I have done the unthinkable.
I have given up cheese. And ice cream.
(insert dramatic music here).
For SO LONG I said that I would never go vegan because I couldn’t give up these two things. But, here I am. I went plant-based for 21 days. Let me tell you a little bit about how I got here.
If you weren’t aware, I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life. I don’t even remember what a hamburger tastes like at this point. The story of how I became vegetarian at such a young age is a story for another day, but the super simplified version is that my mom was vegetarian and I somewhat became one by default. Once I was old enough to understand what it meant, I 100% CHOSE the vegetarian way of life. However, since I grew up in a mostly-vegetarian household, it wasn’t exactly a huge announcement when I made that decision.
Over this past year, I have become more and more interested in the POSSIBILITY of going “vegan”. I started recognizing that my body didn’t always love me after eating dairy, and that I felt better when I had meals with smaller amounts of it. With this realization, I started slowly cutting back on dairy. I started by replacing my morning glass of milk with almond milk. Then I started replacing butter with oil and other substitutes when cooking. Eventually I even cut back on my cheese intake, and limited myself to one ice cream outing per month.
Then, a switch was suddenly flipped in my brain. I’m not sure what exactly flipped it, it seemed to be a combination of things. I realized that half of the cookbooks on my shelf had become plant-based. I looked back at my recent eating habits and realized that on most days, 2 of my 3 meals were dairy-free. I found myself pinning more and more “vegan recipes” on pinterest. I suddenly thought, “maybe… just maybe I could do this”.
I started doing more research to understand the pros and cons that are out there. I looked back at a bunch of my nutrition and health text books from college. I read blogs from others who had gone plant-based to hear about their experiences. I became more open with my friends and family about the fact that I was considering a more plant-based lifestyle.
One day, my mom sent me the link to a “21-Day Plant Based Challenge”, put on by UC Davis Integrative Medicine. She basically said, “not sure if I’m doing this challenge or not, but it comes with a free cookbook download and I thought you might like some new recipes!”.
I didn’t know exactly what this 21-day challenge was, but I am never one to turn down a new cookbook. I happily clicked the link and “signed up” for the challenge.
The first email of the challenge came with my cookbook download and also mentioned a facebook group. I thought to myself, “it might be nice to see what other people think of these recipes. Let’s join!”.
I joined and scrolled through the group. The challenge hadn’t even begun yet, but everyone was SO EXCITED. People were already posting all over the page, talking about the recipes they were excited to try, the plant-based things they already enjoyed eating, and just sharing their stories of why they were taking part in this challenge. Some people had been plant-based for years, while others were brand new to the concept. There was a little bit of everything, but I suddenly got very inspired to try this.
Many people on the page mentioned the documentary “The Game Changers“, so one evening I decided to check it out. It’s all about the benefits of a plant-based diet, and it focuses on athletes. While I don’t personally describe myself as an “athlete”, I do consider myself a pretty physically-active individual – so this definitely connected with me.
A few nights before the challenge began, I was sitting at home with my husband. Before I really knew that I was going to say it, the words “I’m going to do this 21-day challenge” came out of my mouth.
I said it out loud, so I guess I’m doing it! COMMENCE PLANT BASED PREPARATIONS.
Before I get into things too deep, I want to put in a quick side note. I realize that “plant based” and “vegan” don’t technically mean the same thing. This entire topic can be another post for another day. Throughout this challenge I considered myself “Plant Based”, but I often used the term “Vegan” since it is more recognizable by a lot of people. So, for the sake of this post, just think of them as VERY SIMILAR terms. Okay? Okay.
Back to the challenge.
The challenge itself was a little more hard core than just taking out animal products. To do the challenge 100%, you had to follow a Whole Foods Plant Based diet for 21 days. That means that on top of taking out animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs, honey, and gelatin, you also had to take out things such as added sugar, added salt, oil, and any other highly-processed foods. And, of course, they encourage you to use the cookbook that they sent you with your registration.
I decided that while I wanted to use this challenge as a blueprint, this was MY 21-day challenge. I needed to decide what was important to ME and set my own goals around that. So, that’s what I did.
I decided that for MY challenge, I would definitely take out animal products. So I was definitely sticking to the “plant based” part of things. However, I had a slightly different outlook when it came to the sugar, salt, and oil.
For sugar, I decided I would cut out anything that CLEARLY has tons of added sugar and lots of processing – such as soda, candy, etc. But, for example, if I bought some dried cranberries at the store for trail mix and they had a slight sugar content… that was okay. As long as I had them in moderation. I also decided that instead of using refined white sugar in my cooking (which I really don’t use much anyway), I would use natural sweeteners such as maple syrup or dates – but again, in moderation.
The next decision was salt. I thought about my baking habits and realized that I really use very small amounts of salt to begin with (as in maybe 1/2 a teaspoon for an entire loaf of bread). I decided that I was okay with that. I also knew that I wouldn’t be baking much for the majority of this challenge anyway, so it wouldn’t come up very often. For cooking, I decided that I would cook WITHOUT adding the salt, then at the end I would taste my dish. If it was yummy without the salt, I would keep it that way. But if I needed to add a little bit of salt for my taste buds to be happy, I was okay with that too.
Oil was a little harder for me to decide on. Honestly, I wasn’t holding a big grudge against oil. I recognized that it was processed, but figured it was still better than butter. Plus, again, all things in moderation. I decided that I would do my best to step out of my comfort zone and experiment with oil substitutes whenever I could, but that if I occasionally used a little bit of oil that was okay.
I also decided that in the spirit of the WHOLE FOODS part of things, I wanted to make as many of my grains WHOLE as possible! I already mostly did this, so this wasn’t a big adjustment. But I decided I would stick with things like brown rice or quinoa when it came to grains, and if I did any baking I would try to use as little all-purpose flour as possible, and instead use options such as whole wheat flour, almond flour, or brown rice flour.
As an additional “fun” rule, I decided that ONCE a week I would let myself have a “splurge” meal. BUT it still had to be plant-based, and I had to drink water (not soda) with it. During these splurge meals, I wasn’t going to worry so much about the oil/salt/sugar side of things – it is a “splurge” after all! My main reasoning behind this was that I had heard of SO MANY good vegan restaurants in Austin, and I wanted to give myself some freedom to try them – even if that meant having some fried seitan nuggets at the vegan food truck. I also knew that if I had a “splurge meal” to look forward to at the end of each week, I would be better about staying on track and keeping my meals healthy throughout the week, since I knew my splurge reward was coming soon.
Lastly, I decided that I didn’t want to stick with just the “official” cookbook. I have so many other plant-based cookbooks and follow so many plant-based blogs, so I wanted more freedom than that. I definitely wanted to try some of the recipes from the new book, but I also wanted to try things from other sources.
Once I decided what MY challenge was, I continued my preparations. I went through the new cookbook, scrolled through some of my favorite plant-based blogs, and made a meal plan for the first week. I went shopping, did a bunch of meal prepping, and STUCK TO IT. And then, I repeated that process all over again for the following two weeks.
Without further ado, here are some of the things I learned throughout my 21-days of plant-based living.
- I didn’t miss cheese NEARLY as much as I expected to. Don’t get me wrong, I still think that cheese tastes delicious. But I didn’t crave it the way I thought I would. I realized that if I simply take out the cheese from a lot of my go-to recipes, that they are plant based – and still yummy! I even made a “sweet potato nachos” recipe that basically had all of the toppings that you usually put on nachos, but minus the cheese. And it was great!
- I found ways to satisfy my late-night sweet tooth without breaking my “refined sugar” rule. One thing that I’ve ALWAYS known about myself is that about an hour after dinner, I almost always crave something sweet. This is hard to deal with because (1) I know I shouldn’t be eating late at night, especially something with sugar, and (2) I’m often not actually hungry, I just want something sweet. But I made an effort to deal with this throughout my 21 day challenge. I learned that once I started feeling the craving coming on, 50% of the time I could push it away and completely forget about it if I forced myself to dive into a project and distract myself – I would play guitar, read a book, blog, bullet journal, anything to keep my mind occupied! Before I knew it, I had completely forgotten about my craving. During the 50% of the time that I couldn’t push the craving away, I got pretty good at reaching for healthier sweet alternatives. It still wasn’t THE BEST for me to be eating late at night, but I considered this progress because they were much better options than walking across the street to the mall to get ice cream or bubble tea. Here were some of the things I came up with to satisfy that sweet tooth:
- Cinnamon rice milk – like an horchata, but no added sugar! I just soaked brown rice in water over night, blended it up with some water (like you would almond milk), strained out the rice bits, and mixed in some cinnamon. Yum!
- Banana with natural peanut butter – the peanut butter satisfied my sweet tooth quite well! I was excited that to realize that the peanut butter I already had in my pantry was natural and only had ONE thing on the ingredients list – peanuts!
- Berries or pomegranate seeds – my husband has always said that a bowl of berries can be “dessert”, and I always told him that he was crazy. My, how the tables have turned. Sometimes I would add a small dollop of homemade plant-based “yogurt” to mix things up.
- A tiny bowl of homemade granola (recipes with minimum amounts of sweeteners, of course) and almond milk. I would use a ramekin for this because it was small enough that I could fill it so that it “looked full”, but I still knew that it was a small serving!
- Tea with a tiny bit of almond milk and a teensy bit of maple syrup (sounds weird, but I used it instead of honey – and it worked great! I used no more than 1/2 teaspoon of maple syrup for my mug of tea)
- Austin is a great place to be plant-based. Seriously. I realized that a lot of our staple restaurants have multiple vegan options – and that I already ordered vegan things without even realizing it in some cases! Plus, there are SO MANY places in Austin that are 100% plant based OR are at least specifically known for having lots of plant based options. I even found an Austin Vegans Facebook Group of over 6500 people, AND a list of all of the vegan places you can find in Austin. In case you are in the Austin area and want to check out some vegan-friendly places, here were some of my personal favorites:
- Being open about the challenge motivated me to stick to it. At the beginning of the 21 days, I posted on facebook and instagram that I was going to be doing this – and promised that I would post one food photo to my story each day. If I had not shared this or talked about it with anyone, I think I would have been much less likely to succeed. I had to stay true to my word! Plus, taking a photo of my yummy food each day was oddly fun and satisfying.
- Not all non-dairy cheese is gross! For the first week I really had no interest in trying “fake” cheese, so I just took out cheese completely. For the second and third weeks though, I got a little more adventurous. I made a few different non-dairy cheeses at home and even tried some non-dairy cheeses during a couple of my splurge meals. Not all of the cheese substitutes were spectacular, but there were definitely some that I thoroughly enjoyed!
- Having a partner do it with me made it more fun. My mom AND dad ended up deciding to do the challenge as well. Although they live 2000 miles away from me, we constantly sent recipes back and forth anytime we found something we liked. It kept us accountable and it made it more fun!
- Cooking without oil is WAY easier than I expected. I figured out viable substitutes pretty quickly, and almost never ended up using oil because they worked so well! Once I figured out how to substitute things, it made recipes easier because I didn’t necessarily have to find recipes that were already oil-free. Instead, I could just substitute the oil myself! Some of the substitutes I commonly used were:
- Roasting vegetables: balsamic vinegar, lime juice, lemon juice, veggie broth, or a mixture of some of these things
- Sautéing: water or veggie broth
- Baking: applesauce, pumpkin puree, or mashed banana
- There are SO MANY good plant-based blogs out there. Here were some of my go-tos throughout this challenge. Some of them are 100% plant based and others have specific plant based sections:
- I kind of understand the vegan “stereotype” that vegans do nothing but talk about being vegan. Okay, I’m going to be real. I love food. I’ve always loved food. And over the last couple of years, my love for making and eating good food has gone through the roof. So I have always been someone who likes to talk about food. Therefore, when I started eating plant-based…. I talked about it a lot. Not because I was trying to draw attention to my new plant-based way of life, but because I LIKE TALKING ABOUT FOOD. It makes me happy. I’m not saying that this stereotype is “correct”. I’m just saying that I can see how I could personally become *that* person if I wasn’t careful. I just had so much fun diving into all of the fun food options, and wanted to tell everyone about it and share my joy! So, cut your vegan friend some slack. Maybe she just really wants to tell you about the most amazing falafel recipe that she found yesterday. Or… maybe not. But that’s just my two cents. Let her be happy about her food.
- Immersion hand blenders are LIFE. I used mine SO MUCH throughout the last 21 days. I stored a lot of my meal prep stuff in wide-mouthed mason jars – so anything that needed to be blended I would just use my immersion blender straight in the mason jar, and then it was ready for storage. Easy peasy. This was probably my most-used kitchen gadget throughout this challenge.
- My Dr Pepper cravings practically disappeared after the first week. This was one of my biggest fears going into this challenge. Dr Pepper has always been my Achilles’ heel when it comes to food – it’s the one thing that I consumed somewhat consistently that I 100% knew I shouldn’t be. But after the first week, the craving basically went away! It still *sounded good* a couple of times, but I wasn’t CRAVING it like I was at the beginning. For that first week I would drink no-sugar-added sparkling water if I really needed to kick the craving, and the carbonation seemed to help with the transition.
- Overall, I actually SAVED money on food. I’ve heard a lot of people say that eating healthy is “so much more expensive”. I won’t lie, there are some things about it that are more expensive. For example, whole wheat flour or almond flour are DEFINITELY more expensive than all-purpose flour. But, here’s the thing. Once you’ve stocked up your pantry to eat this way, you don’t have to buy that expensive stuff every week. AND if you stick to your meal plan and actually make everything from home… you’ll eat out way less, and YOU. WILL. SAVE. MONEY. I have so much to say on this topic, but I should cut myself off. Maybe another post for another day.
- I am so grateful to have amazing and supportive people in my life. Okay, going to get a little gushy on this one. But I’m being serious. My husband has 0% interest in ever making the shift to plant-based – but he 100% supported MY decision to do this challenge. He tried every plant-based dish I made, explored the plant-based restaurants of Austin with me, and cheered me on the whole way. Our friends, who hosted Friendsgiving last weekend, made sure that there was something for me to eat because they knew I was doing this. When I asked my in-laws if I could bring some plant-based side dishes to Thanksgiving this year, my mother-in-law offered to cook them with me. My boss at work even checked in with me a couple of times to ask how the challenge was going, and made a plant-based soup for our work potluck so that I could eat. And, of course, there’s my parents – who did the challenge along with me. I am so grateful for everyone who cheered me on.
- Someday in my distant future… I want to write a cookbook. THERE. I SAID IT. I’M NOT TAKING IT BACK. I have no idea if this will realistically ever happen. But playing and experimenting so much in the kitchen these last few weeks has made me realize that this is something I think I want to do. So… maybe someday. We will see. Stay tuned.
- MY BODY LIKES EATING PLANT BASED. I know you’ve been waiting to hear if I noticed any changes… so here it is. I DID. My digestive system was happier, I had more energy, my acne went WAY down, and I just felt better. Plus, even when I did have my “splurge” meals, which weren’t necessarily super healthy, my body even seemed to react to them much better than it does with splurge meals that AREN’T plant-based. I also took my blood pressure somewhat consistently throughout the challenge, and it even went down. I started at the high-end of the “normal range” for blood pressure, and throughout the challenge I gradually transitioned into the lower-end of the “normal range”. I didn’t weigh myself at all, but I do feel that I probably lost a couple of pounds, and I think that my belly got a little flatter. I also noticed that the frequency of my headaches went down. So, overall, I would definitely say that a plant-based lifestyle agrees with my body. My hypothesis is that these changes were most likely due to the elimination of dairy as well as the major cutback on processed sugar.
Well, there you go. I’m definitely glad that I did this challenge, just look at how much I learned! And, really, I learned more than this – but I had to stop my list somewhere 😉
You may be wondering… “so, what’s next?”
Well, I think I’m going to eat *mostly* plant based for a while and see what I think of it. When it comes to special occasions, I may go back to my regular vegetarian ways for a meal here and there. And I might occasionally indulge in some ice cream. But my cooking will pretty much remain plant-based, and if there are plant-based options when I eat out, I’ll stick with them.
It’s so important for everyone to pick the eating patterns that work best for them. Don’t think that this post is intended to make everyone go vegan, because I know that that’s not for some people. However, I do encourage you to experiment and find what works best for you and your body! (And, of course, consult your physician about any concerns you may have – because I am not a medical professional 😉 ) My hope is that everyone can find joy in their food the way that I have over these past 21 days.
Here is the collection of all of my instagram stories throughout the 21 days. Not always the best quality since I sometimes just had a quick moment to snap the shot before digging in, but I was proud that I didn’t miss a day and always remembered! Enjoy!