It’s been a month since I took Peta’s 30-day vegan pledge along with my boyfriend, Ryan.
Coming to the end of the challenge made me really think about whether or not a plant-based diet was something I'd like to continue.
When I started the challenge in early January, I was really unsure as to how long I’d last into the month, and was concerned that I’d struggle without eggs and dairy. I thought that I’d be constantly hungry, nibbling on sticks of celery to sustain my blood sugar levels.
But, in reality, that wasn’t the case at all.
Going vegan was much easier than I thought it would be: I didn’t miss eating cheese or eggs and I resisted all the sweets and chocolate that are usually floating around the office, without any pangs of jealousy.
Turning vegan forced me to eat in a more mindful manner – really thinking about what I was consuming. I realised that every time I reached for a stick of cheese or one of the many cupcakes and chocolates that come into the office, I was doing so for no reason other than habit.
And, if I ever did crave chocolate or snacks, I discovered the huge range of vegan options which were not the tasteless mulch I had imagined – but genuinely yummy.
“I felt as though the month forced me to think more about what I was eating and how I was contributing to poor animal practices,” says Ryan.
I have to admit, though, while I found the month hugely enjoyable and was excited to discover a load of new and interesting foods and recipes – I will be heading back to my vegetarian lifestyle.
How do you know if someone’s a vegan?
There's a common anti-vegan joke that goes: “How do you know if someone’s a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll f**king tell you.” It's supposed to be a hilarious observation about how vegans think they’re holier than thou and want to tell you 24/7 that they’re saints for living a plant-based diet but - in actual fact - it bites itself in the bum.
The joke does speak an element of truth about veganism, but not for the intended reason.
I found my Veganuary experience eye-opening because I was surprised - perhaps naively - about the sheer amount of foods that contain animal produce. And so much of it seems quite unnecessary.
There are myriad vegan alternatives to products that would usually contain dairy or egg or gelatine, for example, and they work just as well as the ones that do. And why must so many alcoholic drinks be made using animal products?
Between reading ingredients everywhere you go to warning friends every time you see them that you’ll need to go somewhere vegan-friendly, telling people you’re vegan fast becomes a necessity. It’s not that vegans want everyone to know they’re holier than thou (joke's on you, jokers) they actually have to tell them.
A convenient truth
The truth is, veganism is an admirable way to ease your carbon footprint and step away from the ethical minefield that is animal agriculture, but it’s not an easy one.
Where much of society is accepting of vegetarians- offering at least one option in all restaurants, lunch options in every café and at least the possibility of removing the meat from the situation, it doesn’t seem that people are completely prepared for veganism.
And while it’s the world that needs to change- manufacturers should be encouraged not to rely on these products and the government should encourage more sustainable ingredients – cutting everything out completely until this happens is a daily challenge.
People have tweeted me supportive comments over the month, saying that turning vegan changed their life and that they’ll never go back. I so wanted this to be the case for me, too, but I found it an unsustainable diet to fit around my busy lifestyle which demands a level of culinary convenience.
As Ryan says, “Even in a city like London, it is an inconvenience to find an interesting, varied lunch as a vegan.”
I spent a lot of the month cooking exciting foods by chefs including Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fernley Wittingstall, Delia Smith and Aine Carlin and sourcing ingredients from places I wouldn’t expect would be so great at providing plant-based options (Holland and Barrett have some great stuff). Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that eating out at restaurants proved far easier (and more delicious) than I expected.
And yet, on the days I didn’t have time to make my own food or needed to pop out for an impromptu snack – I found myself frustrated and bored by the few vegan offerings, and I was counting the days when I didn’t have to explain myself to people in shops – a surprising amount of whom didn’t know what veganism entailed.
As Ryan noticed: “I think that the food on offer to a vegan can be satisfyingly varied, but from my perspective it requires a lifestyle change that I'm not yet comfortable with. If you want interesting meals, you have to make it yourself, which is actually a lot of fun, but not always possible time-wise.”
What did I miss?
Despite surviving happily for a month without most dairy, I couldn’t quite get my taste buds to accept tea without cow’s milk. Be it almond, rice, oat or soya – it all tasted pretty unappealing. I learned to get used to it, but I never really loved it.
What can I say? I’m just too British. When my 30 days came to an end I told myself I’d try to resist defaulting to milky tea, but I caved the second I was faced with a cold bottle of the white stuff in the office kitchen.
Additionally, it wasn’t until I was hungover that I realised what I’d really let myself in for. I spent most of that day dreaming about poached eggs. It was a low point. I did however, make some scrambled tofu which turned out to be quite the delicious discovery, but it didn’t fill the void in my hangover heart.
While preparing for my vegan month, I discovered that many people noted their skin and hair glowing and feeling more energised than normal.
I didn’t notice any of these things. I did feel quite tired for most of January, but suffering from Crohn’s disease means I often experience fatigue.
One thing I did notice was that my stomach seemed pretty happy during January and started to get a little upset again when I re-introduced dairy into my diet – which is something worth paying attention to. We’re always told that dairy isn’t good for our systems, but it’s not until we cut it out that we really notice its effects.
Ethics and the environment
I became a vegetarian for both ethical and environmental reasons. The difference between the carbon footprint of a meat-lover versus that of a vegetarian is enormous – the statistics alone explain away any counter-arguments. But when you compare vegetarianism to veganism, the difference is slight.
That’s not to say that veganism isn’t worth doing – I salute those who are dedicated to it and enjoy it – but, for me, I found the social difference enormous.
Vegetarianism works because it’s easy – it often makes no sense to me why more people don’t do it. But veganism, on the other hand, is an enormous personal sacrifice that, for the most dedicated, can include changing clothes, beauty products, cleaning products and drinks…and reading labels ad nausea.
Ethically, it goes without saying that vegetarianism is preferable to meat-eating, but becoming a vegan made me more attuned to the maltreatment of animals in the dairy industry.
So, when I re-introduced dairy to my diet I did feel quite conflicted about that. In the way that a meat-eater might close their mind to the idea of their diets playing into a cruel industry, I feel like part of me is closing my mind to the problems with the dairy industry – and I’m not very comfortable with that.
With both these things in mind, I came to the decision not to continue being vegan, but to strive to be, perhaps, 80% vegan- to cook with vegan alternatives where I can, to reduce my dairy intake to the absolute essentials (tea!) and to eat in a more conscious manner.
It's something we could all consider doing a bit more: really thinking about the impact of our diets.
So here’s to mindful eating in 2016.