My vegan challengehas been over for a few weeks now, but the usual chaos of school and being a reporter have prevented me from writing something about it. My apologies. Without further ado, here’s what I learned from a month of eating only plants. (Ok, plus a few food additive chemicals. No one’s perfect.)
The most surprising part of vegan month was that it was pretty damn easy. I’ve always heard vegans say that giving up eggs and dairy isn’t a huge deal, and I’d never really believed them. My twelve years of vegetarianism have largely been spent convincing die-hard meat eaters that it’s not that hard to go without. Still, something about the pervasiveness of dairy and eggs in our food had me convinced that going vegan is a challenge on an entirely different scale. Once I got in the swing of it, though, it wasn’t that hard. You do have to be more vigilant about what you eat, but I found that doing so is actually a pretty rewarding and healthful process.
One of the awesome things about being vegan was that it got me reading food labels in the grocery store. There were many times I picked up something to read the ingredients and double-check that it was vegan. Often, the item in question wouldn’t have any animal products, but would be full of oils, chemical additives or something else that made me pause and think. There were a lot of junk foods I ended up not buying, not because I couldn’t eat them, but because a closer look made me realize that I didn’t actually want to.
Another health benefit came from the challenge of finding vegan junk food. While it’s not that hard—potato chips and French fries are totally allowable—vegans are definitely pushed away from many of our worst offenders, like ice cream. I’ve noticed that gatherings with excessive amounts of junk food are a hallmark of both American culture and college life. Meetings, newspaper production nights and the like are often accompanied by a smorgasbord of pizzas, cookies, brownies and other sorts of sweet, fatty deliciousness. Most people eat a ton in these situations because they’re stressed and the food tastes good. Most people who pig out on junk food have eaten plenty of calories for the day—the junk food is a completely empty addition to the diet that isn’t nutritionally or calorically necessary. Because I couldn’t join in the pigging out, I ended up steering clear of a lot of excess food that I otherwise would have eaten. For me, this was the biggest benefit. I wish I could say that vegan month made me better about this, but since I’ve stopped being vegan, I’ve more or less returned to my usual cookie-inhaling ways.
Of course, not everything was perfect. My largest source of frustration with being vegan was that I became one of those people: obnoxious hipsters who go to the local sandwich place and stare pensively at the menu board for ten minutes before asking, “Do you guys have anything vegan?” I did this once and immediately hated myself so much that I swore off any further dining out, making an exception for Walla Walla’s relatively new vegan café, the Garden. I attended potluck brunches with friends and forgot to eat beforehand, an omission which left me lightheaded as I tried to walk home after a meal of orange juice and cantaloupe slices. I found myself turning down pastries offered to me by a visiting alum and realizing that there’s no way to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t, I’m vegan” without sounding pretentious. This, of course, is about cultural associations with veganism rather than the diet itself. But the further you remove yourself from what society considers “normal” eating, the more you open your choices up to scrutiny.
The fear of being judged as a pretentious hipster and the difficulty in finding places which served vegan food made me more proactive about cooking meals. I planned days in advance, making giant pots of soup on Sunday nights and planning to eat leftovers all week. I solidified my repertoire of a few solid dishes—lentil soup, red lentil curry and chili. (I did manage to adhere almost perfectly to my no-soy-based-fake-meats-or-dairy rule, though I snuck a bite of two of my vegan housemate’s tofu stir-fry one time.) I essentially cemented my understanding of “food” as “home-cooked meal”, which was a welcome transition after spending a semester abroad and having little control over what I ate.
It’s a little hard for me to pin down the concrete effects being vegan had on my body. I got a cold midway through the month—nothing unusual in the winter—but took over a week to recover, which is a long time for me. However, I can’t attribute this to being vegan. It could just as easily have been a particularly nasty virus, the fact that I was overworked and stressed, a lack of vitamin C in my diet or some combination of factors. I definitely lost weight during this month, but a lot of that could have just been me shedding the fat that grew out of the insane quantities of rice consumed in Ecuador. Chester (the temperamental adolescent dragon who lives in my stomach) was also noticeably happier during vegan month than he had been in a while, though I think a lot of that was just transitioning back to the U.S. Though since I’ve started paying attention more to what sets him off, I’m starting to think I may be mildly lactose intolerant.
I didn’t feel tired or lacking in energy during vegan month, though I did find myself craving food more, especially sweets. I’ve heard that this is pretty common, and that not feeling “full” leads vegans to snack a lot. I think this could have been managed perfectly fine if I’d decided to do this for longer and invest the time in monitoring my nutrients, but since it was only a month, I figured I wouldn’t kill myself if I just played it by ear.
Ultimately, I’m really glad I decided to try being vegan. I came in thinking I’d be miserable, and I found out that veganism is pretty damn legit. My usual rants about individual choice being an ineffective weapon for change still apply, but I think veganism actually can have health benefits, in the sense that it reduces junk food and fat consumption. This is something that could also be accomplished with good self-control, incidentally, but I personally find it harder to stick to rules I made up (don’t eat junk food) as opposed to rules that are part of a larger thing (be vegan). I’ve noticed a few permanent changes in my eating habits since then. I’ve stopped eating so much cheese, and my consumption of animal-product based meals has definitely declined. I’ve renewed my appreciation for lentils and beans as protein sources, and stopped making yogurt my default breakfast. I’m definitely eating less dairy overall and being more conscientious about what I do eat.
My next food challenge is going to be a month without processed foods or added sugar. I’m waiting until the summer, when I have the full bounty of summer harvest at my disposal, and my goal is going to be to eat almost entirely local stuff I buy at the Walla Walla Farmer’s Market. I think that my biggest health problem is my addiction to junk food, and while vegan month flirted with addressing it, real food month will hit it head on. I’m excited to report back.