For the past 30 days, I have been following a strict vegan diet. Now that the end of the month has arrived, I’m able to reflect back on the experience – the good, the bad, and the tasty.
Deciding to change my diet was a personal choice. As a student, I thrive on quick and easy meals to get me through the first half of the day. Always opting for something to fill me up without thinking of the long-term effects. Long story (kind of) short, I gained around 7 pounds in two months. The freshmen fifteen and the sophomore seven, I suppose. I was constantly on the verge of getting sick, my body always feeling dragged down and sluggish. I knew I needed to make a change, and the idea of going vegan popped into my head.
I am pretty particular with my diet already. For personal reasons, I haven’t eaten pork or drank milk for the last eight years. I avoid processed meats and only consume meat once or twice a week. So for going vegan, it would be primarily a dairy challenge – or so I thought. I decided to use the 30-day month of November as a set timeline for a strict vegan diet. It seemed like it would be an easy goal, and at the end of November, I would go back to eating however I wanted to.
The hardest feat was doing research and learning how to spot animal products on ingredient labels. Things like gelatin and whey I already knew about, but it was keeping eyes out for an entire other list. For this reason, most people gravitate to items labeled “vegan” as it saves the headache of trying to figure out if things like sodium caseinate, maltodextrin, and glutamate were animal by-products. (for the record, casein is). My first one-person grocery shop took over an hour and I left feeling discouraged that I ever decided to get into this diet. But then I realized that animal by products are really in everything. And that fact in itself made me want to continue.
Grocery shopping got easier as the weeks went on. There is not nearly as much vegan food sold pre-packaged as there is regular food, so I did a lot of cooking in the month. Not that that is a bad thing – it makes you focus on every little thing you put into your body.
What I ate!
I found recipes mostly online, and a few through friends. A couple of times I borrowed sandwich ideas from restaurants that I had eaten at. I was able to eat at five different restaurants while vegan – Sky Blue Sky, a sandwich shop on Bloor that is one of my favourite little places in the city. Abyssinia, an Ethiopian restaurant; I could have most of the vegetarian platter, the fries (cooked in sunflower oil), and vegan salad with homemade chickpea dressing. I ate at a couple of local Thai restaurants. My school has very, very limited options, so I brought food every day. On the days I went without, I had couscous or spinach salad without dressing.
My breakfasts were almost always the same. Two slices of peanut butter toast (with the best peanut butter ever, may I add), two sliced apples, and an orange or banana. Sometimes a bagel. Coffee I drink black, but to add sweetness I put ground cinnamon in the grinds before brewing.
My favourite snacking items became spicy hummus and pita bread, apple, orange, and pear slices, homemade oatmeal and raisin cookies, rice cakes with peanut butter, and sweet potato chips.
For dinners, I made a variety of things. I have a few favourite recipes, like homemade marinara, that are already vegan. The only thing to keep an eye out for are pasta noodles made with egg.
I experimented a lot with grains. Quinoa, couscous, lentils and barely. All vegan staples! I haven’t yet, but am excited to try and create a seven grain salad.
I made a lot of filling sandwiches using vegan Baba Ganouj, cucumbers, tomatoes, portabella mushrooms, Pindjur, Daiya cheese, and onions, always experimenting with the ingredients.
My biggest venture was making crispy dry-fried tofu with a scratch sweet chili lime sauce, over a bed of cinnamon quinoa and steamed collard greens.
I also made delicious curry from scratch.
I have a habit of baking once a week, so I wanted to keep the tradition going and challenge myself to learn how to cook egg free and with gluten-free flour. Challenge is an understatement, as there were a lot of failures. I think I’m finally getting the hang of it (who knew you had to add xanthan gum when you baked with gluten-free flour?) but I will probably switch back to regular flour, and perhaps eggs, for most of my baking. Depending on the recipe.
In the month I mastered oatmeal raisin cookies.
I also baked banana apple cinnamon pecan muffins, ginger molasses cookies, and chocolate chip cookies. Note I did not say that I “mastered” such things – trial and error!
Three amazing foods I discovered while vegan: Earth Balance, Pindjur, and Rappleberry bagels. Earth Balance is similar to margarine, but does not use genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), unlike all margarines available. It tastes just like butter, and I will continue to buy it as a butter and margarine substitute.
I discovered Pindjur when looking for a substitute for sundried tomato spread (it contains cheese). It is a Middle Eastern spread with many variations, but mine has tomatoes, roasted red peppers, eggplant, onions, garlic, and jalapenos. It is amazing!
Rappleberry bagels are made by Silver Hills bakery and can be found in the frozen section of the grocery store. They are made from sprouted grains (gluten free) and are the perfect combination of a wholesome, healthy bagel, with apples, raisins, and cranberries baked right in.
There are a lot of things I want to make but never got around to – I am not giving up, they will be “mastered” too.
Within a week I was feeling less sluggish. Within two weeks I dropped all the extra weight I had gained since starting the semester. I stopped having cravings for non-vegan foods after the first week and a half, and from there it was a breeze. When I reached two weeks, I bought some vegan “cheese” (Daiya brand) and on one of my last days, a vegan “pizza”, which filled every craving I was having!
With my success at achieving such a goal, I felt motivated to attempt other things. I have started going back to the gym and running an average of 3-5 miles, three times a week.
Nine days in to the diet, I accidentally drank a latte by accepting a coffee without asking what was in it first (in my defense, I did say “no sugar!”). Within ten minutes of drinking half the cup (I stopped when I realized it had milk) my stomach started to churn and I felt horribly sick. I had to get food into my body as soon as possible, and suffered for the next day from stomach pains. It made me realize that perhaps I have less of a tolerance for lactose than I thought.
I am going to continue to eat primarily vegan and take my health into serious consideration. I plan on bringing eggs (always free range and local) back into my diet, and probably small amounts of dairy (in the form of cheese). I will not be calling myself a vegetarian, but any meat consumption will be rare and on a case-by-case basis. I choose to not follow a diet “label” and eat what is ultimately best for me, while still allowing myself to eat foods I enjoy every now and then.
What started as a personal challenge to reform my diet, has morphed into a long-term lifestyle adjustment. I would 100 percent recommend it for several different reasons, but really, the health benefits alone. Not only that, but when you are eating by a specific diet, you’re forced to watch the labels constantly, and also prepare most of your food from scratch. It drives you to become more health-conscious of what you’re putting into your body. You are what you eat. I want to keep myself healthy, even at an age where my metabolism is still working for me.
By succeeding at this challenge, it has been a motivator for me to make other positive changes in all aspects of my life. There have been struggles, but they aren’t negative. Just simply that – struggles!