It's a common scenario: I come home from the office, sleepy and cross-eyed from staring at the Internet all day. It's 7 p.m., and I'm ready to eat some food and turn off my brain. On the drive home, I planned to light a few candles, arrange myself a plate of crudités, and tuck into Carrie Brownstein's new book. But of course that's never how these things go. By 8 p.m., I'm gobbling microwaved macaroni, eyes glued once again to my screen. With my computer's brightness at its max, I furiously scroll through Instagram and binge on a smorgasbord of YouTube videos. Hey, I can't help it. It's 2016, and this is the only way I know how to relax.
For me, social media has always been a guilty pleasure. Some call it a waste of time, a leech on our generation's attention span. But I'm careful not to let myself get too sucked in. Sure, I enjoy perusing a pretty Instagram account or plunging into the back catalog of a beauty guru's YouTube channel as much as any millennial. But I keep people's online personas at arm's length. It's all just as curated and phony as reality television. No one actually eats crudités by candlelight.
At least that's what I always thought, until one fateful night on the Internet forever changed both the way that I eat and my attitude toward social media's impact on everyday life.
Curious? To see how social media convinced me to change my diet forever, keep reading.
Spoiler alert: If you told me two months ago that I'd soon swear off my beloved Kraft for a high carb, low fat vegan lifestyle simply because of a too-deep social media bender, I would have laughed heartily and licked my spoon. And it's not just due to a general cynicism about the Internet—or, for that matter, a love of cheese.
See, I am a textbook convenience eater. Though I've been a vegetarian for more than a decade, I'm an extremely lazy one, continuing to say "no thanks" to meat more out of habit than health or moral consciousness. (You'd be surprised how much microwaveable garbage you can find without a shred of meat on the ingredient list.)
Vegetarian, sure. But vegan? Certainly not. I always thought of vegans as the crazies, the extremists. There was one vegan girl in my high school, and every year on her birthday, she brought in dairy-free brownies that tasted more like wood chips than chocolate-y goodness. "You're not one of those vegans are you?" friends’ parents would ask when I'd come over for dinner. "No way," I'd respond with pride.
But now here I am, 23 years old, a total convert to veganism. And it's all thanks to social media's influence. What on Earth happened, you ask?
Ironically, the day I discovered high carb, low fat veganism online was the day Essena O’Neill announced she was quitting social media. You probably heard about her—the Insta-famous model who made a big digital splash for resigning from her career due to how fake and damaging social media can be. Of course it’s fake and damaging, I thought, while simultaneously stalking her on YouTube.
Combing through Essena’s videos led me to a corner of YouTube I hadn’t charted before. Meandering through videos of similar lifestyle vloggers, I discovered a community of beautiful, active young women whose svelte figures and sprightly attitudes kept me clicking. Who were these lively, beautiful people? The answer: They were vegans.
Of course, I’d come across food bloggers on social media before. Particularly on Instagram. Curated “foodgrams” of opulent brunches and pricy juice cleanses have been shown to impact followers’ diets in a big way. Often, though, the effects are negative. Crossing the line from good-natured inspiration to discouragement, these perfected posts can cause onlookers to feel insecure about their less-than-photogenic diets and thus develop unhealthy feelings toward food. (Another reason to take my daily dose of social media with a grain of salt.)
But the video that truly caught my attention was different. It wasn’t the kind of faultless, overproduced post that fuels my mistrust, the kind that caused Essena O’Neill to give it all up. Instead, it was a simple “What I Eat in a Day” video from vegan vlogger Kicki Yang Zhang.
In the video, Zhang walks us through a typical day in her life of vegan meals. While the plates of fruit-topped oatmeal and colorful curry were certainly posed for the camera, what struck me was how doable each recipe seemed. Take her lunch, for example: avocado and hummus on toast. Why have I never thought of that? I asked myself. It seemed just as convenient as a bowl of mac and cheese.
As I continued watching, I found myself going bug-eyed at the quantity of food in each meal and how tasty it all looked. These dishes weren’t just for show, I realized. They were her actual meals, and they looked amazing.
What else do these girls eat? I wondered…
Immediately, I started searching for more vegan “What I Eat in a Day” videos. YouTube offers an endless wealth of these, I discovered. There is something oddly addictive about them—about watching a thin, smiley-faced human eat her veritable weight in fruit salad, pasta, and potatoes. I spent the entire evening clicking from video to video in awe. How were these girls downing bagfuls of carbs while maintaining such flat stomachs and peppy demeanors? What was this, sorcery?
What I soon learned was that high carb, low fat veganism isn’t the sort of restrictive “diet” most of us are used to. Instead, it’s a lifestyle rooted in abundance. Eat all the fruits, vegetables, and starches you desire; forget the fats. While low-carb diets have been all the rage for over a decade, HCLF vegans call BS. We should be eating easily digestible plant foods, they say. In with the carbs, out with the calorie counting and fatty animal products.
From the look of these vegan vloggers, it was hard to argue with them. I’d never seen anyone appreciate their food as much as they seemed to be as they took their big, sunny bites of sweet potatoes and cantaloupes. Thin, healthy, and happy? I was hooked.
By the end of the night, I’d followed half a dozen vegan Instagram accounts and subscribed to Freelee the Banana Girl, one of YouTube’s most outspoken vegans and author of The Raw Till 4 Diet. “There’s a reason humans love glucose!” she sermonizes in a feisty Australian accent and fitted crop top that reads “30 Bananas a Day.”
Sure, there were still parts of this whole HCLF thing that felt a little extreme to me (consuming 30 bananas a day, for instance). But the underlying logic suddenly seemed crystal clear. Eating cheese made from the milk that’s supposed to grow a baby cow? Not only did it now seem like an obvious recipe for weight gain, it also started to feel biologically twisted. Not to mention unsustainable, considering the commercial dairy industry. Why did I ever eat cheese, again?
I know what you’re thinking: Watch 36 videos preaching the benefits of anything, and you’ll be convinced. But I live my life with a constant eyebrow raised in skepticism; I was not motivated to give in to these skinny strangers on the Internet. And yet I did. Their arguments were sound. Better for the planet, better for my body. I’d made my decision: Tomorrow, I’m going vegan.
Step 1: grocery shopping. I was thrilled by the prospect of getting to eat as much as I wanted, as long as it was plant-based. But in order to do so, I actually had to have it in the house. I wasn’t worried about the cost. I figured I’d actually save money on all the pizza and takeout I wouldn’t be ordering anymore. In fact, I wasn’t really worried about anything. This was going to be easy.
By the time I returned from Trader Joe’s, I had two giant bags of potatoes, a bushel of asparagus, a few cartons of berries, bananas, a loaf of bread, a pile of avocados, and a few bars of vegan chocolate. High carb, indeed.
For the first few days, my veganism was a wild success. I announced my new lifestyle to my co-workers, and every day for breakfast, I’d make myself a bowl of cinnamon oatmeal and a banana. For lunch, Zhang’s famous avocado hummus toast. For dinner, I’d bake up a few potatoes and some asparagus, which I’d wash down with a tall glass of Stevia iced tea and a square of vegan dark chocolate.
Everything was going according to plan. That is, until midway through the week, when a colleague pointed out that the bread I’d been eating wasn’t 100% vegan. Checking the minutia of ingredients lists for things like whey and milk protein had never occurred to me.
This might not sound like a big deal, but it was a sign that going vegan was more complicated than I’d thought. And if I wasn’t going all the way, why go at all?
Suddenly, the diet seemed more about restriction than abundance. I couldn’t have regular sliced bread, jelly with my almond butter, or the granola bars they put out for free at the office, which I’d been eating as an afternoon snack.
For a chronic convenience eater, this was a major setback.
By the end of my first week as a vegan, I felt hungry and discouraged. To do HCLF vegan diet the right way, you can’t work in an office, I concluded. There’s too much planning involved, too much cooking. What are you supposed to do when it’s 4 p.m. and you’re starving but the only vegan snack available is a bag of carrots meant for the whole office? Eat the entire thing? We’re not all 19-year-old YouTubers who can spend their days at Whole Foods. Some of us have real jobs.
I know this sounds bitter, but I’d tried and failed, and that never feels good. So for the next couple weeks, I reverted to some of my old patterns. Breakfast and lunch would be (mostly) vegan, but come late afternoon, I’d dive into the office cheese drawer or chocolate supply.
I told my co-workers I had given up, and they supported me. “Veganism is just too extreme,” they said, and regretfully, I agreed.
“I’ll just get vegan things whenever it’s convenient,” I told them, hating myself.
By now, it was the beginning of January, a time when everyone in the country starts turning over new leaves. While debating resolutions for the year, I couldn’t help but think about how disappointed I was in my failed attempt at veganism.
And that’s when I remembered. The whole reason I was attracted to veganism in the first place was the delicious simplicity of the recipes in that first “What I Eat in a Day” video. No, I couldn’t mindlessly guzzle processed snacks at work anymore. But did I really want to? If I was truly motivated to go vegan, and I was, then I’d have to come up with a better plan than eating foods that left me hungry and bored day after day. This was supposed to be fun, after all.
With my newfound resolve, I decided to find a version of veganism that fit my lifestyle, one that was as easy, happy, and abundant as social media showed me it could be. It didn’t have to be the same version of veganism I saw online. It had to be my own. And I was determined to find out what that meant.
A month of committed veganism later, I can safely say that I feel healthier and more connected to food than I ever have.
First off, I’ve made sure I’m getting complete nutrition by investing in plant-based supplements: daily multivitamins and algae calcium from organic brand Garden of Life. I keep them at my desk and take them after lunch. (Convenience!)
I’ve also started experimenting with vegan alternatives to foods I always loved, like pizza and pasta. I’ve developed a newfound love of Daiya Mozzarella ($6) and fancy vegan cheeses from Treeline. My desire for Kraft has dwindled.
And every time I start to feel discouraged or uninspired, I go back to social media. I watch one of my favorite vloggers for recipe inspiration, or simply flick through a vegan Instagram account, and this keeps me motivated to push forward.
What’s amazing is that by total coincidence, I’ve even started forming a vegan community of my own on social media. Posting photos of my meals has drawn me closer to friends and acquaintances I didn’t even know were vegan, and that feels really special. We swap recipes and double-tap each other’s fruit-frilled posts. We support each other.
So, have I fully transformed from a social media cynic and diet naysayer to an unflinching health nut who believes everything on the Internet is real? Of course not.
But when I get home from work tonight and cozy up on the couch ready to binge on my favorite web show, I’ll have a beautiful plate of crudités by my side. I’ll take big, sunny bites to my heart’s content.
Hey, I might even light a candle or two.