One year ago, I finished reading Brendan Brazier's Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life and decided I was going to give a vegan diet a try. As with any nutrition book, this one made some pretty big claims, and the only way to verify them was to see for myself.
It wasn't that much of a stretch for me, really. I was already eating a pretty healthy and plant-intensive diet by that point. And I'd been toying with the idea of going vegetarian or vegan for a while. That's probably obvious, since I probably wouldn't have chosen to read that particular book otherwise.
So what started out as an experiment turned into a way of eating that I've decided I enjoy. I've been feeling better than I ever have before, and there are environmental and humanitarian benefits as well.
Here are some of my experiences from my first year of veganism.
It isn't hard. Many people expect that removing animal products from one's diet would be difficult. It really isn't that big of a deal. I eat nearly all of my meals at home or at work, so I have a lot of control over what foods I have at my disposal, and that helps. Sure, you have to pay more attention to what you buy at the grocery store or order at a restaurant. But it's probably a good idea to pay more attention to those things anyway.
And these days, there are so many options out there that you don't really miss anything. So-called plant-based food substitutes aren't going to taste exactly like their animal product counterparts. But if you forget about trying to make the comparison and enjoy the vegan foods for what they are, it's a great opportunity to enhance your culinary horizons.
It makes good choices easier. I used to struggle with the temptation to eat deserts at work that I knew I shouldn't have. Since the sweets our food service makes almost always contain dairy or eggs, I don't even have to think about it anymore. I just have a piece of fruit. There are plenty of vegan desert options out there (Whole Foods has some awesome house-made vegan chocolate chip cookies), but you generally have to make a conscious effort to seek them out. So it's easy to make those kinds of foods a special treat instead of a vice.
As for the main part of the meal, it's a no-brainer to choose healthy foods when the biggest sources of unhealthy fats are eliminated. One could still make sub-optimal choices by overdoing it on refined grains, etc., but I never feel guilty from over-indulging on vegetables. My typical lunch involves a salad of epic proportions dressed with mustard and balsamic vinegar. But I change things up, depending on what's on the menu. Today I had roasted cauliflower, sauteed greens with heirloom tomatoes and portobello mushrooms, and steamed wax beans. To me, that's a great meal.
It makes me feel great. Brazier's book claims that, among other things, a plant-based diet would reduce stress hormones in the body, increase energy levels, improve recovery time between workouts, and reduce the need for sleep by improving the quality of rest. These were the things that I wanted to verify. I don't know about my cortisol levels, but everything else seems to have been accurate.
These days, I get five days of strenuous exercise each week. I run on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; I get a good workout on my bike on Wednesdays; and I go hiking on Sundays. Mondays and Fridays are my rest days. And while I can usually still feel the effects of my Saturday run when I'm out hiking, I never feel so fatigued that I'd rather skip any of these activities. So improved recovery time between workouts: check.
Aside from that, I bike to work daily, and I get through the day just fine with no caffeine. I do a fair job of keeping up with the kids and all the other demands of everyday life. Improved energy levels: check.
Given the compromises required between my schedule and those of the rest of my family, I have to do all of my workouts early in the morning before I take my daughter to school. That means having to wake up at 4:30 4 days a week. Lately I find myself waking up at that time on days when I don't have to. Granted, I typically go to sleep around 10:00, but I'm still firing on all cylinders with 6.5 hours of sleep per night. Compared to the 8 or more that I used to require, that's pretty good. Reduced need for sleep: check.
One unexpected side-effect of the dietary change happened within a month or two. I lost interest in drinking alcohol. I mean, I still enjoy a good beer or scotch now and then. But what had been a night cap every night has become a small glass once every few weeks. I might have a beer after a long day on the trail or when hanging out with friends (I don't get out often). But a New Belgium folly twelve-pack lasts in our fridge for months.
It is complete nutrition. People worry about whether a vegan diet can provide everything a body needs. Can you get enough protein, calcium, iron, and B12 without eating animal products? Yes, you can. In the interest of full disclosure, I do take a B12 supplement, but everything else comes from more-or-less normal food. I've had blood tests taken to check for everything that can be checked, and I'm not deficient in anything.
A lot of people say that they come to veganism for the health benefits, but they stick with it for the ethics. Having a positive impact on the environment and taking cruelty to animals out of the food supply chain are pretty big motivators. As for me? I guess that is a major part of it too. But now that the experiment is over, I'm really sticking with my vegan diet for the super powers.
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