I kept repeating myself to the man behind the counter. The scent of fresh bagels and nova salmon wafted past me, the search "are bagels vegan?" open on my phone's browser in my right hand. We were both frustrated. "Tofu cream cheese. Do you have tofu cream cheese?" On the fifth ask, he seemed to finally recognize what I was getting at, turned away, and proceeded to throw a warm multigrain in the conveyor belt toaster. I shuffled toward the cashier, and repeated myself for the sixth time. "We don't have tofu cream cheese," she said, puzzled. "Well then I can't take this because I'm vegan!" I blurted out as I handed her my debit card, paid for a black iced coffee, turned around, and got my stomach-rumbling self on the train.
Truth is, I'm not really vegan. But a few weeks ago I heard about What the Health, a documentary that says there's only one way to eat healthy, and that's by avoiding all animal products—including meat, fish, poultry, and dairy. According to the film's codirector (and star), Kip Andersen, these are the items that are making us fat and giving us cancer and diabetes. Though this documentary has created some controversy (more on that later), the question came to mind: Was I capable of being vegan? Would I feel any different if I ditched the animal products from my diet? While it can be tricky to get B12, calcium, iron, and zinc from a vegan diet, I was willing to put in the extra effort (and throw a multivitamin into the mix) to give it a whirl. (Psst...avoid these common nutrition mistakes vegans make.)
Despite this avoidance of all animal products sounding like my own version of hell, I was up for the challenge. For one week, I'd eat a strictly vegan diet. No cheese. No meat. Ditch the eggs. Black coffee. No catches. Here are the biggest lessons I learned:
1. There are a lot of things that vegans can't eat. I knew that coming into it, but man. MAN. Breakfast was one of the hardest and most frustrating, hands-down. Eliminating eggs from my diet meant eliminating one of my regular morning staples: a scramble loaded with sautéed vegetables. I've been brought up to think that eggs are such an amazing source of protein, rich in good-for-your-eyes lutein and zeaxanthin and choline, good for the brain and nerves. Luckily, I had time to make oatmeal or my go-to smoothie. It had me thinking, though: If I didn't have the time, my options were much more limited for grab-and-go. A piece of fruit wouldn't cut it, and I wouldn't want bagels (hello, carbs) on the regular.
On my last and final day, a girlfriend invited me out for brunch and I suggested we do coffee instead because I wasn't sure how to navigate an all-vegan brunch unless I was in a safe vegan restaurant, as a lot of the classics (egg dishes, pancakes, French toast) were off-limits. Lunches and dinners were a whole other story. I found that my midday meals were easy to tweak to vegan: A salad of some sort, topped with quinoa, tomato, cucumber, black beans, and—instead of chicken—a meat alternative. Come dinner time, I had some more space to breathe and get creative. On day five, I made the most unbelievable "meat sauce" using crumbled tofu and Beyond Meat complete burgers, which could've fooled a meat eater and would've made my Italian grandmother proud, pairing it with Banza chickpea pasta (also, yum).
2. Holy WOW there are a lot of vegan-friendly meat alternatives. Without a doubt, Beyond Meat's products are my best discovery from my week of vegan eating. (They're the best thing to ever happen to vegans.) With 20 grams of pea protein and 22 grams of fat, they're filling and actually look like a thick homemade patty. I've always been a fan of tofu, which meant adding it to salads and stuff was enjoyable for me. The issue with tofu, at least for me, is that no matter how long it's marinated or how it's seasoned, it's hard to get that flavor all the way through a whole slice from a standard block. On day three I tried sriracha tofu from Trader Joe's, and it had good flavor—but a bland center. Also, props for Trader Joe's soy chorizo. It tastes almost identical to the seitan that completes my favorite quinoa taco salad at by CHLOE. My fix for the occasional bland tofu situation? Crumble it. It easily pairs with anything (I've been adding tofu to egg scrambles for years) without altering the taste, as long as you really pat it dry before preparing. (Try this spicy tofu quinoa bowl.)
3. People feel VERY strong about vegan and vegetarian eating. I have just over 5,000 followers on Instagram. As a certified trainer, run coach, and Spin instructor, I'm constantly interacting with total strangers about my habits, answering health and fitness questions. This week, showing off different parts of my vegan journey in my Instagram story prompted, without a doubt, the most DMs I've ever received. Like me, people everywhere are obsessed with soy chorizo and Beyond Meat burgers. Every single food item I posted prompted some sort of response. While some DM-ers sent me recipes to complement what was already on my menu (like faux-Caesar dressing for all those lunch salads), others there totally random eats to add to my routine (cauliflower "fried rice") and even vegan app suggestions—which we'll get to shortly.
4. Eating out is very, very difficult. I live in a city where almost everyone has some sort of dietary restriction. I learned quickly that while a lot of restaurants can tell you what vegetarian options they have, vegan is a whole other ballgame. Some spots couldn't be certain of the dishes that were in the clear, and others verified that menu items were safe when I had my doubts (most everything is cooked in butter these days). On day five I took a Jell-O shot with my boyfriend before dinner (because that's totally normal date behavior) at New York City favorite the Meatball Shop, only to ask immediately upon licking the cosmo-flavored goodness from my lips: "Wait, was that vegan?" It wasn't. This would be something that would become a lot more second nature with time, I'm sure.
5. Grocery shopping is hella difficult. Especially if you're trying to do it at a normal grocery store. Whole Foods, where the vegans often roam, may be user-friendly, packed with items labeled "V" for "vegan" that my local C-Town store certainly doesn't carry. While I generally eat a diet rich in fruits in vegetables, I didn't know exactly what to look for on something like a bottle of ketchup. Lucky for me (and likely you, too) there's an app for that. Is it Vegan? allows users to scan UPC barcodes to see if they're vegan-friendly. As if I weren't already obsessed with my iPhone 7+, this app glued it to my hand throughout the grocery aisles. This is something, again, that I'm sure would get a lot easier with time.
So Will I Stick to Veganism?
As you saw, I slipped up a few times. Looking back on it, I'd say I did my week at about 95 percent success rate of sticking to a vegan diet. I was hoping that I'd feel like I had extra energy or like my stomach was super flat at the end of my stretch. The truth is that although I did noticeably feel high-energy the morning of day three, I didn't notice any big changes or elevations in my mood. There were days I felt hungrier than usual soon after meals, and that became a bit frustrating. I'm sure that would change with time when I learned what to add to my meals to make them more satisfying and in the "OK" zone.
Truth be told, I don't think I could stick to a total vegan diet. I wouldn't really want to. I missed fish, and I definitely missed eggs (steak, ground turkey, chicken—not as much). I did finally watch What the Health on a riveting Friday night in, and was a tad shaken. Even though there are loads of articles combating the legitimacy of the film, going vegan for a week made me want to incorporate more vegan-friendly meals regardless. In our society where nearly three-quarters of Americans don't manage to eat enough fruit and 87 percent fail to eat enough vegetables, I'm more focused on adding produce to my diet instead of taking away other healthy options like yogurt and eggs. It's about finding a balance that works for you, and for me, that balance involves a little bit of everything—whether or not it has a "V" on the label.