Wednesday, June 10, 2015

I Went (Mostly) Vegan for a Week! Here's What Happened

Last week I went vegan, with the exception of the occasional splash of milk in my coffee (I'm sorry, non-dairy milk is not the same). I'd been meaning to do this experiment for at least a year, but something always came up. Either I had a lot of cheese in my fridge that I needed to eat before it spoiled, or there was a new cheese-based recipe that I wanted to try, or I started thinking what a shame it would be if I was hit by a bus during my vegan week and died without having tried every kind of cheese available at Whole Foods. I really like cheese, guys. Last month, though, I resolved that my vegan week would start as soon as I returned from the UK. It was perfect timing: there were no dairy products in my apartment and I simply refrained from buying new ones.

There were a few reasons why I decided to dabble in veganism. The first was ethical. I've been mostly vegetarian for five years, also for ethical reasons; I eat fish about once a month and meat a few times a year, when I'm craving it so badly that I dream about it. I try to ensure that my milk, eggs, and other animal-based foods come from responsible sources, but there's no way to be absolutely certain, and what about the non-vegan foods that I don't make myself? In general, I have no idea where the eggs, milk, and cheese in those products come from. Factory farming is a blight on both sustainability and morality and is more common in the US than elsewhere, and I'd like to limit my support of it as much as possible. The only certain way to do that is by avoiding animal-based foods.

The second reason was aesthetic. I've been dealing with an unaccustomed number of breakouts for six months now, and I have yet to pinpoint the source. I've heard that some people's skin just starts to suck at some point in their twenties, and that may be the case for me, since I haven't changed my skincare regimen recently (though I did run out of all my usual products back in December and couldn't afford to replace them for about a month). Whatever the reason for my breakouts, they're decidedly unnerving: I'm used to having clear, unproblematic skin, damn it! I hoped that eliminating dairy from my diet for a week might help, given that my lactose intolerance gets worse every year: these days I can't have creamy coffee drinks or eat more than one scoop of ice cream at a time. Also in the aesthetic category: I'd been eating a lot of delicious desserts in England and my pants had started to feel awfully tight.

The third reason was pure curiosity. I like setting myself challenges, and this one seemed pretty formidable. Switching to more-or-less-vegetarianism in 2010 was barely a challenge, since I didn't eat much meat to begin with. But I love dairy. Fresh noodles with olive oil and Parmesan is my favorite dinner in the world. Carrot cake with cream-cheese frosting is my favorite dessert. The vegan fruit crisp from my local health-food store tastes better with whipped cream on top. And imagine, just imagine, passing a Mister Softee truck in New York and not ordering a vanilla soft-serve cone with rainbow sprinkles. That goes against everything I believe in.

But it would only be a week, and I'd overdosed on dairy in England anyway, so I was ready for a break. I did have a few slip-ups over the course of the week: a lemon-poppyseed scone, a few pieces of milk chocolate, and a tiny free sample of mozzarella panini at Whole Foods. For the most part, though, I stuck to my new regimen. I even started drinking some of my coffee black! This was especially easy when I cold-brewed it overnight, since the cold-brewing process got rid of the coffee's acidic qualities.

Here are some of the dishes I made during my vegan week, plus notes:
  • Overnight oats: This was already a favorite of mine. Soak a portion of oats (and dried fruit, if you wish) in almond milk overnight, and add whatever toppings you'd like in the morning: cocoa powder, fresh fruit, and peanut butter are all good options.
  • Brown rice and black beans: Another perennial favorite, though I usually put cheese on mine. I substituted avocado and added lots of salsa (I like Frontera's tomatillo salsa, because I'm a spicy-food-averse white person), and it was fine, if a bit boring.
  • Soba noodles with peanut sauce and broccoli rabe: By far my favorite recipe of the week. I confess that I cheated and used honey instead of agave syrup, since that was what I had around the house. I used eight ounces of noodles instead of six, since the recipe makes so much sauce, and I had enough for four days, though I did replenish the rabe on the last day. I think this dish is even better cold. What it is not, however, is photogenic:
  • Smoky sweet-potato burgers: I actually made this recipe the day after my vegan week ended, but I omitted the egg to see if the recipe would be suitable for vegans. And it is! I like to serve the burgers on a bed of greens instead of buns. If you're not vegan, I highly recommend making the creamy topping, a concoction of Greek yogurt, maple syrup, and roasted garlic. I haven't tried the burgers with avocado because I think the topping provides more than enough creaminess, but avocado would certainly be a good substitute for the yogurt mixture. These burgers are also unphotogenic (a constant with vegan food, I've noticed):
  • "Turtle" oatmeal cookies with pecans, chocolate, and medjool dates: The stereotype of vegan baked goods is that they can be used as cannonballs in case of siege. Unfortunately, these cookies do nothing to disprove that stereotype. Granted, the fault may be mine: I found that the recommended 12-13 minutes of baking time was far too short, so I let them keep baking, but I lost track of time and may have overbaked them by a few minutes. They're tasty, but they're more like granola bars than cookies, and they certainly give your jaw a workout.
  • Coconut-ginger-lime popsicles: Blend coconut milk, shredded coconut, ginger-infused simple syrup, fresh lime juice, and lime zest, then freeze in popsicle molds. I made a version of these with condensed milk last year; the dairy-free update was good, but not quite as good.
  • Banana soft-serve: Ah, the most legendary of vegan dessert recipes. I'd actually tried making it a couple of times before, with no success. I may have been using bananas that weren't ripe enough (they need to be very soft indeed), or I may have been processing the frozen bananas for the wrong amount of time. This time, though, the soft-serve was delicious. I added cocoa powder, a bit of brown sugar and vanilla extract for sweetness, and a chopped date for texture. Even now that my vegan week is over, I'm looking forward to experimenting further with this recipe! It's truly amazing to watch frozen bananas metamorphose from this...

                    ...into this:

The week wasn't all banana-based epiphanies, though. In fact, it was harder to adjust than I'd expected. The most obvious change, at least for the first few days, was that I felt hungry almost constantly, no matter how much I ate. I wasn't sure whether the hunger was physical or psychological: was I really not getting enough calories, or was my body reacting to the prospect of not getting enough calories in the future? The constant hunger subsided midweek, but my overall feeling of deprivation lingered.

I also realized that veganism is a rich person's game, or at least a upper-middle-class person's game. The building blocks of veganism (rice, beans, peanut butter, vegetable oil) are cheap, but if you want to achieve a varied and interesting diet, you'll have to shell out. I didn't even bother with vegan prepared foods (except Ciao Bella chocolate sorbet, which I've been buying for years). Avocados are perhaps the best substitutes for butter or cheese, but they're also more expensive. In my own part of the world, the standard price is $2 each, and one avocado lasts me one or two days. For about $4, on the other hand, I can buy several months' worth of butter or a week's worth of cheese. Nuts are an important source of protein in a vegan diet, but peanuts are the only cheap nuts I can think of (and they're technically legumes, anyway). I bought 1 3/4 cups of pecan pieces for this recipe; that came to $7, and would have been even more expensive if I'd followed the recipe faithfully and bought pecan halves.

Mmm, toasted pecans.

Now, we residents of the developed world have had our palates hyper-refined by years of chemically engineered flavors, and we could all stand to simplify our tastes. But few people become vegan in order to achieve a better-tasting diet. To live as a vegan, you have to be deeply committed to improving either the environment or your health, to the extent that losing out on a variety of flavors isn't an issue. I'm convinced that long-term vegans genuinely forget what non-vegan food tastes like, or else we wouldn't have a host of vegan bloggers swearing up and down that carrot-romaine juice is a perfect substitute for chocolate milk. I feel the same way about vegan food as I do about makeup dupes: you need to appreciate the the thing for what it is instead of endlessly seeking substitutes for your desired non-vegan dishes (or lipsticks). I came across a recipe for "avocado quesadillas" the other day: literally fried tortillas with avocado inside. No true quesadilla devotee could eat that and declare herself satisfied.

This black-bean-plantain quesadilla I had yesterday was absolutely delicious, and I'd say that 75% of its deliciousness came from the cheese. A tortilla filled with black beans and plantains would also have been tasty, but it wouldn't have been a quesadilla. Why not celebrate plant-based food for what it does taste like, instead of pretending that it tastes like something else?

I checked out some vegan blogs in my quest for new and interesting recipes, and I came to dislike the aura of self-righteous smugness that hangs over certain vegan communities. Remember when vegetarians were allowed to feel smug? It's been a while. These days it's all about "clean eating," but everyone has a different definition of this phrase and a different sense of which ingredients, and thus which people, are in violation of the code. Quite a few vegan blogs seem to be hives of zealotry and infighting, with commenters coming to blows over whether agave syrup is really an acceptable substitute for honey. It's all very neurotic, and no wonder: if you're vegan, you spend a lot of time thinking about what you can't eat. Having suffered from anorexia for several years as a preteen and young teenager, I roll my eyes particularly hard at any talk of "eating clean" or "eliminating toxins," phrases that could have come straight from a pro-ana LiveJournal community circa 2003. There's no such thing as "clean" food when fruits and vegetables literally come from dirt, and there's no ethical consumption in late capitalism. Or do you want to talk about the living conditions of the laborers who harvest your produce? Adopt whatever diet you like, but go lighter on the judgment, please.

Now for the positives! I did notice my skin changing for the better. It started to look less dull, with no new breakouts, and there were a couple of days when I was actually glowing. As soon as I reverted to my previous diet, my skin problems returned. I can't attribute that entirely to dairy, since my period is approaching and my skin always gets worse in the week leading up to it, but there has to be some correlation. I might eventually go vegan for an entire month to get a better sense of whether my issues are hormonal or diet-related. In the meantime, I should probably go to a dermatologist, ugh. 

As for my second aesthetic reason, I don't weigh myself for fear of getting obsessed with numbers, so I can't say exactly how much my weight changed. My sense is that it stayed pretty much the same. It may have dropped slightly, but that could also have been hormonal--and again, a week is far too brief to measure this sort of thing. If I'd lost a significant amount of weight in a single week, that would have been a problem!

It probably won't surprise you to learn that I don't plan to return to full veganism anytime soon. However, a curious thing has happened. It's been three days since my vegan week ended, and I find myself eating animal-based foods far less often than I thought I would. Knowing that I'm allowed non-vegan options makes me feel less deprived when I do choose vegan food, and I've been choosing it a lot. It's amazing how many flavors and textures can be derived solely from plants! My goal for the next month is to be mostly vegan, with an emphasis on consuming as little dairy as possible. This means that I can't give myself a handy label, and we modern types do love labeling ourselves. I suppose what I'm aiming for is a version of Mark Bittman's "vegan before 6" plan, except that I might be vegan after 6 some days. You can't categorize me, man!

Needless to say, this is the theme song of this post.


  1. You bring up a really good point: there is no ethical consumption in late capitalism. It's something that bothers me in discussions about ethical goods, from eyeshadow to carrots.I personally don't throw down a line, mostly because I can't decide who I'm going to leave out when it comes to trying to be more ethical about the goods I purchase. This is possibly also justification for my continued purchase of things that are not cruelty-free, but whenever I think about adjusting my habits, I end up throwing up my hands in during my research and closing the window.

    I like meat, but have went mostly vegetarian in the past, though I couldn't stick to it. I like a lot of the vegan foods I've tried, but I just can't do without cheese, which is sorely trying my lactose intolerance. I am going to have to try that soft-serve!

    1. In terms of knowing what to buy and not to buy, it's actually easier to be vegetarian or vegan than it is to stick to cruelty-free beauty products. Vegetarian = no meat. Vegan = no animal products. Cruelty-free = no beauty products tested on animals, but what about individual ingredients? What if a cruelty-free brand's parent company tests on animals (and almost every successful small beauty brand is owned by a larger conglomerate)? Once you eliminate all possible exceptions, there's not a whole lot left. I've been participating in the #crueltyfreecoloroftheday (what a hashtag) challenge on Instagram, and the real challenge is knowing which brands to include and not to include!

      I was lucky that I never liked meat as much as I liked other food groups, and that I didn't feel deprived when I cut it out. Some people's bodies just don't do well without meat, and as I mentioned, even I have to eat it about twice a year.

    2. Because I shop mainly indie, I've gone mostly cruelty-free/vegan with my beauty somewhat unintentionally, so it's an interesting topic to me, as a lot of my indie friends are indie because they're vegan or stick to cruelty-free. Whereas I just went indie because I saw cool things, and it just so happens that there are a plethora of vegan options indie-wise, and cruelty-free items are the norm.

      As far as being vegetarian goes, I certainly noticed I felt more...alive? I guess? when I returned to consuming meat, though my vegetarian days weren't a sparkling example of actually being healthy and balanced. I may try it again someday. My partner and I eat a number of vegetarian meals due to the rising cost of meat here, so it's out of the realm of possibility.

      I don't eat seafood, which is my strict dietary rule. I feel a bit backwards sometimes - and odd, because a good Nova Scotian should love fish.

  2. The point that veganism is relatively expensive is an apt one. Most of my vegan and vegetarian friends are pretty sane, but I've met a few hardcore vegans who could get really snotty about the price. One girl would get cheap-ish produce at a nearby whole foods market just before it closed for the night, and she'd post photos with captions like, "This only cost $100 and it's more than enough for me and my husband for the week! Don't even make the excuse that veganism is too expensive!" And I just had to laugh, because ~$400 a month and you're only feeding too people is preeeeeetty high. Imagine trying to feed 2-3 kids on half that, and you have a more accurate representation of how many Americans live. That's a problem that needs to be addressed--the fact that we subsidize what's bad for us more than fruits, veggies, nuts, etc.

    I'm hoping to do "Meatless Mondays" when I start living with my boyfriend (who is a consummate carnivore, thanks to his North Dakotan upbringing). I think it's a good start to shrinking your footprint and experimenting with new foods. Some of what you've posted here sounds really great!...with the cheese and the yogurt added. XD

    (Sorry if this posted multiple times; your blog hates me.)

    1. No worries, it only posted once!

      I live in an area where the cost of living is extremely high, as is the tax on food, so it's all I can do to eat affordably without having to worry about being a strict vegan. And I live pretty frugally, too: I'll eat the same dish for four nights in a row, make peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, etc. And I'm still better-off than many Americans; if I have a hard time making veganism work, there are innumerable others for whom it's going to be impossible. I just wish more vegans recognized that veganism is a privilege as much as it is a sacrifice.

      You and your boyfriend have been long-distance for a while, right? It's awesome that you're finally going to live together!

  3. Your observation that there is no ethical consumption in late capitalism is spot on. Your approach -- trying not to support industrial farming wherever possible -- is much more practical than attempting to "purify" all one's consumption habits.

    Separately, as someone who has read this blog for a while without commenting, I'd like to take this opportunity to commend you on your lovely and thoughtful writing.

    1. Yes, the language of purification when applied to diet creeps me out. I'm not religious at all, but if I ever felt that spiritually involved with my food, I'd consider joining an actual religion instead. Being an embodied human being in the world is messy and gross, and no juice cleanse can solve that.

      And thank you!! That's very kind of you to say.

  4. I was a vegetarian-vegan for a year, although I am also mostly vegetarian usually. I even went raw vegan for 2 weeks. for science!

    Your recipes seem really tasty but it's doesn't seem practical for daily life, too much prep involved. How do you get the time?!? One thing I noticed is a lack of fresh veggies. I used to eat like a cabbage or an entire head of broccoli a day. Or when raw vegan, 11 bananas. That might be much cheaper than say, pecans. I'm Chinese though so the Chinese style of cooking is basically rice+veggies for every meal.
    Also cheese is really high in calories while veggies are not, it's normal to feel hungry when transitioning.

    I didn't used to be lactose intolerant, but as I cut it out I got more and more intolerant. I really find it weird that we drink milk, you know? I'm glad it cleared up your skin, I used to have terrible bloating issues that completely cleared up and I lost a lot of weight once I just skipped the dairy. :)

    1. There were certainly some fresh fruits and veggies that didn't make it into this post, since I wanted to focus on new recipes I'd tried out! But again, price is an issue. Buying fresh produce every day or every couple of days gets very expensive, at least where I live. (I also hate bananas except when they're made into something else, haha.) As for prep time, I may have underemphasized how much food these recipes made. I was able to eat the veggie burgers and the peanut noodles for five days each. The initial prep for these dishes was pretty time-consuming, but subsequent prep took almost no time at all!

      It IS weird that we drink milk, when you think about it. I do worry that if I cut out dairy for the foreseeable future, I won't be able to digest it at all if I ever want to go back. And cheese and ice cream give me a great deal of pleasure, so it's sad to think about never eating them again!

  5. What a timely post! I am going vegan for a week again (for reason far less rosy than yours, long story short:fridge is broken. Last time I went vegan, back in February was because I wanted to save some energy from the fridge...why am I putting my produce inside the fridge when it's colder in my apartment?!) and I am actually kind of excited about it. Sometimes, I don't even like the meat I have been consuming, it's more like I am used to the texture and overly processed food in general. Luckily, I have the options of farmers market so getting fresh and affordable veggie is no problem. I just need to wake up early enough in the morning so I can bring my own lunch...if it doesn't work out, there are always some fastfood joints.

    1. Haha, "fridge is broken" is a perfectly valid reason to go vegan! (I'm sorry that happened, though, especially in the summer.) And yes, veganism really helps you become more mindful of your diet. I felt the same way about a lot of the dairy I was eating--it wasn't adding much to my enjoyment of the salad or sandwich or whatever it was in. I hope your vegan week works out well!

  6. Hello! Just stumbled across your blog when looking up some Topshop stuff (I picked up Brazil in the sale yesterday for £2! OPI is £12 here, Essie £8, so the price makes a bit more sense..)

    We have three vegans in our office, and I've made some odd discoveries that way - did you know that most crisps aren't vegan (whey powder) but Oreos, Softmints and Maoams are? Also gummy sweets marked as suitable for veggies (some halal ones are, but some just use halal versions of gelatine etc). There are some good recipes for vegetarian haggis about as well.

    I switched to non-dairy milk this week, as my eczema has gone nuts and I need to quit ice cream anyway. It takes s bit of getting used to on cereal, and there's a lot of odd ingredients in there (I'm the kind of bourgeois ponce who only has organic yogurt), and I'm not sure it's as filling as milk, but I like it. I've also given up caffeine which is less pleasant!

    1. That reminds me, I haven't used Brazil in ages! I should give it some love.

      It's true that "vegan" doesn't necessarily mean "healthy." I discovered some knockoff Nutter Butters (don't know if you have those in the UK--peanut butter sandwich cookies, very addictive) at my local health food store during my vegan week, and I ate an entire box in, well, I'd rather not say how many days.

      Oddly, I found it much easier to get used to almond milk on cereal than in coffee. And yes, fake versions of non-vegan foods often have a bunch of weird chemicals in them. Choose your poison, I guess!

  7. Thanks for this article. I am considering being vegetarian for most of the week (i.e., weekdays) and I don't know where to start. I don't even know how I would go through with it since my husband eats mostly just meat and animal products.

    P.S. Another tricky thing about sticking with just cruelty-free makeup is -- what do I do with the non-cruelty-free products I already own?