Goodbye, delicious steak: adapting to a vegan diet in 2020

What’s it like to switch from a diet based on meat and animal products to one entirely consisting of plants?

Back in January I wrote about experimenting with a vegan diet.  After a lifetime of meat eating I started the “VB6” plan. It was a part time thing, alternating vegan meals with those based on dairy and meat.  I launched the experiment partly for health reasons, and partly as a kind of personal exploration into what a future vegan-oriented society could be.

This practice showed some promise overall, after two months, despite challenges and problems.  As a result I decided to lean into it, as they say, and expand my vegan eating.  In February I gradually increased plant-based foods in my eating and cut back on the animal ones, until around March 1 I was eating 99-100% vegan.  That’s what I’ve been doing every month since.

Today I’ll update you on my vegan 2020 experience.  And yes, there is something counterintuitive about redesigning my bodily intake during a pandemic.

tl;dr – I’m getting better at this.  It’s quite interesting.

berbere spice mixing

I’ve expanded my vegan cooking repertoire through frequent research, trial and error, experiments, more experiments, research, more research, and the help of friends.  Right now I currently make from scratch:

BREAKFAST – an onion, tofu, and spices (especially turmeric) scramble about three times a week.  Hash browns or corn tortillas with mushrooms or  the other days.  In fact, I make a stack of corn tortillas about twice a week.

LUNCH – falafel. Various dals (lentils with spices and other stuff). Gluten-free flatbreads.  Fried rice with various veggies.

DINNER –  channa masala. Potato and chickpea curry. Sega wat, an Ethiopian stew with berbere spice (which I mix; see colorful photo above). Roasted veggies, including just about everything: potatoes, brussel sprouts, onions, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, squash. Mujadara might be my favorite so far, a mix of rice, lentils, onions, shallots, and either raisins or cherries.

(lunch and dinner overlap at times, especially when I make a big batch and reheat it later for either meal)

vegan meals in prep

SNACKS – baked garbanzo beans with spices are a standby. Baked sweet potato fries are good, and the family loves them.

Sometimes I snack on some raw foods, such as celery, apples, raisins, or nuts.  Dried fruit works well, too.

I have so much more to learn!  Belatedly I’m starting to cook with quinoa.  Vegan Indian, Ethiopian, and Chinese cooking needs deeper investigation.

In terms of restaurants, I don’t eat out much, partly because of the pandemic, partly because I’m focused on improving my cooking, and partly to save money.  When I do I usually find vegan options, especially from the local Indian and Ethiopian restaurants, whom I love supporting.

Two gaps in my eating and cooking persist.  First, salads just don’t work for me.  I find them unappealing, dull, or even repulsive.  I’ve never been able to get into them.  Leafy greens are purely a chore to eat.  I need to figure out how to eat more and not feel like it’s medicinal. I’d love to hear ideas on this.

Second, smoothies seem to be a hit among vegans, but I cannot stand them.  In the past I’ve never been able to stomach shakes.  Yuck – I shudder just writing about smoothies.  I can do without them, but am open to hearing more from knowledgeable folks.

weight down to 219In terms of bodily effects, I have continued losing weight since January.  I started in December over 250 pounds; I’m down to 220 now.  That’s around a 12% loss.  I haven’t noticed changes others have reported in their own experience, such as differences in skin completion or muscle tone.  There isn’t any change in my daily energy – i.e., I work very long hours and am physically active at the same level as I was in 2019.

My appetite remains lower than it used to be, back when I was eating animals and animal products.  I’m more likely to skip a meal because I’m busy or just not hungry than when I was eating animal products.

Do I miss meat and dairy?  Not too much, except when I’m around it.  I just forgot about steak for weeks, until my family ordered some in and all kinds of memories came flooding back.  I do miss good cheese.  And fried chicken is a comfort food for which I have nothing like a replacement.

One challenge for vegans is keeping up with multiple vitamins and other nutrition issues.  I find eating a tablespoon of nutritional yeast every morning does well.  Otherwise… I’m leery of getting into supplements because of cost, and also due to that sector’s light regulation.  Nutrition science as a whole looks like a seething chaos now.  There are so many contradictions, so many agendas at work, that I despair of getting good, useful information.

All of this sounds socially isolated, with all of these “I” statements above and nobody else involved, and that isn’t exactly true.  My family is very supportive emotionally and with patience. They willingly subject themselves to my culinary experiments, which shapes what I choose to cook, although none of them have followed my vegan path so far (and I haven’t encouraged them to do so).  Additionally, our family doctor is delighted in my taking this path.

Beyond her and my family, I reach out online for information and support.  Results are…  variable.  There are a lot of enthusiasts, and that sometimes cheers, and also can dismay. I’ve joined a few groups on Nextdoor and Facebook.  Mostly I track recipes and advice through blogs.  Overall, the experience is fairly solitary.  I am thinking about setting up a blog or podcast to track my story and share what I’ve found, especially recipes that I use and modify.

In January I mentioned wanting to return to gardening.  I was ready… and then COVID-19 hit, my business blew up, and I’ve had zero time to spend outside.  Now that schedule has eased up slightly, and yet it’s the wrong time of the year.  Still, I hope to get back to growing food.

One more point: this vegan diet is cheaper by far than the way I used to eat.  Lentils, rice, chickpeas as far less expensive than meats or cheeses.  And many of the foods I now make are seriously filling.

falafel on a plate

Falafel right out of the pot.

Beyond my own experience, what am I learning as a futurist?

On a practical level, vegan cooking is a serious reboot for a carnivore’s kitchen.  First, obviously, in terms of contents.  Instead of cheeses, eggs, chops, milk, etc., my shelves are devoted to plenty of dry goods: lentils, beans, potatoes, onions, shallots, nuts, rice, etc.  The spice rack is about the same, although with greater use of some Indian spices. If I extrapolate from this, imagining myself as a typical consumer (I know, not ideal), I see changes to social food systems in terms of what’s grown.

Storage has changed.  I use the fridge and freezer far less often, and mostly for storing food in process (for example, a falafel mix before frying), stashing big ginger roots in mid-use, and big meals cooked up for later eating.  My old habits of preparing meat for cooking – getting frozen meats to thaw in time, setting up marinades – are mostly gone.  Extrapolating from this, do we see a decline in refrigeration?

Nutrition questions seem wide open.  There are many passionate advocates for different substances and protocols.  Religions, other belief systems, and companies urge their respective courses of action.  The progress of evidence-based medicine gives me some hope for the medium-term future.

I’ve tried some vegan meats, like the Impossible Burger, and personally am not that interested.  Impossible is the kind of thin hamburger I’ve disliked since I was a teenager, and none of the rest sound appealing.  But I imagine they will serve as a bridge food for many, and that bridge could last for a while, depending on a person’s interest and habits.

I wonder about early adopters.  In classic innovation and technology studies, early adopters are evangelists about whatever they try.  Mainline adopters are less so.  Is this true for vegans?  I know plenty of vegans who seek to convert others to their diet, but don’t feel this myself.  Instead, this seems… too personal? Too medical? Or too technical, perhaps. It might be that if I stand in for a non-bleeding-edge vegan, then we could see enthusiasm fade away as people pick up plant-based diets in a more prosaic way: for health, for climate change, for monetary savings.

That’s all for now.  Anyone interested in my sharing recipes or further notes on this vegan experiment?

(thanks to my supporters on Patreon for their thoughts and help)

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30 Responses to Goodbye, delicious steak: adapting to a vegan diet in 2020

  1. Nick says:

    Steam leafy greens with ginger, then flash fry chilli and sliced garlic in toasted sesame oil, add soy ( it will fizz) and toss with the greens.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Nick, that sounds great. What do you call it?

      • Nick Kearney says:

        I call it the Ultimate Triumph of Photosynthesis

        Nah just kidding i just call it steamed greens!

        There are so many combinations of things you can add…nutmeg, flaked almonds, pistachios, roasted garlic, Sichuan broad bean paste…

        On another note
        I think if there is one secret ingredient for vegans, that can come into play when anything needs a little zing, it is nutritional yeast

  2. Sandy Jensen says:

    Bryan,
    This is so great!
    Peter and I became pescatarians about four years ago— the fish is because this diet change wasn’t his idea, but it has been great. I’m down forty pounds myself.
    I chose not to go vegan because the argument against dairy isn’t persuasive to me and I support our local small dairy. Eggs from my sister. Veggies from our local CSA.
    It has been a very positive change for us as it seems to be for you.
    You seem drawn to Indian food, which I understand.

    This is just a note of loving support.

  3. Terri says:

    Hey Brian – I’m not vegan, but I do try to eat less meat, and one thing I find that helps with the fried chicken cravings is fried tofu, you can use similar seasoning or try frying in sesame oil. I used to like salads, but they haven’t been as appetizing lately, even though I have been growing my own lettuce. I am growing kale, chard and spinach, I’m happy to eat cooked greens.

    • Nick Kearney says:

      Do you dust the tofu in cornflour before frying it. That makes for a crispy outside, juicy inside and is very tasty. (you can also adds spices to the flour).

      When you add the fried pieces to sauces they absorb them well.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Terri, Nick, I do like frying tofu. Some General Tso vegan recipes call for what Nick describes: dredging in corn starch.

  4. Karen says:

    Bryan, I am very interested in learning more. Like you, I went vegan for my health (5 years ago), but I never really learned to cook vegan. For the first few years it wasn’t too hard; I lived in a city with good vegan options in restaurants, & my vegan daughter cooked for me frequently (and I for her occasionally). Now I’m in another situation entirely, & while I’m still vegetarian, I am finding it hard to keep up the vegan energy alone.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I can imagine, Karen. Veganism really needs local support.
      If I produce a website of some kind, would you be interested?

  5. It’s interesting to me that you made this change without recourse to many of the meat-like products that a lot of people eat as substitutes (Field Roast, Gardein, and so forth). To me that would seem to make it more of a transition, but your way is also more cost effective and healthy.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      I really didn’t get into those, Steve. Partly it was the cost, as these tend expensive. Partly it was that I hadn’t been too impressed by previous experiences. And they were also new – if I was going to switch over, I might as well do the main thing.

      • I’ll admit I’ve had enough of them to learn which are better than others. But they’re costly, highly processed, and loaded with sodium, so if you’re happy without them I certainly wouldn’t encourage you to change your mind!

  6. Jill says:

    Crisp Romaine lettuce chopped fine and topped with quinoa and rice (Ancient grains) and/or 3 bean salad with a dollop of avocado is my favorite way to make a salad. I am looking for a quick/delicious falafel recipe.

  7. mkt42 says:

    I don’t like leafy greens either, but I know they’re super healthy so here are two things that I do:

    I eat a lot of stews and braises, and I’ll usually throw some chopped kale in. With all the other ingredients and flavors, I hardly notice the kale. I even do this for hash browns, and also tomato sauce for pasta.

    And kale chips are really good. Mix the leaves with some olive oil and salt and bake in a tray in the oven for several minutes. The one downside, and the reason I don’t make them very often, is that compared to the time it takes to make them, I devour them pretty much instantly, just like potato chips.

  8. Kelly says:

    Good for you Bryan. My hubby and I have begun eating more vegetarian than vegan. We struggle with giving up eggs, cheese and ice cream! We both have lost weight and feel better, not to mention the cost of groceries is down considerably. We buy quite a bit of our food from the weekly farmer’s market now which we has many benefits; support local farmers and much fresher produce! I’d like to hear more about your vegan journey and where you find recipes.
    Kind regards,
    Kelly

  9. Cristina Lopez says:

    Hey Brian, I’m happy that you started this discussion. I’m vegetarian, but many of my meals end up being vegan. The last time I cooked meat was about thirty years ago.

    For leafy greens, you could look for bean and dal recipes that include them, for example some garlicky/gingery spinach to go with that mujadara. I also would suggest trying different kinds: collards, cabbage, beet greens, arugula, escarole. Find recipes from some of the cuisines you mentioned. My European ancestors boiled their vegetables and didn’t season them, and I just can’t do that. The use of spices, acid (vinegar, lemon) and sometimes coconut, makes for tasty greens dishes.

    Lately I’ve been eating tons of peppers and chiles, which contribute tons of flavor and good nutrition. And they go well with the kinds of foods you’ve been making already. I just stocked up on Hatch chilies. I have bags sitting in my freezer, and will make many tasty meals from them this winter.

    For recipes, I recommend: Meera Sodha, who had a column on vegan recipes in the Guardian. Her cookbook Fresh India has never failed me. (Not vegan but definitely has options.) Bryant Terry’s cookbooks are all great. Yotam Ottolenghi isn’t a vegan chef, but a lot of his recipes are vegan or can be adapted. He also wrote for the Guardian and I love each of his many, many cookbooks.

    Smoothies, I can take them or leave them. I only bring up my diet when I RSVP to an event or friend’s dinner. I have found that my interest in the politics of food has broadened over the years. It started with my concerns about the treatment of animals, but now I tend to focus more on labor, the environment, the creation of export economies, and politics of representation. Within that framework, it’s possible that a vegan diet is just as problematic as one that is more meat-focused.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Hello, Christina, and thank you for the many thoughts.

      Greens – good idea. Alas, I can’t do hot spices now, thanks to gut issues.

      Boiling veggies – yeah, this is a crime.

      Meera Sodha – adding Fresh India to the book list.

      Politics – I like where you’re headed with this.

  10. Bri says:

    Long time reader, first time commenting. I eat mostly plant-based (dairy and eggs once in a blue moon). It’s been helpful to get my vitamin levels checked via blood work at the doctor. I only take supplements as recommended by my primary care provider based on that data (for me, that’s B12, iron, and D3). It gets monitored and adjusted via blood work. I don’t have to do any guesswork.

    Also, strongly recommend the blog Minimalist Baker — great recipes (it doesn’t just focus on baking). Some good, unconventional ways to get greens, too, like a noodle-free pad thai that uses collard greens, collard-wrapped burritos and spring rolls, and a delightful tofu-based palak paneer.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Hello, Bri, and welcome! It’s good to hear from you.

      Minimalist Baker – oh, good catch.

      Question: how often do you get the blood work done?

      • Bri says:

        I let my primary care provider know about my diet during a physical, and she ordered bloodwork (I was also feeing very tired). Now she orders bloodwork every 6 months to make sure my levels are good, and adjusts supplement dosage based on the results.

        • Sounds familiar. I was tired all the time and that prompted my physician to do blood work. But that was ten years after I became vegan, and in any event the lesson is not that I should eat non-vegan things but rather that I should eat better vegan things.

    • “I only take supplements as recommended by my primary care provider based on that data (for me, that’s B12, iron, and D3).”

      Check, check, and check… after reviewing my blood work my physician said to supplement all three of those as well.

  11. Sarah Hurlburt says:

    Kale chips — the trick is to toss them with the oil and salt in a bag, that way you can get them fully covered with oil without drenching them. They’re not as good if they’re too oily. I’ve a convection oven — that also helps.
    Tapioca flour is worth experimenting with for making crispy breading. I mix it 50-50 with rice flour for a little more body.
    We find peanut oil makes things tastier than most other oils, and has a very high smoke point.
    Tempura vegetables is a pretty decadent vegan dish, and can be gluten free (see above, tapioca+rice).
    Our house is not vegetarian, but we’ve really shifted the emphasis away from meat, and make a point of highlighting all the veg/vegan things that we already eat and enjoy without thinking about it (I’m looking at you, vegetable fritters!), to ease the transition.

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