Vegan and vegetarian diets have been growing in popularity on a global scale in recent years. More and more people are committing to a plant-based lifestyle for health, ethical, and environmental reasons.
I decided to try a vegan diet to address a specific health concern. My singing voice was in bad shape for a few months and a scope at the ENT office in early April confirmed I was dealing with Laryngopharyngeal Reflux, or silent acid reflux. I left with a long list of foods to avoid, and noticed a good amount of them were animal products like red meats, cheeses, and processed meats.
After the diagnosis, I put out a plea on Facebook asking how I could get my full voice back as quickly as possible. Responses included prescriptions and over the counter drugs, homeopathic remedies, switching from coffee to cold brew, and going vegan. Several of my singing peers told me that adopting a plant-based diet helped them deal with silent reflux, so I decided to try it out myself.
Many of my friends and family members thought I was taking too drastic measures (“Can’t you just cut out tomatoes?”) but it felt like being drastic was necessary. I was already rehearsing for a rock musical and performances were just weeks away. My voice was a bigger priority than my desire to eat brie with crackers or a burger. I was willing to try anything.
So I went vegan for about a month and a half, from mid-April to June. Here are nine major lessons I learned during that time:
1. It Isn’t That Difficult to Find Vegan Options in 2019
Since plant-based diets are on the rise, more restaurants and stores are catering to the trend. It was fairly easy to find vegan options in chains and local establishments once I started seeking them out.
This initially surprised me, as I would’ve thought living in North Carolina would make it tough to find anything plant-based (barbeque, seafood, and fast food are big down here.) That simply wasn’t the case for me. I quickly found a local online vegan directory for Wilmington and any fear of restriction melted away.
Multiple grocery stores in my area carry vegan products, so cooking for myself was doable. Many of my favorite recipes could be veganized with a few ingredient swaps. If a friend wanted to go somewhere for dinner, I would simply look up the menu in advance and see if I could make something work. Multiple places in town were accommodating and a surprising amount had vegan options already listed on their menus.
I’m not saying it’s easy for everyone everywhere to go vegan. It’s likely harder to be vegan in a smaller town that only has a Wendy’s. It has to be challenging for someone living with meat eaters, someone who is trying to cook for a family with various diets. I’m sure it was more difficult to be vegan in Wilmington just a few years ago. My point is that it wasn’t as challenging as I thought it would be. I didn’t have to eat lettuce with oil and vinegar for ninety days like I feared. I was able to find local vegan ice cream, biscuits and gravy, and donuts, which brings me to my next point…
2. Vegan ≠ Healthy
Just because something does not contain meat or animals byproducts does not mean it is nutritious. It is very easy to be vegan and still consume a processed-food diet full of sugar and chemicals.
There is a surprising amount of vegan junk food on the shelves of grocery stores. For example, Oreos are vegan. Yes, the cream nor the chocolate cookies do not contain dairy (though Nabisco does say their can be dairy cross contamination.) Plenty of your favorite snacks just happen to be vegan, though many are not solely plant-based. While I could’ve eaten Oreos for a month straight and had a perpetual sugar high, you and I both know this is not advisable.
While it’s fine to eat junk food now and then, moderation is key. If you’re going vegan, be sure to look beyond plant-based symbols on the front of the package and still check nutrition labels on the back. Keep in mind that unprocessed, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, and whole grains are typically more nutritious.
There is also some debate in regard to the nutritional value of vegan diet staples. Take soy for example. Soy is a truly heated topic among nutritionists, doctors, and plant-based eaters. Some fear that soy products have hormonal consequences while other believe they have health benefits and are suitable protein alternatives. There are also concerns related to soy GMO’s. When I went vegan, I began to do my own research and found that most of the science is inconclusive when it comes to soy.
I chose to consume soy regularly because it was a widely available meat alternative, but I decided to limit my consumption to one meal for day. If I had a tofu scramble in the morning, then I resorted to having tempeh, chickpeas, nuts, or other protein sources later in the day.
Don’t assume that all vegan food is healthy. Do your research, read labels, and figure out what vegan foods will truly work for you.
3. Random Animal Products Are in Everything
On the flip side of the last point, there are many foods that you would assume are vegan but are in fact not. Example: McDonald’s french fries would appear to be vegan since they’re simply fried potatoes, but they actually contain beef flavoring and are not (booooooo.)
Here’s a quick list of various foods that can contain random animal products:
- Dark Chocolate: Even dark chocolate can have dairy in it
- Gummy Candies, Marshmallows, Jello: Gelatin is not vegan
- Foods with Dyes: Many dyes are derived from insects
- Sugar: Sugar that isn’t certified organic can be refined with bone char
- Veggie burgers: Several brands contain eggs or dairy
- Vegetable-based Soups: Some contain meat broth (some miso soup uses fish broth, for example) or dairy
- Alcohol: Some beer, wine, and other liquors can contain animal products
Check those labels and look up an ingredient if you don’t know what it is. Don’t assume something that sounds like a chemical isn’t an animal product. One brand might have a vegan food but that doesn’t mean another brand’s same food will be vegan as well.
This goes for dining out as well. Don’t assume the salad is vegan just because it doesn’t come with chicken. Ask your waiter or speak to the chef.
I know the extra step of checking labels and asking questions can feel like a chore, but it is a necessary evil if you want to stick with being as vegan as possible.
4. Supplements May Be Necessary
When I first went vegan, I did not consider that I needed to supplement any nutrients in my diet. This was a huge mistake. For the first two weeks of my experiment, I was pretty fatigued despite eating enough.
After doing some more research, I quickly realized I had depleted myself of several nutrients that are naturally found in animal products. Once I went on a few supplements, I started feeling better.
I started taking a B12 and iron supplements and found they really helped my energy increase. Some nutritionists suggest additional supplements, but I think it depends on what your vegan diet includes (for example, I could’ve taken calcium, but I thought I was getting enough from dark leafy greens and calcium-fortified tofu.) Talk to your healthcare providers if you have any questions about supplements.
5. Plant-Based Diets Don’t Have to Be Expensive
One of the major misconceptions about vegan shopping lists is that they will break the bank. The truth is that is all depends on what type of vegan foods you’re purchasing.
Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts are generally cheaper than meat and dairy. A pound of meat will always be more expensive than a pound of beans. If you’re buying plant-based ingredients and cooking them yourself, vegan diets can be quite affordable.
It can also be cheaper to eat vegan when you’re dining out depending on what you order and where you’re going. For example, at my favorite local Asian fusion restaurant, the curry with tofu is a few dollars less than the curry with chicken or beef. A meatless salad will always cost less than one with meat protein added on.
The expensive part of being vegan is when you go for the premade, luxury, health-foodie stuff. Starbucks and other coffee shops will charge you extra for soy, almond, or coconut milk. You will pay more for organic produce at Whole Foods. That custom ordered dairy-free cake from your local bakery will be more expensive than their typical sheet cake. Fun cooking gadgets to take your vegan cooking to the next level will cost you. Some restaurants and stores will increase the price of their vegan products simply because they want to cash in on the trend.
So yes, eating vegan can be expensive but it does not have to be if you do your homework. Preparing your own meals and keeping them simple can save a lot of money. If you have money concerns and want to go vegan, search for resources related to cooking vegan on a budget, like the Cheap Lazy Vegan Youtube channel.
6. You’ll Be Forced to Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
As a child and teenager, I was an extremely picky eater. If young me had been told that I was going to try a vegan diet one day, I wouldn’t have believed you. I did not like to try new things (especially anything green.) Humans, in general, are creatures of habit.
Going vegan will challenge your habits, plain and simple. If you want to have a diverse and well-rounded diet, you will likely have to incorporate some new foods and learn how to prepare them (like learning how to drain tofu.) Here are a few foods I now eat and drink fairly regularly that I hadn’t touched before:
- Nutritional Yeast
- Oat Milk
- Mock Meats
In addition to these new foods, I found that I ate a greater variety of vegetables and fruits than I did before going plant-based for the sake of not getting bored. You can only eat baby carrots so many times before you need a switch out, so try to vary your produce.
You’re also more likely to experiment with different cuisines that tend to have more vegan options. I typically am a lover of Italian and American cooking, but meat and dairy are often staples in those. It’s far easier to find vegan dishes at Indian, Thai, Mexican, Mediterranean, Japanese, Chinese, and Middle Eastern restaurants. If you haven’t tried some of these ethnic cuisines, going vegan is a good reason to do so.
The more willing you are to be creative and try new things, the easier your vegan experience will be.
7. You Will Deal with Naysayers
While some of my friends and family were intrigued by my decision to go vegan, several of them were not thrilled about the choice.
Some inquired as to how I was getting protein without animal products being in my diet and judged me when I talked about plant protein. Others made fun of me for being too hippie-dippie and made jokes about plants having feelings too (even though I personally hadn’t gone vegan for ethical reasons.) Multiple people told me tofu was gross and that they couldn’t imagine eating it regularly. A few assumed I couldn’t go out to a restaurant because there wouldn’t be anything for me to order on the menu.
Diets are a very personal lifestyle topic and everyone has an opinion on them. When you go vegan and share that with your circle and the world, there will be people who question or do not support your decision. You simply have to accept that.
If someone wants to have a conversation about why and how you’re going vegan, then feel free to discuss it and educate. If someone is super judgemental and nasty about it, then change the subject and do your thing. It’s your body and personal business, so it doesn’t really matter what Aunt Linda thinks about it. Just be aware that you will occasionally get into heated debates about it.
If you’re looking to connect with other vegans or plant-based eaters, find a local group or connect with folks online. There are hundreds of Facebook groups dedicated to veganism where you can discuss relevant topics without judgement (though not all vegans think alike…)
8. The Vegan Community Can Be Divided
As it is in most communities, the vegan and plant-based community can have very different opinions when it comes to how and why you should be vegan.
Some vegans are animal rights activists or environmentalists while others come from a place of health (like I initially did.) Some vegans think honey is okay to consume because the cultivation of honey doesn’t harm the bees while most consider it to still be an animal byproduct and therefore not vegan. Some vegans are strictly against processed food while some will consume Oreos by the box.
I think it is wise to learn multiple perspectives once you become vegan. Your why and how could change as you become more educated. I, for example, learned about how veganism can help climate change and now consider it a new motivator as I go forward.
The best thing you can do is to engage in your vegan community with respect and kindness. Don’t be the jerk who bullies a new vegan in the Facebook group for saying something that is incorrect or different than what you believe. Everyone has the right to their opinion.
9. Feel Great By Eating Enough
Despite a shaky start without the necessary supplements, eating plenty of veggies, nuts, seeds, legumes, and fruits made my body feel pretty good.
I found that I didn’t have that sluggish after dinner feeling that I would regularly get from eating steak. No post-lunch nap was required. I also felt fairly energetic despite giving up coffee (another acid reflux no-no beverage) which is saying a lot coming from this coffee addict.
The key to feeling full and energized from plant-based diets is to make sure you’re eating enough. Since plants don’t have as many calories as animal products, it’s important to eat larger quantities to feel satisfied. It might feel like your plate is overflowing with produce at times, but bulking up on greens, plant proteins, and healthy fats will help you avoid getting hangry.
If you find yourself getting hungry, definitely increase your meal portions and add some snacks throughout the day.
I fell off the bandwagon after my show ended and I majorly regret it. Since having some meat and dairy again, I have found my energy levels have dipped and my digestive system isn’t thrilled either. My intention is to go vegan again, and I’ve started to work my way towards that by cutting out meat and only having animal byproducts like eggs and dairy for the last few days.
In all honesty, I’m not someone who will likely give up all animal products forever. I’m a singer who consumes honey regularly. There’s a chance I’ll eat turkey with my family at Thanksgiving. I will definitely want that authentic slice of New York pizza once in a while. I can see myself eating vegan 85-95% of the time though, especially since vegan options are more accessible than ever before (and it’s only going to get better from here.) It definitely helped get my silent reflux under control which is a good enough reason to stick with it.
While a vegan lifestyle is not for everyone, I appreciated my ninety day journey and would like to continue eating plant-based for a majority of my meals. I ate more plants than I imagined I could and enjoyed it. That alone made this experiment a success.
Have you tried going vegan? Share your experiences and tips in the comments!