A carnivore goes vegan for one month
All November long, I went on a vegan diet. Here’s the why, how it felt, and what happened.
I enjoy eating a good steak, and I have never given the vegan diet much attention (the extended version of this is at the bottom). Still, while watching the Netflix documentary The Game Changers, I felt the strong urge to test this out on myself. The show makes a few compelling arguments around personal well-being, like sleep quality, mood, and energy.
Going cold turkey on my diet seemed like a risky thing to me. Would I become like a salad leaf after two days in the sun? Would I start giving unsolicited talks about the evils of the meat industry? And how long could I stand hummus, lentils, and some other funky spreads? These questions would get answered throughout the course.
Rather than doing cumbersome fact-checking, I thought that it wouldn’t hurt to try.
I wanted to ensure that I wouldn’t bother my surroundings with my newest idea. Luckily, my girlfriend had watched the show with me, so I didn’t have to worry about her mindset when I told her about my plan. She didn’t want to join all the way but assured her support. That was important to me because choosing a restaurant or delivery service can get tricky otherwise.
The next thing I did was think about dishes. I wasn’t just going to cut the meat and chew on plain tofu for a month. The Game Changers website has a few good recipes for starters, and I also got a cooking book to learn a few more basics.
Finally, I got my blood tested. This was optional, but the documentary makes some strong statements on the vegan diet having a significant impact on all kinds of things you can see in it. I wanted to know if this was true. After all, blood values provide a rich picture of one’s current health and nutrition quality and serve as a credible predictor for certain diseases.
The first days
Initially, I was scared that things could become boring after a while and hence might have over-planned my meals a bit. It turned out to be unnecessary. Instead, I started discovering a wide range of new dishes and tastes such that the first days flew by. Right off the bat, I was excited about my new challenge.
Below I am going to get much more detailed about the pros and cons that I discovered. But to address my initial worries, the diet turned out to be much more varied than I had feared. There was no need to continue pre-planning my meals as meticulously since I quickly found my rut — luckily.
Cheats & accidents
I wasn’t planning on cheating in the “cheat day” sense. If I was going to do it, it had to be all or nothing. The only exceptions that I made were energy drinks (taurine) and wine (bugs on grapes, I suppose?).
Taurine is mostly synthetically produced, but I couldn’t figure out whether that’s also true for my brand. Energy drinks will make me burn in hell anyway, and a glass of wine is something I won’t compromise on unless I have to. Besides, the animal components are negligible in both cases.
Aside from my conscious rule breaks, I can recall a few situations where I ate animal-based food without knowing. Those things happen, and I decided not to beat myself up over them. It just showed me that going all-in requires attention around what to eat: Not all vegan products are prominently marked, and certainly, none of the animal-based ones are.
Blood. As said above, I got my blood tested before I started the experiment. There wasn’t anything particularly striking, and all values were inside the norm. The only exception was blood sugar, but that was because I’d eaten breakfast that day, which you’re not supposed to. Now I know.
To understand the impact of my diet change, I went for a second round after one month. Here are the main results in comparison:
You will notice that my vitamin D levels had been insufficient and stayed at that level, despite taking supplements. I also supplemented vitamin B12, but the levels decreased nonetheless.
According to my physician, the most significant changes were around my cholesterol. I didn’t know these things before, but HDL-cholesterol is useful while the LDL type isn’t — that’s the one you hear about on the news. As you can see above, both values went in the right direction throughout the experiment and, if sustainable, would likely lead to an increase in life expectancy. That’s free time that allows me to spend a few hours on this article. Good deal, I think!
Note that I am a layman when it comes to re-interpreting this information, but my physician assured me that the developments were neutral or positive, and I can live with that. Furthermore, you see how my values developed, and your results may be drastically different from mine. In case of any pre-existing conditions or if you are concerned with your health, I strongly recommend consulting with a physician first.
Discovering new food. This one might be obvious to you, but every time someone told me, “Vegan food is delicious,” I wouldn’t believe it. It’s not that I had never eaten a good salad before, but I was never obsessed with it. However, it turned out that I was the guy in Plato’s Cave: Before my experiment, I had experienced small glimpses of what is possible. Still, I had also had pretty bad experiences with bland food. By changing my diet, I forced myself to try new things — and I am glad that I did!
There is such a variety of food out there that few people know about. When going vegan, there is no way to avoid it. I believe that these discoveries made the switch so easy on me. Had I dropped all animal-based food with no replacement except hummus, things would have gotten pretty dull. But when I realized how amazing a breakfast burrito is, all my worries vanished.
Similar in spirit, I also became more adventurous when combining things, such as:
- Fried kale with cranberries (works)
- Red cabbage with Chiu Chow Chilli Oil (works)
- Bread, avocado, jam (doesn’t work)
One advantage of these new combinations is that you don’t know how they are supposed to taste. You throw things together and see what happens. I think that’s also how many funky vegan dishes come about: Mix them in a bowl and be happy when things turn out well. And hell broke loose when I discovered that most ingredients work as wraps. Damn!
Great shopping basket. A register full of fresh food always gives me a good feeling. Well, that’s what vegan shopping is like — every time — a treat, except for future-me and not to please the present urge.
Eating vegetables while they are fresh. In the past, I used to throw away lots of vegetables. They generally played a specific side-role to a meat-based dish. Now that vegetables have moved up the ranks, consumption went way up, and I could enjoy everything while still fresh.
Frankly, there are too many variables at play to make an objective statement about the following changes. I don’t want to create the impression that all of the good stuff just magically happens by switching to a vegan diet. But I must attribute a large part to the dietary change because the shift was so extraordinary.
Energy. This one is big, so allow me to expand on it. I bring this up because author Scott Adams had sold me on “Manage your energy, not your time” (here is the short version of the same idea). Different levers impact the energy level at any given point in time, and nutrition is certainly one of them.
I used to think that eating carbs would make me feel tired afterward. Years ago, I switched to proteins and vegetables during my productive hours. The effect was magical; the food coma was mostly gone. But there was another effect that I couldn’t control, subtle tiredness throughout the day with seemingly no cause. “That’s just how it is,” I thought.
Two weeks into the experiment, I realized that I couldn’t remember a day where I felt this fatigue since I changed my diet. There are mixed views on this subject, but I couldn’t find scientific evidence to directly relate a vegan diet to energy levels. I subscribe to the idea that going vegan means eating less processed food and sugar, which is known to cause blood sugar spikes and crashes.
Among all the things that I don’t know, there is one thing I know: I thought that I was going to become weaker, but that wasn’t the case. If anything, the opposite happened.
Weight loss. I went down from 97.8 to 93.9 kg during the 4.5 weeks of the experiment. While the absolute change is sizable, I’ve seen similar swings in the past (in both directions). But this one was special.
The last time I’d seen my weight drop that fast, I was doing 3x90 mins kickboxing plus 2–3x heavyweights in the gym — each week and practically on a protein-only diet. And while that was a fun episode in my life, such routines are no longer compatible with my lifestyle. During the experiment, I worked out slightly more consistently than before, but there is no way that this alone could have made the difference.
The other thought I had on this subject was that my dietary change allowed me to reset my “responsible adult” habits. Like most people, much of my taste for things developed while I was still a child, which may not be ideal from a nutritional standpoint. By having to find new food, I got another shot at it, and my choices turned out to be just as delicious but healthy at the same time.
Closely related to the former point, the food’s energy density is vastly different, and energy density is calories per weight. Unless you go for “fries with deep-fried onions, please,” you will naturally eat more healthy stuff when choosing the vegan option. Animal-based products appear to perform much worse in this.
No hunger attacks. Contrary to my initial fear, I never felt hungry during the experiment. I believe that part of this comes through the “better” diet. The same reason as before applies: When you are eating a vegan salad, it virtually doesn’t matter how large the bowl is.
Finally, there were a few things that I consider as accidental discoveries:
- One of my favorite drinks, 43 with milk, tastes even better with almond or oat milk. Most things taste better with oat milk.
- Animal-based protein powder is complete garbage. The substance is everything except the parts you see at the butcher. Yummy!
- Some vegan surrogates of food traditionally made off animal-based ingredients are delicious. There is no need to “go back.”
This section was supposed to be the counterweight where I would ramble on all the shortcomings, bloodlust, and tales of gradually becoming a tree. However, I have to disappoint you: That’s not what happened. I made a few negative observations, but only one has to do with the diet itself.
As expected, my iron values went down, which can be attributed to dietary change. I don’t know much about the impact other than the lack of it makes you tired and that the levels rise and fall gradually, not after licking a nail once. Hence, it is a strong indicator of right or improper nutrition.
The following three observations had less to do with my food or body experience. Yet they were part of the whole experience and a profound reality check:
Vegan food is expensive. Overall, a vegan diet appears to be cheaper. Quality meat can quickly get costly, while there doesn’t seem to be a high-end category for vegan food (yet). However, when I need to pay 3x for cereal just because it sits in the vegan corner, or mayonnaise that’s 4x despite cheaper ingredients, I have a hard time ignoring this.
These products are often produced under different conditions, such as higher wages, fewer scale effects due to smaller production, without government subsidies, carbon-neutral production, and so on. Still, that reality is a problem for some who might consider a switch — but end up sticking with the cheap stuff at the sight of such price differences. Traces of milk powder aren’t going to turn the tide either, but it seems clear to me that producers are charging extra for that little bit of moral comfort.
The vegan offering is limited. When I started, I wanted to know what the next discounter had on the shelf. I was shocked: These kinds of stores serve about half of the German population, but going vegan with this store would be a monotonous undertaking aside from vegetables. I doubt that I would have pulled through with it on that supply. It seemed as if they weren’t even trying to cater to such change or positively contribute by advertising alternatives.
Luckily, I’m in a situation today where I don’t have to watch spending on groceries and choose where to get them, but that’s not how it works for most people. Also, I live in a large city where there are alternatives around the corner. Adopting a vegan diet will be restricted to affluent people or those willing to make sacrifices elsewhere as long as this price level prevails and stores don’t do their share by offering alternatives to the status quo. And those who are patient enough to search. And city people. Because few people go through two valleys of tears to be a better person.
Not all vegan food is healthy. This insight might be obvious to you, but I fell for the autopilot-trap a few times. Apart from the usual suspects like chips, fries, etc., the meat replacements often come with funky ingredients. Different animals grow meat with different textures and tastes, some so distinct that people pay fortunes for it. Faking taste is one thing but giving soybeans the texture of cordon bleu requires some creativity with the “natural ingredients.” As a consequence, the list of ingredients can look pretty scary. But maybe this impression would fade if meat producers had to list all antibiotics and supplements on their packaging, too.
Christmas is around the corner, and I love butter biscuits, tea with milk, and Christmas dinner. The latter will leave me bloated for days and is the gift that gives me the most intense experience of all — gym time. But I’ll still go for it, I think.
This experiment has shown me that it is entirely possible to go on a vegan diet and stay happy, full, and alive. I could see some tangible changes in my blood values, and I think my overall energy level was better.
I also don’t need to test whether I will feel better or not. No way combining those has caused all the positive effects despite all other changes. And even if I take physical aspects out of the equation, my taste for a few dishes has grown pretty intense, and I don’t want to miss them.
Yet, just as I am drinking alcohol sometimes, I will eat meat again, and I am longing for some Swiss fondue. But it will be a conscious choice from now on, and I expect it to happen only on rare occasions. Before launching this experiment, I didn’t think that all these insights would have been possible. But having had these experiences, there is no way I want to return to the old days.
Just in case this story sparked a flame, here are a few things that helped me follow through with it:
- View the experiment as a fun challenge and limit its duration to something manageable; anyone can do a day by accident, but a week might be just the right challenge for starters.
- Watch the documentary to get hyped up; re-watch when you need to get hyped up again.
- Anyone can go vegetarian without taking notice, so go all in; the fun starts when you have to get out of your comfort zone.
- A global pandemic is a great environment to try something new since you don’t always need to explain yourself, and you will have an easier time avoiding temptations.
- For the same reasons, I also recommend avoiding important holidays or celebrations.
- Prepare and learn the few things you need to know about food supplements; the usual suspects are B12, D3, Iron (as in my case), but it may be different for you.
- Let your partner know what you are up to and make sure they support your plan; in my experience, that’s generally a good idea.
Annex: My backstory
When I wrote, “I enjoy eating a good steak,” that was a wild underrepresentation of my past eating habits. So I’ll beef things up a bit (beef, get it?) and let you in on my thoughts from a few weeks ago.
Most of my favorite dishes have meat in them; some consist of nothing but meat. I have no issue snacking two smoked sausages in between pork chops for lunch and steak for dinner. During my time in Argentina, we would eat a sausage bun on our way to the restaurant, order pork chops as an appetizer, and finish the night with 600g of pure beef. And since you can’t go entirely without vegetables, we’d order some wine.
Only rarely in my life had I ever questioned the ethical and dietary value of meat. My mother raised me under the belief that “boys regularly need a piece of meat to become big and strong.” One of my childhood friends, Mael, who had never eaten a single bite of meat and is one of the strongest people I know, proved different. Still, I didn’t think of it much up until recently. Also, I can’t blame my mother — she didn’t know any better either.
Like most other meat lovers, I considered many vegetarians’ and especially vegans’ attempts to convince me of their diet as a threat to my lifestyle. “Good for you,” I would think and carry on living my life. The preacher-type ones among them made my ignorance all the easier.
There are two reasons why I am bringing these things up in more depth: First, it is an attempt to fight the cliche of how people enter the vegan space. Not everyone who goes vegan comes from the corner of morale. Perfectly “normal” meat-eaters are allowed to get a taste of the other side for entirely personal reasons.
Morally superior behavior is commendable, and I appreciate the people who act in the right way. But when overly emphasized, it can easily throw some people off, and that’s why I’ve been stressing my motivation and prior thinking. After all, admitting that eating animals is wrong one day also requires the person to accept many years of wrongdoing — and not everybody is ready for that.
Second, I think that’s how many people were taught and, consequently, think about what they eat. Even if you weren’t taught wrong things at home, not least the preachings of many self-proclaimed fitness gurus promoting protein-based diets might have led you to think “meat = good.” I am not claiming the opposite — I encourage you to try it out on yourself and observe what happens.
I wrote the bulk of this article during and shortly after the experiment was over. Back then, i.e., three weeks ago, I already had a suspicion of what was going to happen.
Throughout the experiment, what I really missed was cheese. And I remember thinking about chicken wings a lot. The cheese I had, but I stayed away from chicken wings ever since. Not because I view them as evil — I know what will happen the next morning, and, to be frank, there were delicious alternatives that don’t give me that food hangover.
As “planned,” I went back to eating animal-based products the weekend after the experiment was over, but my craving was (and is) gone. After the experiment, I decided to go with a vegan diet during the week and no limitations on weekend days. This combination works well for me so far, and I plan to loosely leave it like this.