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 can cook! 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.
Farmers’ markets rule. Eating healthier can mean eating more responsibly by simply shopping at the right source. For inspiration and a great weekend activity, I made it a habit -- one I stick to today -- to visit local farmers’ markets each weekend to stock up on fresh ingredients to experiment with in the vegan kitchen. Buying locally from trusted, organic farmers supports small farmers and cuts down on emissions that are used to ship the produce you find at your local grocery store.
I also discovered the importance of eating seasonally. Living in California, I’m fortunate to have access to most fruits and vegetables year-round. However, there are certain winter months when tomatoes just aren’t available. And guess what: Life goes on! There are so many recipes you can use with canned tomatoes and not having them for my salad forced me to experiment with new combinations -- such as romaine, mango and fresh mint tossed with a lime-shallot-honey vinaigrette.
Wine is vegan. And thank God for that. There are also a number of delicious organic varieties available at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and many sizable wine stores.
It’s OK to eat dairy and meat -- if you do it responsibly. Realizing I don’t want to be totally vegan all the time makes the meat/dairy choices I do make seem that much more valuable. When I go to the grocery store now, I evaluate every choice, asking myself, “Do I really want this in my diet or is it just easy and familiar?”
Knowing now that cheese and milk products contribute largely all feelings of bloat I experience, I’ve managed to all but eliminate them from my back-to-normal diet. Sure, there’s a little feta in my Greek salad and shaved Parmesan on my pasta, and I gotta have my yogurt. But I’m not reaching for quesadillas, pizzas or cheese-and-fruit trays any longer.
I also know which fish varieties to avoid, what to look for on dairy labels, and that it’s our right to ask our grocers or farmers how the food they’re selling was raised, processed and shipped. Demanding better quality and higher standards will help us all eat healthier -- and even live longer lives.
FIVE FUN NEW FOODS I LEARNED TO LOVE
Quinoa: It’s a protein, it’s a high-fiber carb, it’s a super food!
Chipotle peppers: They make even the blandest soups or tofu scrambles simply scrumptious.
Fennel: Funny-looking root veg that spruces up salads with a distinct licorice taste.
Lentils: They’re brown and bland, so it seems, but much like tofu, they take the flavor of anything you cook them with. They’re full of fiber and so versatile—from a citrus salad to a Mediterranean stew.
Cheese-free pizza: When whole wheat dough is slathered with sundried tomato pesto, roasted eggplant and artichoke and a sprinkling of toasted pine nuts, you’d never know something was missing.
RESPONSIBLE EATING RESOURCES