Dishing on a four-week vegan experiment

From January 7 – February 4, 50 men and women, mostly Parkview Heart Institute employees, accepted the 28-Day Veg Out Challenge, organized by their co-workers, Sarah Mohrman, RDN, CD, and Sara Bennett, RDN, CD. Crafted around veganism, the parameters were defined as no meat, fish, dairy or eggs, with a focus on whole foods and plant-based meals.

“Sara and I chose to reevaluate our own diets back in the fall when we attended the Live Healthy Summit sponsored by Parkview,” Sarah said. “During the conference, as the facts were being presented, we both looked at each other and thought, ‘We have to do this!’ We started with just 7 days, after reading about Rip Esselstyn’s 7-day Rescue Diet. We planned out our 7-day menu together, shared recipes, shared fails, and split dishes when we had leftovers. After 7 days, we were both down a few pounds and feeling great! Since then, we have stuck to the plan about 90 percent or more of the time with a few exceptions on rare occasions.”

The women decided that if they were enjoying the results so much, as dietitians, why not share their findings with their team? “We collected our favorite recipes into a cookbook, created grocery lists, tips for navigating the cafeteria and dining out suggestions, a food tracker and meal planner,” Sarah said. “We tried to give them tools to conquer any barrier they might face. We asked them to give us 28 days. Of the 50 brave souls who signed up, we had 35 complete the full program.”

In an effort to gauge progress, they were invited to weekly weigh-ins and to submit measurements at the beginning and end of the challenge. “We had weight loss all over the board (as much as 13.6 pounds), some lowered blood pressures and fasting blood sugars, but most importantly, the coworkers reported that they felt good. Teaching people that you can get your protein from plants and you will survive without meat and cheese were our biggest hurdles.  But in the long run, I think we were able to convince people that this way of eating does produce positive health benefits and it can be done. As with any diet, planning is the key.”

With the Veg Out challenge now a week behind them, we asked Sue Budzon, RN, clinical research, Mark O’Shaughnessy, MD, PPG – Cardiology, (who participated with his wife, Laura) and Denise Fogle, scheduler, PPG – Cardiology, to share their thoughts on the vegan experience.

What were some of the concerns you had about your diet prior to the challenge?

Denise: How easy it is to eat junk. Most of what is advertised and readily available is food that isn’t good for us.

Sue: I have been eating about the same for several years. I usually eat pretty healthy during the week and a little less restrictive on the weekends. I don’t crave sweets but felt like I was eating too much dairy.

What motivated you to take the challenge?

Dr. O’Shaughnessy: My motivation was to support "the Sara's/Sarah's" (Bennett and Mohrman). They are both amazing and so incredibly creative. I am the medical director of our Wellness/Prevention programs, but in reality, I’m merely the face-guy giving presentations when they need help. They are the critical cogs that make the machine hum. When they told me about the challenge, I thought it might be fun and I wanted to champion their efforts by putting my support where my mouth is. As a secondary motivation, my oldest is a vegetarian, so we wanted to see if we could do this for a month. I was less motivated by the health benefits and had no real desire for weight loss.

Denise: The weight loss statistics.

Sue: Weight loss was my main motivation. My weight has been creeping up little by little over the past couple of years and nothing else I’ve tried seems to make much of a difference. I thought it was worth a try. I was also concerned that my A1C has been creeping up into the borderline diabetes category. Diabetes is common in my family and I’m doing all I can to avoid it. The challenge included a fasting glucose at the beginning and the end of the challenge. I was curious how those readings would compare.

Did you have any doubts about the challenge?

Dr. O’Shaughnessy: My major doubt was if I could actually pull it off for 28 days. We are talking nothing that has a face or a mother – no meat, no fish, no dairy – no fun? While I knew avoiding meat was not going to be an issue, as I have never been a huge red meat fan (no flavor), I do love fish and dairy products, so my major concern was failure and not being able to pull it off for the entire month.

Denise: If I would be able to maintain the diet for the 28 days.

Sue: My biggest doubt was me. Can I really do this for 28 days? I didn’t realize what I was signing up for when I agreed to do the challenge. When I realized what the challenge entailed, my initial thought was to cross my name off the list. Luckily I had a few weeks to give it some thought before it started and I decided I should give it a shot. I don’t think I would have done this on my own.

What surprised you?

Dr. O’Shaughnessy: Our biggest surprise is just how many things we actually like that are 100% plant-based. The recipes that the Sara and Sarah gave us for the most part have been amazing and things that we not only like, but will be doing well beyond the 28-day challenge. Mushroom Tetrazzini, Asian Stir-Fry, Vegan burritos/enchiladas have been amazing. We also found some great recipes online. For Laura's birthday I made The Best Vegan Lasagna, with vegan ricotta and vegan mozzarella from scratch. It was amazing. We had friends over for dinner and everyone took some home because they loved it so much.

Denise: How easy it really is.

Sue: I didn’t miss the forbidden foods as much as I thought I would. Prior to the challenge I ate a lot of fruits and vegetables, so that wasn’t difficult. I’m used to creamer in my coffee and didn’t care for almond milk as a substitution. I managed to get by drinking black coffee.

What changes did you notice?

Dr. O’Shaughnessy: I hate to say it, but I haven’t felt any different on this diet than from before. I am still running and have just as much energy. I don't think my "aches and pains” have changed one way or another. I did not weigh in, so I do not know if I lost any weight since this was never a motivation for me.

Denise: I noticed how much better I felt about three days into it. I had more energy during the day and wasn’t so tired in the evenings.

Sue: The very first day I went home from work bloated and miserable. I thought about quitting right then but decided to make some modifications. I’m not used to eating a lot of carbs (bread, pasta, rice, quinoa). Our instructions told us how many servings per day to eat and I decided to cut back on the amount of whole grains per day, and I felt better.

Are there any negative side effects or specific obstacles?

Dr. O’Shaughnessy: The only negative side effect, that is not so much a problem for me but possibly for others around me, is the substantial increase in fiber in this diet and the associated increase in endogenous methane production.

Denise: No negative side effects that I have noticed. Snacking has been the hardest for me. Sometimes I like to just grab some chips or something easy and I have to stop and think about it now.

Sue: The biggest obstacle was eating out. We were provided numerous options for restaurants and things to order that followed the plan. I complied but it wasn’t what I wanted. I usually eat out 1-2 times per week so it wasn’t a huge deal. I’m excited to try the new CoreLife Eatery that just opened up. That will be a great option for this eating plan. The Loving Café is also a great option since they only serve vegan food. I had always wanted to try it and enjoyed what I got.

What were some of the social challenges of being vegan?

Sue: Two days after the challenge started, I was invited to a get together at a coworker’s house. I brought veggies and hummus. I had every intention of sticking with the plan that night and could have, but I made the conscious choice to cheat a little. I had a couple of spoons of spinach artichoke dip and a 1-inch square of a chocolate chip cookie brownie. All and all not too bad. I actually requested to end the plan at day 24. I had family coming in town on the last weekend. There were several family get-togethers planned and I didn’t want to have to worry about what I was going to eat. We ordered in pizza at one event and luckily I have a couple of family members who are vegetarian so I chose the vegetarian pizza even though I was technically off the plan.

Now that the challenge has ended, what changes have you kept in the kitchen?

Dr. O’Shaughnessy: The one major change is meal prep. Laura has never enjoyed cooking, but was a real champ during the challenge, trying new and at times challenging recipes. We are much more thoughtful about meal planning and preparation than we have ever been before. We are also much more aware of what we are eating. In the past, when I was hungry I would grab anything close, typically something sweet given my insatiable sweet tooth. But now we look for a healthy option and grab a piece of fruit or vegetable. It has raised our awareness of just what we are fueling our bodies with, which has been a great benefit.

Denise: I’ve changed the things I’m buying.

Sue: Meal preparation changed a bit. I was used to doing meal prep on Sundays anyway, but this changed what I prepared. I cooked as much ahead of time as I could to save time before and after work. Prior to the plan I typically ate breakfast at home and packed my lunch. I’ve never been a big supper eater and typically would have cheese and crackers or veggies and hummus for dinner. With the new plan, I ate dinner most evenings that included some type of whole grain pasta, rice or quinoa. I missed my eggs for breakfast. Boiled eggs were a quick morning option. Sarah discovered a plant-based liquid egg substitute that can be found at Fresh Thyme. She and Sara prepared a couple of breakfast options with it for us to try.

How likely would you be to permanently adopt some of these lifestyle changes?

Dr. O’Shaughnessy: I can definitely say that I will not be a vegan for life – I’ve added fish and some dairy products back into my diet – but I have gained a new appreciation for many foods I would never have thought I would embrace, and we will try to remain mindful of what we are placing in our mouths. Laura and I have continued to share a journal since my health scare last year. This year’s theme is “gratitude” and it’s been a wonderful way to start out the new year.

Denise: I will probably continue, but not as strict. I may go back to eating fish.

Sue: Unlikely I’ll continue. I’ve really cut back on the dairy, but have added lean meat and eggs back into my diet. The plan included a lot of delicious recipes but I got a little bored with the food options. If I decided to stay with this plan, I would get a cookbook with more recipes.

How has the challenge impacted your family?

Denise: My daughter is now doing it! My husband has done a few things and has lost weight.

Sue: We’re empty nesters. I anticipated doing this on my own. I was shocked when my husband informed me that he planned to follow this with me. As it turned out, he did a modified version which was more than I ever thought he would do. He actually liked all of the dinners I prepared. I was shocked to hear him say how much he liked the vegetarian chili. “I didn’t even miss the meat,” he said.

Any other general observations?

Denise: Overall, I just feel better. I don’t feel bloated and miserable after a meal, yet I am full and satisfied.

Sue: The positive is that I lost 6 lbs. and 2 inches around my waist. The biggest negative was that my fasting glucose was elevated by 5 points from the baseline. Not a huge number, but I was hoping it would go down. My blood pressure was elevated at the baseline visit and then more so at my final check. That was very concerning to me. I checked it four days after my final Veg Out check and it was back to normal. Maybe that was a fluke, but hopefully not. All things considered, I am really glad that I completed this challenge. I learned a lot and I have definitely made some dietary changes, mainly in the dairy category. I still haven’t had any cheese and, so far, I haven’t missed it.

Any vegan pointers?

Dr. O’Shaughnessy: We found several great restaurants that deserve attention: Bird and Cleaver on Wells Street is a must. Their Hillbilly cheese (that's not cheese) appetizer is beyond description. Also, 800 Degrees pizza has Vegan Night on Sundays and it’s fantastic. We found an avocado butter that’s amazing, too.

Want to try it?

Big Bowl Mix

1 (24-ounce) box of Post Grape-Nuts® cereal
1 (42-ounce) container of old-fashioned oats
1 (13-ounce) box of Uncle Sam® Wheat Berry Flake Cereal
1 (18-ounce) box of spoon-size shredded wheat
½ cup berries
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1 cup unsweetened almond milk

1. In a large sealable container, combine equal parts of each cereal. Mix to combine so they are equally dispersed.

2. To serve, add ¾ cup of cereal mixture to a bowl, top with berries and chia seeds.

3. Add almond milk and enjoy!

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