Our intrepid health director, Amy Brightfield, discovers just how much
she loves cheese when she goes vegan for a week.
I don't smoke. I don't drink (that much). I exercise and eat healthy with a few burgers and steaks thrown in. So going vegan for a week -- avoiding all foods that come from animals -- didn't seem like a stretch. To get started, I met with registered dietitian Willow Jarosh of C&J Nutrition to go over basics. Since I couldn't eat dairy, eggs, or fish, my new protein BFFs would be tofu, quinoa, legumes (beans, lentils), and nut butters. What about avocado and hummus? While they're healthy in small doses, they're mostly fat and don't have enough protein to stand in for meat, dairy, or fish.
The next day, my husband and I went out to lunch and hit roadblock No. 1: No dairy alternative for coffee. I almost said, "Just gimme the milk, and I'll start at the next meal," but my husband scolded me: "You can't do that! Use the force and stay the course." So I drank the coffee black -- not terrible -- but that combined with no beans or tofu on the menu was frustrating. I was stuck with a protein-less lunch, and ordered a club sandwich minus the meat and cheese, with extra lettuce, tomato, and beets. What I got: A tomato slice, wilted lettuce, and a few flimsy beet shavings. I was cranky.
At the grocery store, I longingly strolled by the dairy aisle: Good-bye, beloved cheese, hello … Go Veggie cheese substitute? A pit of sadness was developing in my stomach (or maybe it was bloating from the extra vegetables). I could only find one package of vegan burgers, and it wasn't a flavor I liked, which meant going to another store 10 blocks away. Grrr.
On the third day, when a coworker asked how it was going, all I could say was "THIS. IS. HARD. And please excuse me if I'm slightly foggy and irritable." Part of it was physical -- my body adjusting to the diet shifts -- but part of it was psychological. It was jarring to change where I shopped, where I ate out, and what I cooked. I've always empathized with food allergy sufferers (had them myself as a kid), and I was reminded of the aggravation they feel. Changing your diet takes serious planning.
By day five, I was figuring things out. Almond milk lattes are my new thing, and lentil soup or a baked potato with veggie chili were the most satisfying meals. As I started to see the cheese at the end of the tunnel, I felt confident I could break through to a happy place, and even thought, Maybe I'll stick with it. I did go back to my cheese-loving ways, but I'm still using almond milk in my coffee and adding protein to avocado toast. I also have new respect for anyone who has to eat against the grain.
Eating vegan can be healthy, as long as you keep a few things in mind:
Your meals should be roughly ½ vegetables and/or fruit, ¼ protein, and ¼ starch: whole grains and starchy vegetables. Be careful not to replace animal protein with starch.
Don't Rely on Cheese Substitutes for Protein
They don't deliver the same nutrition as dairy; one slice of vegan cheese has only 1 g protein.
Read the Nutrition Facts
A label that says "vegan" doesn't mean that the food isn't processed or that it's lower in calories or fat.