable.
What do you find to be the most challenging part about being a vegan? How do you try to overcome that challenge?
It might be cliché, but the most challenging part of being vegan is speaking with omnivores who tell me they would never go vegan. Like many, I too was once an angry vegan and came across as judgmental and accusatory. This approach likely did not convince others of the benefits of going plant-based. Nowadays, when someone tells me “I could never go vegan.” I respond with curiosity and openness, asking “What makes you say that?”. From here, a conversation usually evolves about the barriers (whether real or perceived) that stands between this person and a vegan lifestyle. Even if I walk away from the conversation and the person has maintained his or her resolve to be omnivore, I’m happy knowing that I represented the vegan movement in a positive light.
What is the greatest benefit that you have gained from being a vegan and why?
For me, being vegan provides a means for me to live out my values of compassion and non-harm. It feels good to be a part of a movement that promotes a greener world and minimizes the suffering of animals. I also find that being vegan makes it easy for me to maintain a lean, athletic physique and gives me the energy I need for my busy lifestyle.
Why did you decide to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist?
As a teenager, my mom had a severe eating disorder. With time, she overcame her demons, but never developed a healthy relationship with food and eating. When I was a teen, this negatively impacted my eating habits. When the fatigue and low energy I was experiencing started affecting my dance performance, I decided to invest in learning about food and nutrition. I gained a new respect for the importance of diet in maintaining athletic skill and learned how to develop both a healthy relationship with food and a balanced diet.
Why do you believe that veganism is so relevant to nutrition?
More countries in the world are faced with overnutrition (in the form of obesity) versus undernutrition. In Canada, 1 in 4 adults, and 1 in 10 children are clinically obese, which increases an individual’s risk for heart disease, cancer, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, while negatively impacting his or her quality of life.
Vegans have consistently been shown to have the lowest body mass index of any dietary group, which suggests that a plant-based diet is protective against obesity. Furthermore, a whole foods plant based diet may prevent, treat, and in some cases, even reverse, hypertension, atherosclerosis, and type 2 diabetes.
As a dietitian, I also feel that it’s important to promote and help create sustainable food systems. Animal agriculture is very water and resource intensive and will not be able to feed a growing population. Working with individuals and families to live a plant-based lifestyle is a wonderful way to encourage and further develop sustainable foods systems.
What are your favourite vegan spots/restaurants in Ottawa and why? What is your favourite thing on the menu?
This is a tough question! One of the thing’s I love about living in Ottawa is that a great vegan meal is just a short trip away. If I must narrow it down, I would say my favourite restaurant is The Table. I love the fresh ingredients and being able to choose what I want to eat; the owners are also very supportive of the vegan community. My favourite item on their menu is the tofu fritter with onion chutney. I also really like La Belle Verte in Gatineau, Café My House, and Pure Kitchen.
If I feel the need to satisfy my sweet tooth, I usually head to Strawberry Blonde Bakery or Grow Your Roots in Kanata for a giant nanaimo bar.
Where do you get your groceries in Ottawa? What does your grocery list typically include?
Like many, we tend to go to a few different stores in Ottawa, although you definitely don’t have to. Most stores carry the essentials of a vegan diet, including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, tofu, nuts, seeds, and plant milk. In our house, we eat mostly whole foods, so purchase the bulk of groceries from Farmboy and Metro. We fill in the gaps with Rainbow Foods and Costco.
A typical grocery run might include the following:
- Fresh and frozen fruit, especially berries, bananas, and citrus
- Variety of fresh vegetables, such as kale, spinach, bok choy, cucumber, carrots, tomatoes, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, beets; we tend to buy A LOT of vegetables!
- Root vegetables, such as sweet potato and yucca root
- Whole grains – barley, wheat berries, oatmeal, whole grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa. We also really like Silverhill’s Bakery bread
- Beans and lentils
- Tofu and tempeh
- Vital wheat gluten
- Peanut and almond butter
- Nuts and seeds
- YOSO unsweetened almond cashew yogurt
- Unsweetened soy and almond milk
- Fresh and dried spices
- Hemp, chia, and flax; typically we have all 3 in our house, as we use them for different things. They also last a long time if stored in the freezer
- Coffee and chocolate are also must-haves in our house!
Do you find that there is an active vegan community in Ottawa?
Yes! There are usually vegan meetups and potlucks every month. There are also several vegans in Ottawa providing professional services in other areas, such as massage therapy, personal training, real estate, nursing, etc.
What advice would you give to people interested in or thinking about going vegan?
Find a vegan community and connect with like-minded people. Although veganism has made the leap to mainstream, many people view this way of living as extreme and may not be supportive of your vegan lifestyle. Reaching out to the vegan community allows you to connect with those that may be in a similar situation as you, and is a great way to learn how others navigated some of the barriers (again, whether real or perceived) during their transition to veganism.
I would also advise against comparing your journey to that of others. For me, it took more than one try to commit to a vegan way of life. I know plenty of others who made the transition overnight and have never looked back. Everyone is different, so don’t be discouraged if it takes you longer to reach your goal than you anticipated.
Start somewhere. It can be overwhelming to overhaul your diet, your closet, your toiletries, and cleaning products in one fell swoop. Choose just one area to focus on at a time. Can you replace your cow’s milk with almond milk? Your butter with Earth Balance? Maybe you can eat completely plant-based just one day a week until it becomes more of a habit. And as you replace your clothing, maybe you find items that don’t use animal fabrics and start purchasing toiletries that aren’t tested on animals.
Do you have any other tips and tricks you would like to mention or anything else you would like to add?
I would encourage everyone, no matter where you are on your vegan journey, to focus on being the vegan you would have liked to have met before you went vegan. This piece of advice was passed on to me a few years ago and has been a powerful guide in helping me to present veganism in a positive light to those contemplating the transition to vegan living.
Susan’s Vegan Essentials:
Snacks – We tend to make a lot of our own homemade snacks. I really enjoy my raw peanut butter cookies, power balls, and high protein lemon poppy seed muffins. We also eat a lot of nuts and seeds, fruit, and smoothies for snacks.
Sources of Plant-based Protein – I am obsessed with seitan or, as it is lovingly called, “wheat meat”. One serving (which uses about 1/3 cup of vital wheat gluten) provides 30 g of protein. I also love lentils, tempeh, tofu, and hemp hearts, which I tend to add to everything from smoothies to salad.
Blogs – For nutrition information, I highly recommend the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine and NutritionFacts.org.
Cookbooks and/or Recipes - By far my favourite recipe site is “Minimalist Baker”, where all recipes require 10 ingredients or less, one bowl or pot, or 30 minutes or less to prepare. I also love “Oh She Glows”, “Chocolate Covered Katie”, and “Finding Vegan”. The latter site is really great, as it allows bloggers to submit their recipes to the site so you can browse or search for a specific item.
Social Media - I’m mostly on Facebook and Instagram (haven’t quite gotten a hold of Twitter yet). I tend to follow a lot of vegan athletes and food bloggers, some of my favourites are:
- Vegan Bros (Matt and Phil Letten – don’t go here if you are sensitive to swearing)!
- Nimai Delgado (professional bodybuilder)
- Vaute Couture (ethical vegan fashion; NYC based)
- The 300 pound vegan (ex-NFL player David Carter)
- Gaia-is-I (creator of the song “Vegans are Weak”
- Animal Justice (group of bad-ass Canadian lawyers)
- Esther the Wonder Pig (the mini pig that wasn’t)
- Farm Sanctuary (daily dose of cuteness)
- Vegan Sidekick (vegan humour)
- Conscious Muscle (body builder and personal trainer)
- Torre Washington (body builder)
- I’m Horngry (vegan food porn)
- My favourite vegan podcasts are Rich Roll and Colleen Patrick Goudreau
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