There are as many reasons for changing your diet, as there are changes to make. Giving up meat for environmental causes; eating more protein for muscle gain; cutting out carbohydrates to lose weight; getting more iron to combat anemia; more omega oils for extra brain power (I swear I was smarter the year I ate tuna sandwiches for lunch…); less saturated fat to lower cholesterol; creating a new dish every week to expand your culinary horizons…
A couple of months ago I decided to make the switch to vegetarian and throw in a vegan week. The reasoning behind my decision was that I have always eaten badly: microwave meals when I was younger, cheese and tuna toasties at university, or not eating at all. I wanted to eat more healthily. A couple of my friends and housemates actually used to cook, at least every other day. They could whip up spag bol or smoked salmon with minimum effort – and were occasionally horrified at my poor diet. If I became a vegetarian I knew I would have to look at my diet and what I was putting into my body, thus causing me to eat more healthily.
It did take me a long time to reach this point in my life where I wanted to make a change in my diet. When I was heating up triple cheesy crispy pancakes, or surviving on ham sandwiches, I knew my diet wasn’t the healthiest, but I was at university watching Em and Ed cook tasty, healthy meals for four years before I decided that I could do that too. While these guys were definitely catalysts, I didn’t make any change merely because they hinted that my food choices were going to give me, at the very least, a sugar hangover, if not Type Two diabetes. (I don’t know that I really ate that badly, but apparently Type Two diabetes is pretty prevalent in people with high sugar diets.) If I hadn’t wanted to do something about it for myself, and not solely just because other people were telling me it was the right or better thing to do, I wouldn’t have had the motivation to make any sort of change, let alone cutting out meat and then dairy.
Early on in my vegetarian time I read Becoming Vegan which is full of lists of which foods contain what essential nutrient and in what quantities, as well as in-depth analysis of the purpose of each nutrient in the diet. Needless to say it is quite anti-dairy as well as meat, so even during being vegetarian I didn’t make dairy the mainstay of my diet, though I had still had milk on my cereal and cheese on my jacket potato.
Learning all this before I became fully vegan, and living a sort of veg*n existence, meant that the change to meat and dairy free has been almost shockingly easy.
Previously, I didn’t even know that there was protein in beans. I remember the food wheels at school, with sections for meat, dairy, fruit and veg, grains, and snack foods. Protein and iron was found in meat, calcium was in dairy. Carbs were in grains, vitamins were in fruit and veg. Fat was in snack foods and sugar. Someone may have once mentioned that you could get iron from broccoli, but you couldn’t create a meal around vegetables. Right? (When I say previously, I mean, last year. I really never looked into food before this.) I thought that vegans had to eat incredible amounts of lettuce (why? I don’t know), take vitamin supplements and generally be very careful about what they ate, making sure they got enough of the vital nutrients. (Consider that I didn’t know there was protein in beans. Imagine how hard I thought life would be.) Reading books like Becoming Vegan and a multitude of vegan websites really informed me about all the other foods out there that provide just as much protein, iron and calcium as meat and dairy, often with a lot less fat. I’m not going to go into which foods contain what nutrients here, suffice to say, ‘vegan’ foods are not specialised and can be found down any aisle in Sainsburys. I have found some interesting foods which contain no milk: Ben And Jerry’s Sorbet, Starbursts sweets, Asda stir in Chickpea and Spinach Sauce, McVities Hobnobs (score!). Obviously, always check labels, but there’s a lot of food out there with no dairy and no meat that isn’t in the ‘FreeFrom’
Cooking for myself every day does take some effort though. I have to go into the supermarket at least once a week, check labels if I fancy something new to see if it contains milk, and then when I get home preparing a nice evening meal takes at least forty-five minutes with the chopping, slicing, boiling and baking. You know what though? I love it. I’ve never cooked for myself, and for others, as much as I have done in the past couple of months. I’ve never had people compliment me on my food ever! (‘Wow, this toasty is well done.’ ‘Soup microwaved to perfection…how do you do it?’) Trying new foods, putting new flavours together (I cooked with ginger the other day, slightly overdid it, but yummy bean chilli), having friends over for dinner and chatting to other vegans for recipe ideas – I love it. I really enjoy putting all the parts together and coming out with something nutritious and delicious, and the surprise on some peoples’ faces when you tell them it’s vegan!
There have been a couple of difficult points, however. Just before I became vegan, and had been vegetarian for nearly two months, I noticed that I’d lost quite a substantial chunk of weight. I’ve always been at a healthy BMI (not due a healthy diet, just because I used to temper my days of eating crap with days of not eating at all. Yum.) and assumed that I would remain at my previous weight even if I made the switch to eating healthily. Turning vegetarian and eating filling meals killed my sugar cravings for a while though, so I was eating less biscuits, crisps, fizzy pop (particularly those with beef gelatin in, etc) as well as not getting any fat from meat sources, so the weight just dropped off. Since I’m fairly slim to start with, this scared me a little and I decided I needed to up my fat intake, so I strayed back to scoffing biscuits. The day before going vegan I remembered that my reasons for not eating meat were due to health, so I stopped with the biscuits, and went on the search for healthy fats. I started throwing avocado and sunflower seeds into my salads, hemp seeds into everything else (though they do make a bean chilli disconcertingly crunchy…) and drizzling hemp oil over salads and meals. Unfortunately, due to a coconut allergy, I usually avoid nuts, which are also a great source of fats, and haven’t yet managed to get hold of any spirulina (seaweed and superfood), since the best place to get it from is the internet, as health food shops usually sell it in pellet form, rather than powder. (Becoming Vegan, again, hugely helpful with its lists of healthy fatty foods.) It is totally possible to eat unhealthy fats as a vegan; I’ve been making cookies all week, in many forms. Double chocolate and cinnamon being the current favourite. Don’t ask a girl to give up all her vices at once, right?
Most of my friends are completely behind what I’m doing though I did have a bit of an argument with Thom about not eating meat one night. He argued that if a person were body-building, they needed a lot of protein, and the best way to get that was from meat. I explained about the protein content of other foods (there must be other people who don’t know beans contain protein. Beans are my staple food, you might have noticed.) and how you can derive all your protein from one source, (unlike fruit and veg say, where it’s best to get a range) so you could eat nine eggs if you wanted. Anyway, we didn’t resolve the argument that day.
The next day we went to Camden, and for lunch at the Inspiral Lounge (review to come) and after maybe two bites of his cauliflower (nut) cheese, Thom was exclaiming over the deliciousness of the food and suggesting that they go vegetarian for a while, maybe even vegan for a week. (He’s been vegetarian for a week now, though still craves chicken.)
There have been other people who don’t understand why (or how) someone could be vegan, and have even eaten tasty vegan food and not become the latest proselytizer!, who don’t see any reason behind giving up meat, and also see veganism as a ‘restrictive’ diet. I usually have about one conversation with these people about veganism and then leave it. I’m not trying to convert anyone, but it’s hard work when someone close to you sees what you’re doing as a negative action!
Turning vegan has done for me exactly what I hoped it would. I eat better now, pay more attention to my food and know what my body needs to survive. I can cook (!) and have made food which my friends have found not only edible, but tasty. For a while I pondered on the idea of ‘feeling healthier’, but have realised that lately I have been full of energy and madly productive! My skin is also clearer and I feel like my digestive system is working better than ever. (Another side effect of veg*nism: gas. Good for the body, not for your friends. Mmm.)
At first I only planned to be vegetarian for a month and a half, have a vegan week, go vegetarian again for a month or so, then return to eating meat occasionally, but having got this far, I think I’ll definitely avoid having ay meat or dairy in the house, though I may relax my rules a little when it comes to eating out. It’s definitely been a positive experience though, and one I would recommend to anyone looking to eat healthily, do their bit for the environment or just try something new.
For anyone wanting to learn more about veganism
Some Vegan people
A few tips for Turning Vegan
-Research food nutrition using the resources above. There’s protein in beans! Who knew.
-Really want to do it. Otherwise you might end up feeling resentful and restricted.
-Don’t feel guilty or give-up if you inadvertently eat meat or dairy. In my first week of being veggie, I ate out and had roast beef…
-Check labels. It doesn’t take long, and milk powder can be found in the strangest of places. (Pesto, why?!)