I embarked on a 30-day vegan challenge of my own volition in the month of November. I have been curious about the lifestyle for a while now, given my ongoing research on food waste and the global food supply chain, and my grassroots work on soup kitchens using excess food from restaurants. All my readings so far have encouraged a more plant-based diet to help reduce farming costs that produce the food that we end up throwing away. This is a serious problem that should not be co-existing with malnutrition that still exists in a world ravaged by climate change.
I have also seen all the relevant Netflix documentaries on the subject, including the more recent and likely the most compelling one, The Gamechangers, which featured Arnold Schwarzenegger now vouching for a plant-based diet. If you have seen Pumping Iron, you would know why this is a radical about-face, and why we should all probably start paying attention. The timing could not have been more fortuitous — I have been nursing a bad knee and hamstring injury (iliotibial band syndrome or ITBS) from yoga. So when an MMA fighter in The Gamechangers, who is likewise injured, was prompted to go vegan because of its healing power, I immediately signed up.
I have two goals when I went in: first, to graduate from my regular physical therapy sessions, which is costing me money, and second, to lose some weight the right way which I will explain in more detail later. I successfully achieved number 2, and that is not bad (my knee problem is worse than I thought, likely due to age).
The setting was conducive though imperfect. I was in Manila from November 1–15, India from November 16–25, Manila from the 26th to the 30th. This meant that I would be preparing and eating home-cooked meals in the first half, relying on vegan-friendly authentic Indian cuisine, and scraping whatever I could find at home or look for vegan restaurants when I get back. Sounds doable, right? Well, not exactly. The real test was in the four days of non-stop partying in an over-the-top Bollywood wedding, and I have concealed hedonist tendencies. The challenge was anything but minor.
So I went vegan for a month while fasting intermittently, a practice I have been doing for two years now given its superior benefits. On November 1 to 2, I did a 36-hour cleanse to prepare my body for an all-out war on meat and dairy. I used the time to research vegan meals that I could easily prepare at home. Luckily, there are many, and some could even be found in largely pork-based Filipino cuisine that I grew up with.
Here’s what I have learned:
Lesson #1: Being vegan nurtures creativity and resourcefulness.
The first thing I learned when I turned vegan was the many substitutes available for the ingredients of the food I enjoy.
When ordering coffee at Starbucks, for example, you can ask for soy milk to replace cow’s milk.
When preparing pesto, use ground cashew nuts as a replacement for parmesan cheese. It does the job well.
For one week, I indulged in a mix of squash and green beans, a Filipino dish cooked in garlic, ginger and coconut milk. Without the pork, it stays flavorful because the combination of garlic and ginger always packs a punch.
For dessert, I indulged in three spoonfuls of peanut butter and a banana, and other types of fruit.
To ease into vegan eating smoothly, it helps to have a snack and a main dish that could be interchanged on a daily basis. Changing habits is tough, so variety helps fill the void. But you can still mimic indulgence by having those corn tortillas with mango salsa or guacamole with your Corona, which are all vegan.
Lesson #2: A plant-based diet saves you money.
One of my earlier worries was that going vegan would break the bank, and it can. Chia seeds, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and EVOO are all imported, but they are products that can be used sparingly. Asian staples such as rice, local fruits and vegetables, and tofu are still affordable. In fact, 500g of tofu costs less than a $1 here compared to a whole chicken (a little over 1kg) which would set me back $5.
My first vegan shopping spree took me two hours, as I forced myself to read the nutritional labels line by line, and spent around $100. In my next foray at the supermarket, I spent $50. Things do get better with time.
Lesson #3: We do not need animal meat as a source of protein.
This is probably the most outstanding discovery of all, and for me personally, the most convincing fact that is this close to making me embrace the vegan lifestyle fully.
I have been tracking my progress using an Omron Karada Scanner to analyze changes in my body weight and the percentage of fat and muscle in my body.
On November 1, my weight was at 74 kg, fat at 36% and muscle at 23.9%.
A week later, my weight was at 72.9kg, fat at 35.2% and muscle at 24.4%.
Two weeks in, on November 14, I weighed 73.7 kg, my body fat was at 34.3% and muscle was at 25.1%. This means that the cause of the weight loss was a decrease in fat and an increase in muscle. When a higher percentage of our body weight is due to an increase in muscle, that is encouraging. (Note: I am not a physician but have been taught by my physician to read a Karada scan so I recommend that you please do the same.)
Numbers do not lie, and in my case, they validated what plant-based diet advocates have been saying for years: the protein that we get from an animal is recycled protein that originated from the plant that it had ingested. No wonder they often pose the question “Has anyone seen a gorilla eat an animal?” Gorillas bulk up through plants.
The best sources of protein are plants. Period.
Lesson #4: A plant-based diet is 100% good for the body.
Each plant-based meal I ate kept me well-satiated, my bowel movement was regular and more frequent, and I just felt great overall. I have, for a long time, been a fitness aficionado, so there really was not a marked difference in terms of strength and mobility. But hitting the john more often than usual was, to me, quite strange, and apparently, good for our bodies. In her book “Gut,” Dr. Giulia Enders mentioned that defecating 3 times a day is normal, especially for someone with a fiber-rich diet of fruits and vegetables. That was all I ate, and my body became a well-oiled machine, stat.
Lesson #5: The vegan movement has taken the town by storm, but you still need to inform your airline about your food preference.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that there are a number of vegan options in my city. There are remarkable choices and creative alternatives to meat, contrary to what I had initially feared.
But when traveling vegan, always have a pack of nuts or dried fruit in your purse or carry-on. I learned the hard way that vegan or vegetarian meal preferences must be specified upon purchasing the airline ticket. There was nothing much the stewardess could do for me but offer me a beverage. Good thing white wine is vegan — it was enough to help me sleep off my hunger.
Lesson #6: Forgive yourself if you fall off the wagon.
Vegan options may be more ubiquitous now than it was a decade ago, but it is still a relatively nascent and unpopular lifestyle choice. When faced with a situation where a host of a party is offering a non-vegan delight, and there are no other alternatives, take it, rather than risk animosity after turning away kindness. I know this to be a potential conundrum for vegans in lechon-loving Philippines.
Also, if grilled paneer is staring you in the face at a cocktail party in New Delhi, just go for it. I certainly did, but not without struggle and a conflicted conscience. I had abstained from dairy for a total of 21 days by then, but it was Delhi, the heart of India, the birthplace of my favorite cottage cheese dish. It would be disastrous in my long history as a foodie to abandon a local delicacy, in all its authentic glory, and be forced to live a life of regret. So I relented to dairy, but not meat. Indian cuisine with its unique spices is still more versatile than Filipino food and has much to teach vegans and vegetarians the world over.
The final analysis
After this month-long vegan experiment, I have decided to embrace the lifestyle, but not wholeheartedly. The self-imposed compromise is to eat vegan at home, vegan/vegetarian when dining out, and emerge as the occasional carnivore once a week. This is doable at this point in my life. The simple rationale behind that is to prevent a sense of deprivation, especially at dinners where I enjoy conversations about food over food. It is kind of lame to get picky in those festive situations, don’t you think? Or is this just a beginner’s excuse? Maybe, in time, and in the name of good health, I can go vegan full steam ahead. I have proven, after all, that it is not impossible. Realistically, I am just not ready for it yet. I still like my fried chicken, xiao long bao and sushi. But knowing what I know now, it would also be catastrophic to ignore the learnings, and I must accept my vegan fate wholeheartedly at some point.
The best part about being vegan is that it offers us a choice: to be free of health woes if we just treat our bodies right. No more medication, no more diabetes, goodbye most cancers. So if you or anyone you know are suffering from nagging health issues, you must try the vegan lifestyle. It might just be the life-saving cure you have long been looking for.