If you follow me on instagram, you already know that I decided to conduct a little experiment on myself by eating a vegan diet for a month, starting January 1, 2018. A vegan diet is one that includes no animal-based foods – no meat (including fish), no dairy, no eggs. I had heard so much over the years where people were talking about how “plant based” or vegan diets were the best for basically everything from weight loss to curing IBS to preventing cancer, and everything in between. From everything I have learned from being a nerdy little researcher for years, this is actually not true. But still, everywhere I turned people were doing “vegan challenges” and making commitments to cut chicken and cheese and steak out of their diets in hopes of achieving amazing health and fitness results…typically to no avail. So I decided to take it upon myself and see if my own experience matched the vegan hype or if it supported what I had learned from years of scouring PubMed.
We’re all adults, so I shouldn’t have to say this, but alas – the internet has a way of dulling some folks’ critical thinking skills. So here’s my preemptive strike: Please remember that this is reflective of my experience with a vegan diet, and you need to do your own research if you’re going to cut out a major food group from your diet.
What I was thinking before “this vegan thing” started…
To be honest, I was a bit nervous about losing muscle due to taking in less protein than I do when eating meat/dairy/etc! I was also a little bit nervous that I might break out from reintroducing new foods like tofu/soy products and so many grain-based foods, as my skin has often been the first place to reflect food sensitivities.
At the same time, I was also wondering what would happen. I felt a bit apprehensive that if this vegan experiment resulted in noticeable weight loss or some kind of glowing health outcome, I would want to stick with it for fear of “reversing” those results by going back to eating animal foods.
What exactly did I eat?
I ate plenty, and it was not all focused on vegetables! I actually focused much more on starchy foods and higher-protein plant foods so that I could get in enough calories. The majority of my diet consisted of lots of beans/tofu + rice or beans/tofu + pasta dishes. I made black bean brownies a couple of times, which were delicious, and I had a lot of oatmeal/cereal for breakfasts. Snacks were often carrots or snap peas with hummus/guacamole, or leftovers of what I had made the night before. I didn’t eat a ton of fruit because it’s not in season, and therefore more expensive right now. I made (vegan) brownies twice in three weeks, so that was delicious. (My friends, including my sister’s adamantly anti-vegan boyfriend, scarfed them down and had no idea they were vegan until I told them, so that’s how I know they were good! Let me know if yall want the recipe.)
New foods that I ate during this experiment, which I previously didn’t eat at all/ate very infrequently included: beans, soymilk, tofu, noodles, faux meat (veggie burgers, etc.), soy sauce and teriyaki sauces, etc…
Towards the middle/end of the third week, I found myself starting to just hate food. It was really hard to find food that sounded appealing, and I sometimes had to force myself to eat. This is not my normal at all! I can put away a lot of food for someone my size, so I didn’t like this feeling of being kind of repulsed by food in general. Some of the foods I had been eating, like the Gardein faux meatballs, actually made me sick…about halfway through trying to gag those down, I gave up and scooped the rest into the trash.
My exercise habits stayed the same, but didn’t feel the same…
Often veganism is associated with things like yoga and running and cardio…for a lack of a better description, less strength-focused workouts.
I stuck with my normal workouts, which include a lot of strength training, and did notice that I sometimes felt like I “should” be doing more pilates/yoga and those types of workouts to fit more in with a “vegan” lifestyle. I stayed true to my normal workouts, though, because I truly wanted to isolate the dietary changes as the experimental variable (i.e. I wanted to make sure any changes I saw were due to eating a vegan diet and not because I suddenly started doing pilates every day).
Definitely felt tired and found myself struggling more with my workouts – particularly strength workouts. I could tell I was moving a little slower and more sluggishly despite putting in the same amount of effort as normal. Overall, my workouts took longer and felt more taxing, despite being the same the whole time.
Weight/body composition changes…
I don’t own a scale, so I can’t tell you about any changes in my weight directly before/after this experiment. When I was at the doctor’s office about a month/6 weeks before the start of this vegan thing (around the end of November), I weighed 136 lbs, and when I was at the doctor’s again about a week after the end of being vegan, I was 142 lbs (I’m 5’3″). It might look like my weight went up, but (warning for the guys, this might be TMI…) my “before” weight was right after my period, and my “after” weight was a few days before getting my period, in the middle of PMS-induced bloating/water-retention that normally causes my weight to fluctuate a few pounds. It also happens to be post-holiday season, so my guess is that a couple of those pounds might be leftover Christmas cookie fluff that haven’t quite bid adieu yet. About a week after the end of this vegan experiment, I was 135.5 lbs according to my bathroom scale, so I’m calling it a wash.
*** And quick side note on the “Christmas cookie fluff” – I have no issue with that. I had a fantastic time celebrating Christmas and New Year’s and spending time with my family, and that included cooking some great meals for them, eating/enjoying delicious food with them, and sometimes skipping a workout or two in order to spend more time with the ones I love. A couple extra pounds doesn’t take anything away from who I am or what I have to offer, and it doesn’t make me a “failure” or “fat.” It just makes me a woman who enjoyed celebrating the holidays with her family rather than spending the holidays more focused on following a specific diet plan and training program. My resuming my normal eating and exercise habits will result in losing a couple pounds of Christmas cookies within a couple months, so frankly, I ain’t worried ‘bout it. ***
All that being said, these photos make it pretty clear that there wasn’t a lot of change from day 1 to day 21. If anything, I look slightly (very slightly) leaner in the after photos, in spite of my weight going up, so riddle me that. (Seriously, even I’m confused.)
(I don’t know why the photo quality is so much worse in the “after” photos…I had eaten bacon right before I took the after photos, so in all honesty there very well may have been bacon grease clouding my phone lens. NO SHAME.)
When I wasn’t bloated, I felt like looked about as lean as I normally do, but I didn’t feel strong or solid or generally well. I’m used to feeling pretty strong and solid, and having plenty of energy, and I noticed myself feeling more and more tired and weak the longer I ate vegan. The best way I can describe it is I felt empty and hollow – not really in the sense that my stomach was empty (because I ate plenty, trust me) but in that my body was missing something it needed. I would often feel full in the sense that my stomach was stretched, but still hungry and not sated (my body needed something more nourishing).
Other changes I noticed…
One thing I noticed that I wasn’t super fond of was the bags under my eyes seeming to get bigger. This could have been due to the fact that I wasn’t sleeping well (see below), but it seemed to be apparent no matter how much I slept. It also seemed that the bags under my eyes were different than the normal, “omg I slept like crap” eye-bags…my eyes were puffier overall and at times looked a bit like they do when I have seasonal allergies or am having an allergic reaction.
Additionally, I noticed my face breaking out a couple of times during the month when I couldn’t blame it on PMS or anything (i.e. randomly breaking out when I wasn’t about to get my period). In terms of other weird skin things, I also got a couple cases of hives. This isn’t completely out of the ordinary for me – my skin is pretty sensitive and reacts to a lot of things (I know, genetic lottery winner right here) – but it was the first time it had happened in about a month, and to a worse degree than normal.
And now, the area everyone loves to talk about (if you’re sensitive about TMI, this is your chance to leave…) – digestion. I experienced a lot of bloating in the first week and third week (neither was during my period/PMS time). This was uncomfortable and painful, and very noticeable. For those of you who are lucky enough to not have personal experience with extreme bloating, here’s a very real (aka very unattractive) photo so you can get an idea of how un-cute and unpleasant it is:
I wasn’t able to pinpoint any particular food as the culprit behind this bloating, but I didn’t make any effort to cut the staple foods out of my diet (oatmeal, beans, rice, peas, pasta) so it very well could have been one of those foods. I’d like to say the bloating went away as time went on and I acclimated to the diet, but if anything, it got worse. I also experienced some extreme stomach pain on multiple occasions, which I had previously struggled with off and on, but it hadn’t been happening at all lately…until this experiment started. This was the first recurrence in several months, and my gut tells me (ha) it was due in large part to the diet changes.
On the bright side, I was very…very…“regular” most of the time. This wasn’t too much of a change from my usual, but I know regularity is a struggle for some folks, so if that’s you, incorporating more plant foods (not just vegetables – beans, grains, peas, etc. too!) might be a good place to start!
Overall, I felt more tired and lethargic than normal. I didn’t have my normal energy levels or general stamina throughout the day or strength/energy in my workouts. One thing that did really worry me, and was one of the big things that contributed to my decision to end the vegan experiment at 21 days instead of 1 month, was the dizzy spells I experienced. Throughout January, I had several episodes of dizziness; this had happened on and off during the spring of 2017, but this was the first time since June that I’ve experienced it. It was really strange and pretty severe compared to what used to happen. One evening I was getting dizzy while laying in bed trying to fall asleep – it felt like the room was spinning, and since I was already lying down with my eyes closed, I just curled into a ball and held onto my pillow to feel more “grounded” until I fell asleep. I can’t say that this is a direct result of my eating a vegan diet, but it wasn’t happening before and it hasn’t happened since I’ve reintroduced meat/dairy/eggs…so take that for what you will.
My grocery bill didn’t get any “skinnier” either…
The cost of food during the 3 weeks of eating a vegan diet was just as much as, if not more than, what I spent previously eating an omnivorous diet. This disappointed me, because I was hoping to spend less, but it also made me feel great about going back to eating animal foods (as I now know that I wouldn’t be saving much by eating vegan). To be clear, it wasn’t more costly because I was buying a lot of specialty vegan foods or the pricier plant based foods like nut butters, because I wasn’t buying either of those.
On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised to find how much time I saved in cooking. It typically took less time to prepare my vegan meals because the food generally doesn’t require cooking (i.e. no meat, more things can be eaten raw/as is). This could also be my laziness directing my choices towards foods that were faster to prepare. The main challenge was figuring out new recipes. I have staples I normally cook when I’m eating meat/dairy, and had to readjust and learn new staple recipes to fit a vegan diet. This was fun, but also a pain in the ass when you’re doing that with the added stress of school starting back up and a busy season at work…and, obviously, it was a bit unpleasant when your culinary creations turn out neither tasty nor filling, and that means being hungry until you can get it right.
These were my big takeaways:
- Eating tons of carbs won’t necessarily make you gain weight.
- Eating only plant foods won’t necessarily make you lose weight.
- How you eat can have a huge impact on aspects of health besides your bodyweight/body composition.
- Eating a vegan diet did not help me to perform or look appreciably better than I did when eating a fairly healthy omnivorous diet, and it actually made me feel much worse than I do when eating a healthy omnivorous diet.
What the research says…
The research is really conclusive about that fact that when it comes to nutrition, there are very few things we can know with great certainty. Maddening, right? Here are the things that nutrition science has generally agreed upon:
- Vegetables are good for you.
- Fiber is good for you.
- Water is good for you.
- Cheesecake is really good, but not really good for you.
Let me be clear – this does not mean that you should only eat kale, Benefiber powder, and Fiji water. It also doesn’t mean you should never eat cheesecake (or any other delicious dessert that makes you want to whisper naughty things to your waiter). It just means that there aren’t a lot of clear answers on the specifics of what type of diet is best for everyone…or even if there is one best diet for everyone.
Some people will tell you that a vegan diet is the healthiest way to eat, and they will find 100 studies to back up that idea.
Some other folks will insist that a low carb diet with plenty of animal protein (think “paleo”) is the dietary holy grail, and they will find 100 studies to back up that idea.
Pick any nutritional approach, and you can find dozens of studies that claim it is the best dietary approach in the world, and dozens that claim it will basically cause instant death. That’s just the way research goes in the field of nutrition. Add to that the fact that “best diet” is an insanely subjective concept that depends on the health needs/barriers of any given individual – weight loss, lean mass preservation, diabetes management, cardiovascular health, metabolic dysregulation, etc. – and it becomes clear that it’s actually impossible to determine one specific “best” approach to nutrition. Outside of the basic bullet points above, the bottom line seems to be that it all depends on what you need, and what works for your body.
And that’s what I really hope yall can take away from my three weeks venture into veganism – that trends won’t help you find the best diet for yourself. Listening to your body and your unique needs is what will help you fine tune what you need, nutrition-wise, to feel and perform and look your best. As you can see, for my body, a vegan diet didn’t help me feel/look better, and it actually made me feel much worse. Because I’m focused on nourishing my body in the way that is best for me, I didn’t feel trapped in dogmatic thinking of “having” to stay vegan through to the end of the month. Instead, I was able to take the information I gathered through my experiment, reincorporate the foods that make me feel stronger and healthier and better, and make empowered choices about what I would eat going forward. That’s the beauty of being your own experiment!
What will I eat going forward?
Lots of plant foods but also plenty of animal foods. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, yall. For instance, in the past couple of days, I’ve enjoyed lots of meals that include some vegan staples plus animal foods. For instance, I’ve had overnight oatmeal for breakfast (see my Instagram post with the recipe!) with real yogurt and real milk (instead of vegan substitutes), I’ve had pasta with ground turkey added instead of beans or tofu, and I had one memorable breakfast sandwich including perfectly toasted sourdough bread and two over-easy eggs. I feel pretty good eating this way, and I’ve had much less bloating (aside from hormonally-induced PMS-bloating, which is normal for me) and have felt more energized in my workouts. Sure, in the future I might discover something that leads me to choose to follow one specific diet, but right now the “best” diet plan for me seems to be eating from all the food groups and listening to my gut (sometimes literally), only cutting out a food group if it literally makes me sick.
For now, that’s good enough for me.
PS…I’d love to hear about your dietary approach! Have you ever been a vegan or vegetarian, or have you always felt good eating meat, dairy, and eggs?