Navigating my way into veganism

For the past month I’ve been I’ve following a vegan diet.  So in a brief pause from my focus on the future of education, I’ll share some thoughts about this experiment.

It’s actually not that great a topic shift for this blog.  For one, I’ve written about health and diet issues before.  My posts on giving up caffeine and alcohol are some of the most popular things I’ve ever written (part 1part 2).

For another, veganism ties into a theme I’ve been exploring lately: climate change and its relationship with higher education.  Many commentators and activists argue that one strategy for either global climate mitigation or adaptation (or both) is humans cutting back on eating animals and animal products, since those food subsystems emit methane and carbon in significant amounts.  So I’m looking into this food strategy as part of my broader research.  And actually living it is a way of practical learning.

The other reason is that I’m concerned about my health and weight.  I’m big fellow, partly because I’ve lifted weights since I was a teenager.  Yet my BMI tests above 30, and I know that some part of my lifestyle cause that: extensive travel, long shifts at the keyboard without using the standing or biking desks.  Yes, I also know the criticisms of BMI, but as I cruise past 50 years of age I’d like to see about extending my lifespan, and weight loss is key.  And my new primary care physician insists.

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So: into veganism.

15798321I started with Mark Bittman’s “VB6” diet.  That means I eat vegan-ly all day until 6 pm, after which I can devour anything I choose.  I chose this path in order to make the transition less shocking to my body and habits.  After all, my usual diet involved meat (full gamut: beef, chicken, pork, fish, etc.) in 2-3 meals per day, plus dairy products (cheese and eggs, primarily) in about the same rhythm .

So I checked out dozens, then hundreds of recipes for every meal of the day, from soups to pizza, plus snacks, scouring books and the web.  I bought different stuff, or some of the same but in changed quantities, from local grocery stores. I researched some of the science and commentary, which can be both often endless, sometimes contradictory, and occasionally dubious.

At home, for snacks I swapped out chips and pretzels for apples and nuts (incidentally, this is what Frankenstein’s monster eats).  I replaced breakfast or lunch cheese or sausage omelettes with various scrambles including tofu, onion, garlic, and ginger.  I got back into making corn tortillas and loading them with red or black beans.  I experimented with ways of making leafy greens more palatable without adding calorie-drenched dressings – so far, lots of vinegar.  I continued eating and baking bread, although avoiding recipes that include eggs or milk.  I also cut down the amount of bread, wanting to reduce carbs (as per primary care physician’s advice).

Eating out hasn’t been much of a problem so far.  For breakfast and lunch I can easily find fruit, granola, and breads.

There were no changes to what I drink, which is almost entirely water.

One external force impinged on this experiment, as I came down with pneumonia in December, thanks to overwork.  Despite that, I didn’t pause VB6 activity.  That illness ended shortly after the new year.

So how did the experiment turn out?  Where do things stand now?

  1. I’ve lost 5-10 lbs.  There’s some fluctuation.  I can’t see any difference, but my wife says the loss is apparent.
  2. I continue to experiment with recipes, more frequently than I did before.
  3. Avoiding my habitual meals and snacks proved less onerous than I thought it would be.  It might be that I just enjoy exploration and trying out new or altered recipes.
  4. My appetite has fallen steeply. I am rarely hungry when I used to be.
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      Formerly I’d wake up hungry and thinking about breakfast.  Now I don’t feel hunger pangs until afternoon, sometimes later.  I’ll skip breakfast or lunch, or even both. It feels like I hacked my metabolism, ratcheting it down, at least in terms of appetite.  The total amount of food and calories has dropped.

  5. The post-6-pm, non-vegan dinner is not what I expected. Surprisingly I don’t gorge on meat or cheese, although I still enjoy those to a degree.  Instead I actually eat less for dinner – again, my appetite is lower. I eat almost 1/2 of what I did before and leave the meal with more leftovers.  Last week I went to dinner with friends and ordered prime rib.  Normally I would savage the entire thing, but this time I barely made it through half of the portion.
  6. The biggest problem is that my delight in food has fallen overall.  I no longer turn to meals with a sense of delight or comfort.
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      Instead I have come to view most eating as something… medicinal, akin to a chore.  I observe carefully, but without pleasure. That’s especially true for vegan eating, but also increasingly so for non-vegan foods.  My joy in meat and animal products has gradually diminished.  For vegan dishes I am not experiencing any of the joy in eating that vegan writers and my vegan friends proclaim.

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  7. My physical strength and energy feels about the same.  They were lower when I started, but the bout of pneumonia seems like the main cause, and they resumed when it ended.
  8. My biggest dietary weaknesses are chips and pretzels.  It takes fierce willpower to keep them away from me.
  9. I don’t feel evangelical about this experiment.  It feels… satisfactory in that I’ve managed to carry it out for a month, even through a serious illness and the holidays, but I don’t want to gush about it.  The whole thing feels strange and experimental.  I haven’t experienced a connection to other people’s diets or other food cultures.  At times I just feel melancholy about the loss of joy in eating.

What’s next?

  • I’ll keep on with this experiment.  VB6 looks like the right fit for now, as I don’t feel up to going 24/7 vegan.  I don’t know what it would take to switch me over.
  • There’s a truly daunting amount of research to do, which I’ll keep pursuing.
  • If you know me, you know that some of that research is social.  I’ve already starting talking this up on Facebook, and gotten a range of responses: support, annoyance, recipes.
  • In a few weeks I will check in with my primary care physician to see what she thinks.
  • I will monitor changes in my mood to see how the diet impacts it.
  • In a month I’ll be able to start gardening, and look forward to setting up plants I can eat.

What do you make of my experiment?  Is it TMI?  Does it sound reasonable?

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21 Responses to Navigating my way into veganism

  1. Will Diehl says:

    Check out Game Changer movie on Netflix…

  2. Steven Kaye says:

    How do you feel about celery? On my sporadic diet attempts I’ve tried substituting that as a snack.

    After MLK Day I hope to quit soda and stick to it, though I worry about my energy levels. Coffee does nothing for me unless it’s a double shot espresso at a minimum.

    Keep up the weightlifting and axework and such. Is it worth taking up bicycling?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Celery, eh. It’s ok. I salt it.

      Good luck going without soda. Good move.

      And thanks – good recc. on getting back on a bike.

  3. margit watts says:

    It sounds reasonable. About 4 years ago my physician suggested that I go vegan. Thought it would help with my diabetes. So, I plunged myself and husband into 3 months of more vegetable chopping than ever before! Hated any of the vegan substitutes for meat and cheese and such, so didn’t use them. What happened? My husband’s cholesterol went down 4o points. My weight went up 8 pounds. Why? well, carbs. Easy to eat vegan with all the pastas, rice, breads, sweets, and other things that are not made with eggs or dairy and the like.

    Now? We are maybe 65% vegetarian. When we eat meat it is one 6 ounce steak that we share. And carbs are replaced by lots of veges. This is something we can maintain forever it seems. Food still tastes really good and I love to cook and bake and harvest food and so forth. I’ve since lost 30 lbs, cholesterol for both is good, and we don’t have to look at food in a “do I really have to eat this?” So all good. Good luck

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      What an adventure, margit! Thank you for sharing it.

      For me, my cholesterol is fine – so far…

      • margit watts says:

        You know, it occurred to me that what helped me center myself in terms of eating was the book Omnivore’s dilemma. And the documentary Food Inc. I too am concerned about our world and how we abuse our lands, animals, each other! So, when I eat meat or eggs, or cheese, it is always organic, locally sourced, grass fed, and so forth. It’s kind of like trying to remove single use plastics from your life…one bag at a time and every once in a while you do actually use a ziplock. (grin) Michael Pollen’s general advice in his book was “eat less, pay more”….that seems to work all the way around….good luck.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          margit, Pollan influenced us when we homesteaded in Vermont. We grew as many plants as we could (tough climate) and raised a lot of animals: goats, chickens, etc.

  4. Lisa Stephens says:

    Thank you for sharing this adventure Brian. I too find it frustrating that I’ve dropped weight and my BMI is still tagging me as one point “overweight.” But I’ve knocked off carbs (until today snacking during the KC-TN game) and try to start the day with blended fruits & veggies. Lunch ranges anywhere from an apple to a salad, and I don’t eat as much late at night. Unlike your good example, I’m still heavily reliant on caffeine. I look forward to your report from your doc. In your most recent photo you looked thinner to my eye as well. Be well friend.

  5. Carol says:

    I love being vegan now and the food is a joy. But I started very much like you. I discovered these two Brits on YouTube who really know how to make the flavors sing, and their cookbooks are excellent. They are called BOSH and you can find them at this link:

  6. Sandy Brown Jensen says:

    I recommend to you the altogether funny book called “The Skeptical Vegan.” Laughter is the best medicine…
    I became a pescatarian about three years ago, and I will eventually be an all-out vegan. I came for the health, but once all the meat was flushed out of my system, I stayed for the compassion that emerged out of nowhere (born and raised in a hunter/gatherer family culture of the more remote Pacific Northwest).
    I started with five skin diseases, and they all disappeared.
    I lift weights, hike, and charge around my life with the exuberance of youth—and I’m twenty years older than you.
    I still go weekly to Weight Watchers as it is really good about teaching needed techniques. I also think Dr. Michael Geiger’s books “How Not to Die” and “How Not to Diet” are essential sources of current science.
    You’re on a path many of us are on, and I can only encourage you to keep walking it.
    Love from a beautiful blue day in Bandon, Oregon, where we are on a four day MLK getaway.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      “How Not to Die” and “How Not to Diet” is a great pair of titles, Sandy.

      Thank you for sharing your story (bravo!) and for the good wishes.

  7. Alan Levine says:

    This is definitely not “too TMI”- sharing your approach to and sharing of health and lifestyle change is what we need more of, not less.

    My wife and I were driving through farmland, looking at the equipment and facilities needed and had a wonderful, maybe dark, speculation about how sustainable it is for society to keep extracting from the land.

    Not sure where peanut butter lands, but it’s one of my favorite ways to eat celery.

    Pretzels would be tough one for me too- especially as you live close to Hanover, PA, home of Snyders.

    Keeping on vegging, a healthy Bryan is good for all of us.

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  11. Deborah says:

    Thanks for this. I lost 60 pounds 5 years ago and have kept most off and my size has not gone up. Vigorous workouts probably have built up muscle that I am told weighs more. You are spot on with the idea of losing joy in food. Eating has lost its pleasure. It is medicinal.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      60 lbs is a huge drop, Deborah. And you kept it off? WOW!

      Sorry to hear you’re experiencing the same joylessness as I.

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