I’ve had veganism on my mind for a few months now. The idea of totally cutting out all dairy products as well as meat had seemed pretty baffling to me up until recently. I’d been vegetarian for three and a half years, but vegans had seemed a strange, almost mythical breed, a terrifying fusion of radicalism and restraint. “Vegans,” I would say, elbow propped on the bar, “are just taking it too far. They’re just not being realistic. Life would be monochrome without halloumi and brie. Imagine.”
And I didn’t want to imagine. But gradually, as I have read more and more about veganism- what a stand against meat and dairy farming can mean for our suffering environment, and on a more personal level, the multiplicity of health benefits a plant-based diet offers, I have become more open minded to veganism and what it represents. I have also become fed up of living in a world where we’re becoming increasingly alienated from the food we are putting in our mouths, barely cognizant of what it contains, less so where it came from. I’m tired of eating a product with dozens of listed ingredients, many of which I’d have to Google to know what they are.
To know whether a product is dairy/egg/meat free, it’s important to scrutinise food labels, and in doing this, I’m hoping to feel closer to and more comfortable with the food I’m putting in my body. I’d heard tales of veganism helping people deal with depression, as well improving energy levels and generally making its subjects glowing illustrations of health. It sounded like a miracle cure for life, really. As someone prone to fatigue, I’m undertaking the Vegan Society’s seven day vegan pledge (www.vegansociety.com) in the hope that I will feel some of the proposed benefits of the vegan lifestyle.
The Vegan Society website is a hugely informative resource about the benefits of plant-based living, and if you take the pledge, they will send you hints and support to help you along the way. The hardest part of this week, I think, will be avoiding eggs (I only eat free range eggs, but I’m not ignorant of the questionable conditions of even free range hens) and products containing egg or milk, like my weakness, mayonnaise. Still, I feel positive that I’ve already made a foray into cutting dairy down by replacing cow’s milk with soya or milk alternatives, and an increasing (somewhat worrying) reliance on houmous, peanut butter and falafel. Still, I wonder whether the week will bring any unexpected challenges, and whether, indeed, I will be the picture of radiant vegan health this time next week.
I’m starting the challenge in a positive mindset. Breakfast is cereal with soya milk. I’m first struck by the fact that the cereal packet isn’t explicitly labelled as to whether the product is vegan, and I have to scour the ingredients list for any sign of dairy. I am in luck, and proceed with breakfast. I follow this with a barrage of fruit, because I’m working in a pub all day, and could do with the extra kick. I then anticipate that the chances of getting a vegan-friendly lunch at the deep South West country pub I work in are exactly nil. I then have to make up a meal at 9.30am that will sustain me through until half six at the earliest. I decide on chilli giant cous-cous with cashews and peanut, and falafel salad, a meal I made up, and was extremely grateful for at 2.30pm.
I confronted a problem that I have no doubt is doubly irritating and a saving grace to vegans on a daily basis- the need to take packed lunches, and be aware that when they are on their travels, there will not always be a vegan friendly snack option. In the majority of veggie sandwiches, cheese rules the waves, and houmous is yet to take over the world in quite the way it deserves to. It is clearly a source of frustration that ready-made vegan lunch options are so hard to come by, but it’s kind of comforting (not to mention more cost friendly) to make up a meal knowing roughly where everything has come from. This does rely, however, on completely recalibrating what you determine ‘cupboard essentials’. Out with the cheddar cheese, milk and eggs, and in with the tahini, harissa paste, quinoa and avocado. This can be expensive at first, but I’m convinced that once you know where to shop for the best deals (think independent international shops and supermarkets at night), and you have the essentials nailed down, it doesn’t have to keep up that way.
My first day of veganism has been a success. At the end of the day, I still feel bursting with energy. Meaty propaganda would have you believe that veganism leaves you being blown around with the passive energy of a leaf by the end of a day, but I feel happy and positive. If I last the night time mayonnaise cravings, I’m hoping for good things tomorrow as well.
Today I eat a lot. I’m working at the pub again, and while popular imagination might picture me idly polishing glass and pouring the odd ale for bearded locals, it’s a pretty hands on and hectic job, requiring ready attention and a bunch of energy. When it comes to lunch, I realise that most things are (particularly shop-bought sandwiches and salads) made up of at least a smattering of milk, cream, or egg. Even if it’s the teeniest particle, it’s non-vegan friendly, and it made me wonder how strict vegans will be with the ingredient content. If you’re starving and the only thing to buy from the shop is a roll with whey in the ingredients, do you eat it, or would that be like me (a diehard veggie) eating a roll with ham chunks in it? Do vegans just have to be super prepared for the eventuality of hunger? Is it really not that hard once you get the hang of it? Most supermarkets these days are equipped with a “free from” section lined with Naked bars and nut snack packs, offering a great way of temporarily quashing hunger pangs when on the go, which I guess is one solution.
Alas, i’m beginning to realise that a diet of falafel, houmous, and avocado just isn’t enough for me- I need to pull in the big guns from now on. That is, all of the vegetables. I also need to locate a sources of protein and iron to make sure I feel as strong, fit, and energetic as I possibly can. I feel like I’ve been increasing my intake of carbohydrates to ensure I don’t go hungry, but this is more likely to leave me feeling bloated and tired. Overall, a greater balance is needed for the next couple of days.
I started the day off in a positive manner, with soya porridge and fruit. At lunch, I cooked giant cous cous and served it with avocado and a shop bought edamame salad. it was delicious. Disaster struck, however, when I checked the salad ingredients and learned that the lemongrass dressing contained milk. I felt disappointed and a bit cheated, and sure that the dressing could have been just as good with only olive oil, lemon juice and lemongrass. I suppose this is something that early day vegans encounter a lot of- accidentally tripping up when they don’t give ingredients lists complete scrutiny. However the Vegan Society website is helpful here, suggesting that “even the most careful vegans get tripped up by something”, and making the effort to be more conscious of choices is a step in the right direction anyway.
I suppose from this I learned that if in doubt, it’s a good idea to eyeball the ingredients closely, but it’s not something to lose sleep over or feel too guilty about. I feel sure that seasoned vegans know which food is game and which isn’t, but right now it seems like I’m avoiding a huge amount. It’s like culinary minesweeper. I have a flick through the Vegan Society website to remind myself why I’m taking the pledge, putting myself through all this abstention, forgoing my Granny’s lemon drizzle cake. Yup, there has to be a pretty compelling reason for me to say no to Granny’s cake. The environmental stuff swings it for me.
Today I get a really cute email from the Vegan Society to help me along. Today is also the day that I impress my family with how edible vegan food can be. I am confident that the aromas of my sweet potato and coconut curry will win my parents round instantly. Unfortunately I misjudged exactly how hot the Madras paste would be and choked everyone in all corners of the house instead. It was a simple success however, though my mum had to top it with Greek yoghurt to cool it down, insisted that said yoghurt is vegan, and afterwards quipped that “that would be lovely with a bit of lamb”. So, almost a success.
The recipe was simple and the only real effort is the peeling and chopping– sweet potato, butternut squash, red pepper, garlic, ginger… Veganism and chopping are very happy bedfellows, it seems. It’s at about this point that I seem to start getting the hang of it all. The cooking, the paying attention to ingredients, it actually becomes enjoyable and infuses mealtimes with a greater sense of achievement. When life is so fast paced, meals are often just about ‘getting food inside you so you can get onto doing the next thing’, but it’s nice to take the time out to create something a bit more carefully. Perhaps it’s this thought put into mealtimes that is behind why some vegans report feeling more energetic and generally a greater sense of wellbeing. However while cooking can be therapeutic and great fun, I don’t have the time to put aside hours each day to watch a fresh curry bubble, no matter how much I’d like to. It’s fortunate then, that there are some great supermarket ready options that can still offer good nutrition as well as quick packet-to-plate time. Packet ready quinoa, puy lentils and cous cous can be ready in minutes and teamed with avocado, salad and perhaps even roasted vegetables or vegan sausages, can make a wholesome and filling meal without all the bloody chopping. I feel I’m beginning to enjoy the vegetable hugging.
Today I’ve been all philosophical, thinking about the reasons I decided to take the pledge, and why indeed it is such a challenge to cut out entire food groups from the diet. It struck me that veganism is a means of protest- protest against the way our food system is historically arranged, and a strike against a status quo that insists on concealing the material facts of food production. As we live increasing distances from where our food is produced, we don’t have to visualise the extent of deforestation and way animals are treated in order to enjoy our meals. When our food arrives pre-packed and with the comforting assertion of ‘free-range’ or ‘farm-fresh’, our collective guilt is assuaged. Firstly, ‘farm-fresh’, and claims similar to it, are marketing jargon that mean very little more than to create a myth of pastoral utopia in which animals are lovingly reared- an image often very far from the reality. Second, the popularity of ‘free-range’ products has grown exponentially over the past couple of years, thanks to great campaigns by Compassion in World Farming, and while these are overwhelmingly preferable to caged hen eggs, the criteria necessary to brand eggs free range still allows for hens to live in cooped up, uncomfortable conditions, as well as the mass culling of male chicks. This becomes difficult to ignore for anyone interested in the standards of welfare for farm kept animals. If I take nothing else from this experience, I’ll certainly from hereon be philosophically extremely uncomfortable with the dairy and egg industries.
I made it! And not only did I not float around like a ghost all week, I have bundles of energy. I didn’t even have to take a single nap. I took the pledge, really, because I wanted to prove I could do it (healthily, at no cost to my sanity), to learn to cook some vegan foods and explore culinary diversity, and to have a greater awareness of what I’m putting in my body. It was a pretty laborious exercise in label checking to begin with, as well as a cruel test of restraint when it came to eating out. But got easier as the week progressed, and now I am equipped with some pretty tasty animal product-free recipes as well as the knowledge that I absolutely can do it, for all the right reasons, if I want to.
I reckon you can too, if you want to.