If you spend enough time on the internet you will end up reading some very obscure tales of people who "tried and failed" to go vegan. Usually, they jumped head first into something they knew little about, fucked-up in a glaringly obvious way, then proceed to blame it on something unrelated but that allows for a blog post with an alarming title.
Thankfully, I did my research and got it right from the beginning. As I repeat over and over my in book: research is key, and - as in most areas of life - it will set apart the citizens from the tourists.
However, while transitioning to veganism for the animals I still did come across some truly unexpected side effects, the following five that you're about to read about being the most pronounced.
1) I Lost 15% of My Body-Weight in the First 3 Months - without starving myself or doing any extra exercise - and have effortlessly kept it off years later.
And I really mean effortlessly.
I just eat healthy vegan foods 100% of the time. Or in the beginning, almost all the time. Plus at least 30 minutes of dedicated light exercise every day, and drink at least 1.5L of water daily.
What do I mean by "healthy vegan foods"? Whole plant foods. Without added sugar, salt or cooking oils (fat). What do I mean by "light exercise"? Walking. That's it.
It's deceptively simple. No absurd restricting of calories with unnecessarily confusing fad-diets or expensive supplements are needed. Just your legs and the produce section of your local grocery store.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell, nutrition scientist with more than 40 years of field experience who has over 300 published research papers and co-authored The China Study with his son explains what's wrong with most vegans diets. Hint: too much fat and processed foods.
In this period of eating this way, my BMI (Body Mass Index) went from 26.2 down to 21.1.
If those numbers are meaningless to you, here's a basic rundown, from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the USA where you can calculate your BMI too.
Underweight = 18.5 or less
Normal weight = 18.5 – 24.9
Overweight = 25 – 29.9
Obesity = 30 or greater
As you can see, in 90 days I went from "overweight" to "normal". Which, considering my exercise level only changed very slightly, I attribute almost entirely to diet. (I'm aware of the limitations of using the BMI, but I am neither elderly nor overly muscley, so I think I fall into the best category for its use.)
How much did I exercise?
During these first three months, I continued going to the gym 3 times a week, until I injured my shoulder (tore my rotator cuff) and my achilles (tendinopathy) through sheer idiocy and lack of correct form, so after that I stopped going indefinitely. After I stopped though, my diet didn't really change, and neither did my weight... I just lost a little muscle and gained some fat, as you would expect.
I didn't enter a gym for almost two years after this, and my BMI remained the same just from the minimum of 30 minutes a day dedicated walking time. This happens because eating just whole plant foods automatically regulates your healthiest weight.
My Diet Wasn't Even 100% Whole Foods
My weight transformation (for which there are no mirror selfies... sorry) all happened very early on in my veganism, so I was still eating refined or processed foods almost every day.
During this period I ate more than my fair share of refined sugars in the form of incredibly sweet crystallised fruits. Which, if you don't know, are made by boiling the fruit in strong sugar solutions "for a number of weeks". Needless to say, this stuff is super sweet, and that's exactly why I loved it.
I was also eating vegan mock-meats. Fake, plant and chemical based meats are still clearly better than real flesh as no animals suffer, and most of them contain no trans-fat.
Trans fatty acids only occur naturally in animal products (but can also be present in heavily processed plant foods) and are most probably the worst thing currently in our food supply. The National Academy of Sciences has concluded they are not essential and provide no known benefit to human health and that the there is no safe amount of trans-fats for humans.
Even though they are only found in trace amounts, trans-fat's and other undesirable things still exist in some processed vegan meats. This is just one reason they are still less than ideal. And ideal is always my goal. "Better" is too ambiguous a term to have any tangible meaning, so I always aim for the ideal. And in terms of nutritional value, nothing compares to whole plant foods. (I have since dropped mock meats in favour of tempeh, beans and lentils.)
All these refined and processed foods, despite not being ideal, was still so much healthier than the "foods" I used to eat that it still had profound effects on my body-fat and energy levels.
What did I use to eat? At least 80% animal products. All land-meats, lots of cheese and some milk. All foods naturally high in bad fats and animal protein, two things not really suitable to the human body, especially in the quantities I was eating them. What did I use to drink? Mostly soft drinks or anything with added refined sugar, like orange concentrate juice's and energy or sports drinks.
I Never Restricted Calories
It's worth noting as well that I didn't restrict my calories at all during this time. I ate whenever I was hungry and didn't stop 'til I got enough. If I got hungry soon after dinner I snacked on nuts, dried berries or crystalised fruits. I remember walking to the convenience store at midnight once and paying 6.99 AUD for a punnet of strawberries. It was amazing. This is what really made the fat-loss surprising to me.
The general lesson here, confirmed by countless other people who eat nothing but whole vegan foods, is that you will have to both eat an un-godly quantity and live a dangerously sedentary lifestyle NOT to return to a healthy weight from this way of eating. Being a whole-food vegan has only positive side effects.
Of course, if you get to your "weight goal" (I never had one) then resume eating how you were before, your weight will start to go back to what it was... That's why I have never "dieted" and probably never will. Instead, I just started to eat healthy all the time and feel great all the time. And since living the benefits, there's no way I'd do anything else again.
"We are all in relationships with food. If you were happy in your current personal relationship, would you want to stray, say, to a boyfriend from years ago?
- Douglas Graham, author, The 80/10/10 Diet
If you're worried about losing weight beyond what would be considered a healthy BMI, don't be. So long as you eat enough whole-plant-food calories it should not be a problem. That's why I prefer to call it "returning to a healthy weight" instead of "losing weight": because by getting sufficient calories from eating only natural, unrefined whole plant foods your body will regulate its healthiest weight automatically.
From eating this way a range of other miscellaneous aesthetic improvements happened to me as well. Things that I historically never cared much about, like clearer skin, nicer hair and less gnarly body odour. But hey, I guess I can learn to live with these changes...
This dramatic yet pleasing loss of unnecessary body fat might seem weird when you consider the next point:
2. I Eat Way More Food Now Than Ever Before.
This is one of the tastiest benefits of eating a whole food vegan diet... you get to eat so much food! It seems that no matter who I go out to dinner with, I'm generally one of the thinnest at the table, but always eat the most. My mum thinks I am feeding a hungry worm in my stomach... but I'm pretty sure it's just because of the types of food that I eat.
Easy graphic description of this point, courtesy of ForksOverKnives.com
It's very hard to overeat when you're just eating fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds and legumes. At first, it feels like over-eating, because a larger quantity of food needs to enter your stomach to get the necessary daily calories. But so long as you expect this "full stomach feeling", it's easy to get used to, and actually much more enjoyable than the "heavy stomach feeling" that cheeses, meats and foods cooked with a lot of oil give you.
The only time you might not feel your stomach getting physically full is when you eat lots of high-fat plant foods, as they have almost two times the calories for the same weight.
Food Components kJ per gram Calorie (kcal) per gram Fat 37 8.8 Proteins 17 4.1 Carbohydrates 17 4.1 Fiber 8 1.9
Interestingly, nuts, which are pretty fatty foods - they can have 70% of their calories coming from fat - have never been shown in any large-scale study to cause weight gain. Dr Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org has a whole chapter dedicated to nuts and how this is possible in his New York Times best-selling book How Not to Die. He goes into all the awesome science behind it, but basically, it's just because they fill you up so much that you feel like eating less afterwards. As most of us know from experience, this is not that case with cheese and meats.
Not eating enough is one of the most common newbie vegan mistakes.
This mistake is especially true for people eating only whole foods or raw foods. You gotta fill up. And if you get hungry again soon after, which you probably will at first because you won't be used to eating so much, then just eat more. It's okay, you're supposed to eat if you're hungry, just eat the proper foods.
Remember, with whole plant foods, it's very hard to notice any negative effects from "overeating".
3. Your Taste Preferences Will Change - they are fluid.
Just because you seek out and prefer some foods now, doesn't mean your DNA has been encoded by Jahova to be this way for eternity...
In fact, odds are that most of the foods you find yourself craving now - more often than not - are foods you know aren't that good for you but you disguise under the meaningless guise of "comfort foods" or "just snacks". But guess what? Once your taste preferences change, potatoes become comfort foods. So do beans. And Medjool dates, berries or nuts become the perfect snacks.
The main reason you prefer some foods now is mainly just because you're used to eating those things. But as you slowly start to replace refined foods and animal products with whole plant foods you will notice your preferences start to change as well.
Dr Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org explains why and how quickly your taste preferences change.
I personally experienced this very noticeably, as I used to eat so much refined sugar it was ridiculous. My family or friends would eat fruit around me and when they would offer me some, on the few occasions I would take it, I wouldn't get the hype because my tongue was so used to ice cream, vanilla coke and other sweets packed with refined sugar. "It's so sweet! You have to try this mango!" they would say. But it really wasn't to me.
A lot of people's tongues are like mine was, so used to being bombarded with huge amounts of refined sugar, salt and fat that the subtle flavours of different fruits and (especially) vegetables go unnoticed. So these foods then naturally also go un-enjoyed. But rest assured that after as little as just one week of cutting these processed foods out, your taste will begin to re-sensitise and you'll be able to appreciate their subtleties in all their glory. Then, when you do have the same very salty, sugary or fatty foods you used to eat, they will taste like someone severely misread the recipe...
Before making the switch to veganism, I was kind of expecting to just eat fake meats that replicated the taste and texture of the animal foods I was giving up. But I have since realised that 80% of what I eat now I never ate before going vegan. I was able to do this surprisingly easily just because I slowly and deliberately faded out the "processed crap", as my Dad says, and replaced it with whole plant foods.
Now all I want to eat are whole plant foods and whenever I get lazy and have something too refined (like a bag of corn chips while watching a movie) or heavily deep fried, I feel the unpleasant difference in my stomach shortly after and quickly remember why I eat like I do.
4. No-One Really Cared...
When I started telling people I was vegan now, the most common reaction was, "oh, okay" or something to that effect. Sure, my mum expressed some concerns (mothers always do), but I think it was mostly just because it meant cooking a little more at family gatherings...
Remember: people don't really care what you do - they care how it makes THEM feel.
Sounds selfish right? That's because it is. But if you pay attention you'll notice that this is how it goes. The problem is that when people become or start becoming vegan they start preaching to everyone about their new found lifestyle and its underlying values. Hearing this is legitimately threatening to some carnists identities, so they start to feel bad and will come back at you with uncharacteristically idiotic comments like, "Hmm what about your nutrient intake?" or "Veganism? that's a bit extreme!".
But I received very little of this. Not zero, but very little. This lack of douche-baggery in my social life was surprising to me because I was kind of expecting people to be like the weirdos that I read about in news articles. I'm certain that it's not because I surround myself with enlightened souls or just "got lucky", but instead because of how I framed it and talked about it. Or rather, how little I talked about it. It was something I was doing and didn't feel the need to unnecessarily tell or explain myself to others.
Friends have told me stories of having a hard time trying to get their friends or families to understand their decision and the long-winded emotionally draining discussions that have resulted from this. But I was never really concerned with other people understanding my decision. I knew what I was doing and why, and that was enough. If people weren't okay with it, then it was exclusively their problem to deal with, and still is. Of course, I didn't avoid the subject when it was brought up by others, but it was very easy for me to hold this frame because I didn't go around bringing it up myself.
When it still inevitably comes up at mealtimes - though never by me - I just state my case matter-of-factly and keep eating. "So what do you eat?" "Fruit and vegetables." Some people do say some seriously wack shit, like, "You still eat chicken though, right? ...But what about fish?" But this is generally more entertaining to me than anything else, and my responses to these people mostly come from sympathy for their chronic misunderstandings. Fish isn't meat, really?
5. Peace of Mind - from living in alignment with your values.
As Aussie vegan activist James Aspey is quick to point out at his talks, nearly everyone is against animal abuse, but hardly anyone is vegan.
If you picked any person at random from the general population, they would most likely be disgusted at the idea of hurting a dog or cat. If anyone even tried to inflict any suffering on one of their pets, they would be quick to get outraged, try to stop it and shame the person who did it. It is a near-universal trait that we understand the suffering the pet was going through and want it to cease.
The epiphany, or shift in perspective, that happens just before someone decides to go vegan is when this compassion extends beyond their family companion animals and outwards to include ALL animals. Along with this comes an overwhelming sense of peace, as you now consciously realise something that you've subconsciously felt your whole life, yet been suppressing due to cultural and social conditioning.
"One of the greatest opportunities to live our values – or betray them – lies in the food we put on our plates."
― Jonathan Safran Foer, author, Eating Animals
Going vegan is as if you now realise the error of your ways and adjust your actions to align with your values that you've most likely proclaimed to have held, either internally or externally, since you were very young.
I'm sure most of us, regardless of our current diet, have some sort of experience with realigning our actions with our values. It might be dropping out of university because you realise halfway through that this course is not what you thought it was; or leaving a toxic relationship because, even though its easier to stay, the opportunity cost of the unnecessary emotional drainage is just too enticing; or it might be leaving your job because it's future is looking less and less like a career path and more like a dark alley that you do not want to walk down.
In all of the above situations, the relief felt is incredible. But when it comes to going vegan, which means leaving behind things that you've been putting in your body three times a day, every day for so many years - the same things that have been responsible for keeping you alive - this feeling is amplified far beyond any of the other examples I just gave. All of which I have also done, at least once each.
All vegans will be able to relate to this on one level or another, some more than others - but we all get it - because we all feel it to some extent.
As great as it is to look healthy and thin, as awesome as it is to have flawless blood test results and be able to exercise and eat more delicious foods that make me feel incredible, when I really sit and consider it, it's the feeling of increased inner peace resulting from living in alignment with my values that is the most profound unexpected side-effect of going vegan.
And I'd be very surprised if it's not yours as well.
- Benjamin McCormick
PS. If you didn't notice, the hilarious cartoons you see above are not mine, but drawn by the funny guy over at Vegan Side-Kick. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr to see his latest art.