Going vegan before Coachella like Beyoncé? You’re not alone. According to a report by research firm, Global Data, there has been a 600% increase in people identifying as vegans in the U.S. in the last three years. In 2018, more plant-based food and dairy and meat supplement companies are cropping up to better serve the demographic than ever before. The job title of Vegan Butcher? No longer so niche. And while the animal-free lifestyle could help you lose weight, boost energy and strength, not to mention improve the environment, experts advise on doing research first, otherwise you could be harming your body more than helping it.
“Veganism is not a quick fix for weight loss,” says Amy Shapiro, M.S., R.D., the founder of Real Nutrition NYC. “For heart health? Yes—just make sure you’re getting all your amino acids from plants and well combined meals, which is possible, but not easy,” she explains.
I’ll say. After a winter of weight gain and low energy, I recently found myself on a 22-day vegan diet trial—exactly one more day than the amount of time it supposedly takes to make a habit, hence the title of “22 Days Nutrition,” the vegan-based delivery service that Beyoncé and Jay Z co-founded with their trainer and life coach Marco Borges.
Perhaps because of my pride, though likely because of my wallet-size, I decide to opt out of the luxury food service and go rogue. After all, it can’t be that different from vegetarianism, right? I quick Googled a list of what I could and couldn’t eat—no products derived from an animal or animal byproduct, including eggs (from chickens), cheese and milk (cows and goats), and certain treats like gummy candy and marshmallows, because their gelatin-bases are made from ground-up pig or fish skin, bones, tendons, and ligament. And so I stocked up on beet pasta, vegetables, and brown rice instead, but the constant scrutinizing of labels for virtually everything began to take its toll. On Day 5, for example, I noticed the all-natural, carefully-sourced lozenges I had been using to soothe my soar throat all week had honey in them—which comes from bees, meaning, it’s forbidden.
Defeated, I took the weekend off from conscious eating. Day 8, a co-worker asked me where I got my black and braided leather bag—a purchase made prior to my denouncing of animal-made products. “Is that vegan?” she asks. No, I reply, somewhat stunned: I had never given thought to how much of my every day enjoyment may come at the expense of animals.
On Day 9, a Tuesday, I finally decide to get control over the situation, and head to Whole Foods armed with a fool-proof list that reads Lentils! Kale! Coconut oil! Justin’s Classic Peanut Butter! in blue scratch. I trek back to my desk with a bag of essentials, including snacks such as ginger kombucha (full disclosure: I didn’t take more than one sip) and vegan chocolate pudding (I finished it in minutes).
Snacks are precisely where many fledgling vegans make the biggest misstep, warns Shapiro, who cites chips, popcorn, candies, and French fries as offenders, all of which are vegan, none of which are healthy. “Even non-dairy foods, like cashew yogurt, has a lot of fat and hidden sugars in it; Vegan sausage may not have meat in it, but it’s not necessarily healthy. Just like any other diet, if you’re doing it wrong, it’s not going to be good for you.” Here, what I learned during my not-so-easy vegan trip.
The Right Supplements are Key
Supplements are a great way for vegans to meet their daily requirements of essential vitamins and proteins, which are more common in animals. “B12 is a non-negotiable because you can only get a sufficient amount from animal-based protein,” says Shapiro of the fortifying vitamin, which comes from microorganisms and is key to avoiding anemia, damage to the nervous system, and potentially heart disease and pregnancy complications. I immediately trade out my naturally sweetened lozenges for 5000 MCG of sublingual vitamin B12 lozenges. And because only a few items contain vitamin D3—egg yolk, mushrooms, and sun exposure—I dive into my Well Told Health Vitamin D boosters, which are made with organic portobellos, quinoa, and spinach. Zinc supplements, says Shapiro, could have saved me from my cold, since I wasn’t consuming oysters, red meat, poultry or other foods rich in the essential mineral.
Learn How to Scour the Ingredients Label
I went into this veggie romp thankful that I know how to read ingredients labels, having survived two rounds of the highly restrictive Whole 30 diet last year with not one mishap. But this required a more nuanced understanding of scientific terms that went beyond honey. I had soon memorized a list of the sneaky fake names for added sugar (fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, maltose, and so on). Soy I thought was fair play. However, “soy protein isolate is simply broken-down processed soy,” says Shapiro, who prefers tempe over tofu for this very reason. “It can make us feel really bad.“ Even worse? “Broken down soy, which is full of hormones and estrogens, can really wreak havoc on your skin.” I took another look at my chocolate chip and peanut butter energy bar, my go-to morning snack, and sure enough, soy protein isolate was number three on the ingredients list (with three more soy variations to follow). First on the list? Rice syrup—also known as sugar.
Make a Schedule You Can Stick To
When Shapiro, a former vegan and vegetarian herself, told me that above all she preaches a balanced diet of “more plants, less processed foods, and well-sourced meats” to her clients, I felt compelled to tell her about my weekend off spent eating specialty cheeses and a burger from my favorite neighborhood restaurant. “Well, were your proportions absurd?” She asks. I can’t recall, I say (though the stomach ache that followed has not left my memory since this article’s publication date). “It doesn’t have to be so intense that when you bring [animal-based food] back into your life, you can’t stop.” Shapiro herself takes a page out of Mark Bittman’s book, VB6, which stands for vegan or vegetarian before 6 p.m. “I make an effort, but it doesn’t feel so hard, because I can eat dinner at home or out with my kids,” she says, thankful she lives in a city with so many good food and restaurant options, like AvantGarden, a vegan eatery which is opening a Brooklyn outpost this summer. “As long as it’s not my third meal of bad animal-based protein in one day, I can manage.”
Find a Support System
Like Beyoncé, or Tom Brady, who mainly eats a plant-based diet, a support system is key when taking control over what you eat. And while not everyone has their own personal traveling chef or life coach to make them homemade kale chips and fresh green juices, there are plenty of books, recipe blogs, cooking classes, and food delivery services worth saving up for that do the heavy “elevated food” lifting for you, Shapiro continues. There is Euphebe, which offers freezer-friendly prepared meals and a food coach for 28 days, and Daily Harvest has a new focus on frozen smoothies, soups, and sundaes. When all else fails, lean on a friend who is willing to either trade in your favorite Italian spot for an all-Asian vegan restaurant, or help you navigate the menu accordingly. You’d be surprised how many “safe” options are offered if you just ask.
Now, I have completed day 22, and while I am not stepping into Coachella weekend with Beyoncé’s fiercely sculpted body and lit-from-within glow, I’m sleeping better than ever before, I have more energy to squeeze in workouts before heading into the office, and, coincidence or not, I’ve been fielding more unsolicited compliments of the ‘you look great’ variety. I may not stick to a fully vegan lifestyle, but it’s enough to continue with a plant-heavy diet—not to mention join the Bey Hive.