Vegan for a Month Challenge: My Experience and Outcomes
The Vegan for a Month Challenge: It Could Change Your Life
I know what you're thinking. Vegans are super freaking extreme. You probably have a picture in your mind of vegans as ultra-liberal, dope smoking hippie types. They wear Birkenstocks (and not those leather kind either), they don't bathe or shave much, and they're just plain weird. If that's what you're thinking, then it's time to abandon that myth.
While it's possible that some vegans fit your stereotype, most are everyday people like you and me. (Seriously.) I challenged myself to adopt a vegan diet for a month after learning about it from a retired army colonel that I know. He's also a doctor, and every time I saw him he couldn't stop talking about how terrific he felt. He had also lost a substantial amount of weight.
I was a meat, cheese, and egg enthusiast before I tried the Vegan for a Month Challenge, and here are my experience and outcomes. It just might convince you that you could try this too!
Are YOU up for the Vegan for a Month Challenge?
Committing Myself to a Timetable
There's never been a better time to try veganism. You can do anything for a month, can't you? That's especially true if you really challenge yourself.
I picked October for my vegan experiment for two reasons. First, for simplicity, I wanted to start on the first day of a calendar month, and it was already mid-September. Secondly, trying any radical food experiment during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays seemed like I'd be setting myself up for failure. And I'm not into failure.
So October it was—all 31 days of it.
What Do Vegans Eat?
Vegans eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, grains, and seeds. They exclude from their diets animal-based products. This includes meats, eggs, cheese, milk, and other dairy products. Most vegans also exclude honey.
I suspect you believe you could never do this. But don't shut down on me yet because that's what I once thought. It took me months to get into the mindset that I could tackle this challenge.
Before I tried the Vegan for a Month Challenge, I had been a devoted chicken enthusiast, known for my Southern fried chicken (so good that my grandma swore it was just like hers), my homemade chicken gnocchi soup, chicken marsala, chicken salad, and many other meat-based recipes. In addition, my father even used to work for a major chicken producer.
I had suddenly given up beef altogether in 1995, and in more recent years, I had been trying to reduce the amount of pork I ate, although I admit I loved bacon. Finally, however, I made the decision that I was up for this Vegan for a Month Challenge. How about you?
4 Reasons to Go Vegan
There are numerous reasons to try a vegan diet. I'll share four that were important for me.
Health often motivates people to explore veganism. Potential benefits of a vegan diet include
- reduced risk of Type II diabetes and diminished pain from peripheral neuropathy1
- lower risk of hypertension2
- lower cholesterol levels and risk of cardiovascular disease3
- reduced risk of cancers, including prostate, breast, and colon cancers.4
- improvement in mental health, including alleviation of symptoms of anxiety, depression, and fatigue5 and
- reduction in migraines.6
Vegans typically weigh as much as 5-20 lbs. less than their meat-eating counterparts and enjoy a lower body mass index. What's not to love about that?
Almost one-fifth of man-made pollution comes from the meat industry. Additionally, the methane produced by intensively reared livestock adds significantly to greenhouse gasses. Raising animals for slaughter or other food production is also extraordinarily resource intensive in terms of land, fertilizer, and water. This is particularly the case for beef.7
A More Compassionate Existence
If you know anything about the horrors of factory farming, I don't have to tell you about the mutilations and overcrowding that farm animals endure before slaughter. Go read for yourself about how male chicks are often ground up live because they're not egg producers or how male calves are whisked away from their mothers at three days old or younger and put into crates so small they can never turn around, all in the name of veal. And being a female simply means constant impregnation.
During my Vegan for a Month Challenge, these mental images kept me going when I felt my willpower was sagging a bit.
My Personal Motivations
After seeing how a vegan diet had transformed the health of my retired Army Colonel friend, curiosity piqued my interest. My personal motivations were primarily health-related. However, if I ended up losing weight, that was an added bonus.
I felt bloated and sluggish and experienced acid indigestion and digestive problems. I had been having worsening balance problems, neuropathy in both feet, and extreme lethargy as a result of multiple sclerosis, which I've had for nearly 15 years.
Eight months previously I also had tested borderline positive for lupus, and my ankles were bloated and tender, a sign of lupus. I was determined I was not going to have another major illness. From a health standpoint, what did I have to lose from trying a vegan diet?
Another compelling personal motivation was the humane consideration. It was difficult for me to reconcile cuddling with my cats yet eating pigs and chickens. They have the same level of consciousness as the cats I loved. How could I rescue one species and endorse the slaughter of the other? I've always struggled with that. As I learned more about modern factory farming practices and what was actually in my food, I knew I had to give the vegan diet an honest try.
Going Vegan: Integrate These Three Strategies
Eat a Healthy Rainbow of FlavorClick thumbnail to view full-size
Fresh Fruits & Vegetables, Nuts & Grains
My crash course in vegan cuisine came down to a three-pronged strategy:
- eat fresh fruits & vegetables, as well as nuts and grains
- explore new flavor and texture combinations with your own vegan cooking and
- try ready-made vegan commercial products.
After so many years of eating processed foods, I had almost abandoned fresh fruits and vegetables in favor of candy, chips, and rich processed sweets at snack time as well as meat-filled biscuits and sandwiches at breakfast and lunch.
The experience of eating strawberries, cherries, apples, carrots, cucumbers and other raw fruits and vegetables again was like rediscovering them. I was amazed at how good an orange could taste.
Flavors of fruits and vegetables were more vivid. They exploded! I looked forward to my salads. If you're one of those people who need to dip your sliced vegetables, there are vegan salad dressings such as Kraft Creamy Italian Dressing. Or try a new vegan dressing!
I also rediscovered the simple joy of oatmeal at breakfast (made without milk). I found snacktime satisfaction in mixed salted nuts, especially pecans and cashews), tried quinoa for the first time, and switched to brown rice. And when we made our jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, I saved the seeds and roasted them. It brought back the childhood memories. This part wasn't about earth-shattering adjustments, just refocusing old habits and getting back on track, minus the animal products.
Cooking VeganClick thumbnail to view full-size
Vegan Cooking: Experimenting with New Flavor and Texture Combinations
I couldn't eat just salads, so I knew I was going to have to actually cook something vegan. I found I needed extra time for this, particularly because I wasn't familiar with the ingredients or the recipes. I was also relying on primarily fresh ingredients instead of convenience foods that had left me feeling so unwell.
On my own, I tried a tofu scramble, but whoa, I must have been doing something wrong. I asked my culinary friend, Carb Diva, for help, and she wrote this helpful article on how to cook tofu.
I also turned to the internet for vegan recipe ideas and began experimenting. As a result, I discovered several vegan recipe books, my favorite of which the Thug Kitchen cooking series. What a culinary party!
In addition, I cooked a lot of fresh beans and other vegetables and loved the addition of a spice by Penzy's called Mural of Flavor. It's a salt-free blend of over a dozen herbs and spices that gives vegetables, soups, and even rice some extra Mediterranean pizazz. Although still a novice vegan cook, I found that I was able to "veganize" some of my meat-based recipes and still enjoy them (for example, by substituting vegetable broth for chicken broth). There's promise here!
Don't Knock It Until You Try It!Click thumbnail to view full-size
Commercial Vegan Products
Commercial vegan products were a whole new world for me. I've always assumed vegan products were just gross and extremely limited in variety, so I traditionally have avoided "that part" of the grocery aisle.
What I discovered, however, was that commercial vegan products can be found throughout the supermarket. I lump them in several categories:
- faux meat - veggie burgers, meat-like soy crumbles, fake chicken, bacon, and hot dogs/sausages. Just because one brand or type of product doesn't please you, don't assume that others won't. Lightlife Veggie Meatballs were so delectable that they deserve a special shout-out. Woo-hoo!
- dairy substitutes - In addition to increasingly popular nondairy milks (including those made from soy, almonds, cashews, coconut, hemp, and flaxseed), there are nondairy sour cream, butter alternatives, cheese substitutes, and cream cheese surrogates. I found all of these products perfectly acceptable, with the sour cream and cream cheese substitutes being tip-top. In addition, there are a variety of frozen ice cream substitutes that are out of this freaking world. The best brand that I tried was Luna & Larry's Coconut Bliss. With flavors like chocolate walnut brownie and chocolate hazelnut fudge, this vegan treat could go toe-to-toe with any decadent dairy ice cream.
- accidentally vegan products - Do your research and always read labels because you don't need to deprive yourself of variety. You can even occasionally indulge in junk food like Pringles or Oreos because they're vegan. Shocking, huh? See the table below for a sample of products that you might find surprisingly vegan.
Foods That Are Vegan: Snacks, Desserts, Junk Food, and More
Kraft Creamy Italian Dressing
Krispy Kreme Glazed Apple Pie
Kashi GOLEAN Crisp Toasted Berry Crumble
Campbell's Mushroom Gravy
Simply Potatoes Diced Potatoes with Onion
Special K Red Berries Cereal
Brach’s Candy Mandarin Orange Slices
Pillsbury Crescent Rolls
Burger King french fries
Chick-Fil-A Waffle fries
Olive Garden breadsticks
Betty Crocker Bac-o’s Bacon Flavor Bits
Nutter Butter cookies
Hershey's Chocolate Syrup
Ghiradelli Premium Hot Chocolate (Double Chocolate)
Lay's Stax potato chips
SuperPretzel Baked Soft Pretzels
Keebler Vienna Fingers
Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos
Pringles Original potato chips
Snyder's Jalapeño Pretzels
Duncan Hines Creamy Home-style Frosting
Nabisco Original Graham Crackers
Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry Sheets
Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars
Keebler Fudge Jumbo Sticks
Luigi's Italian Ice
Thomas’s New York Style Bagels
Chocolate Chip Teddy Grahams
Ruffles Original potato chips
Outcomes of My Vegan for a Month Challenge
I didn't have pre-set expectations because I avoided doing research on the health effects of a vegan diet before embarking on this 31-day journey. (I didn't want to create an expectancy effect with loads of research.) All I had was the initial observation of my retired Army Colonel/doctor friend about how a vegan diet worked for him.
My personal outcomes of The Vegan for a Monday Challenge were phenomenal. I no longer suffered achy joints, acid indigestion, or a bloated feeling. Overall, I lost 14 pounds, and my clothes fit better. I became more aware of ingredients in food (look up rennet, for example) and animals' massive role being exploited within the food industry. My experience made me much more appreciative of what I eat, who I buy it from, and where I get it.
Even though I have experienced energy-draining MS for 15 years, I felt more energetic with fewer migraines. The neuropathy in both feet that has plagued me for about 10 years lifted. A week into my vegan challenge, my family noticed a significant change in my balance and coordination. I walked more upright without suddenly stooping, "folding over," or reaching out to an object or nearby person to steady myself for support. My mother and husband each noticed my new steadiness before I did.
On the last day of my challenge, I had a yearly MRI scheduled to assess the progress of my MS disease course. At one time I had 12 brain lesions, but over the years, they have decreased in size and number.
MS doesn't "get better." It's a degenerative disease. However, recent MRI results now show no clinical signs of MS, and my neurologist reluctantly reported corresponding improvement in my physical exam. For a neurologist, he said it doesn't make sense, particularly the recent improvement in my physical functioning after suffering so long with these particular symptoms. Diet and lifestyle are the only disease-modifying "medicines" I have in my MS toolbox.
As my neurologist jokingly showed me photos of the lamb chop dinners he had made for his family, he emphasized that I'm not cured but encouraged me to keep eating a plant-based diet, adding that it seems to be working for me.
My rheumatologist similarly encouraged me. Whereas eight months previously, I had tested borderline positive for lupus, that was no longer true when retested during my vegan diet challenge. She also encouraged me to continue eating a plant-based diet.
Where to Now?
With the encouragement of my family and doctors and the tremendous positive health benefits that I've seen, I'm going to try to keep this going, although I may not go all-in on a permanent basis. I did miss scrambled eggs (which I can source from the local farmers market) and plain white bread for my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Knowing that this was a limited time experiment helped when cravings for fried chicken set in during that third week. I wonder how my month-long experiment will translate into a permanent lifestyle. I may be more successful as a part-time vegan or "most of the time" vegan. The big point is that I'll be eating significantly fewer animal-based products.
It was also time-consuming cooking the rest of my family meat-based meals while cooking myself vegan options. Accommodating them under my dietary preferences was very high maintenance. As a result, I've invited them to join me on a challenge so that we can together try meatless cooking in the hopes of perhaps converging on a plant-based diet that everyone enjoys.
Most of all, I got the satisfaction from knowing that I was saving lives by my choices. How you spend your money matters. What you eat matters. Are YOU up to the Vegan for a Month Challenge?
Tips for Making Your Vegan for a Month Challenge Successful
Read ingredient labels. For example, watch out for ingredients such as casein, rennet, and whey. Don't even trust that beer, wines, sodas, or breads are vegan. Learn which products are "accidentally" vegan.
Plan your meals and snacks instead of "winging it." Take vegan snacks like nuts or fruit along with you on the go.
If you slip up, don't beat yourself up. Just resolve to do better and move on. Hey, it happens.
Think of it as an adventure rather than deprivation. Focus on new flavors, new recipes, new foods, and a new you!
Focusing on a month-long challenge can help you ease into a possible lifestyle change. You just may like it!
Concentrate on whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, and nuts rather than processed foods so that you don't become a junk-food vegan.
If you're going to eat out, look at the menu in advance and have a plan.
There will be both non-vegan haters and vegan haters. Screw both sides and just concentrate on your own health and happiness.
Don't judge the choices of others. Instead, lead by example.
Drink lots of water, and find a milk substitute you enjoy (e.g., soy milk, cashew milk, coconut milk, almond milk).
Before starting your Vegan for a Month Challenge, give yourself several weeks to do some research on recipes and talk to your support system about why you're doing this.
Watch vegan documentaries such as Vegecated, Forks Over Knives, The Beautiful Truth, Food Matters, Cowspiracy, Fast Food Nation, and Live and Let Live.
1 New Study Shows a Plant-Based Vegan Diet Improves Diabetic Neuropathy Pain, Lowers Body Weight | The School of Medicine & Health Sciences | The George Washington University. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://smhs.gwu.edu/news/new-study-shows-plant-based-vegan-diet-improves-diabetic-neuropathy-pain-lowers-body-weight.
2Alexander, S., Ostfeld, R. J., Allen, K., & Williams, K. A. (2017, May). A plant-based diet and hypertension. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466938/.
3Tuso, P. J., Ismail, M. H., Ha, B. P., & Bartolotto, C. (2013). Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662288/.
4 Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (2012, July 13). Meat Consumption and Cancer Risk. Retrieved from http://www.pcrm.org/health/cancer-resources/diet-cancer/facts/meat-consumption-and-cancer-risk.
5 Physicians for Responsible Medicine. (2015, February 27). A Plant-Based Diet Boosts Physical Health and Emotional Well-Being, According to New GEICO Study. Retrieved from https://www.pcrm.org/a-plant-based-diet-boosts-physical-health-and-emotional-well-being-according-to-new-geico-study.
6National Headache Foundation. (2015, January 22). Plant-Based Diet Shows Some Promise for Migraineurs | National Headache Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.headaches.org/2015/01/22/plant-based-diet-shows-some-promise-for-migraineurs/
7Harvey, F. (2017, February 22). Eat less meat to avoid dangerous global warming, scientists say. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/mar/21/eat-less-meat-vegetarianism-dangerous-global-warming.
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