March 17, 2014
Healthy Living

My Month as a Vegan

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Real food tastes real good after four-week juice fast . . . . 

Part 1: Indigestion at the Ballet

For a woman who revels in the wide world of delicious food, I never thought I’d be excited about vegan meals. I had always pegged veganism as a deprivation diet. But coming at it from the other end – a month-long juice fast (see All Juiced Up) – feels like being washed up on the shores of a land of plenty. I can participate in family dinners. I can sit down in a restaurant and order off the menu . . . sort of. Solid food, hurrah!

I broke my fast with a grapefruit. It tasted so sweet! And it took 15 minutes to finish. In the afternoon, I downed a pear and a banana – the latter seemed so rich and creamy, it might as well have been pudding. These spartan meals were good signs that my tastebuds had been reprogrammed.

That evening, however, I learned my first lesson: Transition slowly, or else. I was ravenous and excited as I arrived at Live Organic Food Bar for a celebratory first real meal before heading to the ballet. The Dupont St. restaurant, which specializes in local, organic and raw food, lived up to its reputation as one of the best vegan restaurants in the city. My tasty and unusual raw dinner included a Sunshine Wrap and a share of the Mediterranean Plate starter. Besides tucking into a cornucopia of veggies, including kale, olives and microgreens, I nibbled on raw food wraps and crackers, slathered with addictive cashew and sunflower pastes.

The servings seemed massive – I could barely finish half my dinner. (The remainder, packed in a non-doggy bag, lasted two more meals.) All those wholesome greens, nuts and grains sat in my stomach like lead. My stomach ached all the way through the ballet, and beyond. When I woke up the next morning, I still had indigestion.

So do as I say, not as I do. Here’s some advice for transitioning from a juice fast to a vegan diet:

  • The first week, be as abstemious as Gandhi. Go slow. Eat small amounts, mindfully.
  • For the first two days, stick to fruits and veggies, first raw, then cooked.
  • Steam, grill, bake or roast. Avoid fried food.
  • The second week, gradually add beans and nuts to your diet. Follow with whole grains such as quinoa and brown rice. Lastly, add wheat (from bulgur to bread).
  • Avoid fatty and/or sugary foods. Don’t even think about processed or fast foods with unpronounceable additives. Nothing beats home cooking.
  • Wash everything down with refreshing cold water, at least eight glasses a day.
       My home-cooked, vegan, Ethiopian feast for the family. Photo Credits: Susan Sampson

This past weekend, I hit the halfway point of my vegan adventure. I have managed to stick to a fibre-rich diet and eat clean. (Or mostly clean. I’m not admitting to those french fries.) I don’t feel deprived. And there are no more stomach aches. The news, however, is not all good. I have discovered the conscientious vegan’s dirty little secret: relentless flatulence. Thankfully, with the long, cold winter and a cozy home office, I have been able to minimize contact with the civilized world.

Vegan recipes to try: Cucumber Cress Soup, Cowboy Caviar, Hummus & Veggie Wraps

Part 2: This is Not an Option

I have discovered the power of a simple mantra: “This is not an option.” When I feel the tug of bad eating habits or hear the siren call of cravings, I say: “This is not an option.”

Going vegan (even if only temporarily) is a simple way to limit my options and healthify my diet. Fatty cheese? Frosted cupcake? Marbled steak? Tempting. But not an option. As a stranger in the land of vegan, I have to stop and think about what I am putting in my mouth. I can’t mindlessly grab and gobble whatever is in front of me. It’s amazing what a person will eat mindlessly – from shoveling it in while cooking dinner to hoovering up leftover tidbits on a cheese plate. Going vegan is helping me eat mindfully.

My goal this past couple of months has been to reboot my brain and reprogram my eating habits. Eating mindfully (vegan or otherwise) is an important part of that. It sounds simple, but can be struggle. Psychologists say it takes three months for a habit to become, well, habitual.

The following mindful eating habits apply equally to meals and snacks:

  • Don’t eat by the clock. Just because it’s “lunchtime” doesn’t necessarily mean you are hungry.
  • When you eat, just eat. No TV. No reading. You will eat less and enjoy your food more when you are not distracted or using food as amusement.
  • Measure out small portions and use small plates. Never eat out of a package or pan. If you always feel compelled to finish your plate or you’re out of touch with your body’s hunger cues, this will rein you in.
  • Chew each bite completely and swallow before taking the next bite. Between bites, put down your cutlery. It’s surprising how quickly some people scarf down their food in this fast-paced world.
  • Stop and drink water several times during your meal or snack.
  • Leave some food on your plate. It sounds wasteful, but naturally slim people do this without thinking because they tune in to natural hunger cues. Leftovers are a visual reminder to stop eating because you are no longer hungry.
  • Don’t be afraid to toss out leftovers, on your plate or in the fridge. This, too, sounds wasteful, but if you feel compelled to polish off everything, repeat after me: “I am not a garbage can.”

Vegan recipes to try: Smoky Kauliflower Soup, Non-Shepherd’s Pie, Crispy Tofu

       Preparing the filling for Non-Shepherd’s Pie.

Part 3: The Accidental Vegan

Being a good, open-minded Canadian, I am an equal opportunity eater. I don’t discriminate between carnivore and vegan meals.

Nor do I go out of my way to find “vegan.” I abhor vegan dishes that make cooks go through culinary contortions, and vegan products processed with icky additives to mimic “normal” food. Mock meat and the particularly ghastly vegan “cheese” come to mind.

Food that just happens to be vegan is another story. During my month as a vegan, I didn’t have much luck at standard restaurants. But naturally vegan food – creamy soups without a speck of cream, veggie-packed sandwiches on multigrain bread, roasted vegetables, bean dips and grain salads – have been surprisingly satisfying. I cooked every day, hungry for the opportunity to try ingredients I haven’t paid much attention to, such as freekeh (green wheat) and shirataki.

So, what to cook when you go vegan? Firstly, you can’t go wrong with grains, beans and veggies, preferable in combination. Secondly, look outside the borders of North America, to cultures that revere vegetables, leafy greens and legumes over hunks of meat and buckets of potatoes. I frequently sampled the cuisines of Asia, India, Africa and the Middle East, and ate very well.

Will I stay vegan? My heart is not in it. I love experimenting with cooking, and cheese has been calling to me loudly. But my head says that, health-wise, a vegan diet makes good sense. There is such a thing as a fat vegetarian. A fat vegan? Possible, but not probable. I am down 22 pounds since my birthday in February. My juice fast was a kick-start. Then, simply saying yes to vegan has kept me an arm’s length away from baked goods, desserts and fatty snacks. (I do, however, admit to occasionally giving in to a weakness for salt and vinegar chips.)

In April, I continue with my master plan and go vegetarian – sort of. I’ll dip into cheese and dairy – but cautiously – and admit a few eggs into my life at Easter dinner. But I plan to stay 75 percent vegan. It’s working for me.

Vegan recipes to try: Harissa Carrot Soup, Sindhi Greens, Aloo Mattar Curry, Mujaddara, Tikil Gomen

       Harissa Carrot Soup, creamy without any cream.