Tough Enough for Tofu

A meat-eater steps up to the five-day vegan challenge


photo by Kara Mihm

Substituting animal-product with fruits and vegetables is a staple in the vegan diet.

Veganism — the one trend that I sworn to never partake in. It seemed outlandish and entirely unnecessary to deplete my body of needed nutrients and proteins that I thought only animal products supplied. Not only had the diet scared me off for so many years, but I also preferred not to be associated with the many individuals in the community who publicize the vegan diet as their defining characteristic.

Yet veganism has only become more mainstream in recent years. Starting as a protest against animal rights, environmental and health-related concerns have since helped to push the vegan diet into growing acceptance. Thanks to grocery stores such as Trader Joes and Whole Foods, the availability of vegan foods provides easy access to anyone willing to ditch the meats and go plant-based instead.

This tofu “chicken” teriyaki was a perfect substitute for real chicken meat. photo by Kara Mihm

Yet, as much as I love animals, I have to say that I love eating them more. Whether it’s the athlete or the American in me, I can’t seem to live without animal products.

However, I’m always up for a challenge, and so when the thought crossed my mind to go vegan for a week, I readily accepted, though I suspected it would be tougher than I thought.

As a swimmer, one of my biggest fears about going vegan was that I would feel weak in the water. However, I learned that an Olympic cyclist, Dotsie Bausch, swears by her vegan lifestyle and has said that, even though her motivation was centered around ethical concerns, she noticed a positive difference in her vitality as she soon gave up eating animal-based foods.

“I was bouncing out of bed — I felt ready to go. I was more energized,” she told US News and World Report.

Bausch concluded that her dietary changes were actually benefiting her recovery time.

“When you recover faster, you can handle more damage, more training. The more training you can do, the faster you are going to become,” Bausch added.

Since no other family members partook in my experiment, I hypothesized that the hardest part would be eating dinner with them and smelling the delicious food that sadly did not make the vegan cut and land on my plate. However, as a determined athlete, defeat is not in my blood.  I vowed to myself that I would win this challenge, even if it meant pinching my nose as I swallowed strange vegetables.

Without further ado, the challenge began.

On Monday, September 28th, I jumped right in and went completely plant-based through Friday. To pass this challenge, I had to abide by strict rules of no red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and insect products such as honey.

Vegan blueberry crumb cake became the highlight of the morning. photo by Kara Mihm

That Monday morning, I felt hopeful and excited for the week ahead of me. The feeling came to a halting stop, however, when I watched my siblings gorging on my favorite muffins while I ate oatmeal.

Envy filled my heart and mind (and stomach) numerous times throughout the week, especially when I watched my sister eating a chicken burrito from Chipotle. Initially, I didn’t care about the burrito. I was actually excited to indulge in a dairy-free pesto rhubarb veggie noodle dish for lunch. The name of the dish was a mouthful, but the food itself certainly proved otherwise, as I threw out more than half of the dish. It tasted like soggy carrot shreds and I could not bear to take more than five small bites.  My sister’s burrito was looking better and better.

With a little more research, however, I soon discovered that good-tasting vegan food is easy to find if I looked in the right place. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods became my best friends throughout the week. Almost everything I ate was purchased there, from Ben and Jerry’s Milk and Cookies dairy-free ice cream to the teriyaki tofu “chicken” (which, by the way, tasted exactly like real chicken). Whoever created that latter item deserves a pay raise.

Over my five-day journey, I tried to incorporate a balance of proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and anything else needed to suit my healthy diet. Finding a balance proved to be most difficult, however, when it came time for pre-workout snacks.

Usually, on my way to swim practice, I grab a protein bar or a trail mix to go, but reading labels and pin-pointing non-vegan ingredients became unexpectedly time-consuming. I found myself reaching for fruits and vegetables instead. Having to do so for only five days was not bad, but checking every item on every label on every food package has to be tiring for full-time vegans. 

Despite the food label fatigue, by day three I was waking up in the morning feeling more energized than I had in a long while, thanks to my the increased intake of whole fruits and veggies. At practice, I felt especially strong. In fact, the articles that I read prior to the week suggested that this might be the case. Studies have shown that relying heavily on whole foods found in nature supplies the body with much-needed vitamins and nutrients without the added sugars and preservatives. Eating plant-based meals also increases productivity, as the body does not have to waste its energy breaking down and digesting meat. 

No vegan pasta dish can be complete without these plant-based meatballs. photo by Kara Mihm

Nevertheless, temptations were thrown at me every which way. With my mom being an amazing cook, eating different foods to fit the diet ended up being an ordeal at times. My “pea-protein burger” suddenly seemed less and less appealing once swordfish, pork, and mashed potatoes were brought to the table. Quick lunches and snacks suddenly became more time-consuming and rigorous with finding different recipes in order to eliminate any non-vegan ingredients. Friday was especially hard on my stomach, as my family tends to eat out that night. Tofu, beans, and rice replaced the usual pizza that I indulge in. 

But overall, I would say that I passed this challenge proudly. There were some bumpy moments, but the mistakes were minimal. For instance, on Wednesday, when eating lunch, I started to spray olive-oil based butter on my rice before double-checking the ingredients, only to find that it contained a tiny amount of buttermilk. Fast forward to Friday, where I wasn’t thinking as I mindlessly drank chocolate milk that was put in my lunch by my dad.

But if you overlook those minor issues, I would say that the week went very well.

Although the five days went by smoothly, I don’t see veganism anytime soon in my future. Eating different meals than my family ate proved to be particularly difficult. With my mom making dinner nearly every night, finding the time between athletics and school to make my own meals caused more stress than I had imagined. Surprisingly, the egg and dairy-free portion of the diet proved more difficult than the avoidance of meat. It seemed that everything in my pantry contained one or both of those ingredients.

But I’ve learned to never say “never,” and maybe one day I’ll become an ovo-lacto vegetarian. Ever heard of that?