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Five Years a Vegan: My Personal Experience and Assessment

Overview

After being vegan for five years, I would like to share my personal experience and reflections in case it may help anyone who is considering becoming vegan or merely curious about what it is like.

How it started

For many years, I have been trying to live a healthy life, including diet, exercise, and avoiding addictive substances like alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and caffeine.

As a graduate student in Indiana University in the 1990s, I was influenced by my sister and two Indian roommates to reduce my red meat consumption.

While in the Peace Corps in Namibia, and then a VSO volunteer in Tanzania, I started by avoiding many types of meat because of the increased chances of contracting a food-borne illness. But I gradually ate more local food, including more meat and unhealthy foods.

After returning to the US in 2004, I found I had gained 10 pounds, and my diet continued to be omnivorous and a bit too fatty, though reasonably healthy. I soon became busier with work and family life, so I paid less attention to diet, exercise and rest.

In 2007, I started attending the CSU Adult Fitness program three times per week and gradually began cutting back on meat again. By 2012, my meat consumption was primarily chicken and fish.

Around 2011, I began reading about the health and environmental benefits of being vegan, and was influenced by PBS TV shows and by a vegetarian co-worker to experiment with being vegan.

I became vegan in June 2012 when my wife went to Tanzania for a summer vacation and I was able to cook all my own food.

Because of my academic background in the sciences, I consider many of my most important life decisions to be provisional quasi-scientific experiments and learning explorations, including atheism, world travel, volunteer work, relationships and marriage, and now, being vegan.

What I Eat

Although my diet is relativey simple and unvaried, I get enough calories and protein and feel full and satisfied.

I still eat too many carbs and not enough leafy green vegetables, though.

  • Breakfast: high-protein cereal, soy milk, orange juice, water, multivitamin, sometimes peanut butter on toast
  • Lunch: sandwiches of whole wheat bread, tofu/hummus/spinach/tomato, peanut butter and jelly, or soy hot dog or sausage; two pieces of fruit; carrots and celery; water and/or soy milk; sometimes plain soy yogurt
  • Supper: tempeh, textured vegetable protein (TVP), or frozen soy protein (burgers, chickn patties, nuggets or strips, "meat"balls); whole grain rice, pasta, potatoes or couscous; fruits and vegetables; soy milk and water
  • Snack: whole grain crackers and chips, no-salt pretzels, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, raisins, edamame, sesame sticks

Health

General Health Benefits

  • Consuming more vegetables has many health benefits.
  • Vegetables generally have fewer hormones, preservatives, pesticides, and harmful elements like mercury, than meat.
  • Vitamin supplements and fortified foods can easily replace most vitamins and minerals lost by animal product consumption.
  • A vegan diet is lower in cholesterol and saturated fat.
  • A vegan diet is higher in antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and phytochemicals.
  • A vegan diet and the use of herbs and spices strengthens the immune system.
  • A vegan diet lowers the risk of many illnesses, including cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, diabetes, food-borne illnesses from bacteria and viruses, gallstones, kidney stones, osteoporosis, and asthma.
  • Consciously following a regimented diet helps to improve self-control and reduce harmful, impulsive behavior.

General Health Risks

  • A less diverse diet is often less healthy.
  • Too much of certain types of foods can be unhealthy, including soy, legumes and grains.
  • Many vegan meat substitutes and prepared foods are unhealthy because they are heavily processed and contain artificial ingredients.
  • Needs for protein, vitamins B12 and D, calcium, folic acid, and Omega 3 fatty acids are more easily met through animal products.
  • Animal proteins are generally better absorbed into the body than vegetable proteins.
  • Certain vegetables produce a large amout of gas, which can be uncomfortable and embarrassing.

Personal Health Benefits

The clearest health benefits of being vegan are found in my medical test results. My blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol and triglycerides all improved substantially, and I have managed to maintain an optimum body weight.

Personal Health Problems

Overall, I cannot directly attribute any major negative health effects to being vegan.

My overall lifestyle is a more important cause of my health issues than choosing between a vegan or non-vegan diet.

General problems like fatigue and back pain probably have multiple non-dietary causes such as aging, too little exercise, too few breaks from desk work, lack of sleep.

In the past year or two, I have felt more tired and less motivated to jog or exercise, but I have largely maintained my usual exercise schedule.

Environment

General Environmental Benefits

  • Much less use of critically important resources, including water, land, forests, energy, and fossil fuels.
  • Fewer pesticides, fertilizers, nitrogen, phosphorus, other chemicals, contaminated waste and other biohazards, and greenhouse gases.
  • Less harm and suffering for domestic animals, especially intelligent mammals.

General Environmental Costs

  • Processed, refrigerated and frozen vegan products require more resources than raw fruits and vegetables, especially energy and water.
  • Fruits and vegetables from other countries may actually take more resources than local animal products.
  • Some fruits and vegetables may take more resources per calorie to produce than meat.

Personal Environmental Impact

Although I cannot easily measure the environmental impact of my dietary change, I suspect it is significantly positive.

I could much further improve my impact by reducing my consumption of processed food, especially refrigerated and frozen meat substitutes, and increase my consumption of locally grown food.

Logistics and Socioeconomic Issues

General Logistic and Social Benefits

  • There is a new market for vegan products.
  • Reducing animal production would reduce taxes because animal products are heavily subsidized by the USDA. (Perhaps we should instead tax animal products based on their environmental impact.)
  • Reducing animal feed production would lower the cost of food in developing countries.
  • Less animal production would reduce the large amount of required unsafe, unpleasant manual labor.

General Logistic and Social Issues

  • Stores, restaurants, conferences, and rural areas in many countries have relatively few vegan options for main dishes and protein.
  • Shopping requires carefully reading ingredients and avoiding animal products.
  • Cooking vegan dishes requires learning new recipes and being creative and flexible.
  • Being a vegan requires a significant amount of self-control, asceticism, and rational behavior.
  • The US food industry is economically dependent on animal products and is resisting change by lobbying the government.
  • In some developing countries that depend on animal production, change would be especially difficult.
  • Much grazing land in semi-arid or rocky areas cannot be easily farmed and would be unused if animals were no longer produced.
  • Vegans are socially stigmatized and generally have a lower social status. Vegans may be perceived as social outcasts, elitist, self-righteous, judgmental, or just plain different.

Personal Logistic and Social Benefits

I'm not a very motivated or creative cook, but I am relatively flexible and satisfied with what I make for myself.

I have learned to use less salt and more spices.

Although I rarely go to restaurants or conferences, almost all of them provide a reasonable vegan option.

Being vegan keeps me mindful of my impact on the environment and my use of the earth's resources.

Personal Logistic and Social Issues

There aren't any good vegan processed food replicas of the taste of meat, fish and eggs.

Initially, I didn't read ingredients carefully enough to find that some "veggie" products actually contained milk as an ingredient.

But I don't mind eating products that "may contain traces of" animal products such as milk or eggs.

I feel bad when a cook has to make an extra effort to prepare a dish in a special way for me.

Restaurants are sometimes not careful and forget my request for a dish with no cheese, so I sometimes have to remove it myself.

Conclusions

For me, the vegan experiment has been successful for many reasons.

  • The health benefits are small but measurable, and the risks are low.
  • The environmental benefits are harder to measure, but probably relatively high, and the most important reason to stay vegan.
  • The logistical and social issues take some adjustment, but I am gradually tolerating them better.

To successfully become a long-term vegan, it helps to:

  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Live a healthy lifestyle
  • Be willing to gradually change your diet and eating habits
  • Practice self-control, patience and persistence
  • Improve cooking skills
  • Eat at restaurants or in social settings infrequently
  • Be willing to formulate and adhere to ethical principles
  • Have vegetarian or vegan friends

My focus on vegan food choices for improving my environmental impact has been too narrow. I need to consider many other factors to determine which foods are healthy, convenient and environmentally friendly.

Additional Resources

Health

Environment