Why the plant-based diet didn't work for me

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All good things must come to an end. January was a great month to test out vegan eating. I was inspired, I learned, I tried all kinds of new foods and new preparations.

But in the end, vegan eating just isn’t for me.

I never intended for my vegan cleanse to be a diet or help me lose weight. Initially it was a response to my overindulgent holiday consumption. A way to jump-start my body back into its usually healthy rhythms. But I’d always secretly wanted to test it out--to see if I’d feel healthier and have more energy. To find out whether I could cure my occasional insomnia.

Egg carton

But here’s what ultimately happened: I felt like I was missing something. I felt out of balance and not completely myself. Despite the guacamole and french fries, I felt like I was on a diet, and not a particularly healthy one.

This was the most eye-opening lesson about my vegan cleanse: yes, you can be paleo, vegan, dairy-free or gluten-free, but don’t expect those diets to be inherently healthy. You still need to make smart food choices.

Before my cleanse, I had a vivid impression that my month of vegan eating would transport me to a fruit and vegetable fantasyland; a land where food choices are made wisely, automatically and temptation is minimized.

Fruits and vegetables certainly live in this place, but on your journey you’ll encounter white breads, heavy oils, tortilla chips, candy and alcohol. And you might find yourself reaching for these items more often than you’d like.

While I had the purest intentions as I set out on my cleanse, I realized that given my busy schedule, convenience is a huge driver of choice. And I’m not talking about McDonald’s. I’m talking about cracking two eggs into a pan, making some toast, and in less than five minutes, a hearty breakfast or lunch is ready.

For a snack, cheese on whole-grain crackers, yogurt, or a few slices of salami once did the trick. This month, I tended to reach for fruit or vegetables, hummus, or avocado. I quickly tired of hummus and avocado, and found that fruit or vegetables alone didn’t satiate. I’m sure that far more vegan-friendly snack options exist, but this, in the end, is what I ate. These are the foods that felt the most intuitive. The easiest, the fastest, the types of food that are closest to what my former self would have eaten.

Eating vegan also meant that I had to think more about meal planning. And the more I thought about food, the more I ate.

Having come from a diet-heavy period in my 20s, I now realize that the reason they failed was because they took too much work and conscious planning. I was always thinking about food, getting hungrier by the minute.

Food shouldn’t feel like work. Poring over ingredients and food choices is work. Combing through cookbooks and weeding out recipes that call for cheese or meat: work. Heading to the grocery store knowing that I can’t buy half the items stocked: work.

Let me be clear--it wasn’t work in the negative sense of the word, often it was fun work. But work that made my diet feel less natural and made me eat more? That just didn’t compute.

Maybe if I’d given it a chance, eating a vegan diet would have started to feel more intuitive. But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Barring holiday overindulgences, I have a fairly healthy diet. I eat plenty of salads, lean proteins, and don’t go overboard on sweets. I avoid preservatives like the plague, I favor homemade versions of store-bought staples, and I’ve done enough cooking to know that it’s actually faster to make dinner at home than order takeout.

And now comes my gut-wrenching confession: because I wasn’t feeling as clean and renewed as I’d hoped, I started to cheat.

It all started with some eggs. Fresh from the farm, each egg a different size and a different color. The outside of the eggs smudged with a trace of dirt. I saw them at the store and knew that I needed them. Even if it meant keeping them in my fridge untouched for the remaining week of my cleanse.

But my craving for the eggs took over. I had conversations in my head, I weighed pros and cons. In the end, 10 minutes after I arrived home with my groceries, I gave in. I poached an egg and inhaled it with a slice of toast.

I felt enormous guilt, but oddly, I knew that I was doing the right thing for my body. It was filling….it satiated me in a way that I couldn’t replicate with plant-based foods alone. It felt like the essence of nourishment. It felt right.

Over the course of the next few days I finished the remaining eggs. I ate a poached egg on top of everything. Roasted potatoes, salad, toasted bread, nothing was immune.

Containing my cheat to the eggs felt manageable, better than an across-the-board breakdown. Ninety-five percent of the food I was eating was still vegan, but at this point, recognizing that eating vegan wasn’t for me, I rationalized that I was probably eating healthier foods now that I’d allowed eggs back into my life. I was no longer eating a tub of hummus each day.

The final days of my cleanse were tough. The end was near, I’d cheated, and felt sluggish from a head cold.

The last temptation came in the form of a burger. We’d gone to Bare Burger for a weekend brunch; as Rodney ordered his usual avocado chicken sandwich, I caved. I ordered a beef burger, topped with brisket and covered in cheddar cheese. Enough was enough. I didn’t finish the end of this book, but if you’re not enjoying a book, sometimes you just have to put it down.

I’m proud of what I ate this month. I pushed myself to try something new, I learned about what I like, and what I don’t like. I learned that my normal diet (barring the previous burger reference) is already pretty healthy. Vegan food is a great support player in my vegetable-heavy diet, but when it becomes the lead actor, things start to fall apart.

It’s my sincerest hope that I haven’t discouraged anyone from eating a vegan diet. I felt compelled to share my own experience, warts and all. What works for one person, doesn’t always work for the next. So cheers to good health and smart food choices, whether you’re vegan, paleo, gluten-free or anything in between. Hopefully we’ll all be winners.

 

Jessica Fiorillo

Author, Feed Me Dearly blog

feedmedearly.com

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