Veganuary 2022: 10 Things I Learned

This is my second year doing Veganuary and by now I’m feeling like a seasoned pro. Why do I do Veganuary, you ask? I have always been partial to a vegetarian (er, pescatarian) diet, but over the course of the past 10 years I’ve found myself eating more omnivorously than I did in my 20s.

Now in 2022, in the context of this ongoing pandemic and our failing health care system, I think it is more important than ever that we take control of our own health. There is a lot of noise out in social media land about what is healthy, but if you look beyond YouTube and bro science, the evidence is pretty solid: plant-based diets (and I use that loosely, to mean everything from vegan to Mediterranean) are your best bet.

However, the Vegan Diet (one of the pillars of Veganism) isn’t necessarily healthy. It only requires you to abstain from animal products, and it could consist entirely of Oreos and veggie dogs if you were so inclined. That’s why “whole food plant-based” (WFPB) diets are gaining momentum, as a health-focused approach separate from animal ethics.

I managed to do Veganuary with very few ulta-processed foods. I didn’t use any Beyond or Impossible products. I didn’t use any vegan butter or mayonnaise substitutes. I did use vegan protein powder, soy milk, oils, and some store-bought bread. I used exactly one package of Yves ground round (for tacos), a couple vegan cheeses and a couple of egg alternatives (for curiosity). I ate restaurant food approximately once per week.

After the first 2-3 weeks of mild stomach upset (from the extra fiber) I felt as good as new, light and lean and optimistic. I actually didn’t crave any animal products after 31 days, and I almost wanted to stay on the diet. Here are some of the highlights and things I learned in Veganuary 2022:

1. Being plant-based is actually kind of cheap and easy.

A couple of disclaimers here: I understand that being vegan and having access to healthy food can be a privilege. There are geographical, socio-economical, biological and cultural reasons why it can be difficult. Not everyone has the money, time or access to make the switch. Nor am I arguing that everyone should. At the same time, the poorest regions on the planet are plant-based by default. And recent studies have demonstrated that whole food plant-based is the most affordable diet even in high income countries. With the rising cost of food, it might be your best bet.

Adzuki beans from the Bulk Barn, curried and served with rice and veg. Pretty darn cheap and easy.

But I’m not here to lecture about all that. I just found Veganuary 2022 to be surprisingly easy – for me. But this ain’t my first rodeo.

Veganuary is a great learning opportunity, and it gets easier every time you do it. All you need are a handful of quick-and-easy recipes to get started: Buddha Bowls, Vegan Chilli, Lentil Dahl, Tofu Scramble, a can of beans dumped on top of rice, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Whatever. Just remember to eat your veggies.

This year I didn’t try to work with a bunch of fancy ingredients or master new techniques. Less stress, less mess. Just good simple food.

2. Real Fake Meats low-key makes some of the best Chinese food in the city.

I kicked off Veganuary with one of Real Fake Meats’ NYE specials, the Combo #9. It’s got tofu chkn’ balls, “beefless” & broccoli, rice and spring roll. This isn’t a regular menu item, but Real Fake Meats rotates their specials menu and this isn’t the first time the Combo #9 has made an appearance.

The “beefless” & broccoli so impressed The Side Dish that she said it was the best beef & broccoli dish she’s had in Halifax so far! (That sounds crazy, but we’ve had particularly bad luck finding good Canadian Chinese food in Halifax). This was flavourful and fresh, and the texture of seitan is no more questionable than the rubbery beef you so happily slurp down on the regular.

3. Don’t Sleep on Springhouse! And don’t sleep on their tomato soup!

Springhouse (2290 Gottingen Street) is one of my favourites places in the city, because they have a little grocery where you can get your vegan staples and some hard-to-find products (there is even a small selection of fresh produce). They also prepare some of my favourite vegan take-out in the city. I like that they specialize in healthy food without sacrificing flavour and substance.

Last Veganuary I fell in love with the Chickpea Caesar Wrap at Springhouse. This year I decided to try the Grilled Chick’n Wrap and it was phenomenal. It was kind of like a burrito without the beans, but all of the flavour: sautéed bell peppers and chick’n (soy curls), pickled onion, salsa roja, avocado, pico de gallo, organic brown rice, and lime crema.

Equally as amazing was the tomato soup that came with it. I seriously can’t stop thinking about this tomato soup!

4. Protein is a struggle.

“Where do you get your protein?” is the question that makes every vegan roll their eyes. Protein is everywhere, and the recommended daily allowance (RDA) is actually pretty low.

But how much protein we should have is a controversial matter. Without going into too much detail, I have settled on a personal target of 80-100g of protein per day.

Tofu scramble with half a block of tofu. That’s 15g of protein, less than half the protein of a 4oz steak and quite a bit of food to wolf down.

What I learned, plugging various combinations into Chronometer (a nutrition tracking app), is that getting 80-100g of protein is difficult to do on a plant-based diet. You either need to eat a lot of calories, or you need to eat some processed food. This can be a difficult trade-off.

It’s totally doable, but it does require a bit of awareness and planning.

With that said, virtually nobody in the developed world is protein deficient, whereas only 5 percent of Americans meet the Institute of Medicine’s recommended daily fiber target, so maybe we should instead ask: “Where do you even get your fiber, bro?”

5. Vegan Egg Alternatives are Fantastic!

I was hesitant to try egg alternatives because my relationship with eggs is already complicated. (Yuck/yum, no rhyme or reason). But I bit the bullet and picked up some JUST Egg.

I have to say – these egg portions are super easy to make, (you can pop them in your toaster), and are probably tastier than whatever Tim Hortons is serving now (or at any time in history).

Another interesting product is eggcitables!, which are made right in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia!

The ingredient list resembles a vegan pantry a little more than the ultra-processed JUST Egg, but it also doesn’t taste like eggs. It is essentially a chickpea omelette, which is more reminiscent of a pancake.

It is delicious, though. I was shocked by how much I enjoyed it.

I decided to try my hand at my own chickpea omelette from scratch. Why should I pay someone to make this pancake mix for me, I thought? How hard could it be, I thought?

Well, you can see my from-scratch attempt on the left and eggscitables! on the right.

eggcitables! is worth every penny.

eggscitables! really impressed me, and I’ll be keeping this in my regular rotation. While it doesn’t mimic eggs, it does make for a very nice breakfast.

If I was craving a breakfast sandwich, I’d go with the Just Egg, though. Both have their place. Both are eggcellent products! I am converted.

6. Vegan Cheese has come a long Way

In most cases I would rather have no cheese than vegan cheese, but the situation is getting better. Here are a few that I tried:

The Applewood Vegan cheese is not going to fool anyone. I had a piece of real smoked cheddar shortly after Veganuary, and it makes your brain light up in a way that vegan cheese does not. However, this isn’t terrible. And I made a pretty decent grilled cheese with it. I don’t like buying products like this often, though, because I don’t like the ingredient list:

Water, Coconut Oil, Potato Starch, Modified Maize Starch, Yeast Extract, Reduced Sodium Sea Salt, Natural Flavouring, Thickener (Carrageenan), Calcium Phosphate, Smoke Flavouring, Calcium Chloride, Colour (Carotenes), Paprika, Vitamin B12

Now, the cheeses at Real Fake Meats are a different story! I tried the Goatless Cheeze and the Cheeze Ball – amazing!

Cheeze Ball from Real Fake Meats

The Cheeze Ball is made with:

Cashews, Sun Dried Tomatoes, Nutritional Yeast, Apple Cider Vinegar, Pon Pon Miso Paste, Sea Salt, Mustard, Coconut Oil, Spices, Onion.

That’s an ingredient list I can get behind!

Another local-ish product I like is Fresh Start Fauxmage. Made on Prince Edward Island, this line of cheese-like spreads has my admiration.

The ingredients in this one:

Raw cashews, filtered water, organic refined coconut oil, dill, garlic, chives, sea salt, nutritional yeast, citric acid, natural flavour, bacterial culture.

7. Vegan Bibimbap is awesome.

This was one of my more labour-intensive vegan dinners, but also my favourite creation. Bibimbap is a Korean rice dish in which the rice is topped with seasoned and sauteed vegetables and beef, and typically a fried egg or raw egg yolk on top. The bowl is then slathered with a sweet ‘n spicy gochujang-based sauce and mixed together into something ugly delicious.

I thought that avocado might be a good replacement for egg yolk, since it is creamy and fatty. I seasoned it with black salt and nutritional yeast and it worked splendidly, mixed up with shredded fried tofu, carrots, cucumber, dulse seaweed, spinach, portobello mushrooms, red pepper and green onion.

8. There’s more to think about than B12.

I tracked a lot of my meals on Chronometer to see how well I was performing nutritionally, and I was surprised at how much planning I had to do to hit all of my targets. They say that a “well planned” vegan diet can be healthy, but in my experience the emphasis on well planned is warranted.

The usual suspects were: B vitamins, calcium, zinc, vitamin E, selenium, and various amino acids (see: protein). Some of these are easily remedied, with fortified soy milk and nutritional yeast picking up the slack for the Bs, and Brazil nuts for selenium. But others, like zinc and calcium, I was not able to figure out.

I was surprised to see that my iron intake was the same as before, but plant-based iron isn’t as absorbable so that’s really something you should check with your doctor (especially if you are a person who menstruates).

While my omega 3s were high from eating flax, chia or hemp every day, there is some uncertainty about the conversion of ALA and EPA to DHA – which I’m not going to get into, but a lot of vegans supplement with algae-based DHA for this reason. (Ostovegans actually eat oysters, which solves a lot of these problems, as oysters – even just one – are high in B12, DHA, iron and zinc).

The counterpoint to all this is that omnivores are probably deficient in things too, but they haven’t been told that they’ll die if they don’t have a well planned diet (spoiler alert: it isn’t the vegans who are getting diet-related diseases).

For fun, I inputted into Chronometer a standard day of eating when I was growing up in the 90s:

Breakfast: orange juice, Raisin Bran w/ milk, flavoured yogurt.

Lunch: turkey sandwich on multigrain, baby carrots, banana.

Dinner: roast beef, mashed potatoes, frozen peas, glass of milk.

Snack: cheese and crackers.

To my dismay and surprise, this example, (which I wouldn’t consider particularly healthy) met virtually all of my nutritional requirements.

Meat is obviously more efficient at meeting nutritional targets with fewer calories. But it comes with its own set of problems, and there’s a reason why Canada’s Food Guide recommends you alternate it with plant-based sources of protein.

I’m coming out of the other side of Veganuary less certain and more confused than I was before. If any plant-based dieticians would like to straighten me out, please do!

9. Silken Tofu is under-appreciated.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is walnut-mushroom-taco-salad-resized-1024x768.jpg
Mushroom Walnut Taco “Meat” Salad with silken tofu sour cream sauce.

I always throw a block or two of extra firm tofu into my grocery cart, always snubbing the silken tofu. But I decided to pick some up and figure out what to do with it. I discovered three things:

  1. It is super easy to make a zesty tofu sour cream for tacos.
  2. It is super easy to make a delectable chocolate mousse with silken tofu.
  3. Both of these are low-cal protein hacks.
If you don’t believe tofu can make a delicious dessert, I dare you to try the Tofu Chocolate Pie at the Wooden Monkey.

10. When I paid attention to my nutrition, I did not have cravings.

Last Veganuary, I found myself craving dairy and seafood. The Side Dish only lasted 3 weeks plant-based, succumbing to an overwhelming craving for sardines. Our detective work revealed that it was probably a lack of selenium.

Listen to your body! (But also: Brazil nuts).

This Veganuary I paid much more attention to my nutrition, and I didn’t crave anything but more vegan food!

Going plant-based for a month didn’t solve all of my problems or create world peace. But I definitely lowered my carbon footprint and improved my health. Between Veganuary and Dry January I lost 6 pounds without really trying. It felt good to not support animal agriculture/factory farming. And my food was thoughtful, colourful, diverse, and satisfying.

This vegan sushi from Sushi Cove is so colourful.

Going forward, I think I would like to stick to a whole foods plant-based diet as much as possible. Of course, I will still enjoy meat from time to time, but think of it as more of a treat that I would enjoy at a restaurant or holiday gathering. I like the idea of the Seagan Diet (Vegan + Fish), and this appears to be the healthiest diet on the planet. Then again, we are all built differently. My poor Side Dish thrives best on a low carb, high protein diet whereas ketosis is my kryptonite.

All I can say is that it doesn’t hurt to try Veganuary. And who knows, you might just like it!

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