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In Which I Became an Herbivore: a Personal Experiment in Veganism – Summary Thoughts

September 2, 2011

Well, friends, I have returned to the way of the omnivore.

The transition was not as quick as might have been expected though; and in fact, almost another fortnight had passed since my two-week experiment in veganism ended and I probably had less than eight ounces of meat in that time.  However, with State Fair season upon us that figure has been soundly undone; so before all memory of my vegan days have been purged from my brain by sundry fried stick-food, I thought I would share some of the things that I learned.

First, I should make a few disclaimers.  I did not exclude honey as a part of this trial.  I know some vegans that eat it, and I find very little grounds for argument against locally raised honey, especially.  Also, this was a food-only trial – clothes and personal care products were not included.  But beyond these exceptions, I tried to avoid eating anything that consisted of or contained animal products.

So – did I cheat?  Well, not knowingly.  But as it turns out, animal products are used in all sorts of things that one might not normally expect.  I tried to avoid these products if I knew about them, but there were a few times that I threw caution to the wind.  Was isinglass (fish bladder) used to clarify my hard cider? Was the powdered sugar in my mojita bleached with animal bone char?  Where did the “enzymes” in that sourdough I ate come from?  Were the vitamins that were so often used to ‘fortify’ or preserve the packaged food I bought derived from plant sources?  The truth is, I didn’t know for sure, and decided I just didn’t care to know.  One part of me feels that it’s exactly this sort of nearly religious fastidiousness to the details associated with veganism that prevents the average person from wanting to try it.  On the other hand I can’t help but think…. Damn.  Shouldn’t I just be able to *know* this shit?  And furthermore, are these traces of animal really all that necessary?

Wheat berry salad with chopped cucumbers, cherries, dried cranberries, peas, and almonds

Beyond the frustrations with minutae mentioned above, was it hard?  And how did it make me feel?  In short:  it wasn’t that hard.  And I felt awesome.  But I’ll elaborate a bit.

Though I don’t eat a lot of meat anyway, I do eat some; and I’d certainly never gone anywhere nearly that long without dairy before.  Ever.  I also rely fairly heavily on eggs for protein and easy dinners.  So I was a little nervous.  Would I get intense cravings?  Would I feel weak from lack of protein?  Would I get bored with my options?  Would I be hungry and cranky all the time (you do NOT want to see me hangry.)?  The truth is, I didn’t experience any of that.  I ate full, satisfying, delicious meals.  I had a lot of energy – enough to power bike rides, swimming, dancing, and a week of free hot yoga at Core Power.  And I just felt good.  Healthy.  I’ve been blessed with fairly great health, but I do have a few GI issues; and I found that these felt more balanced than usual during my vegan days.  Of course, I only did this for 2 weeks, which really isn’t long enough for me to know how it would affect my health/energy long term.  But in the short term, I felt totally rad.

My standard breakfast - thick rolled oats cooked in almond, hazelnut, or oat (I know!) milk, with ground flax seed, local honey, chopped raw almonds, and fresh blueberries

I think I owe my good experience to a variety of factors.  A)  I planned.  I did my homework, and really made an effort to eat balanced, healthy meals with a lot of nuts, beans, and whole grains for protein.  I wanted to try a lot of different things, so that kept variety in my diet.  And I cooked.  A lot.  B) I made other efforts to be healthy (see: yoga).  C) As I’ve mentioned before, I have access to a lot of vegan options here.  And D), I’m German.  And we can beat most things with stubbornness.

Whole wheat penne with fresh tomatoes cooked with herbs, kale, summer squash, and vegan cheese (Will to consume vegan stubborness. For SCIENCE!

Stubbornness aside though, I think it’s also simply this:  the body adjusts.  Throughout the trial, as people learned about what I was doing, I would have people tell me something along the lines of “That’s pretty cool.  But I could never do it.”  The thing is, I didn’t think I could either.  But I did, and with the right amount of planning, I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much.  Because I was eating a lot of fresh veggies and more fiber, I felt satisfied after meals.  Sometimes when I got hungry I craved meat or eggs, but after a healthy vegan meal I felt fine.  And I found that I rarely craved dairy at all, which was super weird and unexpected.  With all the veggie and grain-laden meals, cheese sounded heavy.  I love dairy.  But I guess I don’t need it.  The body adjusts.

Also? There was coconut milk ice cream. And homemade vegan dark chocolate blueberry brownies. (click for recipe)

Speaking of other people, not only was this trial an interesting personal experiment, but a fascinating social experiment as well.  I do not mean by this that I was attempting to willfully manipulate my friends.  In fact, at the start of my vegan stint, I fully intended to drag them into this as little as possible, making the necessary sacrifices on my end without forcing others to change on my behalf or rocking the social boat too much.  But that’s not exactly what happened.

Dinner with the Withams of quinoa salad, roasted herb potatoes, honeyed beets, and sweet corn

In social eating situations, despite my assurances that I could make due, my friends would often choose to join in – adjusting recipes and eating vegan with me.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; I have wonderful friends, and their willingness to support me in my wacky endeavors is only further evidence of their awesomeness.  But I still found it interesting how curious people were.  People would message me out of the blue, wanting to know how things were going, and it was certainly the topic of many a conversation I had during that time.  Perhaps it was the novelty of the matter, or the fact that it was short-term, and therefore they humored me.  Or maybe people just thought I was crazy, and crazy people are interesting.  But regardless of their motivations, people were drawn in – more so than I anticipated.  So…do we influence, inspire, intrigue, or challenge our friends and peers with our decisions?  I suppose it is naïve to believe that we do not.

Veggie medly fettucinni with parsley pesto courtesy of Anna, mango sticky rice and homemade mojito courtesy of Stephanie, and tomato cucumber wheatberry salad with homemade lemon ginger dressing courtesy of moi. About a dozen people enjoyed this vegan meal that night :).

So to return to a question that I posed on the first day of my veganism:  why did I do this?  Curiosity, in part; I wanted to understand more about the lifestyle, and I wanted to see how it affected my body.  But despite the fact that I labeled this trial a “personal experiment,” our decisions are never made in a vacuum, nor do their consequences remain in one.  Our personal, day-to-day decisions can have far-reaching consequences, especially when aggregated to the population level.

And so:  what if everyone went vegan for two weeks a year?  One week? One day?  What if everyone in the U.S. ate vegan for one day a year – Earth Day, or Lights Out Day or a random Monday in August?  If everyone in the U.S. went vegan for just one day, it would prevent 2.5 billion pounds of CO2 emissions (8 lbs a day saved in vegan vs. non-vegan diet, multiplied by a population of nearly 312 million)  If the same population ate vegan for two weeks?  34.9 billion pounds of C02 saved.  This says nothing of the other, more potent green house gasses such as nitrous oxide and methane that would be prevented.  It also says nothing about the water saved, the erosion stymied, the antibiotics that would go unused, the land that would go untilled (to grow the crops to feed the animals…), and all the other waste that would never be generated if America abstained from animal products for a fortnight.  Or even just a night.

At the end of the day, I think I am still decidedly a “flexitarian,” as the new buzzword goes, which I would define as someone who tries to make the best eating decision possible in the given situation.  And sometimes that means eating locally pastured chicken in the winter, instead of fruit salad shipped from South America.  And sometimes it means eating meat because…you just really want to eat meat.  Veganism isn’t something that I would want to do all the time.  But it is something that I can do some of the time.  This trial run in herbivory taught me that I don’t need as much meat and dairy as I thought I did, and in fact, might feel better if I cut back on the cheese and replaced it with plants more frequently.

Lemon Basil Almond Pesto, a.k.a. The Pesto to End All Other Pestos. It subs nutritional yeast for parmesan, and it was so friggin' good (I can provide witnesses). Recipe below.

I imagine I will do this experiment again next year, maybe even for longer next time.  And in the meantime, I think I’ll be making a conscious effort to incorporate more vegan meals into my diet (after all, they were delicious!)  Being vegan gave me a sense of empowerment over my food, because I found that I was stronger than I thought I was.  So to people who say “I could never do that” – you can.  Start with just one day – go from there.

Besides...dark chocolate is vegan. What more do you need?

Happy eating,


Lemon Basil Almond Pesto

I sort of combined two recipes that I found, but it’s based mostly on this one.

1 1/2 cups whole almonds, peeled and lightly toasted
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
~4 garlic cloves, peeled and left whole

1/3 cup nutritional yeast
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (about half a lemon…though I think I added the whole thing, for extra lemony-ness)
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (about 1 lemon)
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or to preferred consistency
sea salt to taste (1/2 – 1 tsp or so)

1.  Finely grind almonds in a food processor.
2. Add the basil, garlic, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and lemon zest.  Puree.  Slowly add the oil and process until smooth.  Blend in salt to taste.
3.  Consume, with great joy.  It makes some wicked bruschetta sprea on toasted sourdough slices, with diced tomatoes tossed in EVOO and salt/peppa.

Makes 2 cups.  They won’t last long.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2011 3:34 am

    Great post!

    I’ve been thinking about this a bit, and while I could go vegan for a reasonable amount of time, I could never do it long term. But not for any dietary craving kind of reason. More of a cultural thing. At some point I’m going have a very strong nostalgic need for my mom’s shrimp scampi, or my uncle’s roast sausages, or my grandmother’s baked ziti . . . and that would be the end of veganism for me.

    • akueper permalink*
      September 6, 2011 2:22 am

      Agreed. I refuse to give up my mom’s lasagna that she still makes when I visit home. If I develop some sort of dairy allergy, I guess I’ll die. But that’s just the point, I think. You say “that would be the end of veganism for me,” and I think that’s the mentality that people have about it. That if they can’t do it 100% they might as well not bother (or they’ll end up like Todd the vegan from Scott Pilgrim 😉 But that’s obviously not true, and that’s why I’m not sure extremes are useful. It’s better to give people some feasible goals to start with, like the “Meatless Mondays” initiative, or a two week vegan adventure.

      • September 6, 2011 3:10 am

        What do you think about usefulness of trying to convince people to eat less meat on a regular basis rather than giving it up completely for a short time? I think I’ve had more success with my own cooking by realizing that it usually doesn’t take much to get the required effect I want in a dish; a 32 oz. steak is usually unnecessary.

        Hmmm, then again, there’s also sea food. The argument that meat is less efficient because you could eat the grain instead of feeding it to a cow makes less sense in that ecosystem since it’s unlikely people are going to start consuming mass quantities of plankton …

      • akueper permalink*
        September 6, 2011 12:07 pm

        Haha, well the “eat less meat on a regular basis” thing was sort of my point ;). Though I would add the addendum of “use whatever method works best for you” to help reduce your consumption.

        Seafood is a whole different bag in terms of sustainability problems, but the ecosystem rules still apply – there are just more levels. Fish who eat fish who eat fish who eat smaller fish, etc. Eating top predators in the ocean – long lived species like sharks and swordfish – is more wasteful than eating fish further down the food chain. But the main issue with seafood is that people forget that it’s *wildlife*, and that it’s limited. It’s easier to control terrestrial hunting of wildlife than to control fishing of wildlife in international waters (and interestingly, I think seafood is the only wildlife that you can hunt and commercially sell legally, at least in the U.S.), and consequently, many well-loved species have been overfished (see: tuna, orange roughy, swordfish, etc.) and many fisheries are in danger of collapsing. [Not to mention the problems with toxic build-up in longer lived top predator species, but that again is a whole different bag.] For more information on world fishery collapse, I would direct you to the documentary “Empty Oceans, Empty Nets”, and for info on which species can be eaten more sustainably than others, the Monterey Bay aquarium keeps a good list:

      • September 6, 2011 5:37 pm

        Good points about the seafood. I’m glad I like anchovies and catfish as much as I do tuna.

  2. Jenny permalink
    September 2, 2011 9:39 am

    As usual, beautifully written. If that’s not what you intended to do in school then I highly recommend that you take it up as a constant side note. This just goes to show that you don’t have to eat “salad” for 3 square meals a day in order to be vegan. I found a great cookbook that you may want to try, Peas and Thank you! She’s got some awesome stuff in there and she has two little ones, if the reci”peas” are kids friendly as hers are then most people don’t have an excuse! Good luck MiMi 🙂

    • akueper permalink*
      September 6, 2011 2:23 am

      Thanks, Jenny! And thanks for the cook book suggestion, that sounds really cool! You are totally right – if her meals can pass the kid test, I don’t think adults have any excuse to complain! 😉

  3. September 2, 2011 10:08 am

    I will bear witness. That pesto was TASTY.

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