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What I Discovered When I Went Vegan for 30 Days

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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

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Mark October 17, 2013 at 11:59 pm

You know, it’s funny. Someone will say, “I quit eating X and now I feel GREAT!” It’s always the same words. Sluggish, dirty, heavy vs. energized, light, clear/clarity. Then I try it. Nothing. No difference.

It’s funny to me to hear people talk about “good” or “bad” food. What is it that makes a food bad? What conditioning have you had that makes you feel that way? Why is a glass of milk “filthy” but a handful of kale “energizing and invigorating”?

I’m sad sometimes that I don’t feel this way. I’m amazed at people’s ability to deprive themselves or otherwise torture themselves (diet, marathoning, cleansing, etc.) and get a high out of it. Would you still feel that way if you couldn’t tell everyone about your decisions? Would it still be exciting if you didn’t get to make restaurants cater to your specific needs? Is that part of what makes you energized, and if so, why?

Jennifer October 19, 2013 at 6:13 pm

I needed this!!!!!!! Perfect.

rabbit October 22, 2013 at 4:43 pm

i turned “vegan” after watching Food, INC(im not an animal activist though),, 7 months “vegan” now(no meat, no milk, no cheese, no eggs at all) and tbh the day i decided i will stop eating meat was easy, the cravings was kind of annoying and hard though but i got through it! i think i had really really bad cravings for 1-1 1/2 months BUT i said to myself “its all in your head” until finally my cravings stopped and i got through it. sometimes its not that easy when im with my family eating outside. I also started educating(really important IMO) myself about how to eat properly and not get “deficiencies” on certain vits/minerals,
tbh being a plant eater is really fun and exciting, i dont always eat the same thing every week. i dont have to watch what i eat, i dont have to weight or portion the food. i love cooking and making new recipes(i costumize some ;] really fun!!). Never felt so much better..
I do take B12(nutritional yeast) though. i dont know if you call that a supplement.
i go outside 2-3 times(jog or go for a ride on my bike) for Vit D.
Pros:lots of energy, i sleep SOO much better at night, you never have to starve!
Cons:didnt start earlier, :)

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Jamie Jenkins November 27, 2013 at 9:24 am

Happy to have found this post, really useful as I am trying out my own 21-day vegan experiment! So good to hear other people´s experiences.

Fiona December 3, 2013 at 7:15 am

Hi David, thanks for this post. This is my third day as a vegan and, just as you did, I’m already noticing changes in my energy levels at this early stage. Everyday chores are getting done. No afternoon sluggishness. I feel mentally stronger. And, until I read your post I couldn’t quite describe it – but yes, I feel cleaner and clearer. There are a couple of vegan books on my wish list for Christmas, so I’m looking forward to continuing this journey in the New Year! Best wishes for 2014!

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jenna January 13, 2014 at 5:36 pm

I have been plant based vegan for almost 2 years. Took course at Cornell. I feel awful most of the time with stomach issues and constant obsession thinking about food. I have terrible problems with the beans and high fiber foods. I am finally adding back some fish and chicken and eggs even though I know thats not the healthiest way to go but I am tired of not feeling great on this, whole grain, beans veggies, fruit, nuts seeds diet that the plant based doctors all talk about. Bottom line is even if food is healthy, if you don’t feel good eating it or it causes stomach upsets, then stop eating it and find something else. Good luck.

Kathy February 10, 2014 at 10:31 pm

This is a great post, one of the better ones I’ve seen about the experience of adopting a vegan diet. I have been 90-95% vegan for five months. Everything I cook is vegan but I am flexible when others cook for me. I echo the experience of “the world assumes you will consume animal products freely.” I really wish the food industry and restaurants would bring the same fervor to labeling the dairy content of their products as they do with the whole “gluten free” craze. Dairy is almost as prevalent of an allergen as wheat is for many people.

The primary reason I changed my diet was to eliminate dairy. The second was to fix a borderline high cholesterol reading in my blood work. Now that I look back, I had (almost unconsciously) been weeding out dairy out of my diet for years. I thought cheese would be a big deal to give up but to my surprise it wasn’t at all. Each day I pass on the big block of cheese in my refrigerator (I live in an omnivore household) with little thought. In fact my initial cravings were for meat which was a big surprise to me as I have never been a big meat eater. Like others that posted here, I did have some initial tiredness as well. Both of these were fixed by making sure there was good sources of protein in my diet daily. Many vegans tell you don’t need to worry about the protein, but I found that, for me at least, some focus was needed. I don’t hold much weight with the blood type diet theory, but I am type O (which is supposed to eat meat), maybe why I need the protein.

I’m happy with my diet, my skin is much better (I wish I had eliminated dairy years ago), my elimination system is working better, and as time goes, I have less and less desire to eat meat based products, especially as I discover new cool vegan recipes. Next month I’ll have my annual checkup and we will see if the cholesterol has come down.

David Cain February 11, 2014 at 2:39 pm

I’d be interested to hear the effect on your cholesterol. If you think of it, and don’t mind sharing, please let us know.

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Brenda March 7, 2014 at 2:55 pm

I’m on day 3 of a vegan diet. I went a little extreme and also cut out most processed foods, sugars, sugar substitutes, deep fat fried foods, and coffee. I kept tea so I didn’t go through caffeine withdrawls. I feel great. My digestive system has been a little off, but not painfully so. Everything else feels great. I struggle with depression, but my mood has lifted the past few days. I’m not feeling nearly as tired at the end of a work week as I usually do. And I’m loving the food. Today, I had veggie stirfry with rice for lunch and black bean hummus with veggies and tortillas for a snack. I was vegetarian (lactoovo) in college but went back to meat gradually after graduating. I never tried the complete vegan thing. This was going to be just a 6 week experiment (aka lentan “fast”), but I’m not feeling deprived or hungry at all. I may just keep this diet after the 40 days are up.

I’ve never craved meat. Rarely cooked it for myself, but would eat it when I was out with friends.

How does one deal with the social thing…like going to someone’s house for a meal?

Rox March 20, 2014 at 1:44 am

This is an awesome article, I love the way you write and engage your reader. Just something that is not easy for me to do. But anyway, I saw a video yesterday on how and it is for your body to consume meat that you can even get cancer from eating pork, beef and chicken. And Iam now seriously considering going vegan, like no animal by products at all, no meat, no dairy etc. I’m not crazy about meat, but I do have it everyday, a small portion at most. So I know that stopping it won’t be as hard, and I do like cow milk, and lost of cheeses. But also things that I can live without for a better lifestyle. I’m a young girl and I’m always tired and sluggish and my body is just blah. So I think if I change my eating habits like you mentioned, it might just help me out a bit. Anyway I’m just going on and on. Thanks for the great article, you have definitely inspired me to pursue a vegan lifestyle.

Brooklyn March 25, 2014 at 4:53 am

I don’t think it’s necessarily his mind convincing him that he is ill from animal products… I recently turned vegan (4 mo ago) and I felt the same lightness. My digestive track has finally gotten to a good point after years of being all messed up. I have tried to eat meat/animal products and every time I feel sick 4 hours later. It’s hard for me to even eat chicken or fish because its consistency and taste. So bland in comparison now. I think most people commenting about how this is all mental have yet to become vegan and should try before they get all scientific on someone.. isn’t that the first rule of science? experimenting?

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Ash April 8, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Great article, I never tried a vegan diet but I did try a vegetarian diet for 2 weeks and from that alone I felt great, I woke up energized rather then sluggish, I didn’t have that afternoon tired feeling.

MJ April 12, 2014 at 8:42 am

I appreciate your lessons learned. The responses are quite revealing about human nature, too.

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felipe May 9, 2014 at 7:29 am

Hey guys this article was very interesting;
Very good information.
But i personally think theres alot more things involving then just food;
One thing that i noticed is that, for better performance u have to know a little about everything, health(food) and know you bodys performance in weight training.
Theres some foods that go great with ur biotype and some not, have u ever went to a restaurante and had the same dish the same as your friend and for him it felt that something was wrong and for you it hit the spot?
Thats exactly the point.

Another major point for me was discovering my muscle body type so i can fit training and what to consume for better performance,

so over all if u guys are looking for other ways to explore
look at it

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Penny Grace June 23, 2014 at 7:47 am

I have just recently recommitted to being vegan. I agree with much of what you said. *Vegan isn’t hard – we just tend to over-think it. *Even today in 2014 the vegetarian/vegan options at restaurants are not the best. I must admit, I have fallen pray to those poor abused animal documentaries, but nothing that was said or shown had be changed for long.

But, my cousin who worked at a grocery store, in the meat department told me, that they would get cuts of pork in all the time with tumors on it. He said they had to cut through the disease until they got to a portion that they could sell. That turned me. If they do that for pork, I’m sure they do to other animal carcass as well.
I’d rather not partake of that.
One experience I do not share is the cheese…I never really liked it, so it was not an initial part of my thinking. I never drank milk and yogurt was one of those things I never really got. However, I did think that bacon would be difficult but it wasn’t. Besides, I can have “bacon” bits on my salad since they aren’t even real bacon anyway!

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