Notes from a 28-Day Vegan Challenge Survivor

Actually, make that 38 days. I am Devin’s 60-year-old mother. I accepted the 28-day vegan challenge that he issued on his blog, and decided January 1st would be a good time to start. But I wanted to get real numbers to document whatever changes happened to my body, so I continued with it until Feb. 8, when I had a physical scheduled with my doctor. This would give me fasting blood work numbers—cholesterol and glucose levels, primarily.

I had no doubt I could do it, since as a 10-year-old kid my dentist had put me on a strict dental diet to save my teeth (I grew up pre-flouride, and ate the typical kids’ diet of the time, featuring plenty of Trix cereal and other junk.) If I could give up sugar for a whole year as a kid, I could certainly give up food from animals for a month. But I had some surprises along the way.

Surprise #1: It was much easier to eat vegan at home than I thought it would be. I had no trouble finding delicious plant-based meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I bought the Forks Over Knives vegan cookbook, read through it and marked recipes that I wanted to try. I found lots of them! It probably helps that vegetables are my 2nd-favorite food group. Unfortunately, dairy is my most favorite food group. But, I discovered that there is a good-tasting vegan substitute for butter called Earth Balance (most margarine still contain dairy.) And it was easy-enough to sub in soy milk and almond milk for cow’s milk. And since there were so many good recipes to try that didn’t require cheese, it wasn’t a problem to give up cheese for awhile. I can truly say that I never felt deprived or like I was missing out when eating vegan at home.

Surprise #2: It was harder than I thought it would be to eat vegan outside of my own home. Restaurants have vegetarian choices these days, but almost all of them involve dairy or eggs. I normally eat lunch out with my mom on Sundays, and she isn’t really up for exotic vegan restaurants (she’s more of a Perkins kind of woman), so our best bet turned out to be Asian restaurants. In fact, Asian and Indian cuisine in general doesn’t use meat or dairy much, and so are good bets both for eating out and for cooking at home. Eating at other people’s homes, whether for my neighborhood book club, or an appetizer and movie night at my sister’s, was problematic. And going out for dessert after a movie with my friends? D’Amico’s dessert display case had a dozen tempting offerings, all of which had eggs, butter or cream in them. I had coffee.

Surprise #3: This is the Biggie, for me. Going vegan appears to have cured my acid reflux! I didn’t even list this as a goal for the experiment, because I didn’t know it would affect it. I have suffered from acid reflux for a long time, and have taken Prilosec to control it for many years. As anyone who suffers from acid reflux knows, it is a very unpleasant disease that disrupts your sleep—when you lay down, the stomach acid comes up into your throat and burns—and that can have serious health effects, including destroying the enamel on your teeth and even causing cancer. But last year at my physical, my doctor told me she wanted me to get off Prilosec, because it can have long-term deleterious consequences. So, 3 weeks into this vegan diet, I was noticing that my stomach felt a lot calmer than it normally does. (At the beginning, it actually felt more upset, as it was making the changes internally in the digestive process.) I spontaneously decided to try not taking the Prilosec. It was a miracle! Not once have I had any acid reflux!! This is huge for me. Devin and I have since explored the topic further, and I have learned that the most highly acid-producing foods are the protein foods. Essentially, meat tops the charts. Dairy is next. Dried beans, peanuts, etc. are slightly acid-forming. Almost all vegetables and fruits are alkaline-forming. Yes—and here’s another big surprise—even lemons and limes and other citric fruits. Even though they are acidic (it’s called citric acid), in the body they react the opposite way. Devin had encouraged me to sip on lemon water every day (a lemon freshly-squeezed into a glass of water is delicious and refreshing), and I had been doing so. And lo and behold, that, as well as all the other fruits and vegetables I was eating, cured my acid reflux. Wow!

Surprise #4: Other people got it. 10 years ago, I think most people would have said, “Huh? Why? Are you a nut?” Now, most people said, “Good for you. I wish I could do that.”

Surprise #5: When I got to the end of the original 28 days, I didn’t feel bummed out that I had to go another 10 days. I wasn’t longing for animal food products. In fact, I was relieved that I didn’t have to end the vegan experiment yet. I still had lots of great recipes I wanted to try!

So, the day of reckoning came. Now, let me say first that I did not expect my results to be as dramatic as those of the cowboy on Dr. Oz’s show. That guy ate almost nothing but fast-food burgers, bacon and eggs, and fried food. His health was life-threateningly bad. I’ve been trying to eat more vegetarian anyway. I haven’t eaten at a fast food restaurant in years. And Devin got me started juicing the summer before last, which has already had a noticeable effect on my health. I drink fresh vegetable juice almost every day for lunch, and actually look forward to the process of juicing. It’s very rewarding to see that gorgeous, wonderfully-smelling emerald green and sunset orange juice pour out of the machine.

And so, without further ado, here are the numbers:

  • I lost 5 pounds.
  • My fasting blood glucose level was down 2 points, to 100. This is at the very top of the normal range, but still, it was the first time I’d been out of the “pre-diabetic” range in at least 7 years. (I found my reports going back to 2007. In 2008 I was at my high of 111 mg/dL. In the last couple of years, I was moving in the right direction, to 104 and then 102, I believe due to juicing and other lifestyle changes.) So hurrah, I am moving away from Type 2 diabetes, which we all know is one of the big health problems of our time. I am highly motivated to try to continue moving down further into the normal blood glucose range!
  • Cholesterol: excellent results! Normal range is 0-200 mg/dL. In ’07 I was at 177. Last year I was at 164, and after this challenge I dropped 8 points, down to 156. And guess what Devin just told me? Cholesterol levels below 150 are essentially heart-attack proof! I’m getting so close to that. And my bad LDL cholesterol dropped even more, down 10 points to 96 mg/dL. (In ’07 I was at 116; top of the normal range is 130.) So, again, hurrah!!

Which brings us to the final question: where do I go from here? Well, I definitely do not find myself eager to go out for a prime rib dinner with a loaded baked potato, now that I’m done with the challenge. I am motivated to see my health numbers get even better, and I am certainly motivated to stay off the Prilosec. However, I want to be able to stir a little sour cream into my vegan chili, and to get a pizza, and to spread a little goat cheese on my grilled vegetable sandwich, and even to eat a few meat dinners that I really like (fish tacos, a nice walleye fillet in the summer, and probably one of our “happy cow” steaks on the grill, for example.) So, I came up with a plan—

The 97/79 Plan. ©Deb Kolbo Ellsworth. I will eat vegetarian 97% of the time for the next year. That works out to 11 meat meals for the year. I traced my hands, cut them out, and posted them on the refrigerator. Every time I eat meat—say, when I go out for that Fish Taco Torta at Tilia restaurant that I’m dying to try—I bend down one finger. That leaves one extra bonus meat meal after all the fingers are down. I will eat vegan 79% of the time. No, I’m not going to get out my calculator to figure it exactly. It will basically amount to a little cheese here and there, a dessert when I go out to the movie and D’Amico’s tonight with my friend, and so on. I can stick with soy milk and Earth Balance. Maybe a little real butter when it’s corn-on-the-cob season…

So, stay tuned. I’ll let you know next year what my numbers are after a year on the 97/79 Plan!

-Deb Kolbo Ellsworth (check out her blog at!