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6 Things I Learned When I Went Vegan for a Month

Giving up certain foods helps you realize how much you can go without -- and how much you miss.

Like just about everyone in America, I was hankering to go on a slimming detox diet after New Year’s. But based on previous experiences with just about every form of cleanse, I knew I wanted a food-based diet. Eliminating everything but organic, natural foods seemed like the clear choice. Mission: Eat exclusively vegan for a month.

This diet wasn’t all that new to me. I was raised vegan -- yes, really -- and have followed some version of a vegetarian diet for most of my life. But I had been a happy fish-and-poultry eater for a few years and just felt like I needed a break. I yearned for a “cleaner” diet; something that made me feel good rather than too full after each meal.

The initial motivation of an internal cleanse quickly turned into a mission to experience responsible eating at its finest. Even though I’ve always been a conscious consumer -- organic, free-range, pasteurized only, thanks, and NO, don’t you dare put it in a plastic bag! -- as I researched vegan cuisine, I was reminded of the personal and political reasons why so many choose to eat this way all the time. Then I watched this episode of "Oprah," read these books and watched this movie. The mission was so go for launch.

Beginning was easy, the midway point was a little boring, and by the time I finally consumed my first much-missed tuna sandwich, I knew eating this way all the time wasn’t for me -- at least not right now. But I did learn a lot about healthy eating, formed an even deeper appreciation for where all of our food comes from, and am dedicated to eating as responsibly as possible -- no matter what it is.

Here are some of the best lessons I learned through this experiment:

I cancook! I’m usually timid in the kitchen -- sticking to basics and a few signature dishes I know I can knock out of the park. But when you’re on a restricted diet, culinary creativity is a must. Each week, I logged hours online looking up new recipes, researching ingredients, buying groceries -- so many groceries! -- and desperately seeking creative ways to make soy, whole grains and plants taste interesting. And guess what, there are so many ways! Eggplant penne with artichokes, roasted red peppers and olives -- yum! Roasted butternut squash soup with chipotle cream -- OMG! Sesame-chili kale with toasted walnuts -- Un-real! Vegan banana blueberry bread with walnuts -- my food-snob husband and I literally wrestled over the last slice; it’ll be a staple from now on.

The best part of trying new recipes is that you can tweak ingredients to better suit your palette. For example, the kale recipe I used didn’t call for much flavor, so I kicked it up with a mix of sesame and chili oil. The blueberry banana bread lacked the crunch I love in traditional B-bread, so I added the walnuts. That amazing butternut squash soup didn’t seem to miss a thing by subbing vegetable broth for chicken. Anything goes in the kitchen -- except maybe milk and orange juice (see: Heathers).

Eating more whole grains and fresh vegetables is better than a colonic. That “clean” feeling I was looking for arrived just a couple days into eating massive portions of leafy vegetables and whole grains. To me, this is proof that the food pyramid has been right all along. I’m never going on a carb-free kick again.

You miss some things more than others. In my case, it was fresh fish and yogurt that I pined for when faced with another soy-based dinner or carb-loaded breakfast. Interestingly, I didn’t find myself craving any other type of meat, dairy or eggs.

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