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Vegan January was full of good food and wise lessons

After a month as a vegan (nearly), @mmacvean relied on colorful food, home cooking and wise advice

A man in The Times cafeteria the other day bought sliced turkey, white rice, a slice of white bread with butter and a Diet Coke. I realize it wasn't a vegan lunch, but it provides a lesson in how to create a healthful meal: color.

I spent the month of January on a vegan diet (I did eat a small piece of cheese without thinking while sitting and talking with friends — an example of mindless eating that could be fodder for a different story), and I learned a lot from experimenting, from readers' suggestions and from books.

Foremost among the lessons is that a vegan diet is not necessarily a healthful diet. You can replace animal products with chemicals, and bagels, French fries, white rice, candy and sodas can be vegan. Not exactly what the doctor ordered for a long and happy life. And again, a pretty colorless diet.

Although many people choose to eat a vegan diet for their health, more do it for reasons having to do with the environment and animal rights, according to surveys. Those folks were my cheerleaders all month.

Here are a few ideas for adopting a more plant-based diet for 2015 and beyond:

Color. Make sure the food on your plate is full of it. Fruits and vegetables make that easy. We're told by the U.S. government that we need at least five servings a day. Fewer than 20% of Americans consume that, and many nutritionists say five is not enough.

Plan, even a little. Sharon Palmer, author of "The Plant-Powered Diet" and "Plant-Powered for Life," says it can be difficult to maintain a vegan diet while traveling, especially in places where you don't speak the language. Be nice, she says. Look at websites that list vegan-friendly spots, such as happycow.net. Consider relaxing your standards once in a while. In unfamiliar territory, it might be tough to verify that a dish is free of cheese or fish sauce. "There's no vegan police," Palmer says. "It's a person-to-person choice."

Cook. I'm grateful that I know how to cook and that fresh produce, available year-round in Southern California, makes just about any diet easy. Offer to bring a vegan dish when you're invited to dinner to ease any discomfort for the host.

Protein, B-12, vitamin D. Tofu, nuts, beans, meat substitutes and even vegetables are easy sources of protein. But many people, no matter their diets, are short of vitamin D, which generally comes from the sun and from fortified foods, and of vitamin B-12, which we mainly get from meat. Palmer says it can be worthwhile to take supplements.

Doing without. Consider changing one thing a week — maybe try brown rice and tofu for breakfast rather than a bacon sandwich. Most of us can benefit from eating fewer animal products. For me, eggs and ice cream were what I missed most. I can happily live without cold cuts, and I'm ready to give up beef. All that puts it squarely in the "reduce-tarian" camp (www.reducetarian.com) — an initiative to get people to eat fewer animal products.

Experiment. Buy, or grow, new fruits and vegetables. I also was pleasantly surprised by some things we tasted, including Beyond Meat's grilled "chicken," Tofurky's hot dogs and several veggie burgers. My family loved the food at restaurants we tried, including the best Brussels sprouts ever at Mohawk Bend in Echo Park.

A step further. If vegan isn't enough, there's always a raw vegan diet. A reader, Thomas Leeman, says he was heavy as a young adult but lost weight when he adopted a raw diet of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes. His cholesterol fell from 240 to 180, he says. "Now I eat as large a portion as I want, never thinking about quantity or calories," he wrote in an email.

Weight. Ah, yes. The most frequent question, from friends and strangers alike, was whether I lost any. I don't own a scale, but I can say I absolutely lost the not-insignificant weight I gained over the holidays. Beyond that, I don't know..

What I can say, however, is that I can see a vegan January in 2016.

mary.macvean@latimes.com

Send your vegan thoughts @mmacvean on Twitter

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