Top Diets 2004: Going Vegan

Our author reflects on a year of being a Vegan

A year ago I began a vegan diet–a vegetarian diet that excludes all animal products, including cheese and milk. I eat fruits and vegetables as well as whole-grain breads, pasta, and cereals. I also have soy cheeses and soy milk and other soy-based foods like tofu. When I tell people about my diet, I'm usually asked four questions.

Why did I do it?

By cutting out saturated animal fats I hope to enhance my long-term health. And not to sound preachy, but I feel better not eating food from animals, especially after reading the book Fast Food Nation.

Did I lose weight?

Although I've battled my weight for decades, that wasn't my primary goal. I eat when I'm hungry, and I eat enough to satisfy myself. Over the course of the year I've lost ten pounds without trying. If I don't exercise, I don't lose weight. When I maintain an exercise regimen of a three-mile walk six days a week, weight has gradually come off without any conscious control of caloric intake.

How do I feel?

The single biggest change is an increase in energy. I sleep a little less, and I have more stamina. Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and vegetables are the body's high-test fuel, which probably is why I've gained energy. I avoid white foods such as potatoes, white rice, and white bread. A vegan diet is naturally low in fat, and I've reduced my cholesterol levels as well as my blood pressure.

How do I get protein?

Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids that our body doesn't store very efficiently, so we need a daily supply. Opinions differ on how much protein is optimum, but a reasonable estimate is eight grams of protein daily per 20 pounds of body weight, or 72 grams a day for a 180-pound man. Some populations survive quite well on less.

Although we've long been told, mostly by the meat and dairy industries, that the most complete protein sources come from animals–meats, cheeses, eggs–that claim is not supported by the evidence. Studies show that animal and vegetable protein have similar effects–but vegetable protein does not come with saturated fat.

I don't think about my protein intake because I know my diet provides plenty. I could more than meet my daily protein requirement just by eating brown rice, beans, and vegetables. Forty-five percent of broccoli's calories come from protein. Oatmeal, wheat, and other grains are also good sources of protein. There is some controversy as to the need for combining complementary proteins–such as beans and brown rice, peanut butter and bread, or tofu and brown rice–to get a "whole" protein. This is because many vegetable proteins are "incomplete," meaning they don't contain one or more amino acids needed to make a complete protein. Combining is easy to do, and it's integrated into the way I eat.

Soy is a good protein source, and every day I mix a smoothie that usually includes a banana, berries, orange juice, and soy milk along with soy powder. It serves as a breakfast drink or afternoon snack.

I've found following a vegan diet to be relatively easy. I work at home, which makes eating less complicated. My wife has helped by creating tasty vegan meals such as lentils and brown rice and a variety of vegetables. She also makes a delicious vegetable soup using V-8 juice as a base. My son Ben, a vegetarian, took me through Whole Foods and pointed out the best-tasting of the soy-based foods, such as cheeses and cold cuts, which helped make the vegan diet satisfying from the start.

I've always enjoyed fruits and vegetables, and except for a brief experience with the Atkins diet–on which I lasted 48 hours–I've eaten very little red meat or pork in recent years.

I wasn't a vegetarian during that time, but a few days a month I ate no meat. So veganism isn't a revolutionary change. I now eat tofu instead of chicken, and when I crave meat I've found satisfying soy-based foods with the texture and taste of meat.

I've long had two high-fat weaknesses–cheese and ice cream. I allay the cheese craving with soy cheeses, and when I crave ice cream I turn to a dessert called Soy Dream, which makes a chocolate ice cream as flavorful as any ice cream I've ever eaten, and I've eaten just about all of them.

Some vegans are purists and don't eat honey. I do. I don't make a religion out of the way I eat. It's fine with me if someone I'm dining with orders a steak.

You can get good vegetarian and vegan meals at several area restaurants. My favorite is the Vegetable Garden (11618 Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-468-9301). It has the best vegan/vegetarian food I've eaten in a restaurant plus some "meat" dishes made from tofu.

Mark's Kitchen (7006 Carroll Avenue, Takoma Park; 301-270-1884), although not strictly vegetarian, offers a number of entrées and lunch sandwiches that are imaginative and well done.

Amman Indian Vegetarian Kitchen (3291-A M Street, Northwest; 202-625-6625) is also first-rate. Try the house special, kerala Thali, and its chappathi, or whole-wheat grilled bread.

Tara Thai (locations in Maryland and Virginia) has a limited vegetarian menu, but I've found delicious salads and tofu dishes. You can request vegetarian sauces.

Mediterranean Cafe (4629 41st Street, Northwest; 202-362-1006) has a limited menu of vegetarian fare.

Traveling can pose challenges. If I can't locate a vegetarian restaurant, I usually seek out Asian, Indian, or Italian food. Most Thai restaurants offer tofu dishes, and Indian restaurants usually have vegetarian menus. Italian restaurants offer pasta with a meatless marinara sauce.

I confess to two lapses over the past year, both when traveling–egg whites for breakfast and a piece of cheese pizza one night when I was very hungry.

With a year and counting, following a vegan diet has become a satisfying part of my life.

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