Last December, in a desperate attempt to shake things up in month 9 of quarantine, my boyfriend and I decided to try eating a completely vegan diet for a full week. We had been thinking about doing a challenge like this for a while – he was curious about how it would affect his athletic performance, and I was curious about how it would affect my health in general. I’ve always wanted to try a vegan diet but, as someone with nut allergies, I was worried about having to navigate a world of nut-based meat and dairy alternatives, so I never felt compelled to make the full leap.
I already eat a mostly vegetarian diet, so changing to a vegan one was not a drastic change. That being said, we did use the challenge as an excuse to seek out and try specific vegan swaps and recipes, and not settle into our normal meal plan sans dairy (how boring would that be!).
What did I learn from this week-long challenge? Read on to find out!
We started off the week with a big grocery haul. In addition to the obvious fruits and vegetables, we decided to use this challenge as an opportunity to try some new substitutes, including almond milk for my boyfriend, fake cheese, fake butter, and non-dairy ice cream (including… cherry ice cream with an avocado base, which strangely did not taste like avocado at all!).
Because of my existing nut allergies, I am already used to reading the labels of everything I buy, but it was definitely shocking to read the labels of everything only to find out that they include eggs and/or milk. I scoured our entire grocery store to find a nut- and dairy-free pack of cookies and came up short! (My poor sweet tooth!)
My favorite part of vegan week, by far, was trying out new recipes. My boyfriend and I put together a list of vegan recipes we wanted to try cooking and prepared them throughout the week, including Vegan Fettucine Alfredo and Buffalo Chickpea Quesadillas. (The quesadillas actually ended up being one of my favorite meals of the entire week, despite being something that I probably would not have tried if I weren’t doing this challenge. I highly recommend them now!)
I also put vegan spins on our usual weeknight meals, like wild rice soup, vegetable hash, kimchi soup, and congee. Some fell flat – wild rice soup isn’t particularly filling without added protein or fat, while vegetable hash doesn’t have much texture or flavor when everything is crowded in the same pan, which was my mistake. However, others actually went very well – I am already used to making Asian inspired meals, so tofu kimchi soup and congee were pretty easy to substitute as I went!
I wasn’t making full meals from scratch every day, and actually found that it was difficult to spice up my leftovers without my go-to’s: eggs and/or cheese. My vegetable hash was begging for a sprinkle of parmesan and an over-easy egg! Part of me does feel like I would be on autopilot while heating up leftovers, though, so it was nice to catch myself and re-evaluate my habits – like, does this really need a sprinkling of cheddar? (Sometimes, yes! But sometimes, no! Just think about it first!)
We also decided to try vegan takeout, just to see what it was like! We got dinner from Zhu and Martsa, and I tried vegan ramen from Life Alive. It was easiest to get vegan versions of Asian food, strangely enough! We were happy to gorge ourselves on lots of fried vegetables, tofu, and dumplings when most of our other meals felt extra healthy (whether they were actually healthier is up for debate). I actually didn’t find myself missing the meat too much during these meals – I found the flavor mostly comes from sauces anyway, so things didn’t feel too different from a normal takeout meal.
So what did I learn from my week of vegan eating? Am I still vegan now?
Though I definitely made it through the week without going through anaphylactic shock, I can’t say that I would be willing to follow a vegan diet forever. It was easier than I thought to find nut-free dairy substitutes, but they were definitely more expensive and generally in shorter supply. Grocery shopping for anything processed became a minefield of labels that checked off all of my boxes, and therefore took much longer than usual.
While it was not the humongous adjustment that I thought it would be, going vegan still included a lot of sacrifices, and for my own needs and lifestyle, I could not weigh the benefits of going fully vegan with the realities of my everyday life. I don’t even think that this was something that I could have realistically done in normal times – i.e., going out to restaurants on-the-fly or eating at a friend’s or family member’s house – without becoming an inconvenience to myself and others or doing a lot of preparing in advance. In my opinion, my own reasons for going on a vegan diet – better health, helping out the environment – are still served by reducing my meat and dairy consumption in general, even if I do not completely remove them from my diet. Sorry, vegan friends!
However, though I don’t see myself following a strict vegan diet in the future, I did gain some takeaways that I hope to incorporate into my diet moving forward. The biggest was that I learned… that it is possible for me to eat vegan! Seriously, the mental boost I got from simply completing this challenge was powerful. The entire week forced me to rethink my cooking habits, and I realized that I don’t need to put eggs, butter, and cheese into everything I eat. I still like having the option, but I have definitely second guessed some of my cooking choices since that week in order to make things vegan, just to try it out. I already have a similar view on eating meat, so this was honestly not a huge leap.
I also realized that there are nut-free meat and dairy substitutes that are actually not bad. I was already drinking my coffee and tea with oat milk (which I legitimately think is tastier than real milk, and I will die on that hill), but my eyes were opened up to other alternatives as well. I learned that there are dairy-free ice creams that are just as tasty as their lactose-laden counterparts. Taking a break from real cheese actually made me realize that some of my regular bloating was probably due to the amount of cheese I was eating (I used to nibble on those little Babybel cheeses as snacks, if that’s any indication – I don’t anymore!). I even tried new methods of preparing tofu that I probably wouldn’t have tried otherwise, and now I’m a cube-then-press-then-freeze-then-bake evangelist (seriously, they have the same texture as chicken!). Challenging myself to eating a vegan diet finally gave me a concrete reason to take the leap and try these out, and I’m happy I did, because these products and techniques have come a long way.
Finally, to anyone who is interested in trying out a vegan diet after reading this post – make sure your body is prepared! And by that, I mean do some research about how your stomach might feel bloated like crazy when you start eating vegan. Seriously. I felt like an overblown balloon for the first few days! I was not ready! I was ready to pop!