Never in a million years did I think I’d go vegan. While I love vegetables and all the nutrition that comes with them, I also believe that animal protein and some animal fats are a highly nutritious and bioavailable form of nutrients for many people. Furthermore, I believe in bioindividuality, in that everyone is different due to their genetics, lifestyle and environment. While a vegan lifestyle may help one person thrive, it may not be ideal for another. So when my naturopathic doctor recommended I do a liver cleanse that included one week eating completely vegan, I welcomed it as a learning opportunity.
My week as a vegan had some additional restrictions and rules as part of the liver cleanse. In addition to animal products, I had to avoid soy, wheat/gluten, corn, peanuts, tomatoes, grapefruit, caffeine and alcohol, so I couldn’t just swap my meat out for soy-based meat alternatives like tofu, tempeh, or faux chicken. Furthermore, since I am genetically more prone to Type II Diabetes, I tend to keep my carbohydrates pretty low so I can maintain healthy blood sugar levels. This presented a unique challenge for me, since most soy-free vegan protein sources tend to also have high carbohydrate content. Some of this was managed with a supplemental plant-based protein shake as part of the cleanse protocol, so I wasn’t 100% dependent on my meals for protein.
I spent a couple weeks leading up to this week researching vegan recipes that I thought looked delicious or provided a unique spin on foods that would keep things interesting for me. I ended up incorporating a few different legumes: black beans, lentils, and chickpeas, which I don’t normally eat a lot of because they make me bloated and gassy, which is no fun for anyone! I also used quinoa and a lot of mushrooms, especially portobellos, which became a favorite for me! Finally, I got a bag of hemp hearts to sprinkle on salads, which are high in protein and fat.
My breakfasts were either a smoothie using the plant-based protein powder supplement with almond or coconut milk, almond yogurt, cashew butter and chia seeds, or I made overnight oatmeal with chia seeds and some blueberries or banana slices. This was not a big change for me, as I often do smoothies for breakfast if I’m not eating leftovers.
I ate salads with mushrooms, cashews, and chickpeas sprinkled with hemp hearts for lunch, or leftovers from whatever vegan dinner I had the night before. Avocados were key to a satisfying salad – they provided the umami flavor I’m used to from meat (as did the sauteed or grilled mushrooms) and helped fill me up with the fat content.
Dinners included cauliflower-based “alfredo” over zucchini noodles, sweet potato lentil curry, portobello “burger,” vegetable stir-fry with quinoa, some random combinations of veggies and leftovers with sauteed mushrooms and pan-fried spicy chickpeas.
I enjoyed most of what I ate and was able to get full most meals, but definitely felt something lacking. The first couple days I had a constant headache. I had quit caffeine a week prior to this and had not had a headache so I knew it wasn’t due to that. I also had numerous twitches and some charlie horse muscle cramps, so I know the change impacted my mineral and electrolyte balance. I made sure to salt my food generously, which seemed to help. The bloating and gas was serious, folks! I was so uncomfortable after almost every meal. I think the combination of bananas, grains and beans was too much for my particular intestinal ecosystem. I don’t know if it would have improved with more time, but it’s not something I really feel like experimenting with anytime soon! Finally, I was so darn tired. I felt like all I wanted to do was sleep.
The worst symptom of all was abnormally high irritability. I felt angry at everyone all the time, and this week did not coincide with my usual PMS week where irritability can be a common symptom. I do believe this was actually a result of the high dose of B-vitamins I was getting through the shake supplement, as I have learned from previous experiences taking high dose B vitamins and through digging deeper into my 23 and Me genetic data that I have a couple genetic mutations that combine to cause issues with the assimilation of B vitamins, even from the more bioavailable methylated form. As soon as I made that connection, I discontinued the shake and went back to my regular multivitamin that has a moderate amount of B vitamins that I tolerate just fine. That helped tremendously with the irritability, but it was hard to ensure I had enough protein. There were only a couple days left of this vegan phase so I just rode it out and didn’t do any intense exercise. I also added back some collagen (not vegan) to my morning tea, and threw in the towel on the last day with some chicken bone broth and a piece of tilapia at dinner. I was over it and just ready to get back to an omnivorous base of nutrients!
One thing that somewhat surprised me was that I did not lose a single pound during my week as a vegan. I lost maybe two pounds the week prior, which allowed chicken and fish, and I’ve since lost another couple pounds the week after with chicken and fish. Part of the point of this liver cleanse was to allow my liver to clean out and reset, since the liver is so crucial in fat metabolism and hormone balance. I suspect that in my case, due to my tendency toward blood sugar issues, that the vegan week was too high in carbs and low in protein to provide the right macronutrient ratio for my metabolism. I wish I would’ve thought to monitor my blood sugar with my glucose meter after meals that week, but it just didn’t occur to me and I was already a bit overwhelmed!
Other than how I felt physically, I want to address the emotional aspect of eating or not eating meat as it relates to ethics and animal welfare. I have thought a lot about this over the years and especially during my vegan week. I definitely don’t love the idea of killing another living thing in order to eat. But I also know we are the only species of meat-eaters that gives that a second thought. I believe we are part of a greater ecosystem and that, as cheesy as it sounds, in the whole circle of life we all feed each other in life and in death. When we die and are buried, our bodies feed the microorganisms that aid in the decomposition process, and then we become food for the plants and grasses that grow above us. These plants in turn feed animals and humans and thus we are all connected in this natural energy exchange.
I haven’t yet wrapped my brain around why it’s acceptable to eat some animals and not others. We consider pets to have souls and are beloved members of our family, but what about cows and pigs? I know that for now, I try to purchase most of our beef from places where cattle are pastured and raised in a natural environment where they are free to roam until their final day. We are on a budget so I don’t always buy all of our meat from the best sources, and for now I choose to accept that and not beat myself up for it. And since Ronnie has taken up bow hunting, I am much more comfortable eating the wild game he brings home, knowing those animals lived a life of freedom. But it is something I give a lot of thought to, and I’ve learned from my vegan week that I can probably thrive with less meat than I did previously, so I feel good about moving forward with an even greater plant-based diet than before.
All in all, it’s not something I plan to try again anytime soon, but I’m really proud of myself for doing it and allowing myself to learn whatever came out of it. And I have so much respect for vegans, as I know that it is not an easy way to live and takes a lot of strategy and preparation to do it in a healthful way. Oreos might technically be vegan but that is no way to go about it and actually feel good! I think it’s important for people to break out of their comfort zones in any part of life and try new ways of being, whether that be nutrition or lifestyle, in order to learn more about themselves and gain empathy for others. Without personal growth, it’s too easy to become stagnant and narrow-minded in the way we approach the world.
Have you ever gone vegan or vegetarian for a period of time or would you consider it? If so, what did you learn? I would love to hear from you in the comments.