When you go plant-based, first your body has an adjustment period. It took me two full weeks for a new level of energy to kick in. The switch over from animal protein to plant-based protein from sources like legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, and other plant foods like vegetables was a gradual one.
Suddenly I craved more chickpeas and quinoa, healthy salads, and nuts and seeds. But that doesn’t mean I was a perfect eater. Far from it. I told myself that wine was plant-based, and enjoyed sweets (delicious almond-milk and oat-milk ice cream) and found lots of workarounds to eating healthy. Nowadays you can eat meat-free burgers that are made of fake ingredients and feel virtuous, even if what you are eating is highly processed food!
So I decided to write what I learned going plant-based: The good, the bad and the downright unhealthy. I have tried it all. Here’s what I learned.
For me, way harder than giving up red meat was not eating cheese. I was a cheese-a-holic, having it at lunch (In a salad), and again at dinner, often as an extra “cheese and crackers” starter before dinner, and then on pasta. I also loved Greek yogurt for breakfast, cheese omelets for brunch, and ice cream for dessert. I had a lot of dairy.
It was easy to replace coffee creamer with oat milk, or yogurt with non-dairy options. Quitting cheese took discipline. Ultimately, I found new cashew-nut cheeses and also weaned myself off the need for cheese.
Read More: What Happens When You Give Up Dairy
Once I got all that dairy out of my system, however, my face looked less bloated, my body felt less inflamed and my joints (like my knees and hips) felt years younger and when I went running I felt physically lighter.
I have since learned that cheese is not only addictive (from the casomorphin in cheese) but that many people are partly or fully lactose intolerant. I think I have lactose sensitivity because when I gave up cheese I had less inflammation in my body and that meant running without knee pain and waking up with less bloat and a slimmer face, even.
Dairy Often Contains Growth Hormone and Has Been Linked to Cancer
I have since learned that there are growth hormones given to lactating cows that can end up in your milk, cream and cheese, and when I think of the possible diseases that keep me up at night, breast cancer is number one, so any possible “extra” estrogen that could be lurking in my milk or dairy products is a major turnoff.
I know that saturated fat in cheese and full-fat milk or in red meat and processed or fried foods is terrible for my arteries and can lead to elevated cholesterol, plaque deposits, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart disease. Even though 48 percent of Americans have some kind of heart disease and can suffer a heart attack, stroke, and other related potentially deadly events it’s the estrogen that has me skipping or cutting way down on my cheese consumption.
Cows are given Bovine Growth Hormone, or BGH given to cows to increase milk production, as well as medical-grade antibiotics to treat infections, according to the latest research. Our own human exposure to these antibiotics can make us less able to fight off infection when we need antibiotics to work. But they can also increase cell growth, which is scary, and the American Cancer Society says that cows given BGH are given more antibiotics than cows not given BGH.
So dairy is what I miss, not meat. Here are the takeaways that I can share after going mostly plant-based for three-plus years as Editorial Director of The Beet.
Here are 5 Lessons I Learned from Giving Up Meat and Dairy for Three Years
1. Don’t Put a Label on Your Diet
I am not vegan, or even plant-based but I am leaning super hard into eating more plant-based foods, as often as I can. The first week I was trying to be fully vegan, a famous fashion designer had us over to see his new launch and served us a lovely kale salad with parmesan sprinkled on top. I ate it.
Then I went to dinner with old friends and asked the waiter for vegan options. They looked at me as if I had called them animal murderers. I never said that! Still, labels set you up for failure, and even if you are successful at staying completely plant-based or vegan, they set up an oppositional approach to your life view. “I’m vegan, he’s not!”
As we launched The Beet in 2020 and worked to create the most inclusive content we tried to create a site that would embrace anyone interested in eating more plant-based, whether they were strict or simply curious. The Beet welcomed anyone, even someone who had just had a steak for dinner, but today wanted to eat a more plant-based diet for any reason.
2. More Plants Are Better Than Not
I am not perfect. I cheat at the effort to eat plant-based. No lesser light in the plant-based universe than T. Colin Campbell says you can go 95 percent plant-based and have virtually the same results and health benefits as someone who is stricter.
For me, that meant a meal a week that was not adhering to the no-cheese rule, and I also welcomed fish back into my diet, not because I wanted to be heartless or support overfishing but because I felt like I needed this protein source and benefited from the omega-3 fatty acid in fish.
Everyone has to draw their own lines, create their own limits, and let themselves off their own hooks (if that isn’t a painful metaphor right about now). For me, a pescatarian, mostly plant-based, or plant-leaning, or plant-forward approach feels right. Find what works for you.
3. Don’t Try to Convince Others to Go Plant-Based. Papa Don’t Preach.
How you eat is an intimate and extremely personal decision. It’s like religion or who and how you choose to love. No one else gets to tell you what choices to make. Just make the ones you can be satisfied with Your vegan friends don’t preach.
And likely they do think that when you eat animal products you have contributed to the harmful life and tragic death of another sentient being. But you don’t want to hear that, So you don’t need to preach either.
I want my loved ones to not smoke, to limit saturated fat, to eat fewer animal products. I also want them to wear their seat belts and drive safely and look both ways before they step off a curb. When they are young (my kids) I get to weigh in on their choices and explain why we stay away from junk food and limit sweets. Now that everyone I am related to is a grown-up, they make their own choices. As do I.
4. No, I Don’t Think I Will Go Back to Eating Red Meat Again
Everyone asks: If you leave The Beet will you go back to eating steak? The answer is no. Now that I have reported on study after study about the harmful ways red meat contributes to cancer and heart disease along with other lifestyle conditions like high blood pressure, inflammation, and obesity, I have no interest.
During the pandemic, I avoided COVID for two and a half years (until I finally got a mild case at an indoor drinks event during my college reunion). I believe that my plant-focused diet with tons of vegetables and legumes, nuts, and seeds helped my body’s immune system create helpful defenses. Most days I get up at 6 am to work out and have plenty of energy and feel strong. My only downfall was drinking more wine or eating more sweets than I should have!
Will I eat meat again? I hate to say never but from where I sit today, I have learned about the cruel and unhealthy ways that meat is raised and farmed, so my answer is no. That doesn’t mean I never liked it. I did, but I liked smoking too, and I don’t do that anymore either.
I used to love the way my mom made marinated steak, but I had many early “loves,” including roller skates and lots of delicious dishes like beef stew and meringues and she even served us tongue, which is about as gross a meal as I can imagine. (She was southern!) I have given up meat, and I don’t play with trolls today either.
5. Vegan is Not Plant-Based but Healthy is Healthy
Skittles technically are vegan but they are not plant-based. Lots of junk foods can be called vegan but if something is not made primarily of plants, it can be vegan but not healthy. That said, what is healthy is a diet full of vegetables and fruit, legumes and whole grains, and nuts and seeds. The key is finding food as much in the same form as it grows as possible.
Refined grains and added sugar and white flour or white rice are going to spike your blood sugar, call out the insulin and cause your cells to store extra blood sugar as fat. So you can say that you are plant-based or vegan and still eat tons of simple cards, added sugar and wine. That was a trap I fell into for a while and it caused me to lose muscle and gain fat.
I’m now back to eating healthy, not hiding bad habits behind labels like being plant-based or mostly plant-based. Healthy is healthy. If you are eating healthy, good job. You know who you are!