When I was in my early twenties, I followed a vegan diet for several years. As a graduate student in Environmental Sciences in Montreal, several of my classmates and friends were vegan. There were a number of high-quality vegan restaurants nearby and the local grocery stores had sizable health food sections. Surrounded by other vegans and living in a city with plenty of food options, it wasn’t too challenging to stick to vegan eating.
A few years later, when I started working and traveling more often, being a vegan wasn’t so easy. I didn’t have the time to devote to it to make sure I was getting the proper nutrition. When traveling, eating healthy can be challenging at the best of times. For me, remaining a vegan while traveling meant resorting to fries or salads with soggy lettuce and tomatoes.
It was at this time when I decided to introduce animal products into my life again. Once I did so, I felt I had more energy. Being an omnivore again, I didn’t have to plan my meals as much. At the time, I felt healthier. It was easier, too.
Since my days as a vegan, I’ve completed medical school and I’ve been practicing as a physician for over three years now. With my work in the hospital, often the patients I see are very sick. I care for people with complications arising from conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. While this work is important and crucial, it also makes me reflect on another important topic: preventative medicine.
We know that proper diet and exercise are necessary for the prevention of disease. Yet in medical school, these elements are almost completely lacking in most curricula. The field of medicine is disproportionately focused on the medical management of disease after is has occurred. I frequently find myself lacking both the knowledge and time to discuss with my patients the importance of disease prevention.
Since med school didn’t do this topic justice, this year I am taking the time to teach myself as much as I can about nutrition and exercise. The first of which is exploring the ever-popular topic of veganism.
Despite the lack of nutrition education in med school, the academic world is focusing more on this topic. The graph below, published in a study from 2019 (1), shows that in the last ten years, there has been a large increase in the number of studies about veganism and plant-based nutrition.
Systematic reviews are large studies that aim to review all of the research related to a given topic, combining the results of multiple studies over long periods of time. In a systematic review from 2018 (2), the authors found that when compared with omnivores, vegans had a lower body mass index, lower blood pressure and lower waist circumference. In 2018, the American Medical Association advocated that hospitals should offer more vegan meal options. The company Beyond Meat, which produces products like plant-based burgers, has been making waves in the stock market. Veganism has become mainstream.
Nearing the end of 2019, it was a good time of year to explore something old, yet new. What would happen if I tried to be a vegan again? I decided to do a week-long trial. If you want to see my video log of the experience, you can find it here on my InstagramTV.
Previously, when I was a vegan, I did it for several reasons – to lessen my environmental footprint, to stay healthy and because I didn’t like how animals may be treated in factory farms. It was a combination of these same reasons that made me want to pursue veganism again.
Overall, it was a great week, but it definitely presented some challenges. Sometimes I would order food at a restaurant, only to realize that I forgot to ask to hold the cheese. Then, once it was on my plate – well – who can say no to cheese? Vegans I guess! But in that moment, I could not. Another time, after eating some dark chocolate, I read on the ingredient list afterwards: may contain milk products. On another occasion, I caved for a muffin (it was delicious).
I ate mostly vegan for the week, but I definitely realized that I fell into the category of cheagan (cheating vegan).
On days when I was really busy, and didn’t plan properly, I didn’t get enough protein. During these days, my brain felt foggy and I felt more tired than usual. But on the days when I carefully planned my meals and paid attention to what I was eating, I felt light and like a I had lots of energy.
Part of my vegan trial included traveling from the U.S. to Canada. There were a surprising number of vegan options at the airport. Traveling as a vegan isn’t as challenging as it used to be.
A tip that some of my followers on Instagram suggested was that is doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Some people live a mostly vegan lifestyle but then take days when they eat non-vegan. Others will follow a vegan diet for a few weeks, or even one day a week. Some nutrients that are easy to miss in a vegan diet are B12, iron and calcium.
So. Am I ready to run full throttle into the vegan life? No. But being vegan for a week gave me a kick start of incorporating more plants into my diet. Since then, I’ve managed to keep off five extra pounds, and I’m feeling better overall. Have you ever tried being a vegan? Let me know in the comments below!
- Medawar, E., Huhn, S., Villringer, A. et al. 2019. The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: a systematic review. Transl Psychiatry 9, 226.
- Benatar, J. R. & Stewart, R. A. H. 2018. Cardiometabolic risk factors in vegans: a meta-analysis of observational studies. PLoS ONE 13, e0209086