I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. Although I do see January as a time of renewal I’ve always thought the idea of going cold turkey and drastically changing your diet or joining the gym only to inevitably give up on it all the second February arrives, rather trite.
Call me a cynic, but why pretend that this month has some kind of magical power?
And yet, going against my usual grain, when Peta approached me to kick-off the year with their 30-day vegan pledge, I decided to jump in feet-first and go cold tofu.
Despite being a committed vegetarian for the past 12 years, I suspected that a month as a vegan would be a struggle for me. I practically live on cheese and eggs, and have a disgraceful weak spot when it came to gummy sweets.
But, Peta ensured me they’d be there every step of the way with recipes and handy tips, and my boyfriend, Ryan (a recent vegetarian convert), and I decided to take the pledge together – safety in numbers.
We’re not the only ones going vegan for January. Peta has been offering its 30-day pledge for years, while another organization, Veganaury - now in its third year - has proven to be hugely popular. This year, it supported an estimated 50,000 people to start their year off shunning meat, fish and dairy.
The vegan community – oft thought of as a group of malnourished animal rights activists who run topless through the streets shouting about how they’d rather go naked than wear fur – has, in recent years, expanded to include ‘eat clean’ bloggers and celebrity advocates (including Beyonce, Gwyneth Paltrow and Brad Pitt). So it’s easy to see why people might dismiss it a fad.
But Peta maintains that the majority of vegans are driven by ethical and environmental concerns.
As a society we are reared to think that eating meat and fish is a necessity, and that the nutritional value of meat and fish justifies the staggering price paid for them by the environment - and the animals themselves.
Not only does the human body not need meat or fish to survive, our planet, and increasing population, simply cannot afford it to.
Having become vegetarian in the first place for ethical and environmental reasons, my boyfriend Ryan and I were keen to see how possible it would be to reduce the environmental impact of our diets even further.
We started our 30-day pledge to go vegan on the 3 January (admittedly, we weren’t quite ready to miss out on those New Year’s day eggs) – but we will continue until 3 Feb.
To prepare, we hid all our Christmas sweets and chocolates and flicked through some of the helpful content included in Peta’s vegan starter kit and on the Veganuary website.
Here's what we learned in our first two weeks:
1. A lot of things are not vegan
What I didn't realise when taking on the vegan pledge, was the sheer amount of products that animal produce is used in. Veganism cuts out a surprising amount of foods – beyond eggs and dairy – and requires to meticulous reading of supermarket labels.
Shocked to discover that my veggie staple, Quorn, was not suitable for vegans, I turned to Fry's products, and - of course - Linda McCartney. Additional surprises included the discovery that honey is not vegan (read why here), but luckily agave nectar was there to save the day.
Surprisingly, a lot of alcohol is not vegan, because of the way that it is filtered and preserved. This includes Guinness and some lagers. The good news is that there's still plenty to drink including Corona and Peroni; pour me another.
2. Shopping isn’t easy
Until we got used to what we could and couldn’t eat, we decided to avoid traipsing around endless health food stores and reading every label in each supermarket aisle, and opt for an online shop instead.
Approaching the big four supermarkets for sustenance, we found the process a little daunting. When typing ‘vegan’ into the search box for both Sainsbury’s and Asda, it pulls up so many results that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Tesco brought disappointment, returning only 6 items - all of which were nakd bars, and Morrison’s was abysmal, bringing up not one single vegan offering, instead suggesting items for…Vegas. Naturally?
Ocado was a winner. The site boasts an entire vegan section, divided nicely between food types. Yay Ocado.
3. It can be expensive
Although meat by itself is obviously more expensive than vegetables, what with the price of animal being quite steep ‘n’ all, going veggie - and vegan even more so - can be quite expensive. Not only do you need to spend a little more on fresh veg to make sure you're getting all the necessary nutrients, the special dairy alternatives can be quite pricey. We bought a coconut yoghurt for £2 which, when it arrived, was no bigger than a Petit Filou.
4. Your taste buds will adapt
A fan of a mug of builder’s, I was a little disconcerted to discover that tea might never taste the same again. Almond milk is much more watery than cow’s, so I’ve taken to drinking more herbal tea. I’m assured that my taste buds will adapt, though, so I’m powering through. Same deal with porridge: water and oats = prison paste. Other milk alternatives are oat, coconut, rice or soya, which are all fortified with protein and vitamins.
5. It's actually not that different from being vegetarian
After the blow of the Quorn news, I was pleased to discover the abundance of vegan meat alternatives. Dairy and eggs aren’t actually a vital part of a vegetarian’s main meals (despite what many restaurants might think), so when you consciously remove them, you realise that, actually, it’s really easy to do so when cooking yourself.
We started our pledge by ordering from vegan delivery service, GIVE Kitchen, which was a great way to kick-off the pledge, as it gave us an idea of what foods were available to us. Also, if you're prone to laziness (like us), it's neat because everything comes pre-made and 100% plant-based.
6. There are some great vegan substitutes out there
From falafels with couscous and green beans, to sausages and vegan spag bol, GIVE Kitchen’s offerings were helpful as tips for making our own food once we’d built the confidence. Also, I discovered ‘mock duck’ which actually tastes like real duck (says the vegetarian).
Ryan was less of a fan than me, though, saying “I might crack if I have to eat another lentil.”
7. You will start cooking more
One thing that I noticed almost immediately after starting the challenge, was how much it sparked an interest in cooking. Usually, I hate to cook. I’m the sort of vegetarian who cuts out meat and fish and then wipes their hands saying ‘sorted.’
But it isn’t quite the same story as a vegan. Aware that I needed to keep up my vitamin levels and not intent on a month of starvation, I have developed a previously non-existent interest in cooking. So far, I've made a soup, a pearl barley risotto and mock duck with mash - all in the first few days: chuffed.
8. You will need supplements
Cutting out a large part of your normal diet might feel like the main challenge, but the real task is to cut those things out whilst maintaining a nutritious diet. For that, I cannot recommend supplements enough. Without meat, you will need plenty of iron, vitamin D and Vitamin B12. As iron supplements often contain animal products, I’d recommend the Solgar Gentle Iron, which is 100% vegan, and their vitamin B12 which helps with the formation of healthy red blood cells.
Some thoughts after my first vegan fortnight
At first, I felt that – ironically – everything seemed a little processed in the way that it didn’t as a vegetarian. Fake cheese and vegan chocolate will definitely take some getting used to.
What we both noticed from getting started as vegans was that constantly reading labels did become tiresome- but once we learn the products to avoid this will no longer be the case.
All in all, we both found the first two weeks surprisingly easy. Sure, that was partly thanks to our GIVE kitchen pre-cooked meals, but also, once you cross things off your ‘can eat’ list, for reasons that you truly believe in, they become things that you’re simply not interested in eating anymore. As my boyfriend said: “I thought I'd have a hard time resisting all the sugary offerings that people leave around the office but oddly, I’ve not even been tempted.”
Additionally, although I was expecting to feel more tired once I cut out certain things from my diet, I felt pretty much the same, and Ryan even noticed his energy levels increased, saying: “I can’t tell if it’s a result of my diet or not, but I’ve felt much more energetic since we started.”
Below, I’ve summed-up three tips I learned after week 1, for getting started as a vegan: