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I love cheese. Like love, love, love cheese. Despite all the research out there telling me about the nasty saturated fats, and how it might actually make my allergies worse, I just love it. So when presented with the challenge of going vegan for a week for KIWI’s Earth Month Challenge, I jumped at the chance. Like I said, I’ve read the research, and eliminating dairy and meat isn’t just good for your body, it’s good for the planet.

But going vegan for a week isn’t as simple as swapping out my usual skim milk for almond in my cereal every morning—it’s going to require planning, and research, and cooking. Which for me, queen of the frozen veggie burgers (And guess what? Dairy in those guys, too!), is going to be a challenge in itself. So I’m encouraging you to join me: From April 9 – 16 I’ll be sharing my difficulties and triumphs, plus (hopefully) easy recipes and tips I’m trying along the way. Thinking about going vegan yourself? Or maybe you already are and have some recipes of your own you’d like to share? Send me an e-mail and tell me about it!

Day 1: Monday

When our editorial team sat down a few weeks ago to discuss ideas for how we were going to celebrate Earth Month, we all had some variation of the KIWI Challenges we cover in every issue in mind—and when going vegan for a week came up as a possibility, I jumped at the chance. I haven’t been a beef or pork eater for years (though, to be honest, I occasionally can’t resist the tempting smell of bacon), but I am what I’ve heard called a “pollo pescetarian”, meaning I still eat chicken and fish. However, I can easily do without it (and often go days without eating any kind of meat), and what I’m most excited about/dreading for my challenge, is going dairy-free. As I mentioned before, I love all things that fall into that delicious, protein-packed category: Cheese, yogurt, milk, eggs; you name it and I likely have it every week, if not every day.

Of course, skipping on the dairy products isn’t the only (or hardest!) aspect to this challenge: There are also the hidden, usually animal-derived ingredients used in all sorts of processed foods. Some of the big ones I’ve been looking for as I prep my kitchen for a week of animal-free foods:

  • Casein: a milk protein often found in soy cheeses to help them melt
  • Albumen: a protein found in egg whites
  • Cochineal/Carmine: a red coloring agent made from ground up beetles
  • Oleic acid: fat from sheep or cattle
  • Calcium stearate: a mineral usually derived from hogs and cattle
  • Gelatin: protein from animal bones, cartilage, tendons, and skin
  • Glycerides (mono/di/tri): glycerol from animal fats
  • Stearic acid: animal fats and oils
  • Whey: a milk product

Of course, if you stay away from packaged foods as much as possible, avoiding these ingredients shouldn’t be too tough. The key is scouring the labels of everything you eat (should make eating out interesting!), and knowing what to look for. I saved this list and brought it with me to the grocery store, so I knew that the English muffins I typically buy for my veggie burgers had whey in them, and the “meltable” soy cheese I was eyeing was safe (in terms of ingredients anyway—the taste left something to be desired).

For my first day on a plant-based diet, I’m keeping it pretty simple—I had a long weekend, and didn’t have much time to get anything prepped to bring with me to work today. For the rest of the week I plan on making most of my meals at home, save for one possible night out at a vegan restaurant with a friend who’s doing the challenge with me. Here’s what I’ve had so far today:

Breakfast:

  • Instant organic steel cut oats
  • A splash of almond milk
  • Dried dates

Snack:

  • Raw almonds

Lunch:

  • A salad with spinach, kale, broccoli, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, grilled tofu, and balsamic vinaigrette dressing. I’m fairly confident that everything in my salad is safe, but since it’s takeout and I didn’t have a list of ingredients, I can’t be totally sure the dressing is—if there’s anything I should be aware of when it comes to oil-based dressings, let me know!

Check back tomorrow to see what recipe I’m using for dinner tonight, and how I plan on getting enough of the ever-important protein without any meat or dairy.

 

Day 3: Wednesday

Well, a photo shoot for our August/September issue kept me from updating yesterday, however, here’s a rundown on some of the things I’ve eaten over the last couple days:

For dinner on Monday, I made this Spicy Lemon Pepper Pasta, though I had to swap in cherry tomatoes for sun-dried, since I couldn’t find the oil packed variety the recipe called for at the store near my apartment. It was pretty tasty, though I really missed the saltiness and flavor that my typical healthy dose of Parmesan cheese would have added (sun-dried tomatoes might have helped with that). I put spinach in it too, since I have quite a bit in my fridge.

For breakfast yesterday, I used this smoothie recipe from our brand new allergy-friendly cookbook to make a Power Potion of my own—I skipped the banana, because I’m allergic, and used frozen berries instead of mango, like the recipe suggests. It was delicious, and super-filling, but it didn’t last long—less than two hours later my stomach was rumbling and I could have had probably 10 more Green Power Potions. Which brings me to the topic of today’s post (and something I was seriously lacking yesterday morning): Protein.

I’d say that after “Are you crazy?”, “Where do you get your protein?” has to be the most common question I’ve been asked since telling people about my meat-free week. People love getting their protein (myself included), and I’m starting to think that for the most part, that has more to do with the meat and dairy products they’re getting them from than the actual benefits protein provides.

For people on a plant-based diet, the issue isn’t simply getting enough protein (it can be found in tons of plant-based foods), it’s making sure you’re getting enough of the right kind. Basically, your body needs complete proteins to ensure it’s getting all of the amino acids it needs but can’t make itself. All animal proteins are complete, including red meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy. Plant proteins however, are a bit trickier: Save for a few exceptions, like soybeans and quinoa, most don’t contain all of the essential amino acids, so they’re incomplete protein sources. This is why, while my smoothie filled me up, it didn’t keep me feeling full for long—even though there were plenty of nutrients, there wasn’t a lot in the way of complete proteins in it (maybe I should try it with soy milk instead of water next time?).

While getting these complete proteins isn’t as easy for a vegan as it is for a meat-eater, or even a dairy-eating vegetarian, it isn’t impossible: Foods can be combined to make complete proteins like pairing beans with rice or corn, or hummus with pita bread. And you don’t have to eat complementary proteins together at every meal. As long as you get a variety of proteins throughout the day, you’ll get ample amounts of each amino acid.

As you can probably imagine, I’m still trying to get a handle on all of this. I, like most meat-eaters, have relied pretty heavily on filling up on meat and dairy products, so figuring out ways to make sure I fill up without dairy products (or tons of carbs) has been tricky, but I’m getting the hang of it. I keep a stash of almonds in my desk drawer, I had chickpeas in my salad for lunch yesterday, and I’m having brown rice with broccoli and sliced almonds for lunch today—plus, this website I found offers other ideas for meals that combine foods.

Check back tomorrow to see how I’m handling my hunger levels, and what other KIWI staffers are eating during their meat-free week!

 

Day 5: Friday

As my meat-free week is winding down, I have to admit that it does come with a bit of relief. Not because I missed dairy so much, save for the beginning of the week I haven’t missed it much at all. For me, the most challenging part of being vegan has been the time and effort that goes into it. I’d imagine learning to read labels and knowing what to look for when you shop would get easier as time went on, and so might all the cooking—but for me, someone who’s hardly ever home (and whose time there is mostly spent sleeping), prepping and cooking all of my meals requires a lot of free time that I just don’t have—and that I’m not quite yet able to give to cooking.

That being said, I’m really glad I was able to take part in this challenge. I learned a lot about food, and that yes, you can survive without meat and dairy. I also feel really good—this week has been a crazy one for me (aren’t they all?), but for the most part my energy levels are good, and I don’t feel like I’m dragging as much as I normally would be by the end of the week. I plan on sticking with the vegan challenge through the weekend, and maybe even beyond that, just to see if I can. And when I do go back to meat, I definitely plan on cutting back on the dairy products—my hunger pains earlier in the week were a pretty unpleasant reminder that I rely too much on those items to fill me up when clearly, I can feel just as full with beans, nuts, and plenty of veggies.

I wasn’t the only staffer who took part in the challenge: our CEO Maxine Wolf and her daughter and KIWI teen columnist, Maylee, gave it a shot as well. You can read about their efforts in Maylee’s section of the site, but here are some of the things they ate:

 

Breakfast: Matzo with Earth Balance Buttery Spread and blueberries

Lunch: Pasta with Earth Balance Buttery Spread and a spoonful of peanut butter

Dinner: Pasta and pasta sauce with broccoli

 

They made it through two whole days without meat, but they weren’t quite prepared for how many things usually have dairy products in them. As Maylee said:

My mom and I realized that in order to be vegan, you have to be better prepared than we were. You have to read every label (since there are lots of hidden ingredients) and make sure your kitchen is stocked up with plenty of dairy-free foods beforehand. We’re definitely going to try it on our own again—now that we know so much more about going vegan, trying it a second time should be a lot easier!

Associate editor Marisa also participated (having someone else in the office to commiserate with made things a bit easier). Take a look at what she had to say:

I decided to give this week’s vegan challenge a try—and I’m really glad I did. Like Dana, I don’t eat a ton of meat in general—I do still eat red meat and pork, but I often find myself going a few days without eating meat of any kind. So similarly, it was the cheese and dairy (especially my love for Parmesan cheese and daily cup of greek yogurt) that would be hard to give up. 

All week, my meals were pretty simple. I had steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast every day. (Except this morning, when I was running late and grabbed a bag of dry Special K, quickly glancing over the ingredients and crossing my fingers it was okay!). Lunch was a salad with carrots, chickpeas, cucumbers, and black beans one day. And, an update from my elementary school lunch days, sesame seed butter and jelly sandwich another. Dinner was a couple nights of pasta with veggies, veggie burgers, and quinoa with peppers and black beans.  

Overall, what I found toughest was just having to be sure to plan out what I was eating for each meal—it was particularly hard when I didn’t think in advance to bring a snack, or when I got home from work late. But that being said, I definitely think I’ll be relying more on my cranberries-raisins-almonds mix as a snack in the future!   

And tonight: pizza! 

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