Yesterday, I had my first taste of animal products in two weeks – a spinach, kale, feta egg wrap. For two weeks, I ate nothing derived from animals. No meat (obviously), no dairy, no eggs, no honey. The lack of dairy is the thing that gets most people – yup, I went without cheese and yogurt and butter and milk.
This was more of an experiment than anything. When my friend Sarah mentioned she was going to go vegan for two weeks, I agreed to do it with her. I knew there was an extremely high likelihood I’d never permanently go vegan. But I did want to give a go and see how I felt on a diet free of animal products.
I was at more of an advantage than most people for this experiment as I attended culinary school at the Natural Gourmet Institute, a school that teaches healthy cooking with a focus on organic, vegan, and vegetarian food. I am well-versed in cooking vegan food. Very well-versed. I know how to make vegan pastries, vegan sushi, vegan hors d’oeuvres, vegan soups… you name it, I probably know how to make it vegan. But for all this training in veganism, I’ve never actually tried out the diet myself.
I went into it with bravado, thinking “Oh hey, I know all about veganism. This won’t be hard!” I was wrong. That veganism shit is no joke.
Though there are definitely aspects of veganism that I appreciate and will incorporate into my diet in the future… I can say with confidence that I’ll never ever go vegan. The reason is twofold: one, there are just too damn many non-vegan foods that I love. And two, I realized my body doesn’t like a vegan diet.
Completely restricting animal products from your diet is tough. It requires so much forethought and planning. It vastly limits what you can eat at restaurants. What did I eat? I avoided all those soy-filled fake meat products. So I ended up eating lots of vegetables. Lots of beans and tempeh and hummus. Lots of almond butter and sunflower seed butter. Lots and lots of avocado. And towards the end…lots of Pop Chips. Way. Too. Many. Pop Chips.
I discovered that if you don’t really focus on planning what you’re going to eat, it is very easy to lapse into a vegan junk food diet. People have a misconception that all vegan food is healthy. Nope. Most chips are vegan. French fries are vegan. Oreos are vegan. There are fake, additive-rich vegan foods aplenty that masquerade as the “real” thing. And when you’re hungry and lazy, it is all too easy to reach for these convenience foods.
Going into it, I assumed I would miss dairy the most. I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism before, so I thought forgoing meat would be no big deal. But I’ve never gone more than a day or so without dairy. Shockingly, I really didn’t miss it. I never craved cheese or yogurt or milk. I craved meat. And I really really craved it. We’re not talking fish or poultry. I wanted the big league, I wanted MEAT. Beef and lamb, specifically. And that intense craving really surprised me.
I noticed that my energy plummeted in the afternoons, a problem I’ve never had before. I’m sure this was in part my own fault, that I wasn’t feeding myself sufficient protein or iron. This deficiency probably accounted for the meltdown I had at Central Market, in front of the prepared soups, when I realized they didn’t have any vegan options. But even on a day when I thought I’d eaten enough protein for breakfast and lunch, without fail, I’d crash around 2pm and spend the afternoon in hazy, zombie-like state.
I also felt hungry all the damn time. I’d typically feel empty a couple of hours after eating a meal, even a meal that contained enough, balanced calories. Feeling empty led to mindless snacking. I’ve never had issues with snacking before, so this was an unwelcome development.
People kept asking if I felt better on a vegan diet, if I felt lighter or cleaner. And I didn’t…not really. I certainly felt emptier, but empty is not a way I aspire to feel. I guess that’s just another sign I’m not meant to be a vegan? Also, my diet prior to veganism wasn’t terrible. I regularly ate a lot of whole, real foods and lots of vegetables. Maybe if I’d gone into it after an extended junk food binge, I’d have felt significantly different? Who knows.
Just because I realized veganism isn’t for me, doesn’t mean I’m unappreciative of the vegan diet. Veganism taught me to be more thoughtful about the food I put into my body. It’s made me stop and think “Do I really need to eat this right now? Is my body craving it, do I actually want this?” I learned that I don’t need to include cheese in a meal just for the sake of including it. I learned that I definitely don’t need to eat meat as mindlessly as I was before. I also learned that chickpeas, chopped kale, avocado, garlic, lemon, and toasted sesame seeds make a killer on-the-go salad. Note that. Trust me.