In March 2014, one of my criteria for a potential boyfriend was “he has to look like he would kill an animal with his bare hands if I wanted some food”.
By May, my diet was animal-product-free, and by August I’d realised that there’s a way to thrive in all areas of life whilst causing the minimum possible amount of harm to the beings we share our world with. As Veganuary gets underway, I thought I’d share how this change came into my life for anyone wondering why so many people are choosing to eliminate animal-derived products from their lives.
WHAT IS VEGANUARY?
Veganuary is the name of a challenge where participants - 10,000+ so far - pledge to eat a vegan diet for the month of January. This means no animal products, including meat, dairy, fish and eggs. It’s an introduction to the vegan lifestyle, which I semi-inadvertently adopted in April 2014. I took up a plant-based diet purely for health reasons and, living on such a tight budget, I wasn’t wearing animal skins or even buying pre-made toiletries. Turning everything on its head and going cruelty-free overnight can be overwhelming, so Veganuary focuses on food as a vehicle into conscious living.
EATING WHOLE FOODS
Whilst veganism is unarguably a lifestyle rather than just a diet (making decisions with each new day that have the least harmful impact on all animals, including humans), my journey began through taking up a whole-foods, plant-based diet.
A good few years of drinking a lot of alcohol socially and living a 5-minute walk from Domino’s left me with some weight to shift in 2013, and I decided to look for the most balanced, long-term solution. Not an immediate plunge or anything too calculated as I’d struggled with eating habits as a teenager - and also because I believe that the best ‘diet’ is one you would be excited about following every single day for the rest of your life. This meant I wasn’t looking at restricting calories below the recommended amount for an active young woman of my size, and that it needed to be a holistic approach that saw food as nourishment rather than numbers.
I started with the Paleo diet, in which you cut out all grains, legumes (beans etc.) including soy, dairy, processed foods including refined sugars, and eat a lot of meat and eggs. I began losing weight quite quickly as I was eating much less and had upped my exercise - cross-trainer, weights machines and weekly yoga sessions. I craved junk food a LOT, and after a few months introduced cheat days because I knew that a 100% ‘purity’ mind-frame was unhealthy for me (see Orthorexia), and looked forward to these days each week where I’d eat black beans and rice, oatmeal and cookie dough ice cream. Whilst the whole-foods aspect brought about amazing and long-lasting changes to my diet, I just felt as though completely cutting out grains was unbalanced and I never looked forward to my bowl of boiled flesh with carrots. I shunned anything that contained rice, whole grains and tofu (hard for a girl brought up on soy milk), wondering if they were so inherently evil as the Paleo advocates made out. On top of this, my digestion was sluggish even eating vegetables as half my plate at most meals, and I’d still feel heavy after making myself eat hunks of meat no matter how much spinach I put on the plate first.
I learned valuable lessons from the Paleo diet: eat unprocessed foods. Read labels. Think before buying products whose ingredients lists you can’t pronounce: if somebody gave you a teaspoon of E621 and you wouldn’t recognise it or want to add it to your food, at least look up what it is and be informed about the fuel you’re putting into your body to use as energy. That’s logical regardless of taste, goals or morals.
I took my Paleo lessons and continued on my journey to find a way of balanced, healthy eating, also trying out Chinese dietary therapy for a couple of months: a small amount of meat a couple of times a week in soups, rice, a lot of vegetables, fresh herbs and spices. It did feel more balanced than Paleo but was unfortunately VERY time-consuming - I didn’t have time to fully cook breakfast before work each morning and wasn’t able to have more than two pieces of fruit each day which just made me a bit sad because fruit is amazing.
By this time, as you can see, I had started posting away on Instagram with no real aim but knowing that, with a newfound interest in a healthy & balanced lifestyle, it was a good idea to document the process somehow in case it would prove useful at a later date.
Instagram is FULL of beautiful vegan food posts, recipes & restaurant options and you can learn about veganising international cuisines just by searching #italianvegan, #japanesevegan and so on. I discovered this world of abundance in plant foods, colourful and varied with ingredients pulled straight from the earth and plucked off trees. I learned I could cut out the middle man and get my protein and micronutrients from many of the same sources as the animals do, without consuming animal cholesterol, oestrogen or antibiotics, and spent a little while going back and forth thinking “but where do they get their calcium, iron, XYZ” until I figured I couldn’t criticise it or say it didn’t work unless I gave it a go myself.
THE 30-DAY CHALLENGE
I told myself I’d stick to a vegan diet for 30 days, then review at the end and go straight back to eating meat and dairy if it wasn’t working for me. I filled my kitchen with fruit, vegetables, legumes, unrefined grains, nuts, seeds and spices, switching the meat from my Paleo days with plant proteins.
In short, at the end of the 30 days I felt the best I ever had. My digestion had changed completely and was like clockwork. I had bundles of energy and didn’t feel tired after meals. At this point, I still didn’t care about animals one bit (apart from pigs, always loved pigs), but decided to carry on with the vegan diet for as long as I felt great, ready to give it up if I suddenly found myself feeble from some deficiency that I was half-expecting (too much Mail Online).
Slowly, as I naturally became more exposed to the vegan message through keeping in the loop with the plant-based community, my eyes were opened to the ethical reasoning behind veganism, summed up below.
“You have two options.
If you choose the first option, you will survive and others will suffer and die.
If you choose the second option, you will survive and others won’t suffer and die.
Which one will you choose?”
Without even needing to be an animal lover, that strengthened my will to ‘be’ vegan rather than just avoid eating animals. While the vegetarian movement is obvious: avoid eating physical animals and you’re no longer paying for them be killed and end up on your plate, many don’t realise that cows are forced to be continually pregnant so they can provide milk, their calves taken from them almost immediately and killed as a waste-product, or that one-day-old male chicks are ground alive or thrown in incinerators because they’re not profitable like females in the egg industry. There are hundreds of ethical vegans who explain this further and in more depth: in fact for a summary of the different arguments, head to Vegan Sidekick’s Images page for stock responses. It’s really, really not difficult to be vegan once you’ve learned about all the plant-based dishes you can enjoy. I’ve remained a stable, healthy weight without being tempted by the meat/dairy alternatives to my vegan foods, and have kept the alcohol-Domino’s weight off long-term.
BUT WHAT ABOUT CHEESE?!
“But I could NEVER give up cheese!” is a common utterance when people consider going vegan.
The fact I’d already cut down a fair bit on dairy probably made it much easier as I was weaning myself off of the addiction that holds back so many people. Personally, I didn’t even want to admit that I felt 1000x better when excluding dairy from my diet. I wanted there to be no change, because I wanted to be able to say my body was happy with dairy. But I had to find this balance between pleasing my body and pleasing my mind, and eventually I came to a place where I could please both by feeling so great that I was mentally happier too. If you held a gun to my head now and forced me to either taste cheese or fish, I’d rather taste the fish. I’m naturally so turned off of dairy now. It’s breast milk that’s meant to turn baby cows into massive cows. It’s come out of a cow’s boob. I don’t want cow boob milk (or fermented cow boob milk, or hardened cow boob milk, or even frozen cow boob milk with raspberry swirls) any more than I want to suck from the breast of your pet cat - yet if you pour almond milk in your coffee you get told you’re weird. For me, it's different from living in rural Siberia and milking a yak - if I don't need to depend on the milk of another species (and humans are the only animals who drink milk from another species) then I'm happy waking up early to milk my almonds.
THAT’S GREAT, BUT WHY ARE YOU SHOVING YOUR VIEWS DOWN MY THROAT?
My intention with this post is to share what happened to me: doing a vegan challenge with 0 bias (apart from wanting to fail and run back to my cheddar) and sticking with it because my life improved. Just like I want to share yoga practice, it’s about sharing an experience with the hope that it might help someone else.
And this is definitely not to say that my diet, or any other vegan’s diet, is perfect at all. I could boycott eating bananas because they’re imported from far away, and other vegans could stop buying products containing palm oil (check most packaged food in your kitchen and you’ll find it in the ingredients list) as it chokes millions of citizens in Southeast Asia to the point where children can’t go to school and pregnant women mustn’t leave the house. Veganism is a commitment to doing your best ethically, striving for the most compassionate option with every choice you face, to the best of your knowledge.
HOW YOU CAN CHOOSE COMPASSION, AND CHOOSE AN ABUNDANT PLANT-BASED LIFESTYLE (UNLESS YOU’RE FIRMLY COMMITTED TO BOURBON BISCUITS AND MCCOYS)
Eating a vegan diet has never been easier: we’re surrounded by fresh produce and ready-made animal-free foods, as well as vegan junk food if the ethical reasoning has struck you but you’re happy living off of Kettle Chips (I’ll join you a couple of times a week). Veganuary is a great starting point because there’s a whole community of yesterday-meat-eaters trying something new together, and the organisation have guides and recipes to help you along the way.
Whether you’re looking for balance, happy digestion or to begin eliminating cruelty to animals from your life, your plate is the place to start, and you can take the first step by joining Veganuary here.