How a lazy eater went vegan



I went vegetarian in college, and had wanted to go vegan ever since I read Julia Galef's article on why eating eggs may kill more animals than eating meat. But I was nervous about the potential health consequences of going vegan, and a lot of the guides to going vegan made it sound like a ridiculous amount of work. Some guides seemed to assume you loved spending lots of time cooking. Or they'd recommend other things I just couldn't see myself doing, like eating 6 cups of leafy greens per day for calcium. (6 cups may not sound like a lot, until you go to the grocery story and realize the big bags they sell there are only 2.5 cups. Try to imagine yourself eating two or more of those bags every day.)

Eventually, though, I worked out a diet plan that would be both healthy and easy to follow. Cooking effort is minimal; everything can be made with a microwave and rice cooker. I don't claim the following diet is nutritionally optimal a la Soylent or MealSquares, but I do think it's probably healthier than the diet of the average American omnivore:

  • Plan on getting most of your calories and protein from a mix of cereals (bread, corn, rice, etc.) and legumes (beans, lentils, peanuts, soy, etc.)
  • Keep fruit and vegetables around to snack on. A handful of baby carrots per day will take care of all your vitamin A needs.
  • Adding a moderate amount of iodized salt to your meals is probably good idea, for both nutrition and taste.
  • There are just two nutrients that you'll really need to get from supplements (or foods fortified with them): calcium and vitamin B12. 
  • I also take a vitamin D3 + K2 supplement, but that has more to do with not getting much sun than with veganism.
  • So that your diet isn't completely boring, keep an eye out for good vegan and vegan-friendly grocery stores and restaurants. Chipotle and Trader Joe's are two examples of good vegan-friendly national chains.
Looking over these bullet points, part of me doesn't believe it's really that simple... but it's what I'm doing, and I have no major worries about my health or ability to be happy with this diet over the long haul. You should be aware that iron is an issue for some people, but most people don't have to worry about it. Also, there may be benefits from making an effort to consume creatine and omega-3 fatty acids, but if worrying about them seems like too much of a hassle, you'll probably be fine.

Since many in the Bay Area effective altruist community are into low-carb dieting for weight-loss purposes, I should address that. The most prominent low-carb advocates, like Gary Taubes and the late Robert Atkins, have made claims that simply have no scientific basis. For example, both have claimed that people can eat unlimited amounts of fatty foods and not gain weight, because only carbs cause weight gain. I've never heard Taubes give a coherent account of how this is supposed to be true; Atkins claimed it was due to excess calories being excreted in the urine as ketones, but urine ketone levels are too small for this to be possible.

Some studies comparing low-carb diets to other diets have found essentially no difference in terms of weight-loss, while others have found modest benefits for low-carb diets over low-fat diets. Based on my own personal experience, and reading Yoni Freedhoff's book The Diet Fix, I suspect any benefits of low-carb diets come from the fact that they also tend to be high-protein. I've found that eating high-protein plant foods like soy and lentils works wonders in terms of my ability to eat in moderation without feeling hungry. For the past couple of weeks, I've actually been making a conscious effort to eat more calories, mostly to avoid having to buy new pants again.

A final point to note is that there may be an ethical case for eating bivalves. I haven't tried this yet, mainly out of laziness (see the title of this post). However, it's something I may do in the future.