Veganuary is a movement to encourage eating a vegan diet in the month of January. To clarify, eating vegan means not eating any foods derived from animal products: no dairy, no eggs, no meat, no fish (and technically no honey). As a Dietitian who is immersed in all the diet trends, I have always been most on board with veganism. With some research suggesting that dairy may cause inflammation and other ailments, and further research showing increased risks of cancer and other diseases with meat consumption, I have been more than curious about how sustainable a vegan diet would be. Enter in Veganuary. While eating vegan would be simple if I was a celebrity with a chef, I have always been hesitant because it seems like a lot more work, with a lot more complaints from the peanut gallery (aka the family used to tacos and pizza).
I think that our society makes it challenging to live a vegan lifestyle. Our brains have been wired to think our plates should have a meat, veggie, and starch, and alternating that makes you “weird”. There is such a protein push and diets like the paleo diet really make you believe that man was made to eat meat and there’s no other way to get protein. Furthermore, dairy is a huge staple. Many people don’t know that cows aren’t on this Earth to make milk for us: cows only produce milk after giving birth, just like us. Most cows are artificially inseminated to keep this process going, and hormones have been added to increase the amount of milk a cow produces. Keep in mind, I feed my children yogurt, they have their fair share of cheese, and up until January, 75% of our meals used meat in some capacity. I just think it’s important to keep an open mind and be aware that maybe our current normal isn’t necessarily normal.
While the paleo diet has a big fan base, veganism is also becoming more popular. Dairy free milks and plant-based meat products are becoming more mainstream. Chickpeas are becoming a staple in meat alternative dishes. And for all the haters, I say, what’s so bad about eating more vegetables?
Well here we are, halfway through February, and I am still doing my best to follow a vegan diet. I have eaten meat just two times these last 6 weeks and truly do not miss it. I have used butter and cream to bake a few cakes (it’s therapeutic for me), but have also dabbled in vegan baking with some nice results. And finally, I have had pizza without cheese, but have also had pizza with cheese. So you see, I have been strict but not die hard. How do I feel? I feel great. I wasn’t a handful of complaints leading up to January, but I do feel less bloated, and almost airy if that makes sense. I feel fueled and energetic, and sometimes I do feel hungry, but more on that later. I have learned a few things in this short time and for those considering the plant-based lifestyle, I’m here to share that with you.
You will be hungry…at first. This is mostly because, if you were like me, and didn’t adequately prepare for snacks and lunches, you will come up empty handed when hunger ensues. The usual suspects, like a hard-boiled egg or string cheese are off limits, so it’s just trickier when deciding what to have for a quick bite. As a mom of four, I am so focused on what my kids will eat for breakfast/lunch/dinner that I don’t always think of my needs for lunch, and it got a whole lot harder when going vegan. I recommend roasting a bunch of veggies and beans on Sunday and adding that to some grains and greens for a quick lunch throughout the week.
You must plan ahead. The forementioned hunger is reason number one why planning is so imperative. It is easy to lack in protein when your options seem more limited. Breakfast is my staple of oatmeal and peanut butter. Lunch is always a dilemma but one I’m working on solving. In addition to my roasted veggie bowl, I always am grateful for leftovers these days. And dinner is definitely requiring more thought than it used to but vegan or not, everyone needs to plan in succeeding in eating well balanced meals. It has become an adventure trying cauliflower tacos or black bean burgers.
If you have a man in your house, he won’t be happy, at first. Or ever if he’s like mine. But in my defense, my husband doesn’t eat a lot of vegetables in general (as in, refuses to even try them). He scoffs at avocadoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots, so I don’t think he counts. If you bring the flavor to your dishes, you can satisfy anyone willing to take a bite. It’s sometimes best to not even mention what’s in the dish (or in our case, not, in the dish, if you have a picky eater on board).
You will consume a lot of legumes. And if you are not, you should be. Black beans, chickpeas, and lentils will be regulars in your house. Have them on hand all the time. Using canned beans is fine, just try to choose low sodium cans with no added ingredients and be sure to rinse and drain well. Legumes are filled with protein and fiber and are easily added to most dishes.
You will miss cheese. Not every day, but often. The nice thing about cheese though, is it can be omitted from recipes without ruining a lot of the flavor (that’s what I’m telling myself, just let me have it). I have made vegan cheese sauce for nachos, mac and cheese (without cheese), and pizza, sans cheese. While cheese is delicious, it’s filled with fat and sodium and removing it from my diet has definitely slimmed down my waist (which was not the goal, but is a nice result).
Eating vegan now is a lot easier than it used to be. In high school, I worked at a health food store and we carried milk alternatives, tofu and other meat replacements, and so much more that you couldn’t find at your average grocery store chain. Nowadays, your standard store has all that and more. In addition to being able to find plant-based meat products, the Internet is flooded with recipes to help you create delicious, meat and dairy free meals. Social media is also filled with vegans sharing their successes and tricks—ten years ago people were doing this much more blindly so if there has ever been a time for you to have a vegan revolution, it is now.
Protein isn’t as difficult to get as you think. If you are eating a vegan diet, let’s assume you are eating a fair share of vegetables. With that, you are getting a decent amount of protein, even before adding in legumes, whole grains, and plant-based meat and dairy products. Broccoli, mixed greens, asparagus, sweet potatoes, and Brussels sprouts are great sources of vegetable proteins.
Cashews, coconut milk, and nutritional yeast are like your new best friends. When soaked in water for a long time, cashews soften and become a great source for creamy mouth feel in dishes. Coconut milk is what I use to make rich sauces or dressings (think buffalo ranch or Tzatziki). And nutritional yeast, although it smells like feet (but doesn’t cheese sometimes?), is used to mimic the cheese flavor in sauces and dishes.
Meat may gross you out. Or not, but for me, I really have no interest in it anymore. I have been a good wife and have cooked some meat to add to dishes for my husband (because he won’t try it otherwise) and it’s almost been more of a turn off than anything else. I don’t see the value in it anymore. I made these amazing tacos with tater tots (mmm) and literally gave him the same filling that I had except with a few crumbles of unseasoned ground beef. Let’s be real for a minute—you know that had no flavor whatsoever but it was just the idea of there being meat in the taco that satisfied him. My tacos on the other hand, were amazing, not to mention the jalapeno cilantro crema on top.
You will feel like a veggie queen (or king). If you were struggling to get your vegetable servings in prior to eating vegan, chances are—or should be—that won’t be a problem anymore. Your grocery cart should be filled with the produce department. Just be sure to drink lots of water with all the fiber in your life.
You might save money, you might not. In theory, eating vegan should be relatively cheap. Fruits, vegetables, and beans are highly affordable. Nuts can get expensive, but compared to meat products, they should save you money in the long run. However, if you load up on processed foods, or fancy items that proclaim to be vegan, you will see an uptick in your grocery bill. Also, if you’re like me, who tries to make your husband happy, and is thus buying meat as well as the usual vegan items, you won’t save any money at all.
Eating out can be on your terms. I ate dinner out twice during Veganuary—the first time, the menu was very limited; my only vegan option was salad topped with tofu. I’m not a tofu lover so instead I opted to share some steak with a friend. After the dinner, I somewhat regretted not trying the tofu salad but when it’s almost $20 to risk on something I may not love, I just couldn’t commit. Did the steak taste like the best thing ever? Actually no, and I think I could have lived without it minus the fact I was starving.
The second time, I had chicken and waffles (yes me, the dietitian, can you imagine!?) and actually barely ate the chicken because at this point in Veganuary, I was realizing that it’s not meat that tastes good, but the seasonings and flavors that are given to it, and for that, I was kind of turned off. My point is that if you’re considering being vegan as an experiment, like me, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to kill your social life in doing it either. Luckily, restaurants are offering more and more vegan items and it’s pretty cool when the menu even tells you what the vegan options are. But if you want to have chicken parmesan at Olive Garden, no one is here to stop you.
Keep eating whole grains. Whole grains like oats, brown rice, and quinoa are what will keep you full during your vegan journey. They also provide valuable protein, as well as fiber, and are truly essential to your balanced eating.
If you are even more curious about a vegan diet, I encourage you to do your own research. There are so many “experts” on nutrition these days that you will hear it all, but it is factual that you can meat your protein needs on a vegan diet. Most importantly, I hope you take away from my Veganuary, that more vegetables in your life is a good thing and if introducing Meatless Monday to your family is the only step you’re willing to take right now, it’s a great one.