The 8 most important things our reporter learned after cutting out all animal products for 14 days.
Jeff Wilser 1 / 9
Ironman champion John Joseph. Boxer Cam Awesome. NFL running back Arian Foster. UFC fighters Nick and Nate Diaz. These are all: a) world-class athletes; b) people who could kick my butt; c) athletes who’ve gone vegan. Answer: all of the above. There’s even a growing community of bodybuilders who swear by the vegan lifestyle.
So what’s it really like? A lifelong carnivore, I eat meat nearly every day. But whether or not you agree with the vegan code of honor—which is, basically: “Don’t kill animals to make your dinner”—you still have to respect people who back their words with action.
With that in mind I went vegan for two weeks. Here are the eight most important things I learned.
Breakfast, Day 1. Normally when I cook oatmeal (yes, in my bachelor world, oatmeal counts as “cooking”), I add a few splashes of milk to make it creamy. But vegans can’t have milk. So, instead, I dilute the oatmeal with a generous pouring of...syrup. Is that vegan? Yes. Healthy? No. It’s a classic vegan trap. PETA even has a website of food that’s “accidentally vegan,” and it includes Cracker Jacks, Doritos, and Jell-O pudding. Oreos are vegan.
Solution: I head to the store and buy soy milk; I won’t pretend that I prefer the taste, but in small doses it’s not objectionable. I soon learn that almost everything has a vegan substitute, including cheese and butter.
On my first real night of veganism, I have dinner with a friend at a Mexican restaurant. I stare at the menu glumly. Steak fajitas: out. Chicken enchiladas: no dice. So I get veggie tacos, with no cheese. “Can we have some more chips and guac?” I ask the waitress.
Since I’m being super-healthy by skipping the meat, I subconsciously give myself permission to scarf up more of the chips. I must have gobbled up 1,000 calories—many of them cheap carbs. Veganism isn’t a silver bullet. The normal rules of health (calories in, calories out; be smart about fat and carbs) still apply. So the solution is...
At the grocery store, I find an employee and I say five words I never thought I’d utter: “Excuse me, where’s the tofu?”
I buy six pounds of tofu—six pounds!—two cans of red beans, four cans of black beans, chili powder, and ground cumin. I go home and dump it all in a slow cooker and make “tofu chili,” which would make me the laughing-stock of all my friends from Texas. Four hours later I taste it...delicious. Holy shit, I like tofu. I freeze half the chili—I’ve just cooked 12 healthy dinners, each one packing more than 25 grams of protein. Game on.
I worried that without red meat, my lifting would suffer. So, for guidance I turned to Robert Cheeke, a championship bodybuilder who’s been vegan since he was a teen. He tells me that before a heavy workout, I should eat “foods popular among all bodybuilders such as potatoes, yams, brown rice, beans, oats, and other nutrient-dense, heavy plant foods.”
So before lifting, I eat a large bowl of oatmeal (no syrup), then head to a leg day for seven sets of squats, leg press, and interval running. Afterward I reach for a protein shake and remember...damn it. Whey protein is not vegan. Solution: A vegan protein shake like Cal Naturale, Orgain, MegaOne. That said...
Real talk: This might not win any points with the personal trainers (sorry, guys), but for most people—and me, certainly—nightlife is a part of life. So I was delighted to discover that veganism has no impact on your ability to order and enjoy alcohol. If you’re on a date, you won’t have to tweak your drinking unless you order something like a White Russian. (Pro tip: There’s never a good context, especially on a date, for ordering a White Russian.)
While the workouts themselves don’t feel any different, consuming enough protein is a challenge. It can be done—just ask all the ripped vegan bodybuilders—but it takes a near-fanatical devotion to beans, tofu, beans, tofu, and then more beans and tofu.
As every faithful Men’s Fitness reader knows, depending on your lifting goals, you’ll want to consume 1 to 2 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So for me that’s 173 grams of protein on the low end. In his book Vegan Bodybuilding & Fitness, Cheeke includes a journal entry of his day’s getting 183 grams of protein, which includes: two tofu hot dogs, three bagels, peanuts, strawberry protein drink, another tofu hot dog, more peanuts, chocolate soy milk, and another tofu hot dog. “The misconception that vegans don’t get enough protein is clearly fading away,” says Cheeke. Perhaps.
“I’ll have a burger,” my buddy says at an outdoor Brooklyn restaurant called “Pig Beach.” “I’ll have the pork sliders,” says another friend. I look at the menu...my only option is a veggie burger. “We’re out,” says the waitress. So instead I glumly chew a vegan energy bar. (The brand is Go Macro, surprisingly not bad.) These things happen when you’re on a goofy diet—it’s easy when you cook at home, tough in social situations. Solution: If headed to a dicey restaurant, eat your own meal before or after. In case of emergencies, keep vegan bars handy.
This was the real shocker. Since I had barely gone a day without meat in two-plus decades, I’d imagined these two weeks would be full of psychological torture, hunger pangs, longing looks at hamburgers, and cravings for bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches.
The truth is: I felt fine. On the one hand, there was no magical sense of “light-ness” that came from purging my body of meat and its (alleged) evils. On the other, there was no feeling of fatigue. I felt normal. My body didn’t scream out in protest and demand a rib-eye steak.
From a physiological standpoint, it was doable, even easy. But physiology is one thing, and psychology is something else. My body may not demand a steak, but my heart wants what the heart wants. After two weeks, I celebrated with a one-pound, inch-thick slab of rib-eye that looked, well, sexy. I now get veganism...but I’ll continue getting the steak.