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The hardships of staying vegan and healthy
First of all, we need to make a distinction between being vegetarian or vegan and eating healthy because the two things don’t necessarily go together.
If you have no interest in staying healthy you can easily stay vegan everywhere (well, almost), eating bread and pasta, chips and all the time as those are kinds of foods that you will almost always find.
But this is not what we want, right? I have chosen a veggie life because I want to look after my health and, why not, also look good, I want to be happy with myself in a holistic way and since they say our body is our temple, we need to look after it. Or so I believe. (here is my post on the first time I became a vegan and how)
And here comes the issue. When you travel, especially on a budget, it is very difficult to stay faithful to your healthy lifestyle, either because maybe you are on a tour up in the mountains and there are people preparing food for your group and you don’t want to be picky (and you can’t), or because you are hanging out with people and you are tempted to ditch your diet and eat whatever there is on the table, or simply because you don’t find anything healthy available.
It happened to me during my trip around Mexico when I decided I wanted to go back to my vegan diet which did wonders to me a few years ago (you can check out my story here).
After a Vipassana meditation course, many things changed in my mindset and food was part of the change. I knew from before how good a vegan lifestyle was for me but I didn’t have the right mindset to hold on to it. So I cheated many times.
Now I am vegan, but I eat fish every now and then when it’s an emergency or when I feel like eating it because I love it but I will tell you more about it later on in the article.
In fact, there are situations in which it’s really difficult to follow my healthy principle so I better give up on fish or eggs than eat a packet of chips or totopos (the corn chips that they serve in every local restaurant in Mexico) which are really a shame, besides being indigestible to me.
The Mexican food culture is based on meat. Taquerias everywhere with all sorts of meat. And if you ask for a vegan taco they would look at you like a weirdo.
If you tell the waiter you don’t eat any kind of meat they will tell you. Oh no problem, we have chicken! :). Not everywhere but it happened to me.
I am serious. And it’s fun! It’s just far from the local culture.
But you don’t have to despair, because nowadays if you travel to big cities or touristic places you will easily find vegan or vegetarian options and also gluten-free. There are a lot of veggie sympathizers in Mexico as well and the food culture is changing. In this post, we are going through this and I will also share my knowledge of Mexican vegetarian or vegan dishes and Vegan and vegetarian restaurant of the places I have been. You can check out this post, which I will be continuously updating.
Being vegan requires a lot of organization, creativity, and thinking.
And, especially at the beginning of your new vegan lifestyle, you need to know where to buy your veggies, better if organic, where to find substitute of your usual taste and consistency so as to cheat your mind and avoid any desire of junk food and animal product, which we have all grown up to. Our body knows more than our mind but our mind is stronger sometimes and sends us craving messages that go like that
“ you are going to starve to death if you don’t eat that delicious ice-cream”
“it doesn’t matter if you cheat for once, nobody will get hurt, and besides, my granny lived up to 90 ys old and always eat everything”
and other things of that sorts.
Being vegan is a hard job, and turning into vegan is the most challenging part. Once you are up and running and well organized you should be ok, until a little voice comes back with the above refrains..”.
Also, I realized that if you are a vegan for ethical purposes you are stronger and firmer in your decisions. But it’s also easier if you don’t worry about being healthy as well. You will shift from an ice-cream to a plate of French fries or a vegan burger, or pizza with vegan cheese (if that’s available) or a veggie pasta which are items that satisfy your palate but definitely not your health. But you don’t care because you have acted ethically and that’s what matters.
However, if you are vegan especially because it’s good for your health, like me, you struggle. Especially if you are a food lover like me. I do love food and taste and I consider it one of the joy of life and a social thing. Something to share with friends and family.
Therefore there are two factors involved here: on one side I am giving up on taste that I have been loving for ages and it’s not easy to get rid of especially when food played such a big role in my life. On the other hand, I love to go out for lunch and dinner with friends and I don’t like to be too picky about the restaurant choice or food. I don’t feel comfortable. So, being for the sake of my health and fitness I would easily give up. Shame on me. If you chose to be vegan mainly for health purposes (besides the ethical ones) it’s difficult to find something to indulge in, that it’s healthy and vegan and it gives you the rich taste. When your palate is craving for something greasy and cheesy, something that is different from a juicy mango that you eat every day, but you don’t have anything vegan available and close and eating a French fries plate is not an option because you would save the planet but not your fat belly.
But life it’s about struggling and finding solutions, right? That’s where happiness lies.
Being a healthy vegan adds up to the amount of effort and being a healthy vegan that travels full time it’s a job in itself.
When you travel and you do it on a budget it becomes a bit of a struggle because you need to deal with food availability in the country you are traveling, costs and, last but not least, willpower.
I here confess, my vegan friends, that if I don’t have food available and I am starving I’d rather have a grilled fish than a plate of French fries. I haven’t been in a situation where I had meat and I don’t think I can do that. Sometimes (but very rare) I also indulge in cheese and the other day I had a quiche which we all know it’s made with eggs and cheese. I regretted it because it wasn’t even good but what if it’s the only thing you can have closest to my habits?
Bottom line is: Yes I am confessing here that I am a vegan cheater BUT I promise that I will give you all the information I have (and researched) in order to stay vegan while traveling in Mexico
Being vegan and healthy on the bus
Suppose you are on a bus for a 24 hrs trip or just 6 hours. What will you bring with you? The temptation is strong to buy chips (and Mexico have all sorts of flavors and taste) or white bread to keep you from starving until you find a restaurant where you might get something vegan. Just in case. Wrong.
In the small towns “pueblos” it’s difficult to find some healthy vegan choices so if you wish to stay healthy and vegan you need to prepare and pack wisely.
Remember to pack
- apples (which you have previously washed very well)
- bananas, always life savers.
- dates or raisins and nuts (but not the toasted one, the raw nuts which you can easily find in any convenience store, sometimes, depending on the region, otherwise in a big supermarket)
- I would suggest also to get avocado and mango although I wouldn’t suggest mango cause you would get all messy and it’s not pleasant.
- Also if you are well organized you can buy a container and before leaving cut some fruits of all sorts, melon, and papaya or carrots and cucumber and take it with you.
- I have a swiss knife with me and if I buy carrots and cucumber I just peel them on the bus. Collect the waste in a bag and dump them when I get off the bus. I know some chips and a sandwich would be much easier and tastier but hey, do you want to stay healthy!?
- Oh, there are some salted crackers called saladitas or you can take some toasted corn tortillas which are not fried. Those are ok to eat as long as you accompany them with veggies
Just these days while I am writing this I was leaving from the bus station in Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco (consider that it’s the second biggest city in Mexico) and they have a food display in the snack bar of the waiting room displaying a bowl of salad and some with fruits. I could not believe in my eyes. And then I thought on where I was. So remember this is very rare to find.
Being vegan and healthy in Mexico : Restaurants
As I was mentioning before, Mexican diet is predominantly based on meat and if you tell almost anyone “I don’t eat meat” they might ask you “I can offer you chicken” I am kidding but once it happened to me, but it was in a small town.
I have been traveling in Mexico for the past 10 months and lived in Cancun for 7 years and I have seen quite an evolution of the trend. In the bigger and more touristic cities, they have familiarized with the new diet trends and know very well what being vegan is, although they not always satisfy our needs.
In many cities where I have been to, like Queretaro ( my favorite vegan city), Xalapa, La Paz, and many others, you will definitely find vegan restaurants where you won’t have problems on choosing your dish. However, if you go to a regular restaurant, especially if it’s very local or in a small town, you might have some difficulties. Here I am giving you some examples of vegan plates or how to transform the existing menu into a vegan-friendly one.
There are a few vegan dishes that you will always find in a Mexican Restaurant:
- Guacamole – which is delicious and served with totopos, not necessarily healthy but it’s a good cheating
- Salad – it’s rare to find plain salad, as it always comes with chicken or shrimps or cheese. So what I do is to ask to exchange the animal food with some mushrooms which add texture to the salad or you can ask whatever you like as an extra. But do it because salad portions are normally very small as they use it as a side order so at least you don’t miss an ingredient.
- Tortillas– they use tortillas as in Europe use bread and are always on the table. If not you can ask for them they have corn (mais) or white flours tortillas. It’s not the healthiest thing but a couple of tortillas with the salad will keep your belly full until the next meal.
- Champiñones al ajillo – in some region they have it as a special starter. It’s a small portion but it’s good and tasty – it’s sautéed mushrooms with garlic
- Pizza, it’s not the Italian pizza but it’s eatable and in some places, it’s even good. You just need to ask to take out cheese
- Sandwiches – you almost always find vegetarian sandwiches but with cheese, just ask to substitute the cheese with another ingredient. Sometimes they have hummus or frijoles
- In Queretaro, one of my favorite places from a culinary point of view but not only, they have “gorditas”, which are thicker tortillas (sometimes blue for the blue corn) which they cut open and fill it with all sort of things, what they call “guisados”, meaning stewed and in this case you will have a great variety of vegetables,
- rajas ( Nopal , which is a cactus)
- huitlacoches, which is a mushroom that grows on corn, delicious
- champiñones (mushrooms)
- frijoles (mashed beans)
- epazote ( sometimes available not always, it’s a local herb, looking like spinach and delicious)
They stew it with many spices and it’s delicious, this is one of the reasons why I love Queretaro.
- For the vegetarians, you can have always the “chile relleno” which is a sweet pepper filled with cheese. I have tasted it and it’s delicious.
- Soups: the Sopa Azteca normally is made with vegetables and tortillas sometimes they put cheese. Remember to ask. Other than that, unfortunately, they always use chicken broth for any soup.
- “Creamas”: forget about that, unless you are vegetarian, all the vegetable soups that they call cream they are made with milk cream.
- Sometimes I have tried to ask for a plate of grilled vegetables even if they don’t have it on the menu, but I use it as a side order on main dishes. The majority of the time I was able to have my huge veggie plate which gave me taste and a full belly.
- Molletes – this is something you find for breakfast sometimes, and are normally made with toasted bread, beans pure (frijoles) cheese, pico de gallo (picked tomatoes and onions) and cilantro (fresh coriander which they normally use like parsley). Sometimes they come also with meat. You can just ask them to do it without any cheese or meat and put some avocado and mushroom instead or whatever they have. They are delicious and I used to have them for lunch instead of breakfast
Being vegan and healthy in Mexico : Markets
Well, eating in markets is one of my favorite things to do, it’s cheap, it’s fresh and you mingle with locals. It’s very common to sit close to somebody and start a conversation. I love it. Unfortunately, though the options for a vegan are not that huge in markets, with some exceptions.
In Valle de Bravo, for example, it was the best market lunch ever. I even made a video which I lost eventually. They had a delicious vegetable soup made with mushrooms and many other veggies. and vegan quesadillas, made with corn or wheat flour tortillas filled with grilled vegetables with so much flavor! I had never found it anywhere else.
In Mexico City as well, in Coyoacan market I had a quesadilla with only veggies and it looked good.
In La Paz (Baja California) I wasn’t that fortunate, I went with an omnivorous friend which loved to eat in markets but I could only find a gordita (a thick tortilla filled with frijoles ( beans) and salad. It was not particularly tasty but my belly was full with two of those. It was funny to see the reaction of the lady at the restaurant when I told her I didn’t eat any sorts of meat. They were looking at each other confused and had a laugh. We had also interviewed them. I hope to publish the interview soon here.
In Mexico city there is one vegan tacos stall which I believe is the only one in Mexico, please prove me wrong if you know of another street stall that sells vegan tacos.
In Orizaba, I had a fantastic quesadilla with veggies without cheese and they had also a fried gordita with mashed beans which I didn’t try, cause it was too oily.
One thing you can find in markets is nice fresh fruit and veggie juices or extract and chopped fruit of all kinds so it makes it a great breakfast.
WARNING!! OFF LIMITS!!
Being vegan and healthy in Mexico : Vocabulary
Here some vocabulary that might be useful in restaurants and markets.
Meat = carne
Fish = pescado
Cheese = queso
Milk = leche
Broth = caldo
Please = por favor
Thank you = gracias
Thank you very much = muchas gracias
Kale = kale
Potatoes = papas
Olives = aceitunas
Pasta= pasta J
Pizza with no chease
Pizza sin queso, por favor
Vegetarian = vegetariana
Fried = frito
Stewed = guisado
Boiled = hervido
Sautéed = salteado
I don’t eat any kind of meat, fish chicken, nor eggs or milk and milk products. No animals
No como ningún tipo de carne, tampoco pescado, pollo, ni huevos o leche y derivados. Nada de animales
Has the soup been made with chicken? Or vegetables
La sopa esta’ hecha con pollo o es de vegetales
A vegetarian sandwich with no chease please
Un sandwich (torta, o panini) sin queso, por favor
May I ask for just a plate of grilled vegetables, please?
¿Podría pedirle un plato de vegetales a la parrilla nada más, por favor?
Corn tortilas =Tortillas de mais
Flouer tortillas = Tortillas de harina