I’ve eaten less meat in the last 2 years than I used to in one month.
It’s been just about 2 years since I switched to a mostly plant based diet. I’ve learned a lot on this journey – what exactly I’ll eat and not eat has changed over time and what I call myself has as well. I realized what works for me and what makes me happy and I’ve developed a balance and have come to accept that there is no one word to define my diet. I’ve had to explain my diet to people so many times that I’ve come up with a sort of a catch all summary:
I cook almost completely vegan, when dining out or at parties I’ll eat vegetarian, and about once a month I’ll eat a steak or a burger.
It’s not simple. It’d be easier to just say “I’m a vegetarian” (and I often do when addressing strangers for simplicity sake) but it’s really not the truth. After explaining my diet to my uncle at a family party shortly after the switch, he told me “You’re a Flexitarian.” That’s pretty much the best label I’ve come up with so far.
The change happened in June of 2012 after watching the documentary, “Forks Over Knives,” which explains the health benefits of a vegan diet using scientific and anecdotal evidence, much of which is derived from Dr. Colin Campbell’s book “The China Study.” The documentary is quite convincing and by the end I was pretty sure that Mike and I HAD to change to a vegan diet because the typical Western diet was killing us (this is an exaggeration of course). Surprisingly, Mike was pretty convinced too and after additional research, we both decided that we’d make the switch after our upcoming Ironman (no need to dramatically change our diet a week before the biggest race of our lives).
I remember our first vegan meal – it was the night we got back from 5 days in Couer D’Alene – after eating a lot of decadent foods post-race, we were excited for veggies. We headed to the Whole Foods salad bar and I told Mike that it’d be a good time to practice eating vegan (we planned to start the following Monday). We both loaded up at the hot food bar on various vegan dishes and headed home to eat. We were both really impressed and for the first time I thought that it wouldn’t be as hard as I thought to be vegan. I researched a bunch of vegan recipes and loaded up on groceries and starting that next Monday we were officially “vegan.”
Being a strict vegan didn’t last too long which was never really the plan anyway. The goal was to dramatically cut back on animal products and we have achieved that goal. We went from eating meat with every lunch and dinner to eating it about once or twice a month (Mike eats it a bit more often than me but usually in social situations, not when we eat out together). That is 60 times a month to 1. In the beginning I was much more strict about dairy and eggs, but eventually grew more lax on that as well. I never wanted to be that awkward person at a party who literally can’t eat anything so I started to make exceptions occasionally very early on. In addition to not wanting to make people feel bad when we couldn’t eat anything at their party or event, I also decided that I enjoy certain non-vegan dishes a little too much to eliminate them completely (pizza, eggs, desserts and the occasional filet mignon).
A third reason for not adhering to a strict vegan diet is that there is a very long list of things that are not vegan that you would think are (a lot of things are made with eggs or chicken broth that you may not realize and wine and honey are not technically vegan!), and it takes quite a bit of questioning, crafting, modifying and eliminating to make most food vegan at a restaurant. Basically, unless you’re eating at a vegan restaurant (which we are lucky to have a few in Encinitas) or somewhere that labels their menu items as such, you may eat a non-vegan meal without knowing it.
At the end of the day, I found that by abiding by a “mostly plant based diet” full of unprocessed and healthy grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, and nuts but also allowing myself the occasional pizza, omelet or cupcake, is what makes me the happiest.
Over the past two years, I’ve learned a lot about vegan and vegetarian nutrition. I put together a list of random things I’ve learned:
- People will never stop asking you “Where do you get your protein? ” (click link for a blog post I wrote on this topic). The best answer I’ve come up with for answering how I get my protein is to tell them that I eat a lot of lentils, beans, nuts, quinoa, and tempeh (fermented soy) and that a lot of vegetables have more protein than you think, such as broccoli.
- The average American thinks that we need a lot more protein than we actually do. Vegans tend to naturally get 10-15% of their calories from plant based protein simply by eating a well rounded diet, which is more than enough to fuel the body, even if you are an athlete.
- When dining out as a vegetarian, it is always wise to ask if there is a vegetarian menu available if you are having problems finding something you can eat on the regular menu. Oftentimes there is or the chef will be willing to make you something special (in Vegas I had a special veggie burrito made for me at a Mexican restaurant).
- When ordering things like soups and risottos, I’ve learned to ask if they are cooked with chicken broth (if you’re a flexitarian like me, things like this don’t matter quite as much but I usually still ask).
- It is usually best to leave the reason for being vegan/vegetarian to “health reasons” than to launch into a diatribe about how meat and dairy are likely the cause of nearly all Western disease.
- People are very sensitive about their diets, even if they don’t think much about what they put in their bodies, so it’s best not to give nutrition advice without being asked.
- Vegan does not always mean healthy. There are plenty of sugar-laden and/or heavily processed vegan foods that should not be considered health foods.
- I’ve expanded my palate and learned to love a lot of new foods over the last two years – in particular, I cook often with fresh ginger, tempeh, coconut oil, chia seeds, pepitas, coriander, cumin & curry powder, vinegar, spaghetti squash, kale, and lentils.
- My vegan grocery staples (in addition to the above) have become: avocados, almonds, sweet potatoes, almond milk, spinach, red bell peppers, broccoli, cilantro, quinoa, brown rice, carrots, hummus, fruit, peanut butter, oatmeal, light coconut milk (for curries).
- When I don’t eat vegan, my body doesn’t feel as good (to be fair when I don’t eat vegan it is usually an indulgent meal high in sugar and/or butter). Mike and I have also noticed we get a lot fewer colds and general illnesses (and the times we have gotten colds have been in high stress times when we aren’t sticking to our diets as strictly).
- I’ve surprised a lot of people by sticking with this diet for 2 years. When I see friends who I don’t see regularly, they usually still ask if I still won’t eat meat.
- I eat eggs when I dine out for breakfast on weekends (after quickily realizing that there are extremely limited vegan options at nearly all breakfast restaurants) and lately we have been buying organic eggs to use at home as well. I love eggs and since they make up a relatively low percentage of my total calories per week, I don’t worry too much about the fact that they are animal based protein.
- I’ve figured out that this diet works for me and luckily, I rarely crave or want meat. When I’m really craving it, I do let myself have it and it doesn’t upset my stomach.
A vegan or mostly vegetarian or flexitarian or plant-based or WHATEVER isn’t for everyone. I think no matter what you follow – gluten free, paleo, vegan, pescatarian, or if you don’t have a label for what you eat, we can all agree that a diet high in fruits and vegetables leads to healthier body. For me, a plant based diet guarantees that I get 7-10 or more servings of fruits and veggies a day. It also makes me feel my best and I truly believe, perform better athletically and avoid illness. If it also helps prevent future disease, that will be even better. I’m not sure I’ll be flexitarian forever, but I do hope that I incorporate what I’ve learned over the last two years into my dietary choices for a lifetime.
Have you ever tried a vegan or vegetarian diet? What have you learned in the process?