I love meat. Yeah, that’s what I said. Pulled pork, steak, chicken, seafood, you name it; except for a short flirtation with vegetarianism in high school (likely an act of rebellion against my carnivorous Serbian family), I have never considered an alternate lifestyle. Maybe it’s because of this that I have always been so fascinated with people that subscribe to veganism. I could never understand how vegans managed to live happy, full lives, and I have observed these individuals with a combination of disbelief and awe. I certainly understand the various reasons people become vegans including animal rights advocacy, morals, sustainability, and health. However, I have actively maintained that I couldn’t go a day as a vegan.
There were a number of reasons that I decided to not only accept the challenge of going a day without animal products, but to up the ante and make it a week. The idea almost started as a joke (me? Vegan? Hah!), but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be a good experience. The main reason for taking this on was curiosity, both about my own personal limits, and about what veganism really looks like. Another reason was to learn about the lifestyle; even if I speak against a vegan lifestyle, I don’t want to do so in ignorance.
I rise up bright and early to tackle my first day as a vegan. No meat, no eggs, no dairy products. I got this down pat. The options for breakfast are endless…until I open my fridge. Turns out my options are toast with jam and/or peanut butter. I also have honey, but apparently that falls under the realm of animal products, because it’s made by bees. Personally, I think that’s excessive, but I’m not going to argue. A good ol’ fashioned PB&J it is.
Now is the time to educate myself about what it is I’m getting myself into. The first website I come across is called veganism.com, and the home page is almost entirely a photograph of adorable, wide-eyed veal…. I’m sorry, calf. Every page I click on has the same prototypical baby animal. Now I feel like an asshole for my lifetime of eating animals.
I do a Google search about “What foods vegans can’t eat”. What comes up is more or less identical to the list of my favorite foods: no meat, no fish, no seafood, no milk products (here, they specified ice cream. Just to drive the point home.), no animal products whatsoever. Okay, I’m definitely taking a negative approach to this.
In the evening, I go to Made With Love, where twelve local bartenders compete in making an original cocktail. Turns out, most of the cocktails were not vegan: many used egg whites, while several even used ice cream or whipping cream. I didn’t realize this at first, but I figure that eating animal bi-products is like calories: it doesn’t count if it’s in an alcoholic beverage. Not only that, but the hors d’oeuvres floating around the room were made up of two of my favorites: pulled pork and chicken. In case you’re wondering if I cracked in my first 24 hours as a vegan, I didn’t.
Veganism is not so hard when you’re in charge of making your own meals, but going out can be a huge pain. Most events or restaurants do not take vegans into consideration, which puts the onus on the vegan to ask about the ingredients, and to try and find an alternative option. It had never crossed my mind before this, but, while most food services have a meatless option (or can at least accommodate it), it turns out that veganism is a whole other story.
This day is significantly easier, because my plans were such that I managed to make all my meals for the day. Today is grocery day, but instead of getting whatever I feel like or whatever is on sale, I have to be ultra-conscious that it is all vegan. Knowing that I have only a very basic understanding of what vegans can and cannot eat, I play it safe and load up on things like lentils, avocados, and peanut butter. It is significantly more expensive than my regular grocery tab, and it takes considerably more aisle-wandering and label-checking. The latter is almost surely because of my rookie vegan status, but the former makes me realize that a vegan lifestyle is an even bigger commitment than I had initially thought. It requires sacrificing the cheap and easy way of life for a lifestyle that you presumably believe is the best one. Personally, I wouldn’t be able to make that commitment, and neither would many of the people that I know. Being vegan for a week is one thing, but my preference for eating whatever’s-in-the-fridge and whatever-was-on-sale far outweighs my drive to save animals and the environment through my diet. Some people take on the vegan diet for health reasons, but my experience so far hasn’t actually been healthier at all. I have had to swap my regular breakfast of egg and toast for things like toast with peanut butter, which is much higher in sugar, fat, and calories. Veganism can certainly be a healthy way of life, but it requires having enough money to afford quality vegan food, and the drive to be meticulous about healthy choices—something that can really be said about any kind of diet, not just a vegan one.
It is not so hard to maintain a vegan diet, because today is another day where I make all my meals myself. For the first time in these three days, however, I feel my energy levels crashing. Early in the afternoon, I start feeling fatigued and sick. I pride myself on having an immune system of steel, so this is new to me. I’m not sure if the cause of my low energy is this vegan diet, but it would make sense that this sudden and complete shift in my nutrition would have an effect on my energy. I am shopping with a friend, and we were meant to go for lunch. However, I have such a sudden crash that I don’t have the energy to find a vegan place, and just play it safe and wait until I get home to eat. By that time (several hours later), I am convinced that the only possible explanation is that I am legitimately coming down with something. There’s no way that I can feel this fatigued otherwise. Some tofu and a vitamin B supplement (compliments of my vegetarian roommate) later, and I’m actually feeling quite normal.
I’m also really craving chocolate chip cookies and Kraft Dinner. My diet is usually varied and complex enough that I almost never get cravings (and especially not for junk), but I guess I haven’t yet figured out how to get everything I need in a vegan-friendly way. I have no doubt that a while of serious commitment to this lifestyle would be enough for me to learn these things, but at this point, I’m already passing by places advertising donair and wings, and telling myself: “In only four days….” I may just be the worst vegan in recent history.
I’m tired, I’m cold, I’m irritable, and all I want is a juicy steak.
I feel like a bit of a failure because I can’t even handle four days of this while so many people manage to pull off years of it, but the truth is, I’m probably not doing it right. Either that, or the first week is the hardest part. Both are viable explanations.
The hardest part of this project isn’t even the fact that I can’t go a week without meat; it’s the fact that my body is trying to adjust to a sudden change in diet. I’m assuming the same would happen if I suddenly shifted to a gluten-free diet, or made any other massive dietary changes. I also lead an active enough lifestyle that I need all the energy I can get, and I simply have no figured out the healthy way to get the amount of calories I need without eating meat or animal products (and eating pounds of pasta or bread doesn’t count). Not to mention that I haven’t figured out how to keep my vegan meal plan exciting: I have had the same breakfast of peanut butter and toast for the past few days, I am already sick of lentils (which I generally love), and I am quite literally munching on a piece of tofu as I write this. I guess what I’m learning here is that lifestyle changes in general take time to get used to, and when it comes to diet, it’s much more difficult when you have dietary limitations. A change of this magnitude requires a shift in not only behavior but in mindset as well, and to be honest, I simply don’t care enough about being a vegan to be able to make that kind of change and really commit for longer than a week.
I dream of meat. However, apart from last night’s extremely realistic dream about the most succulent, beautiful steak ever known to man, I am having no trouble being a vegan by Day 5. I had a dip in my energy levels at around the same time as previous days, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as Days 3 and 4. At this point, I think my body is getting more or less accustomed to the idea, and there is no doubt in my mind that several more weeks of this would be quite manageable in terms of how my body handles it. This being said, simply the fact that I’m not allowed to eat meat (as opposed to not being able to afford it, which is usually the case) makes it that much more difficult to abstain from it.
Safe in my home, mere steps away from a fridge full of lentils and tofu, I sign into Facebook—forgetting that I “liked” Memphis Blues’ page a few weeks ago. The first thing on my newsfeed is about their “fall-off-the-bone” lunch special, and an update on their pulled pork. My mental strength almost breaks at this point, because, man, do I love Memphis Blues’ pulled pork. I resist, however, reminding myself I’m on Day 5: so close to my goal. I make a chickpea salad, and tell myself how proud I’ll be when I can write that I went a full week without touching anything that came from an animal; but a part of me is still thinking: is veganism really worth it?
Peanut butter, lentils: the day is evolving into the same old, same old. The only potentially interesting challenge to my veganism today is dinner with my mother. Now, just a little explanation: there are only two women I have ever met that can eat more lamb than me in one sitting, and my mother is one of them (the other one is her mother). My first thought was to try and convince her to go to a vegan restaurant. This would be a challenge, considering this is the woman who tried to convince me that chicken was completely vegetarian. We make a compromise and go to a Japanese restaurant. While she digs into her seafood yakisoba, I unhappily pick at my agedashi tofu and gommae. Despite my dramatic sighs, I get no pity from her. “Well, it’s your own fault for deciding to be vegan for a week”, she shrugs. “You should have chosen something else, like writing an article about what it’s like to eat only pork for a week”. Goddamn, she’s right. I could be eating bacon right now instead of fried tofu. Most of our dinner is spent brainstorming what I’m going to eat “when this thing is finally over”. Moral of the story: I’m obviously genetically incapable of being indefinitely vegan. This being said, I cannot help but feel pride at being the first person on my family tree to go a week without touching animal products.
I have to say, as interesting as this has been, I am very happy to be on my last day of eating vegan—the main reason for this being that I am running out of vegan food, and I couldn’t stand another uninspiring grocery trip to the tofu section. It’s not even that it was as aggravating and filled with temptation as I thought it would be, it’s just that I’m getting really bored of eating such a limited diet. Not only that, but this week has been the first time in a really long time that I’ve had such intensive cravings, mainly for things like ice cream. This makes me think that I wasn’t doing this right, and probably wasn’t getting everything that I usually get through meat and dairy. Other than this, I don’t even think about being a vegan throughout the day. It’s already become a bit of a habit, as long as I’m using ingredients that I have in the house (which, in the last week, have been vegan).
In retrospect, if I were to do this as a lifestyle, rather than an experiment, there are many things that I would have to do differently. For one thing, I’d have to stop bitching and complaining so much about it, and unapologetically commit to this being the way that I live my life. Eventually, assuming that I had the right mindset, my body would undoubtedly get used to the steak deprivation. I would also have to do a lot more research about vegan recipes. I am fairly creative with my food, but I don’t know enough about vegan options to have an elaborate meal plan.
Around Day 3, I was convinced that by the time the week was up, I would be crawling into the kitchen at midnight on Day 8 to eat ham out of desperation. A little melodramatic, I know, but for the record, I didn’t do this. I woke up at an average time, and made my regular breakfast of eggs. It’s as if I had never stopped eating animal products. I had been avoiding dinner at my parents’ house, knowing that my father would try and be supportive by making his signature “vegetarian” dish: beans which happen to be cooked in beef broth and have chunks of smoked meat in them. Now that I’m eating meat again, however, I have nothing to fear. Sure enough, their fridge is filled with leftovers: roast chicken, skewers of pork, lamb, beef, and salmon fillets. Sure enough, there’s a roast chicken waiting for me when I get there.
The day is much easier, because I don’t have to think about what I eat. Maybe it’s a placebo effect, but I swear I have more energy, and am full for longer after a meal. This experiment was a good one in terms of learning about new experiences, but I would never go the vegan route. It’s certainly a more sustainable and morally sound lifestyle, but the amount of commitment is takes is simply not something that I would be able to do. To each their own.