Literally no one I knew growing up was vegetarian, much less vegan. I was born and raised in a small town in South Texas, where agriculture and livestock are a huge part of both the economy and the psyche of the town. My high school even had a farm that raised animals to be shown and sold at the yearly county livestock show.
The concept of not eating meat or dairy was completely alien to me. My life has been full of BBQs, pig roasts, and brisket smokes.
For breakfast I usually have four or five eggs and and andouille sausage. Throughout the workday, I snack on three or four packets of beef jerky. Lunch always varies, but a standard dinner is a large serving of meat, with no vegetables or bread. Needless to say, meat has always been a huge part of my diet.
But I decided to go completely vegan, because I knew it would be a challenge considering my background. Plus, to be honest, I was curious to see if I'd feel any different. For those who aren't familiar, a vegan is someone who abstains from animal products in their diet. Meaning no meat, dairy, or food made by or from an animal whatsoever (that includes honey, which I was shocked to find out).
Here were the rules of my monthlong challenge:
1. No meat, dairy, or animal by-products whatsoever for the duration of the month.
2. No cheat days. I wanted it to be cold turkey.
Week one: When I realized just how dependent my body was on meat.
The first few days I was totally lost because I had absolutely no idea what I could eat. So I wound up eating oats and salad pretty exclusively (it was ultimately closed-mindedness and an aversion to vegetables that caused this). Needless to say, my body went through withdrawal.
What happens to your digestive system those first couple of days as a vegan can only be described as utter chaos. My stomach was hurting all the time, and I was shitting several times a day. Oh, and it wasn't regular shit, it was run-to-the-toilet-because-my-ass-was-about-to-explode shit. I felt like I had taken a weeklong industrial-strength laxative.
Initially, I tried to maintain an exercise routine. That was a complete and total fail, though. Not only did I lack motivation, but I totally lacked energy. Three times in a row I would go to the gym and leave within the first 20 minutes. I simply could not bring myself to actually exercise, and I felt absolutely awful. I had zero energy, no motivation, and a mental haze.
Other areas of my life were affected as well. I was so worn out that on the third day I seriously considered leaving work early. Outside of work I spent most of my free time lying around at home. I seriously considered quitting the challenge.
I also had intense cravings, specifically for eggs. I like eggs in all forms, and have eaten up to 60 a week. But, of course, eggs aren't vegan.
Week two: When grocery shopping actually made me more aware of how many things are vegan-friendly.
I realized that part of the problem was me, because I hadn't done any grocery shopping to fit my new lifestyle. Knowing I was totally out of my depth, one of my bosses (a vegan) enlisted the help of a vegan mentor of sorts named Renee. As an employee of PETA and a vegan veteran, she was tasked with taking me grocery shopping.
As we walked through Trader Joe's, I was shopping in a way that I had never shopped before. I actually went to the fruit and vegetable section first, and got foods like strawberries, spinach, and bananas, all of which I hadn't eaten in a very long time.
There were so many things that I could eat that I didn't even realize were vegan. I found some amazing vegan Mandarin chicken that didn't look at all vegan, but actually was. At the end, my grocery cart was full of a number of delicious options that I happily consumed in the next few days.
I also starting googling all types of food to see if they contained animal products before I bought them. This extended to restaurants, as I had to check menus to make sure they had vegan food options. I was inadvertently becoming more and more informed about food.
One of the harder parts about this week was dealing with temptation. I had a dinner in Santa Monica where the only vegan options were quinoa tacos. While the tacos were delicious, I was super jealous of my friend across from me who was eating a 16-ounce steak. And there was another instance where I was at a deep-dish pizza place and it took every fiber of my being not to jump over the table and eat that beautiful, melting cheese and meat mess at the table next to me.
I'd also like to clear the air about tofu: I didn't like it, and I will never like it. It looks and tastes gross to me. The fact that I had to "press" the juices out of it didn't add to its appeal. It's almost as if the flesh-colored gelatinous mass was sweating. It just isn't my thing and probably never will be.
I was really adjusting this week, and although I felt like I was getting hit with a lot of information, it was getting to be more digestible.
Week three: The week when being vegan wasn't just easy, but it actually made me feel better.
By week three I was really starting to feel the positive effects of being vegan. My energy levels were finally up. I felt lighter and less lethargic after eating than when I ate meat. I was sleeping better than I ever had, and my skin, which is constantly oily, started to even out.
I also really noticed a difference in the gym. My workouts exceeded what I had previously been able to do, and I was able to exert myself longer. There was also someone at the gym who heard I had gone vegan, and he gave me numerous tips on how to have a protein-rich vegan diet, which helped tremendously with my energy and general well-being.
I want to stress that I didn't necessarily eat healthy during the challenge, but I certainly ate conveniently. I don't normally eat fast food, but I found out some places are actually vegan-friendly. For example, if you remove cheese and sour cream from some of the food items, Taco Bell choices can be made vegan if you're in a pinch.
I also got really into cooking and had a couple of go-to meals that were both quick and easy to prepare. I found a portobello mushroom meal that I used constantly and just subbed out the cheese for a vegan alternative. I also tried every conceivable form of oatmeal for breakfast. One with peanut butter and bananas was my favorite. Everything was going well; the only major obstacle I was to face in week four was the looming specter of Thanksgiving.
I also found out cookie butter is vegan, which was a real treat.
Week four: When Thanksgiving dinner threatened to ruin my vegan diet.
This was the week I feared the most. Although I was in full vegan mode and cooking more than I ever had before in my entire life, I was scared as to how I would handle Thanksgiving.
I stayed in Los Angeles and attended a Friendsgiving with co-workers. The thought of coming face-to-face with turkey, any kind of dairy, and buttered rolls was scary. I did, however, bring vegan mac and cheese that was delicious, and no one was able to tell the difference.
I'd like to say I handled it with grace. I'd like to say that I fought the good fight. But I'm ashamed to admit that I collapsed in a moment of weakness.
At dinner I had a couple of slices of turkey and felt awful about it. It was the equivalent of three cold-cut slices, and although it wasn't much, I still felt morally and physically awful.
I felt bad for letting everybody down. So many people had invested in my challenge, and I felt like I had cheated them. Perhaps as karmic retribution, the turkey made my stomach upset. I guess introducing meat, even a little after so long without, didn't exactly agree with my digestive system.
I made it through the remaining days and stuck to my diet with relative ease. However, the fact that I had a little bit of meat bothered me. I guess we are all weak and give in to temptation. I wish I hadn't, but then again I'm only human.
Why the challenge is worth it.
The month was definitely hard, but it was by no means impossible. I learned so much about food, and more importantly, I learned a lot about myself. I also developed a newfound respect for the vegan community that has stayed with me.
Since then I have reverted to my meat-eating ways. I don't think I'll ever be fully vegan, but since the challenge I am eating more vegan food, and I don't need meat to complete a meal.