I follow a vegan diet…almost all the time. I’ve been asked about my food journey many times, usually in the form of “how do you do that?” and “what DO you eat?” So, I am sharing my food journey. For my followers who have no interest in this — or anyone else’s food journey, I get it. So, with my apologies, you can stop reading right now. But don’t give up on my writing. This is a rare personal food post.
In reality, I’m a strict vegetarian and almost pure vegan. Which means I eat no meat or seafood (or products like chicken broth), and almost no diary or eggs. At home and in vegan-friendly locations, its easy for me to avoid all animal products. But when I travel (or when I’m testing my baking) I eat a little dairy, so technically, I’m a vegetarian. But really I just choose to eat a whole-foods plant-based diet.
But before I tell you my journey, I want to be very clear about one thing: this is MY personal journey. Yours might be completely different (as it should be). I’m not trying to preach although I do think everyone could probably eat more vegetables. Not eating meat is a choice that may or may not work for you. It’s a choice that I happily make.
I’m not a vegan purist. If I go to someone’s house, and the salad has a little cheese in it, I’ll smile and try and pick around the cheese. I have never wanted to be “that guest” (the one you have to make special accommodations for) but in reality, I am now “that guest.” For the most part, I can usually find something to eat wherever I go, and if I’m really unsure about where I’m headed, I might eat before or pack some almonds. And as a baker, I still taste much of my baking, especially if it’s a new recipe. So, a smidge of batter or a bite of a cookie means I’m not a pure vegan — but I do my best.
So, why vegan? Why am I “that guest”?
I didn’t set out to become vegan and I didn’t do it overnight. My journey started years ago when I gave up red meat then I kept adding on to the list of what I don’t eat. Here’s how it went:
- Giving up red meat: I gave up red meat for environmental reasons a long time ago. I had a hard time consuming only a tiny part of this huge 2000 pound animal (the beef tenderloin cut that I preferred is less than 1% of a cow’s body weight). And there was mounting evidence about the significant negative environmental impact of meat consumption including a 2006 study by the Food and Agricultural Organization that claims livestock are responsible for 18% of human-generated greenhouse gases). I couldn’t ignore the mounting evidence any more, so, I gave up red meat. It was a little difficult at times, but since I wasn’t a huge red-meat consumer, it wasn’t a huge lifestyle change.
- Giving up all other meats: Years later (in 2010) I was visiting a retreat that raised their own animals. As I was reading the dinner menu, I recalled seeing hens, guinea fowl, and ducks in the yard; the connection to those fowl in the yard and what was on the menu was too much. I had already ordered the chicken but found I couldn’t eat it. It looked delicious but I couldn’t eat one bite. And so, I gave up eating “anything with legs” and became a pescatarian (eating fish, dairy and eggs but no meat).
- Giving up fish: I was quite happy as a pescatarian for a long time. But then I started to eliminate certain large fish (like tuna and sword fish) because of the mercury levels (the NRDC advises you “eat small” when eating fish to avoid mercury). And I gave up shrimp because commercial fishing operators usually trawl the ocean floor catching the shrimp along with a lot of by-catch; the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations sites a study that reports by-catch ratios as anywhere from 6:1 to 20:1 although recently and in some parts of the world the by-catch is being used and not tossed — so it’s getting better. And then I was concerned about fish farms producing unhealthy fish contaminated with chemicals, bacteria and parasites, so I gave up farmed fish. In the end, I was left eating a small variety of wild-caught fish. I admit my research was not extensive but if you read and believe the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s guide to fish (which I highly recommend) your fish choices should be limited. So, I decided it was easier to give up fish altogether and become a vegetarian.
- Giving up eggs, dairy and sugar: As a vegetarian I ate a lot of eggs and a lot of
yogurt with the belief that I needed the protein. I think I ate so many eggs that one day, I just lost my taste for them, and didn’t want to eat them any more. I was already concerned about the impact of the dairy industry on the environment: the NY Times sites a FAO study which reports that the dairy industry produced 2.8% of all man-made climate-warming gasses in 2005. So I always try to buy from local dairy companies supplied by small organic dairy farms like Clover or Straus Family Creamery. But when I gave up eggs, I decided that the healthiest thing to do for me and the environment was to also give up cheese and butter. So, with my aversion to eggs, and my health-conscious choice to give up cheese and butter, I went vegan in January of 2017. In order to stay healthy I decided that I would focus on whole foods and also give up refined sugar. Keeping it simple was my way of making it easier.
So, roughly a year ago, I became a vegan. I did a little reading and believed (and still believe) that there is enough protein and nutrients for me in plants, as long as I only eat whole, non-refined foods. That means eating:
- a variety of colorful plant-based food
- whole foods only
- no sugar
- no oil (refined and calorie laden)
The only supplement I added was B12.
There were some exceptions to “refined” foods. I allowed: whole wheat bread, nut butters, a little bit of oil, red wine, honey, polenta, and whole wheat pasta. I didn’t measure or count anything. I ate when I was hungry. I consumed a lot of vegetables. In hindsight, I also consumed a lot of bread and a few too many glasses of wine. A friend asked me why I wasn’t incredibly slim given all the things I didn’t eat. My answer: bread and wine.
In October 2017 I decided that I had given the “vegan sugar-free whole foods plant-based diet” enough time to work its magic: I had assumed I was going to be healthier AND slimmer and I wasn’t: I weighed the same in October as I had back in January. I wasn’t fat by any means — but I wasn’t happy with my weight. I enlisted some support and changed some more things. Here’s what I did:
- started seeking out more low-calorie protein foods (and enlisted my husband’s incredible chef and research skills )
- gave up bread (almost always), pasta and polenta
- avoid most oils and refined foods
- drank less wine (for the most part, I’m a moderate weekend-only drinker)
- enrolled in the Lightwell clean eating program which included invaluable advice from dietitians about the protein I need, and information about protein powders and soy.
- sporadically tracked what I ate on a nutrition app (I use myfitnesspal) to tell me how many calories I consume.
Here’s what I continue to do:
- eat vegetables, leafy greens, grains, legumes and fruit
- limit calorie-dense foods (like almonds, cashews, dried fruit)
- avoid bread, polenta & pasta (and other refined foods including oil)
- usually add one plant-based protein boost & B12 to my daily diet
- moderately drink red wine
- sporadically track what I eat on myfitnesspal
- record my weight but try not to get upset if there’s a small uptick
So, what do I eat?
Really … I get asked what I eat a lot.
I fill myself up on leafy greens, legumes, potatoes and grains like barley, farro and brown rice with my focus on whole foods that have a low-calorie-density. A typical day might look like:
Breakfast: 1/2 cup rolled oats and mixed berries soaked overnight in unsweetened almond milk, topped with a teaspoon of maple syrup and a tablespoon of toasted slivered almonds
Late morning: a protein smoothie with 1 cup almond milk, 3T hemp seed protein powder, 1T cocoa powder, a frozen banana and a couple ice cubes (and sometimes a little peanut butter)
1PM lunch is soup or salad: a whole can of Amy’s soups (split pea, black bean & vegetable or something else that is with 7-8 grams of protein per serving, or a salad into which I toss a selection of whatever is on hand (leftover grains, tomatoes, chickpeas, beans, corn, nuts or seeds) and I dress it with lemon juice and salt & pepper.
Dinner is all over the map depending on what I’m making for everyone else. I am starting to stock my freezer with vegan options. For example, last week for the family I served a meat bolognese sauce with whole wheat pasta and a salad, but for me I defrosted a single serving of delicious vegan lentil bolognese which I served on a huge pile of steamed zucchini noodles, and sprinkled with a little nutritional yeast.
How many calories? I don’t know. I don’t usually count.
On any given day, I also usually have at least a couple cups of tea sweetened with honey. My golden rule is: if I’m hungry, I eat. Carrot slices and hummus is one of my go to snacks. I will eat any seasonal fruit and do love berries. My indulgence are tiny 1/2 ounce squares of Tcho dark chocolate. I love herbal teas (Celestial Seasonings Peppermint and Raspberry Zinger are my favorites). I’m always trying to drink more water.
I’m not obsessed about exercise but I am regularly active. I’m lucky that my work is flexible so I can fit things in here and there. I love to hike and try to get out a couple times a week with friends (it’s my social time). I swim with a friend on Saturdays (also social). I try to make my favorite yoga class on Mondays and Fridays (very calming and makes me stronger too). I’ve recently started a belly dancing class as a new evening activity. And I walk my dogs every day. And when it’s warm enough, I squeeze in an early morning bike ride. I am doing 5 to 7 activities a week plus my neighborhood dog walks so I think it’s plenty.
The Whole Picture
My focus has been on adopting sustainable and healthy practices for the long term. I love the food I eat and I feel good, so I’m happy. And I have a few indulgences, but I like those. As my mother always said, “anything in moderation”
Happy eating and thank you for reading about my journey. It’s been quite a ride but it feels like the roller coaster has finally come to a stop … at least for now.
Some Resources and Some of my Favorite Food Blogs
Forks Over Knives (the movie, videos, the magazine, the meal planner)
Oh She Glows vegan food blogger and cookbook author.
Minimalist baker awesome blogger
Lightwell Clean Eating re-set program
Christopher Gardner spoke at Soul Food Salon about America’s obsession with protein and his study at Stanford with two groups: meat eating to non-meat eating (spoiler: some people thrive in each group and some people are failing in each group)