I was around 10 when I declared to my parents that I was going vegetarian. I had always loved animals and, upon falling down a rabbit hole into disturbing slaughterhouse footage during computer class, thought that I should no longer eat them. My parents didn't really think the whole thing would stick — after all, I was the kid who ordered the adult-sized plate of ribs at our local chain steakhouse.
The thing is, though —it did stick. While I eventually incorporated fish into my diet, the only bacon, burgers, chicken nuggets and ribs I've consumed over the last two decades are of the plant-based variety. (MorningStar's microwavable ribs: Don’t knock 'em until you've tried 'em.)
My pescatarian diet was ridiculously easy to stick to, and I felt good about it for a long time. Sure, I was basically consuming my weight in brie weekly, but at least it wasn’t quite the same as indulging in a porterhouse steak...right? Maybe, but I was still eating animal-derived products — and I knew that wasn't exactly ideal.
There was never one "lightbulb" moment that made me realize that dairy and eggs were in fact doing the harm to animals I had hoped to avoid — instead, it was a bunch of smaller, compounding things over the years that made my brain reconsider my diet.
There were documentaries like Cowspiracy and What the Health? that asked big questions about animal agriculture's impact on our well-being and the environment. Those docs certainly didn't make me want a glass of milk, but it was the more personal accounts of animal suffering that really got to me. I visited the Gentle Barn, an animal organization in Los Angeles that rescues many animals from dairy farms and slaughterhouses (where I hugged several cows in tiny top hats). While others were side-eying one another over Joaquin Phoenix's Best Actor Oscar speech for Joker, which he made about the plight of dairy cows, I couldn’t help but think, "Well, yeah, odd timing, but ... doesn't he have a point?"
After all, he's right: In the United States, the average dairy cow on a factory farm is kept in tight quarters for most of her life. She's artificially inseminated so that she can produce milk and then separated from her calf, who, if male, is typically sent off to slaughter. That may become the mom's fate, too, after her milk production wanes. While many people may argue that not all milk comes from this specific type of operation, there is simply no way to avoid taking milk from a cow that's meant for a calf, no matter how nicely it's done.
Soon, I was watching Minari's "chick sexing" scene, which revealed what happens to male chicks in the egg cultivating process (they are typically killed, as there's no use for them in the food industry) and Okja, Bong Joon-ho's film about the bond between a little girl and a fictional animal being sold into factory farming...and crying. Neither made me feel great about eating animal-derived products at all.
And so, just as I did when I was a kid, I found myself reconsidering my diet — this time, with the dairy and egg industries in mind. If I had given up meat all those years ago to stop this very thing from happening, could I give up animal-derived products too?
That's what I wanted to find out — so I committed to 30 days of completely plant-based eating in order to see what this diet could really look like. I even recruited my husband, who, while a meat-eater, is also a vegetable enthusiast who was excited to help me swap out cheese with veggies.
Since November is World Vegan Month, I wanted to document my 30-day journey. Here's how it all went down:
I consulted the professionals about my love of cheese.
When I initially cut out meat, I replaced it with cheese. For years, I had provolone and tomato sandwiches for lunch, and that habit of making cheese a main factor in my meals stuck with me into adulthood. I was the pescatarian in the family, and yet my husband would regularly eat significantly more vegetables than I would — and ever-so-lightly suggest that maybe some of the stomach issues I regularly complained of had to do with my overconsumption of cheese.
Yet it seemed so hard to say no to cheese when it was basically a food group. I consulted with Ashley Byrne, director of outreach and communications at PETA, who has been vegan for 25 years, about the cheese dilemma, and her answer was intriguing.
"People have a hard time giving up cheese. That was the last thing to go for me, too," she explained. "I think it helps to know that one of the reasons that people struggle to give up cheese is because there is an ingredient in dairy, and in cheese, that makes you crave it. It makes it addictive. When you think about the point of cow’s milk, it’s to make a calf grow very fast. A cow’s milk is designed to make a calf drink as much as possible and drink as much as they can. That chemical has the same effect on us."
"I wish I had known that when I was trying to cut cheese out of my diet — that part of the reason I was craving it, was because I was eating it," says Byrne. "After a certain amount of time without it, those cravings went away."
I was surprised to find out just how right she was. While I purchased a few cheese substitutes to sprinkle on top of pasta, I found myself not craving cheese whatsoever after day five. Instead of provolone and tomato, I had hummus and cucumber sandwiches, or a soup with some crusty bread. (Fun fact: Most breads are vegan!) I didn't feel like I was constantly giving up cheese — my body just didn’t care that much about it.
I gave vegetables, beans, and legumes a starring role
When I first started my 30 days, I had trouble planning meals. I consulted vegan blogs and YouTube videos, and they all said the same thing: Instead of thinking of the diet as a way to cut out certain foods (which, I mean, was kind of the whole point), I was told to consider it as an excuse to add new ones in. With that in mind, I looked towards chickpeas, lentils, and beans as the base of meals. I made hearty veggie soup with white beans and ate my weight in Alison Roman's spiced chickpea stew. I was surprised at how long I could remain full after loading up on plant-based protein — I never found myself trolling the fridge for a snack a few hours later.
My husband also appreciated having leftover soups and stews in the fridge. While his typical lunch is a bagged salad from the grocery store (yes, even pre-plant-based challenge), it was even easier to nuke a bowl of soup in the microwave before hitting the next Zoom meeting.
I fully embraced tofu
Tofu was probably the thing my husband was the most excited to experiment with during his 30 days. He loves adding new spices to dishes, and tofu’s absorbent quality makes it so that there’s a world of flavor possibilities within a single brick. Tofu proved itself to be even more versatile than I thought it could be — and we got kind of obsessed with it. We bought a tofu press, a device used to remove water from tofu in order to make it easier to cook with and improve its texture. We experimented with freezing, then thawing, then freezing again, to change the texture. We tried Asian-inspired teriyaki tofu, Moroccan-style, spicy Mexican — pretty much any flavor we wanted for our dish, we could mold tofu accordingly. I even coated tofu in powdered Takis. It proved to me that I could find new foods to love — which was well worth the experiment.
I "shopped small"
To make this month all the more a breeze, I happen to live ridiculously close to an all-vegan grocer called Besties Vegan Paradise, which just so happens to have a sign outside that reads, "If you need a sign to go vegan, this is it." As a person new to veganism, it really is paradise — there's no need to overanalyze labels because the grocery store already vetted every single product extensively. Besties features products by smaller, sustainable, vegan companies not available at bigger retailers — and it felt good supporting them, even if it meant my grocery haul was a bit pricier than usual.
My body felt better
While my main reason for going vegan for the month was to see if I felt better eating in a way that I felt more ethically aligned with, I figured that eating more vegetables and less cheese certainly couldn't hurt my body. I'd love to say that I had a complete 180 after starting my vegan diet, and woke up at the crack of dawn feeling spritely and ready for a morning run. That’s not exactly what happened — but there were definite body benefits. I never felt that icky, "heavy" feeling I would get after eating a cheesy meal. In fact, my stomach really didn't hurt at all after eating — which, embarrassing as it is to say, kind of happened a lot when I was eating animal products.
I didn't feel like I was missing out.
The thing that really stopped me from going vegan — or even cutting back significantly on my dairy and egg consumption — was the idea that I would be missing out on some important food moments. Given the whole pandemic of it all, I haven't yet trotted across France avoiding brie — but as for going out to dinner with friends? Honestly, it hasn't yet become that big of a deal. Nearly everywhere has a vegan meal, and the menu jealousy I was worried I would feel really only applies when I'm hungry. While Los Angeles has amazing vegan restaurants, like the world-famous Crossroads, I didn't stress at restaurants that weren't plant-based. My husband and I went to the Cheesecake Factory with friends and while I missed the avocado egg rolls and, obviously, the cheesecake, my veggie burger-and-fries meal was still satisfying — as was the company. Plus, guac is vegan, so at least I got some avocado fix.
When my 30 days were up, my husband quickly went back to eating meat. However, he did say, upon returning to his "normal" habits, that the experience reminded him that he didn't need to have meat at every single meal — and he certainly didn't need to load up on cheese. We both decided to keep a limited amount of dairy in the house, no matter what label we were giving our diet — because if it replaces vegetables and other better-for-us stuff, it’s probably not the best choice.
As for me, I figured that if this way of eating means I will eat more healthfully, maintain a diet that is more closely aligned to my ethics, and still enjoy all the food I make, well, why not stick with it? While there may be slip-ups or deliberate decisions to indulge given unique circumstances — I can’t promise myself that I won’t have a slice of pizza in Italy, or a bite of a croissant in France — for now, plant-based eating just makes sense for me. Honestly, I just don't know why I didn't try it sooner.