The Vegan Experiment

David Carver, of Reston, Va. was just three days into his 30-day vegan challenge when he posted a comment in the April installment of What's Cooking Vegetarian, my monthly vegetarian Web chat.

"Being a huge lover of red meat, white meat, the other white meat and fish, this has been the single most difficult thing I have done," wrote Carver. "I feel like I am going through some detox phase only after 3 days."

It was an intriguing concept, one that I wanted to hear more about. In addition to Carver, I heard from Kevin Goldberg, of Washington, who had embarked on a similar vegan journey, albeit with a drastically different outcome. Here are their stories.

David Carver

Yesterday, I caught up with Carver by phone, to see how the experiment was shaping up, and to see how he was faring. He was now in the fourth and final week of his vegan blitz, counting the days until Sunday, when it would all be over.

"This is one of the worst things I've ever done in my life," he exclaimed. "I'm craving meat every second of the day." In spite of the emotional withdrawal, Carver has noticed significant physical changes since giving up meat, eggs and dairy.

"I've felt better than I ever have in my life," he said. "In three weeks, I've had not a single allergy. My sinuses, even at this time of the year, are completely cleared up."

The 43-year-old husband and father of two accepted the challenge from a vegan colleague at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where he works as a chemical engineer.

Because he is the designated chef of the family, Carver faced an additional challenge as he continued to cook meat for his beloved omnivores. "I love cooking and it's my passion," Carver said. "One of the hardest things has been to let my family taste my food for seasoning. It's been torture."

In addition to an allergy-free existence, Carver has noticed other areas of his life blossoming.

"It's been wonderful from a culinary standpoint," he says. "I've used new ingredients and tried new dishes -- hummus, bean dishes, vegetable purees. I worked out a portobello [mushroom] curry with rice, which worked out really nice. This has been a great opportunity to show vegetables in all their beauty."

Giving up meat has also transformed his social life, Carver says. "People in my office who are vegan and vegetarian all of sudden want to have lunch. They appreciate the sensitivity."

Last year when he organized the office holiday party, Carver acknowledges he "had no clue" on how to accommodate his meat-free colleagues, but now, is "very comfortable for parties in the future."

With just a few days remaining, Carver is eager to return to his omnivorous ways, but says he will go gradually and replace some of that meat with fish, and now that he knows how to prepare them, incorporate more veggies into his diet.

Alas, he is already thinking of his first meal as a returning omnivore. "Poached salmon," he says, matter of factly. "Maybe with a light hollandaise." And spinach, with butter." You can practically see him licking his chops through the phone.

Kevin Goldberg

Like David Carver, Kevin Goldberg had been a lifelong carnivore.

"I was a pretty rabid meat eater," Goldberg tells me earlier this month. "I'm also really active. I play soccer and I work out four, five times a week. Yet, I never felt quite healthy enough."

Over the past year, Goldberg noticed significant gastrointestinal distress. "I had lots of stomach problems, particularly acid reflux, and I felt sluggish," he said.

But when he learned of his high blood cholesterol levels, the 35-year-old lawyer started to make the diet-body connection. So last August, Goldberg decided to go vegan for a trial period of two months. The results were eye opening, he says.

"I really liked the way I felt," Goldberg said. "I had no stomach issues, I was no longer bloated and I had more energy. Plus I learned to cook."

As a result, Goldberg rocked on with his bad vegan self until New Year's Day, for a total of four months.

Since then, Goldberg has reintroduced dairy and eggs into his diet, but has remained vegetarian through and through. "I did not miss meat as much as I thought I would," he said. "I missed cheese and dairy a lot more."

In addition to a calmer G-I existence, Goldberg says he now owns five cookbooks and is more aware of what he puts into his body. "When I go shopping, I now look at ingredients. It's opened me up to new restaurants. Never before had I made food choices based on health."

Is a burger in his future? Goldberg, whose "last two meals before going vegan were hamburgers" is now unsure. For now, he enjoys a bowl of pasta "Bolognese" with lentils instead of ground meat, which he says has great texture and flavor.

Ever think about radically overhauling your diet? Share your stories in the comments area below. And talk to me, today at noon, for What's Cooking.

By Kim ODonnel |  May 15, 2007; 11:00 AM ET Nutrition , Vegetarian/Vegan
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Comments

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I became a vegetarian in 1995, but over that summer decided that I couldn't live without shellfish. Really people, Crabs, come on. So I decided that I would eat seafood about once a week. In the end we almost never buy and keep fish in the house, eating it when we're at business lunches and other places where selection can be slim. I too went through a period where I "craved" certain foods that cannot be duplicated in vegetarian style (pulled pork for instance), but I found that when I actually saw the food and smelled it, the "dead animal" smell was too overpowering to enjoy it. Literally, I can't go back.

Posted by: DCer | May 15, 2007 12:09 PM

I applaud both of these guys for being open minded enough to give it a shot. I've run into people who can't think beyond a meat-and-potatoes diet to realize there are other ways to eat. I've been a vegetarian for almost 13 years now, and I'll never go back. I've been vegan in the past and want to get back to that.

Posted by: Troylet | May 15, 2007 12:42 PM

Your blog is exploring some interesting directions -- thank you for posting.

My wife and I -- omnivores both -- generally do something along these lines every summer. I thought I would mention a couple of cookbooks I enjoyed working my way through last year. The first was Eric Tucker's 'The Artful Vegan'. A very creative and inspiring approach. I had a good time making my own saitan sausages. The other book was 'The Cafe Paradiso Cookbook'. Cafe Paradiso is a veg restaurant in Cork, Ireland. The great thing about this book was the creative ideas he has for grilled vegetarian dishes. Worth a look.

Posted by: Curtis | May 15, 2007 1:30 PM

Just heard from Kevin Goldberg, who writes that the recipe for the bolognese sauce made with lentils can be found by following this link:

http://www.vegan-food.net/recipe/135/Lentil-Bolognese-Sauce/

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | May 15, 2007 2:01 PM

after 4 years as a carbotarian i've spent the last 1 trying to actually be a vegetarian. sometimes i seriously crave a big puffy slice of white bread--this is harder than giving up meat ever was!!!

Posted by: carbotarian | May 15, 2007 3:43 PM

Well, I read today's chat after the fact and just in case the peanut who asked about how to finish gnocci is still around, I would recommend making a pesto. In a food processor, mix olive oil, fresh basil and fresh garlic and blend, You can mix in pine nuts as well (although I like experimenting with other nuts like pecans or walnuts). Blend until you get a nice paste. This will go over gnocci very well and is significantly healthier than the brown butter gravy/sauce.

You can also saute plum tomatoes (blanch them to remove the skins and then crush into the saute pan) with garlic, onions and olive oil plus your favorite seasonings (I stick with the basics of fresh basic and oregano) will be a nice healthy homemade marinara sauce.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | May 15, 2007 5:00 PM

Well, I was vegetarian for 5 fears and yes I occassionally craved a big hamburger. Once in the first year I gave in and I felt terrible the next day. I went back to eating meat when I married an omnivore.

My collection of veg cookbooks (with several Moosewoods as the foundation) continue to be used as we strive to eat five each day.

As Carver attested being vegetarian opened culinary doors for me as well. And as a result of my experiment those doors remain open, I continue to incoporate flavors of the world into my cooking and to try veggies and fruits not previously part of my diet.

For those serious about exploring food or improving health I think a goal, such as no meat or going vegan for a period of time, is a great way to get a jump start.

Posted by: late to the party | May 15, 2007 9:44 PM

It is interesting one would go back after seeing so many gains in a relatively short period.

Posted by: NoVA | May 16, 2007 8:37 AM

I think an on-line vegetarian support group would be a good idea. Seems there are a lot of people who would like to go vegetarian but don't get a lot of support from family and friends. It's hard to stick to when you're the only one.

Posted by: komo1 | May 16, 2007 9:28 PM

I went totally vegetarian for a year before finally going vegan, which I was able to keep up for six months before going back to vegetarian (eating with the family is tough when almost every non-meat meal's got cheese or butter or some kind of milk product in it -- it was all I could hope for to find veggies without some butter added in). I did eventually go back to meat for a few years, again, to make it easier to eat with the family, and during that time my blood pressure and glucose levels went way up, and I gained about 100 pounds in a year. It wasn't just the meat, it was, as someone else mentioned, that I was a "carbotarian" -- I was just eating too many carbs and then fatty meat on top of it. After a couple years, I went back to vegetarianism, but never lost the weight. In the past two-and-a-half years, I've lost most of that weight by eating a diet made of lean proteins, like egg whites, whey, tuna and chicken breasts, along with a diet high in fibrous whole grains and veggies. I think I did feel lighter when I was vegan, but I enjoy the strength I gain from the steady doses of protein without tacking on added carbs (as in the case of beans -- you get a lot of carbs with your protein). I'm all for a vegan/vegetarian diet if we can stress the importance of balance between carbs, protein and fats, and lots of good fiber.

Posted by: Howard | May 16, 2007 10:42 PM

Great Point Komo1.

This is Kevin, one of the two people profiled above. I definitely attribute the fact that I've not only stuck with this change, but also enjoyed it greatly, to the support of many people around me. My parents tend to eat rather healty themselves and, while my girlfriend eats meat, she's not a red meat eater and could really do without it. Her active participation, from helping me shop to choosing and cooking new recipes to putting up with my sometime complaints about feeling restricted, was absolutley crucial to the process for me.

Posted by: kmg27 | May 17, 2007 9:57 AM

About going back after seeing the gains or benefits. I do think there is a lot of social pressure, especially from family, to be an omnivore.

Choosing to omit meat from my diet for a period of time allowed me to seriously look at what I ate in general. For the most part I don't think eating meat makes me feel unhealthy, I think not eating enough vegetables or eating out of balancemakes me feel unhealthy. When you "entree" is meat (or carb) based it is easy to eat too much of it. If you are being more conscious of what you eat and try to limit fats and increase high fiber foods (fruit, veg, whole gratins) I think you can be an ominvore and experience positive benefits from your diet. As noted above very often individuals eliminate meat from their diets and are carbotarian versus vegetarian, I would expect (and many have pointed out) they would experience the effects of an unhealthy diet as well.

Being vegetarian is a way to eat healthy, but not the way (because everyone has to find their own way). In my experience those who stay vegetarian have ethical concerns about eating meat or the treatment of animals and their convictions carry them through any cravings.

Posted by: late to the party | May 17, 2007 12:43 PM

I've recently begun a diet that consists of 95% organic and/or all natural foods. I've cut down eating red meat, pork, and chicken to about 1-2 times per month. I do still eat seafood bi-weekly. This paired with an increase in exercise and a drastic increase in water intake (I would go days without having a glass. Horrible. I know this now) and I've never felt better. I think a person needs to listen to their bodies and tailor a diet that works for them. Cutting down on meat intake and increasing whole foods that aren't over processed does have a large impact on a person's overall well being. You feel better, look better, and just have more energy to do the things you love.

Posted by: grace33 | May 18, 2007 12:27 PM

I've mostly vegan for about a year now and love it--cravings for cheese and dairy have mostly disappeared. (Can't resist the occasional PMS ice cream frenzy.) Meat and seafood is no longer appealing, especially when you consider the price tag! Environmentally it's also very appealing.
What is a problem is, ahem, digestive issues around beans and other vegan protein sources. This issue hasn't gotten better with time and I wonder if anyone has long-term solutions or suggestions.

Posted by: lisa up north | May 22, 2007 2:52 PM

Heard from David Carver yesterday, who reports that he lost a total of 26 pounds during his 30-day vegan trial.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | May 22, 2007 9:49 PM

I think it's so amazing to hear peoples stories, I went vegetarian after looking at the Peta website.
I'm doing a school project on the benefits of vegetarianism, so if anyone has any great resources or ideas for it, I'd love to hear them.

Posted by: Camila (A veg-head) | May 27, 2007 12:32 PM

I have been a semi-vegitarian for the past few years and finally went vegan for cholesterol purposes in January '07. Previously my cholesterol was 235 (too much dairy!)but now it is 152. I have lost 26 pounds and am now a 24 on the BMI chart. Initially I had problems finding tasty, non-milk based alternatives to cheese and butter, but fortunately our local supermarket now carries soy and rice based alternatives for cheese and milk, and a non-hydrogenated oil butter that my kids swear is "real" butter.

There are lots of yummy processed foods like Morningstar Farms, Garden Burger, Amy's, Boca, and others that make meat like substitutes that really are similar to the real (artery clogging) thing. Good luck to all aspiring vegetarians and vegans...your body will thank you, especially after your mind makes the transition from meat based to plant based health!

Posted by: pgpassman | May 31, 2007 2:57 PM

I gave up meat in 97 or 98 after wanting to do so for about 5 years before that. i was never a big meat fan and only ate it because it's what my mom cooked. i feel way healthier and have much more energy and am in better shape now than i was when i was younger. plus i can sleep better at night knowing that because myself and other vegetarians/vegan, less animals have to die unnecessarily.

Posted by: Florence Homer | June 11, 2007 5:03 PM

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