People are curious about veganism. It’s little surprise, given the increasing number of studies and documentaries on plant-based diets. In 2016 alone, Google experienced a whopping 90 percent increase in vegan-related internet searches (a monumental rise from the previous year’s 32 percent increase). With the influx of new information, people are discovering veganism and vegetarianism aren’t solely about the political beliefs behind meat consumption; there are practical, measurable health benefits behind the nutrition.
But is veganism practical for the Average Joe? The perks of low or meatless diets sound nice, but is it unrealistic to expect someone raised on pizza, burgers and mac’ n cheese to cut out all animal products and animal by-products as well? I decided to find out.
While I’ve eliminated certain animal proteins since venturing into vegetarianism, I’ve always been happily heavy handed with animal by-products (like eggs, dairy, honey, and CHEESE). Seafood proteins also came back into the picture when I entered into pescetarianism, and quite frankly I was lamented to part ways with any of it. But in the name of blogging, I was willing to give it a shot.
Farewell, animal products. I was sad, but adjusting in some ways wasn’t too bad. Instead of dairy creamer in my coffee, I switched to coconut milk (which many coffee shops now carry). I missed cheese but found ways to enjoy meals without it. I used more fresh herbs and seasonings in the kitchen or added avocado in wraps, salads and burrito bowls to add moisture in the absence of cheese, sour cream or creamy dressings.
I had to read basically all labels since so much stuff contains animal product/by-product ingredients (many of which have unfamiliar titles that I was constantly Googling on my phone). It felt tedious and on several occasions, I accidentally consumed something with one or two sneaky animal ingredients. My BCAAs weren’t vegan-friendly (bummer) but luckily I was able to order some that were online to keep them incorporated into my fitness routine. The upside was that all this label reading was an encouragement to steer largely clear of processed foods and opt for fresh, more wholesome ones.
I researched in advance protein requirements for my age, body type, and activity level and tracked my food during the first week to see how vegan protein sources added up. I was easily able to exceed the minimum protein recommendation by lunchtime (without taking any protein supplements), dismissing the notion that plant based diets aren’t capable of providing adequate protein. On days when I was lifting heavy or wanted to up my protein intake, I was just conscious about consuming more protein-rich foods or a vegan-friendly protein powder, just like I do normally in my pescetarian diet routine.
Hello, vegan junk food. I was very excited to test different vegan products and see if anything successfully satisfied some of my pre-vegan cravings. Certain products, like Lenny & Larry’s Complete Cookie, were successful. Others were okay, at times falling short of their promises of tasting as just like the original. Then were there a couple downright woeful experiences that made me feel very sad or very nauseous. Overall, I did discover some enjoyable products to add into my routine. (I’ll go more in-depth about some of these products in a future product review post, so stay tuned.)
Having been a Lacto-vegetarian, I’m familiar with the challenge of dining out when you don’t consume typical animal proteins. I thought it’d be 10 times worse nixing all animal products, but there’s actually a growing list of options of vegan-friendly menu items in certain restaurants. A number of sandwich and burger joints now offer grain, bean or plant protein alternatives (you do need to check that no animal products are incorporated, like in Subway’s black bean patty). You also can’t go wrong with some classic international cuisine like Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern or Ethiopian, which are often abounding in vegan-friendly dishes. Some American style restaurants could be challenging (there I’d end up ordering several veggie side dishes and having to specify no butter or dairy be used in their preparation). It was inconveniencing at times, but overall I worked through it.
After going a little overboard on vegan products at first, I scaled back on the junk food (vegan or not, overly processed foods aren’t ideal). I focused more on fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, not really tracking my food intake but trying to consume wholesome, quality foods. I also drink a gallon of water a day, which really helps me minimize senseless snacking. My energy levels in and out of the gym were solid and overall I was feeling great.
Okay, in the name of full disclosure here, I’m just gonna throw this out there. Gas. It happens. Especially when we’re talking high volumes of rice, beans and fresh veggies. Beano is your friend. Gas-X isn’t going to hurt the situation either. (Just sayin’.) I figured that would come with the territory in a vegan diet. What I hadn’t anticipated was the major digestive system overhaul that comes with a plant-based regimen. I don’t want to frighten the young, elderly or faint of heart here, but I’m telling you. Some crazy stuff starts happening. Enough to leave you shocked, awed, possibly alarmed, but most certainly appreciative.
I actually conducted this experience with two friends; we all wanted to try going vegan and doing it together provided accountability. Wanting to make sure I wasn’t experiencing some spectacularly unnatural digestive phenomenon, I casually (okay, incredibly awkwardly) checked to see how things were going for my partners in “that” department. Exactly the same. Shock. Awe. Newfound reverence for the vegan way. I’m not going to scar anyone with the details, but I’m telling you. The digestive perks are almost otherworldly. Switch to a plant-based vegan diet and long-gone will be your days of bran muffins, probiotic yogurt or adding extra fiber into your prune juice. You will float like a butterfly, sting like a bee and feel lighter than a rice cake on a corn dog pile.
By now, I had a groove with the whole vegan dieting. I felt fresh and light on my toes. You know that heavy feeling after a big meal that can leave you feeling weighed down, bloated or greasy? I didn’t get that after meals anymore, even denser ones with higher volumes of complex carbs like rice, beans or potatoes. My digestive system was soaring and my clothes were fitting better again. I did still miss certain things (eggs, fish, cheese, my normal BCAAs), but I’d developed a routine where I was quite satisfied with my weekly menu.
I branched out to try new things to keep from getting bored and challenged myself to reinvent classic recipes into tasty, vegan-friendly twists. (Although could any attempt to reinvent a cheeseless pizza could be deemed truly successful? Meh.) There was also a whole vegan restaurant community (with some great food) in my area I hadn’t known about until I had a reason to check it out. Overall, I felt like I was finishing strong and enjoying myself on my vegan venture.
I started my vegan experiment in January, stretching over the course of four and a half weeks. In November, I’d experience a severe ankle injury that left me largely immobilized for two months. Most of that time I spent sedentary, elevating my foot, eating out instead of cooking on crutches and comfort bingeing holiday goodies. In that time, I experienced a loss in fitness progress, energy, muscle and a general rise in squishiness. My goals for this experience were to get back into a regimen where I felt better, had more energy and was comfortable in my clothes.
In one month, I lost 1.5lbs and dropped an inch from both my waist and stomach, 1.25 inches from my hips and half an inch from each thigh. While significant weight loss wasn’t a concern for me, I wanted to gain back progress I’d lost in my body building journey and feel more comfortable in my own skin again after two months of lethargy. I felt like I more than accomplished those goals, along with some unexpected perks.
Above are two pictures I took for medical purposes. In late 2016, I began experiencing strange, severely excruciating bloating. It would occur at random and my stomach would become so distended and painful, all I could do was try to get home, lay down and curl up on my side until it (hopefully) subsided the next morning. It was debilitating and I had to cut social outings short because of the pain. These pictures show me in the evening, on an empty stomach (without flexing or posing) and the morning after, when my body returned to normal. After consulting with a PA, I learned the most likely culprit was a bacterial gut imbalance throwing my system off. Medicine was an option, but I was hesitant to jump onto prescription medication. After a month on a vegan diet, the issue disappeared altogether.
So, is following a vegan diet doable for the average person? Absolutely. It comes with some challenges, but nothing you can’t handle with a game plan. While I enjoyed my experience, I did add certain animal products/by-products back when the month was up. But realized I didn’t necessarily need them in abundance. I’ve largely eliminated certain dairy products (like milk, yogurt, sour cream, etc.) from my diet because my digestive system seems to thrive better without them. I still enjoy some dairy (like CHEESE) now and then, but just indulge occasionally (sometimes just a few times a month).
Tips for getting started:
- Know your nutritional goals, like recommendations for your body type. I used the USDA’s online nutrition calculator to have a goal for protein and macronutrient intake. I also found some helpful articles on vegan protein sources to get me started.
- Keep your diet colorful. I tried to incorporate a lot of fresh fruits and veggies for nutrients and variety. A lot of people think vegan diets are expensive because some processed vegan products are pricey, but if you’re sticking to basics (fruits, vegetables, rice, beans, whole grains, legumes, etc.) it’s quite affordable.
- Check out what restaurants in your area have vegan-friendly options (can’t go wrong with some Chipotle).
- Have an accountability system. Doing it together with a couple friends really helped provide support and motivation. Even just having a friend to check in on you each week and help you stay accountable is a big help.
- Branch out a little. Try new recipes or find ways to make your meals fun and enjoyable so you stay interested. Try seeing if there are any actual vegan restaurants in your area to test out!
- Have patience. It takes trial, error, and adjusting. It’s okay if you slip up here or there.Just dust yourself off and keep going.
All writing and images copyright © 2017 Rachel Elise Weems Woods