A 21-day Vegan Challenge

| Posted On Oct 15, 2014 | By:

Vegan Food.shutterstock_198372692Whether you want to improve your overall health, lose weight, demonstrate your compassion for animals, or help the environment, there are numerous reasons to eat fewer foods that come from animals. If you have thought about this before but didn’t know how to start, take a moment to read this story – I hope it will give you some ideas and inspiration to get started.

BMI Chart.CopelandSince the 1920’s, studies have shown that a low-fat vegan diet can help trim excess weight (see the BMI chart on right), prevent diabetes, decrease cholesterol, lower blood pressure, prevent and reverse heart disease, and reduce cancer risk. These are huge benefits that are almost impossible to disregard, but going vegan is not always an easy journey to start. Knowing this, I decided to recruit some of my colleagues in the Chestnut Hill/West Roxbury practice to join me in a 21-day vegan challenge.

I started spreading the word in early August about the great benefits of eating a vegan diet and suggested a 21-day vegan challenge as a group. There was great interest and enthusiasm, but also some apprehension at first. I gave several examples of foods people would be eating and asked the question, “Couldn’t you try doing something for 21 days, if along the way you were getting slimmer, feeling more energetic and discovering new delicious foods you had never even thought about eating before?” And we were off!

How does it work?

A few weeks before the challenge, it can be helpful to visit your primary care physician and have some lab work done. Current weight, blood pressure, blood glucose or fasting lipids are recommended but not mandatory, but the results are significant and can be observed even after 21 days.

Then follow these steps to start the challenge:

  1. Think of three vegetarian meals that you already enjoy. Common ones are pasta primavera, tofu stir fry and oatmeal with fruit.
  2. Second, think of three recipes that you already make that can be adapted to vegan like: vegan chili, bean burrito and veggie burgers.
  3. Third, start exploring. Experiment with vegan recipes off the internet. Check out a vegan cook book from the library. Order a vegan meal at a restaurant.

Some of our vegan challenge team members decided to involve their families and turn this into a family challenge as well. This proved to be a very successful method to try new recipes and create a supportive environment at home. Some of us brought different meals and snacks to work and shared them with the group, which made it fun and enjoyable at a whole new level. We met once per week to share our progress, challenges and recipe ideas.

A Veggie good effort!

It’s simple to plan vegetarian diets that are balanced and contain the nutrients you need. Legumes, whole grains and vegetables are rich in protein and iron. Green leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, tofu, corn tortillas, and nuts are excellent sources of calcium, as are enriched soy milk and almond milk. Regular intake of vitamin B12 is important. Good sources of B12 include nutritional yeast, all common vegetarian multi-vitamins, fortified cereals and fortified soy milk.

After 21 days, the collective group realized many benefits: lower cholesterol, lower blood glucose, weight loss, fewer mood swings, and improved esophageal reflux, among others. Our group is now focusing on how to keep this going, knowing a full vegan lifestyle may not be sustainable for everyone. Some individuals have chosen to eat vegan until 6pm or eat animal products only 1-2 meals per week. Whatever you decide at the end of the challenge, you will have a whole new collection of plant-based recipes and hopefully a positive experience you can share with those around you. Please consider trying this at home for your health, for animals and for the planet.

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About Fernanda Copeland, MS, RD, CDE, CSN

Fernanda Copeland is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and sports nutritionist. She joined Harvard Vanguard in 2007 and currently sees patients at our Watertown and Chestnut Hill/West Roxbury practices. Her clinical interests are food allergies, bariatric nutrition, weight and diabetes management. In her free time, she enjoys time with her dog, gardening and spending time outdoors.


  1. Nice job Fernanda!

    Comment by Julie Seed on October 16, 2014 at 3:14 pm
  2. Very interested in this!

    Comment by Andrea on October 17, 2014 at 10:12 am
  3. I like the idea of going vegan 2 out of 3 meals is a good idea! Great article!

    Comment by Michelle on October 28, 2014 at 1:53 pm
  4. Watch the flick “Forks Over Knives” and you will get the point pretty quick. I try to eat vegan, but every now and then do get an urge for some non-vegan food, Haagan Dazs ice cream for example, and once in a great while an Italian sub with everything, small, of course.

    I’ve never really been able to determine just how vegan Vodka, and Scotch are considered, but the nutritional value should not be overlooked. – Tom

    Comment by Tom Curl on November 24, 2014 at 3:10 pm
  5. I’ve been vegan for about 6 years and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. Lost 25 pounds, cholesterol down about 20%, waist size 2 inches smaller, feel great. Wouldn’t go back to the standard western diet for anything. Thanks for writing this.

    Comment by John on November 24, 2014 at 4:58 pm
  6. Nice. The animals will thank you for not hurting/killing them. Thanks! Keep it up!

    Comment by Houston Wong on November 24, 2014 at 10:56 pm
  7. Wow, so excited to see you bringing this topic to peoples attention. When we spoke about it a few years back, I was trying to get my weight down and also trying to support my husband who had developed an allergy to mammal meat. We started our Vegan diet and wonderful things certainly did happen. My husband has been fine, no allergic reactions, and I have lost nearly 50 lbs. We both feel incredible! Thanks for the support you showed me at the time and all the encouragement too.

    Comment by Anita on November 25, 2014 at 1:02 pm
  8. Amazing effort. Thank you for your response.

    Comment by Fernanda Copeland on December 1, 2014 at 12:09 pm
  9. I wish Fernanda would do a follow up post with a food plan or specific suggestions and recipes to get and keep the juices going so to speak. Whether ones becomes 100% vegan or not, good vegetable recipes, especially main courses, are valuable to all of us.

    Comment by Jean Husson on April 16, 2015 at 12:03 pm
  10. Hurrah!
    I have been eating a plant based diet for 3 years after a stent clogged. Took the second event to wake me up that medications and medical interventions were no guarantee. Forks over Knives, Drs. Esselstyn, Ornish, McDougal, Furman, Barnard,Caldwell have changed my life and quality of life now and I feel going forward. I and the two carpenters I work with have lost cumulatively over 100 lbs. and feel incredible. You feel improvements within the week and they keep coming. So I too used to say I would rather die than give up animal protein ,but the improvement came so fast I will never go back. I love what I eat as hard as that may seem but if you have heart disease, diabetes, reflux you need to at least watch the video or google the list of Doctors I have included.
    Keep beating the drum Fernanda because you are a unique dietitian!

    Comment by Terry on April 17, 2015 at 6:59 pm

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