Four years of a vegan diet

Bryan Alexander 2024-03-10

What’s it like to eat a vegan diet for some years?

For most of my life I was a serious carnivore, eating lots of meat and animal products.  Yet in late 2019 I experimented with eating a partially vegan diet.  This turned out so well that in March 2020 I switched to eating solely plant-based foods and have done so for the following four years.

a bulb of garlic

The most delicious force in the universe.

tl;dr – veganism works very well for me on multiple levels and I’ll keep doing it.

I made the switch for two reasons.  First, as I was (and still am) researching climate change and finding a consensus that humans should eat less meat and fewer animals products, I thought I would learn about that change through doing it in my life.  Second, I was concerned about my health.  In 2019 I weighed over 255 pounds and was concerned about carrying that much weight into older ages.

Eating vegan answered both of those challenges.  I’ve learned a great deal more about food systems and cultures, as well as experiencing (albeit with an n of 1) the transition from lots of meat to none at all.

What’s it like in 2024?

My health has improved, with my weight down to the 210s, even with thrice-weekly weight lifting.  I feel better in my body, which I hadn’t expected.  Staff at the clinic I see admire my results, and one doctor asked me what my secret was.

My life has changed in some other ways.

Cooking 1-3 vegan meals a day (depending on if I’m home) has made me a more serious cook.  I shop for groceries more extensively and carefully, spending more time in produce section than ever, unsurprisingly, and hitting multiple shops for various ingredients (it’s a delight to be nearly multiple international groceries). I set up some meals a day in advance, to let garbanzo beans soak overnight, for example.  I leave comments on vegan websites and YouTube videos, sharing my experimental results and asking semi-informed questions.  When I travel I can ask better questions of professionals chefs and caterers. Somehow I now can make 50 different dishes for lunch or dinner, from Indian aloo gobi and channa masala to Thai drunken noodles, hen’s mane cumin mushrooms, mujadara, red beans and rice, and vegan general Tso.  I really do rely on Chinese and Indian traditions.

vegan meal prep

For example, here’s the menu of breakfast options I have in my kitchen:

Dal Braised tofu Breakfast burrito Breakfast patties Chickpea and sweet potato fritters Crispy fried tofu Curried mushroom and tofu scramble Dal: red lentil; yellow lentil Fajitas Fried potato bits Green-wrapped vegan “meat” Hash browns Mushroom scramble Mushrooms in corn tortillas Quinoa with garlic Sweet potato hash Sweet potato and kale fritters Tofu scramble

This diet changed my gardening, as I focus on growing edible plants and more of them.  I’m trying out all kinds of things, from setting up a fruit tree in the front yard to expanding our herb garden.  We add to the compost every day, and use all the results each spring.

My culinary tastes and practices come and go in waves.  I’ll be obsessed with hummus for weeks, then forget about it for months. Now I’m in the middle of a noodle craze.

veggie lo mein looking good

Veggie lo mein, one of my go-to lunches. Mushrooms, slice carrots, spinach, garlic, green onions, sprouts, noodles in a lovely sauce.

I rarely eat plant-based meats or animal products, like Impossible Burgers or various Cheezes. I like ’em well enough when I come across them, but I usually don’t think of them when I’m shopping or planning a meal. I think it’s because I’ve partitioned off meat and animal products so carefully in my mind that I don’t go looking for allowable versions of them.  Maybe I’ll return to them again.

Very rarely do I get memories of cravings for meat and animal products. Usually it’s  when I’m very hungry and a scent or visual which will remind me of older pleasures.  Fried chicken is the main culprit.  These are just momentary, though.  I can easily displace them with thoughts of vegan food I love and the memories slip away.

Perhaps this relative ease of staying on the vegan path is due to a lack of carnivorous family or cultural heritage.  As a child and teenager I ate a lot of meat and cheese, but that didn’t occur within a specific culinary tradition.  In that period of my life I have so many negative memories and associations with food and eating that it plays no positive influence in my subsequent eating practice. I started teaching myself how to cook in college, with the help of kind friends, and carved my own way from there.

Beyond the psychological dimension, technology plays a significant role in how I eat.  Today I rely on various digital tools for finding, learning about, and cooking vegan food.  The HappyCow app is my go-to when traveling anywhere, but sometimes I have to Google for very specific needs, like vegan options in a certain airport.   When planning meals and exploring, I Google all kinds of questions, from specific recipes to substitutions, national vegan traditions and health issues.  Individual web pages can be very useful, especially for recipe pages, once I skim down the introductory fluff to actual instructions.  YouTube is especially helpful, now that there are so many recipes carefully documenting preparation.  (Here’s my vegan how-to playlist.)

At the same time I rely on Google Docs to record and organize recipes.  This includes copying ideas from websites (which I link to), jotting down impressions and ideas, editing them for my purposes and tastes, adding some photos of the results.  I also post those photos of my cooking and eating to Instagram and Flickr; alas, neither gets much interest, and I’m not sure why.  Right now I have a few hundred Google Docs for vegan purposes.

I check out a new print cookbook every few months, usually from our community library system, for more inspiration and ideas.  I don’t use any recipe or other food mobile apps.

Four years of this… some things haven’t changed in my life since I started this thing.  I don’t evangelize veganism, so I haven’t made any converts that I know of, at least not any deliberate ones, although maybe my comments on the topic have played a role in some folks’ thinking.   I don’t get static from people who want to critique the vegan choice.  Now, when I professionally describe vegan diets as a climate change strategy, citing IPCC reports etc., I will hear some pushback, but it’s never personally directed at me.  It’s usually abstract, sometimes in the form of sociological and psychological arguments about changing food choices.  In presentations I will sometimes mention my vegan experience, again as an n of 1, in order to show that I walk the talk, but I don’t dwell on it.

My family still eats meat and animal products, as much as they used to, even as I live and cook with them, but I support their choices.  I grocery shop for them and often cook dinners accordingly without admonishing them or feeling guilt.  They will also gladly eat the veggies I make, notablu my roasted potatoes and garlic green beans, and are kind about sampling my vegan meals.

There are still challenges for being a vegan in 2024, at least for me (and please let me know what I’m doing wrong!).  First, sometimes it’s hard to find vegan food.  I’ve been trying to be better about bringing trail mix for such situations, but keep forgetting to make a good supply. This can be an issue in constrained environments, like airports or trains, as well as in communities with meat-centric food cultures.

Bryan with an orange in Orange County

Me with an orange in Orange County.

Second, while the diet keeps me healthy, I remain vulnerable to (vegan!) snack foods.  I try to stick to radishes, nuts, and roasted chickpeas, but chips etc. are too alluring.

Socially, veganism is still an extreme outlier.  In the United States, where I live, only around 4% of people do this, according to Statista, or just 1%, as per Gallup,  I enjoy meeting, talking with, and learning from vegetarians and other vegans.  One can find them anywhere.  That’s a nice bond to discover.  However, I do stand out from that population in many ways.  From what I’ve been able to research, vegans tend to be younger, female, less wealthy, and way skinnier than weightlifting me.

Looking ahead, I’m set in my vegan ways.  I’ll keep cooking and eating accordingly.  I’m excited about learning new recipes and ingredients.

I don’t plan on advocating for this diet, but am happy to share my experience. Maybe I should share recipes, too.

How about you, dear readers?  Do you have vegan questions or stories to share?