Author’s note: As some readers have rightfully pointed out, “going vegan” is not just a matter of diet. This post, and the experiment it describes, pertains only to animal use as it relates to food.
This is the second experiment in two months that has made a dramatic difference in how I live and how I feel on a day-to-day basis. Last time I stripped my life of unnecessary and unused possessions, and this time I stripped it of animal foods.
I ate 100% vegan for 30 days, primarily to see what effects it had on my health and my self-discipline when it comes to eating. I found I took to it very easily, and my body felt like it had been waiting for me to make this change for a long time.
What I discovered
It wasn’t hard.
I listed my seven main reasons for never considering veganism before, and the main one is that I thought it would be too hard. I’m not sure what I thought would be hard about it: craving foods I couldn’t eat, finding something interesting to eat, having to read labels… none of it presented any real difficulty. Once I found how well my body fared without cheese and meat it really didn’t appeal anymore.
The hard part was finding stuff to eat in social situations. Most restaurants will offer the token veggie meal and not put much thought into it. Usually is just one of their other dishes, with tofu or veggies replacing the meat. It wouldn’t take much effort to add one inspired vegan dish to a menu. Not enough of a market for it yet I guess.
There is a great support network of restaurant reviews and forums set up to make this part of it easier for fellow vegans. That was a particularly cool part of this experiment — discovering that there’s a super-helpful vegan subculture out there making life easier for others.
I ended up expanding the palette of foods I ate, rather than restricting it.
The thought of removing several broad categories of foods from the picture made me expect to feel restricted to a few familiar dishes, and I’d already been feeling a bit of a lack of variety.
The opposite happened. I ended up experimenting with new recipes a lot more and eating foods I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. I learned quite a few new recipes and my culinary life is more vivid and interesting than ever. Food is more exciting to me now, and I honestly expected it would have to become a less gratifying part of my life.
I did spend more time cooking, trying a few new recipes a week. I love cooking so I didn’t worry too much about trimming my cooking time but I definitely could streamline it pretty easily if I had to.
I felt awesome physically, and right away.
Within a few days, I began to feel unusually light and alert. Everything seemed to require less effort and I had very little mental resistance to the prospect of doing things. Simple tasks like getting out of a chair or clearing up my dishes seemed to lose some vague character of annoyingness I didn’t realize they used to have.
Psyching myself up to exercise was much easier. There was no heaviness after I ate, no recovery period. My morning grogginess went away much quicker. There was no 3 o’clock wall. I didn’t get tired until bedtime.
I guess I had always been living with a persistent, mild tiredness, and it really seems like meat and dairy were keeping it in place. I can’t think of anything else in my life that changed that could account for it.
Reactions from others vary.
I didn’t go around announcing my new diet, but food is such a prominent part of human life that it does come up. Reactions were mixed. Most wanted to know why, some asking as if they’re just curious, and others asking as if I’ve violated them in some way.
In light of my immediate physical benefits, my new diet felt pretty damn sensible once I started, so it kept surprising me that the majority of the world still regards veganism as some vaguely menacing fringe thing akin to Scientology or Communism.
Many people seemed to assume I was secretly dying of cravings for steak and cheeseburgers, and that it takes some sort of enormous ethical strength to eat vegan. I wasn’t, and it doesn’t.
When asked “Why?” my go-to answer was that it makes me feel physically good, which is true and is probably the main reason. I didn’t want to get involved in an ethical debate, because once a conversation becomes a debate, communication ceases. But the ethical issue does enter the picture for me, which I’ll get to a little further down.
Overall, food didn’t cost any more, but spending more on food is a good thing anyway.
I thought I’d have to double my food budget, buying tons of perishables, specialty foods and vegan substitutes, but it didn’t end up that way. I did spend more on groceries, but not by as big a margin as I thought. Many vegan staples can be had in bulk for dirt cheap: lentils, rice, beans, tofu, couscous etc; there is also no meat in the budget, which is the most expensive part of most people’s grocery list.
But what extra I did spend on groceries, I saved on casual, off-the-cuff meals out. There were no greasy diner breakfasts at work, no grocery-store deli sandwiches and no fast food. I was never a fast food junkie but I did lean on the enormous convenience-food infrastructure in my culture, and health consequences aside, that’s always a poor way to spend money.
So I didn’t really end up devoting much more of my budget to food, but I don’t think expanding your food budget could possibly be a bad thing. It’s a common point of complaint (in the US especially) that healthy food is way more expensive than unhealthy food, and while I’m not sure if that’s true, that’s no reason at all not to buy it.
The typical American household spends less than 10% of its income on food, less than half of which is prepared in the home. There has never been a culture in history that spends less of its income on food. Healthy food is not expensive, we’re just used to committing a pitifully small proportion of our resources to our health. The positive effects of eating clean are worth a fortune.
To limit healthy foods because of concerns about how much more money it will cost is totally backwards. Other than whatever it costs to live in a decent home, what expense could be more non-negotiable than whatever it costs to eat good food? This decision is what determines what our bodies are made of, how long we live, and what the quality of that life will be. To not eat healthy food because it’s “too expensive” is like not sleeping much because it’s too time consuming — yet that’s how some people operate.
Vegans are generally not considered at all in the designing of menus, public and private
I learned quickly that the world assumes you will consume animal products freely. Restaurants generally have two vegetarian options, and no vegan options unless you make a special request. Sometimes there are side orders that are accidentally vegan, but in general the message you get is that it’s unreasonable to want food without animal products in it.
This marginalization was a new experience for me, being a young, white, non-religious, non-disabled English-speaking male, and maybe it’s good for my character to get a hint of what it feels like to live in a world that wants you be different than you are.
Revisiting animal foods
Part of the experiment was to try a few animal foods when my 30 days was up to see how my body and feelings would respond.
My first day after the experiment, I ate all vegan except instead of my usual soy latte I had one with cow’s milk. My first impression was that it tasted kind of dirty. It felt like it was something I wasn’t supposed to have in my mouth. I felt a bit of guilt — not that I felt my purchase was overtly harmful, but that I knew my body didn’t really want that. Wanting to see the effects of a whole beverage, I drank the whole thing. Within an hour I felt really awful and went home sick from work.
The next day my mission was to test out cheese. I had a vegetarian sandwich which was vegan except for a slice of cheese. I again felt the same dirtiness and hint of guilt when I detected the cheese, but it was milder this time. I didn’t get sick, I just felt that heavy, draining feeling I used to get.
I’ve tried a few others since then. I had no desire to eat any meat but ended up having a chicken wrap on the plane to Kona because the meal situation was purchase-only, and they had already sold the only two vegetarian wraps they had. It was unpleasant but I needed sustenance and I didn’t want to subsist only on the pound of nuts I had in my bag.
I had a piece of fish in my lunch today and wish I’d gotten something else. It was okay but totally unnecessary and left me sluggish and cranky. My meat experiment is over.
Right now I’m still in full-on vacation mode so we’re eating out a lot, and I’m having a bit of dairy now and then. I don’t find it as violently repulsive as that first latte was, but I’m definitely going back to 100% vegan when I get home on Sunday.
“I would do it but I could never give up cheese.”
There’s an interesting phenomenon I noticed that I think is worth bringing up. I encountered this a lot: people who have an interest in going vegan for health or ethical reasons, but claim they couldn’t give up cheese.
I used to say that too, that exact phrase: I could never give up cheese. It’s such a typical response that it’s a perennial joke in vegan forums. What’s fascinating to me is that no non-vegan with vegan sympathies wants to just say they won’t give up cheese, it’s always can’t. The implication is that they are different than me in that they have no real choice as to whether they eat cheese or not, while I am lucky to have such a choice.
Of course, in the developed world we adults all choose what we eat. There’s nobody who can’t give up cheese. I mention this because I know I used the word “couldn’t” when I meant “wouldn’t” as a way of exempting myself from any expectation on my part to attempt to live my values when it comes to food. It was a convenient disqualifier: “well maybe I should be vegan, but clearly that’s not an option because I’m not one of those people who could give up cheese.”
This is a classic example of rationalizing behaviors we have that don’t jive with our values, which I get into below.
And the ethical issue, which I didn’t touch until now
I won’t dwell on this here because it’s an enormous topic, but I can’t really ignore it. In my initial post I didn’t really get into the real reason veganism even exists as a lifestyle, which is the question of whether it’s ethical to use animals for food.
I won’t get into the specifics because it isn’t really necessary. If you want to know where your food comes from, it’s easier than ever to find out.
The main moral objection I always had was not that it’s flatly wrong to kill animals for food, but that the way we produce meat and dairy food is atrocious. There’s plenty of information on this out there for anyone who really doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
I was never very responsive to the typical emotional appeals to stop exploiting animals. The teary-eyed anti-meat videos with the somber voiceover and melancholy piano music does nothing for me, and I would hope that kind of pathos isn’t the deciding factor for most vegans. I don’t really trust people’s opinions when they come from emotion, (even my own) and so the decision to go off animal foods must be logically sound to me regardless of my fluctuating emotional relationship to it.
Throughout the whole month of mulling over the ethical implications of how we eat, the thought that kept coming back to me is this: Would I treat animals I do know and do see (the dogs and cats in my life) as brutally as I’ve been treating animals I don’t know and don’t see? Of course not, and I’m convinced few people would if they were being honest with themselves.
This is a very simple point and I can’t deny that it’s true. The question is whether I am willing to live my values or not. Living your values isn’t something that happens automatically. A person can believe something is wrong but do it anyway. We do it all the time.
We inherit our lifestyles from the people around us, and we uncover our values as we live life, and they’re not going to come to match each other on their own. Rather than work to reconcile them with each other, we mostly rationalize one or the other so that the disparity isn’t so apparent.
I know that regardless of the health benefits I’ve experienced, my values are clearly prescribing a vegan lifestyle. I’m grateful that I feel so much better physically with this vegan diet, because if I didn’t, in all honesty I’d probably go back to rationalizing an omnivorous diet because it’s more convenient. I’m a pro at rationalizing, so in this case I’m glad to have the extra incentives keeping me honest.
Give it a whirl, even for a week
This experiment has done more for me than any other, and I’m so glad I went through with it. Committing to a temporary change was key. It wouldn’t have lasted if I knew I was making an open-ended commitment.
No matter where you stand on the ethics point, I think most people would gain a lot from eating vegan for a week. I wasn’t a particularly unhealthy person and I felt awesome within the first few days. Way cleaner and clearer. If nothing else you’d get a first-hand idea of what meat and dairy do to your system. In my case they were taking way more from me than I knew.
If you’re going to try it, the best place to start is with a cookbook. I have quite a few now, and the best one is still Vegan Yum Yum.
The thing I learn in every single experiment I do is that you can’t know what will happen until you do it. Every time, I’ve been surprised.
Photo by norwichnuts