Who We Are:
We’re two registered dietitians (Megan & Kait) stationed in Orlando, Florida. We’re both omnivores who love chocolate, cheese, and a challenge. We also have a podcast, and you can listen to our recount of our vegan challenge on Episode #43.
What We Did:
Our challenge was to follow a strict vegan diet all through the month of January. This means no dairy, meat, seafood, poultry, honey, or eggs for 31 days. No exceptions!
Why We Did It:
Kait: Growing up in the midwest, every meal growing up included a meat. These eating habits have stuck with me into adulthood- I have never gone a whole day without animal product! Because Greek yogurt, chicken, and eggs are staples in my diet, I always said I could never be vegan.
However, it’s the things we say we could never do that we MUST do. Achieving what we think is impossible builds confidence and opens our minds to new experiences. This belief motivated me to commit to the challenge. Plus, testing the vegan diet makes me a better dietitian go my clients wanting to experiment with a vegan or plant-based diet.
Megan: This was my 3rd year doing a Vegan January challenge. Read about my first experience here. Bottom line- I don’t feel good about contributing to the factory farm industry. Eating vegan forces you to think more about where every meal and snack is coming from, cook more, get more involved in your food, and eat more veggies.
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Kait: I eat 90% of my meals at home, so this wasn’t too much of a challenge. There was one night we went to a bar, and the food there was far from vegan. The best I could do? A pretzel with the butter on the side… which also mean the salt was on the side! I was left eating a dry pretzel (which as an afterthought, probably had butter in it). The worst part? No beer cheese!
Other than that, finding vegan options on the menu was cake (dairy-free cake, of course!) I liked how this challenge forced me not to overlook the menu items labeled vegan like I used to. I felt just as satisfied eating meals without meat or cheese.
Megan: Every year, I’m surprised by how many vegan options there are at restaurants that don’t have anywhere close to a vegan “vibe.” Even my local Italian pizza and pasta place had 3 different vegan pizzas on the menu (shout out to F&D Italian Kitchen!). There’s a vegan bakery about 3 miles away so if I wanted a treat, that was my go to.
Even places like Drive Shack (Top Golf competitor) had an awesome vegan power bowl on their menu.
Sports bars and BBQ joints are probably the worst in terms of trying to find something vegan but if you just do a teeny bit of homework, I’ll bet you can find plenty of vegan friendly places near you. If you’re in Orlando, the options are endless.
Kait: I found the vegan diet to be less expensive, especially if you stick to buying mostly simple ingredients and staples. The cost adds up when I bought buy vegan meat/dairy alternatives such as tofu burgers, vegan butter, and dairy-free ice cream. It also didn’t hurt my wallet since I’m used to cooking. Regardless of whether you eat meat or not, convenience & dining out will add up.
Megan: I spend less money on groceries during Vegan January every year (I track my expenses). You DO NOT have to shop at Whole Foods or any other high end grocery store to eat plant-based. All grocery stores (including Walmart) have vegetables, almond milk, nuts, peanut butter, quinoa, and other vegan staples.
I will say that I am willing to go to more than one store to get the best deals/quality of food and that helps with the budget. I go to a market for my produce, Winn-Dixie for easy staples, and Target for the fun stuff (like Hodo burgers, So Delicious cashew ice cream bars, and Larabar Vegan Protein bars).
Kait: Other than a little late night bloating and a few days of killer gas, no issues! This may be TMI, but my bowel movements were as regular and comfortable as ever. Drinking a lot of water helped to regulate my system and move the fiber through.
Megan: Oh the gas…
Strength & Workouts
Kait: Wowie, I was SO much stronger at the gym. Right out the gate, I noticed it was a lot easier for me to lift heavier weight. No doubt this was from eating 25-30% more carbohydrate than usual. Despite having lots of energy during my workouts, I was slow to recover. This may be because my workouts were more intense.
Towards the end of the challenge (and the 6 days I extended it), I noticed I was feeling a bit more sluggish. This is abnormal for me, but I don’t want to blame it all on diet. However, I did notice after I started eating meat again, my energy levels throughout the day were better. Takeaway: a higher carb diet than includes some animal protein feels great.
Megan: I had the best workouts I’ve had in a long time in January. I had good energy going into the gym and never felt like I was dragging. The first weekend in February was Super Bowl weekend and I ate whatever I wanted (including meat). That Monday’s workout was horrible. Everything hurt and I had zero motivation. The next Mondays workout wasn’t as bad, but still not great. I went back to eating mostly vegan (with fish) for a few days and I started to feel on top of my game again. I’m not sure if it’s simply eating lower quality food over the weekends and I just naturally ate better when I was strictly vegan, or if eating animal products are playing a factor (or if it’s all in my head). I’ll keep doing personal experiments to try to figure that out.
Appetite and Cravings
Kait: I felt satisfied following a vegan diet. This makes sense because when I tracked my intake, I was eating 50-60 grams of fiber and 70-100 grams of protein. Both these things help control cravings and hunger. I didn’t have many cravings nor did I miss any old foods until the last week.
Megan: Some days I was super hungry. Some days I was not. That’s normal for me depending on my workouts and recovery. I didn’t crave meat or dairy– those cravings actually decreased over the month instead of increasing. The longer I went without eating it, the easier it became. I did crave eggs in the morning, but I found Just Egg and that tasted good and worked well as a sub for a fried egg on my avocado toast in the morning.
It’s not easy for me to say no to chocolate. I cheated once and had truffles after dinner but for the most part I could just make sure I had something chocolate that was also vegan around and I was fine.
Megan: I go in depth comparing my lab work from a vegan diet to the carnivore diet (all meat) in A Dietitian Tries the Carnivore Diet. In summary, my labs looked way better on the vegan diet.
Weight and body composition
Kait: I lost about 6-7 pounds, but my weight fluctuated throughout. I had gained some water weight from holiday festivities and ended the challenge at my usual body weight. I never felt liked I was ‘dieting.’
Megan: I ended January at 4 lbs less than I was at the beginning of December. My body historically responds well to a vegan diet. I felt good and looked good.
Kait: As I said earlier, I did have some days of gas… one time, I cancelled plans to go out with friends because my farts were so bad. The deadly gas usually happened on days I ate large servings of raw veggies. Overall, I had little issues.
Megan: Again, the gas…. I could clear a room. I wasn’t able to pinpoint exactly what was causing it either.
I did not however, feel bloated at all. I even saw a hint of abs wanting to make an appearance on some days.
Kait: I was so hopeful my skin would be glowing after following a vegan diet but I noticed little change. Bummer.
Megan: I didn’t really notice a change either.
Kait: On the first night, my friend made a New Years dinner for a large, non-vegan group. I told her not to worry about me but she was so sweet & cooked me an alternative- eggplant parmesan (with no cheese!) However, she used an egg wash on the eggplant, so I had to eat pasta with tomato sauce. I felt so bad since she went through the trouble, but I wasn’t about to give up on Day 1!
Day 9, I drank a whiskey that had honey in it. Day 14, I popped a piece of cheese in my mouth without thinking. Oops.
Day 28, I accidentally ordered a Baileys and coffee. Newsflash, Bailey’s is a dairy liquor- derp. I noticed half way through but finished it cause that sucker was $10!
Megan: I went to a brunch buffet party without many vegan options. I made sure to bring my own delicious vegan dish to share (Chickpea & Sweet Potato Breakfast Hash). It was tough turning down all the pancakes with nutella, frosty donuts, and sausage gravy but hey, I was much healthier for sticking to my hash and the fruit & nuts from the charcuterie board.
You might have to ask friends or family to dine at places that you know will have good options for you. If they’re not willing to do that, I would suggest finding new people to hang out with that will support your goals.
Myth: Following a vegan diet is healthier than eating meat.
Kait: It is very easy to follow a vegan diet and still eat like crap. Lots of vegan foods have a ‘health halo,’ meaning they seem to be more nutritious than they are. Just because an ice cream is vegan doesn’t mean it’s any healthier than regular ice cream. You still can’t eat the whole pint.
Megan: This myth reminds me of what my clients describe following the Weight Watchers points model. They could eat whatever they wanted as long as they stayed within a certain number of points and it ended up being a game to them instead of teaching them healthy habits. Following a vegan diet can end up that way too if you’re not careful– you can find vegan pizza, vegan hot dogs, vegan donuts, etc.
Myth: Athletes should follow a vegan diet
An athlete can follow any pattern of eating in a healthful way. Any athlete curious about following a vegan diet should meet with a dietitian. If you’re noticing struggles in their performance, a dietitian can help with fill in any nutritional gaps (vegan or not). If an athlete wants to follow a vegan diet, a dietitian can ensure they’re meeting all of their protein and micronutrient needs from plant-based sources. FYI- getting enough protein on a vegan diet really isn’t that hard.
Given everyone is different, you cannot say there is ONE diet best for ALL athletes. The best way to know is trial & error based off evidence-based nutrition.
Can Anyone Follow a Vegan Diet?
If you’re curious, try it! Know that you don’t have to commit to never ever eating cheese again to make a change toward a more plant-based diet.
You can eat vegan at home and enjoy cheesy jalapeño poppers at a Super Bowl party. If you’re a meat eater, you can still order the vegan option during dinner out.
You don’t have to follow rules. Rules suck. You’re diet can be heavily plant-based with room for flexibility. You don’t have to put a label on yourself. Make your own rules!
Kait: I’ll continue eating vegan meals, but I don’t like following strict diet rules. In an effort to be more sustainable, I’ll continue eat plant-based meals throughout the week and eat less animal products. The meat and eggs I do purchase will be wild caught fish and pasture-raised poultry. I never ate red meat in the first place.
Megan: This year I am committed to not supporting Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). I don’t want to eat meat that is “sick.” Think about it– if I stuck you in a tiny room with no access to the outdoors or light and fed you white bread and cookies all day, would you be healthy? I don’t want to support that.
This is not an easy undertaking. Just because your meat is from Whole Foods doesn’t mean it didn’t come from a CAFO. The word “natural” on a label doesn’t mean a thing. The only beef we will be eating this year is from a small farm in Ohio. We have a freezer full of venison. I will only buy wild Alaskan salmon. If I’m questioning how something is raised or where it came from, I’ll skip the animal protein altogether and eat plant-based. This will probably mean I will eat plant-based most of the time.
Your Next Steps
If you want to learn whether a vegan diet is right for you or how to move more towards a plant-based diet, schedule a consultation with one of our registered dietitians. We’ll help you find the right eating pattern to meet your goals.
About the author: Megan Poczekaj, RDN, LD, is a registered dietitian nutritionist in Orlando, FL. She owns the private practice, Nutrition Awareness, where she teaches other entrepreneurs how to maximize their productivity and performance with nutrition. She is the author of the book The Optimized Life: A Nutrition Guide for Entrepreneurs and co-host of the Nutrition Awareness Podcast.