How not to go Vegan!

BBQWhile veganism has been with us for many, many years it has taken on a new lease of life with the huge growth in the numbers of people now either needing or wanting to exclude milk and all dairy products and (or) eggs from their diet. This has been of great benefit to both parties – in terms of raising awareness of the issues involved but also because it has given a great boost to the production of milk/dairy free and egg free products, resulting in a much better choice of both for everyone.

But, as with any change in your diet, there are good ways to do it – and bad ones! Long before she became involved with FoodMatter or had even heard of milk or egg allergy, Hannah Lawrence decided to go vegan – and did it all the worst ways….

BBQSo to celebrate World Vegan Month – and hopefully to point readers wanting to avoid milk and eggs, (whatever their reasons) in the right direction – she tells us how NOT to do it.

There are many great reasons to go vegan: you might be worried about animal welfare, health issues and food sustainability. But I didn’t have any of these noble concerns; I was an accidental vegan.

I’d never been much of a meat eater; I hated the texture of chicken and other poultry, wasn’t fond of lamb and had never eaten pork (thanks to my religious upbringing). When I hit my teenage years, I suddenly got squeamish about eating beef too. Rather than reeling off a list of things I wasn’t keen on eating, when visiting friends and family, it was easier just to declare that I was vegetarian.

A year or so later, I got really sick. Nothing to do with my diet; I’d developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. There still isn’t a huge amount known about CFS, and there still isn’t a cure, but 25 years ago even less was known about it. I bounced between specialists and therapies; one of the treatments involved changing my diet. I was told to give up all dairy (and I didn’t like eggs anyway) and suddenly, by default, I was vegan.

There are many, many smart ways to eat and live vegan, and I did precisely none of these things. In fact, my diet was so poor that my health got considerably worse; I couldn’t keep it up and within a year I was back to eating meat and dairy again.

November is Go Vegan month. I’d certainly still consider going vegan again, but this time I’d be much smarter about how I did it. Here’s what I—and other vegans—learned about How Not To Go Vegan:

MISTAKE 1: Going cold turkey (sorry)
Many of us need to make lifestyle changes gradually, if they’re going to stick for the long-term. Imagine you’ve spent years slobbing on the couch, eating handfuls of butter, and doing nothing more strenuous than changing the channel on the TV (this may or may not be my preferred exercise routine). Overnight, you vow that you’re going to run 10 miles a day, every day, and only eat peeled celery and blanched kale. Bet you £50 that you don’t last two weeks; it’s too extreme, you simply can’t keep it up and you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Do it right!
It’s much easier to ease yourself into a new regime then go into it at full speed. If you’re currently eating meat, dairy and eggs, then it could make more sense to go vegan in stages rather than trying to do everything in one hit.

Matthew is a vegan chef from Northumberland; he became a pescitarian in March, and went entirely vegan three months later. Whereas Gavin—an education officer from Sheffield—had been a vegetarian for nearly 30 years when he finally switched to a vegan diet five years ago. You’ll find the balance that works for you, just don’t label yourself a failure if you can’t go 100% vegan immediately; you might just have to work up to it.

MISTAKE 2: Getting stuck in a recipe rut
I started university shortly after I turned vegan, and ate pasta with a basic tomato sauce for every meal. I’m not kidding you: pasta with tomato sauce for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s amazing that I didn’t die of boredom, let alone malnutrition.

Do it right!
We live in the wonderful age of the internet. As well as being an excellent source of David Hasselhoff fan fiction, Halloween costume ideas for your puppy, and opportunities for you to scroll through your ex’s Facebook obsessing over pictures of his hateful new girlfriend.... the net is also brilliant for recipe ideas.

Get googling to find sites stuffed with delicious new ideas: Matthew swears by Pinterest. Plus, there’s a new generation of food writers like Anna Jones (whose fabulous vegetarian cooking has quietly revolutionised the way many of us eat); there are many vegan recipes on her beautiful website. Our own Foods Matters recipe section has loads of veggie dishes that can easily be vegan with a few tweaks.

MISTAKE 3: Not getting any Vitamin B12
This vitamin is vital for the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, plus the formation of red blood cells. It’s found in meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and it’s easy to become deficient in it when you’re vegan; symptoms include extreme tiredness, pins and needles and psychological problems.

Do it right!
Ray is an artist from London, and he’s been vegan for a year. He says, “It took me nine months to realise that I needed to take Vitamin B12 supplements!” Matthew takes the supplements too, and sprinkles nutritional yeast flakes over a lot of his cooking; not only is it a natural vegan source of B12, but “it enhances so many dishes!”

MISTAKE 4: Expecting to do a straight swap for all your favourite foods
I love burgers. I really, really love burgers (I know, I know). So, when I was vegan, I swam in a lake of disappointment when I tried all the meat-substitute burgers. Nothing was ever quite right, no vegan burger tasted as I desired, so I hankered constantly for my missed, forbidden, patties of dubiously-processed joy.

Do it right!
Instead of getting hung up on replicating my beloved burgers, I should have been exploring foods that were delicious in their own right. That’s not to denigrate the soya and vegetable-protein burgers out there; there are many great ones on the market, but they just didn’t do it for me. Whereas a Portobello mushroom—luscious and full-bodied on a bun—makes a fine burger; it’s not a substitute for a meat burger, it’s a different sort of meal, and stands proudly alone and delicious. So, although there are some very good substitute foods out there—Quorn’s new fish fingers were particularly popular with Matthew and Gavin—don’t obsess about replacing your old favourites: find brand new favourites instead!

MISTAKE 5: Not eating a balanced diet
When I went vegan, I cut all my protein sources out of my diet, without adding any new ones in. Not only did I feel permanently peckish, I also didn’t do my health any favours. The walls closed in on my sad little world and I made myself properly ill.

Do it right!
There’s loads of delicious, vegan-friendly ways to get your protein. From oats (don’t forget to seek out gluten-free oats if you’re Coeliac) to pumpkin seeds, from sun-dried tomatoes to green peas. And don’t neglect the rest of your diet: the Vegan Society’s website has lots of excellent advice about getting the right balance of nutrition.

MISTAKE 6: Not exploring new ingredients
Following on from the previous mistake, if you’re going to cut out a load of foods from your diet, think about introducing some new ones. It’s an opportunity to expand your food horizons, to find new flavours to fall in love with. There was a whole world of new foods out there, and I didn’t try any of them.

Do it right!
I could have been eating my way around a universe of new flavours. Matthew claims that tempeh “is supposed to be like bacon, and seitan is the equivalent of a high-protein meat.” Those and other ingredients like farro might be old news to you, but I hadn’t tried them and I bet there’s some other gorgeous foods that you haven’t tried!

MISTAKE 7: Just because it’s vegan, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Chips. More chips. Chips with everything.

Do it right!
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your new diet means you can eat anything that’s vegan. There’s still plenty of vegan junk food around; as always, enjoy your treats but make sure you’re sensible about them. And don’t forget, when you do fancy fast food, there’s still some excellent options open to you; where others go to the kebab shop for a late-night greasy donor, Ray grabs a pitta with hummus and salad.

MISTAKE 8: Not shopping regularly for fresh ingredients

I’d often fling open my food cupboards, ready to knock up something tasty for supper, only to be greeted by half a bag of lentils, a sprouting onion and not much else. It’s hard to magic delicious food out of nothing, and I grew to resent my vegan diet (when in reality I should have been resenting my bad planning).

Do it right!
While you’re getting used to your new diet, spend a bit of time planning your weeks’ meals, and making sure you’ve got those ingredients to hand. When you’re used to your new diet, you’ll have a feel for what you love to cook, and you’ll know what foods you’ll love to keep in the kitchen, whether for snacking or for throwing together quick suppers.

Either way, you’ll probably want to buy more fresh fruit and vegetables, as Gavin explains: “It’s harder to buy as many processed foods and ready meals as a vegan, which means you become more creative in the kitchen and cook more from fresh ingredients. I’ve always been an enthusiastic cook, but I feel like I’m much better at taking a bunch of things and putting them together without the safety net of a recipe.”

MISTAKE 9: Feeling deprived

There are so many delicious ways to adapt your favourite dishes. Don’t assume you have to say goodbye to all your favourites.

Do it right!
That cottage pie goes from being mostly meat, to containing more and more veg. And maybe you’ll want to make it with soya mince next time? And the mash on top could be made with something non-dairy—like olive oil and veggie stock—rather than milk and butter. What about that sprinkle of cheese on the top? Gavin says: “Vegan cheese are getting better all the time, particularly the new Sainsbury’s range.” Keep edging meat, eggs and dairy out of your diet and you’ll be arriving at the outskirts of Vegan Town before you know it.

MISTAKE 10: Not asking for help

I went vegan without reading anything about it or talking to anyone. I was doomed to failure.

Do it right!
Hopefully your journey to veganism will be a lot smoother and more successful than mine was. Social media is a wonderful thing and there are plenty of supportive groups out there, especially on Facebook. And, if you’ve also got food allergies or intolerances, you might want to get some extra advice from Go Vegan’s Agony Aunt.

And take heart, as Gavin says: “It wasn’t actually as tricky as I thought it might be. For the first week or two, it does kind of subsume your thoughts—and then it becomes normal and you’re surprised when you see other people actually drinking cow’s milk or eating meat.”

Good luck, good health and good eating!

Matthew and his wife Jo run the Square Roots vegan food stall in Tynemouth Market. Their food is allergy friendly, as well as vegan. (Image courtesy of Happy Cow.)



November 2017

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