In the interest of full disclosure, there are a few things I want to clear up right away. Being vegan is worthwhile, but it’s not easy. It takes commitment. Don’t listen to all the bloggers telling you, “I made this mac ’n’ cheese for my non-vegan friends and they loved it sooooo much, they totally couldn’t even tell the difference!!!” Vegan cheese does not taste like cheese. It just doesn’t. And unless you’re some kind of mutant human who hates the taste of cheese, ice-cream, chocolate, cake and beef burritos (I’m highly suspicious of anyone who claims this), you’re going to struggle a bit at first.
I’ve often toyed with the idea of adopting the lifestyle. The animal food industry is the number one – yes, number one – cause of global warming, deforestation and ocean dead zones (don’t believe me? See Cowspiracy). Then there’s the fact that, by default, you end up cutting out a huge amount of unhealthy food. Say goodbye to most cakes, pastries, sweets, chocolate, ice-cream, puddings, pizzas, burgers, ready meals; the list goes on. Office birthday? Too bad you can’t have two helpings of cake. Post night-out duvet day? Better swap that greasy bucket of KFC for a nice, wholesome bowl of black bean chilli.
My main struggle was going virtually cold-turkey on my sugar habit. I had no problem swapping chicken for tofu, but forgoing my usual biscuit and cuppa felt like the apocalypse. Turning your nose up at a tub of chocolate fudge brownie requires steely willpower – but give it a couple of weeks and that raw banana ice-cream you whipped up will taste just as good.
Ethical, animal-saving motives aside, veganism forces you to make healthy choices and really take notice of everything you put into your body. I was shocked to discover the sheer amount of food that contains animal products. Day one, for example, began with the discouraging realisation that I couldn’t butter the bread I had grabbed in a rush on my way out the door. Butter may be an obvious no-no, but as I sat at my desk grumpily eating dry toast and drinking black coffee, I did a bit of research.
To my dismay, I discovered that even products I had thought were absolute failsafe vegan choices can contain animal traces. Did you know that the vitamin D often listed on orange juice can come from sheep wool? Or that white sugar can contain animal bones? Yup. Me neither. Next time you reach for that #eatclean smashed avocado bagel, you could well be consuming L-Cysteine which can not only be made from duck feathers but human hair. Forget horse meat, there are plenty more stomach-churning ingredients being added to our food right under our noses and I realised how little attention we pay to the ingredients, hormones and preservatives that could be in our food.
Veganism goes a long way in eliminating that concern, and cooking vegan meals is a cinch. I cleared my kitchen of pesto, mayo, honey, Nutella, yoghurt, pasta sauces, chicken stock, yoghurt and milk and headed to Carrefour to stock up on soy milk, vegan pasta, lentils, rice, potatoes and a whole load of fruit and veg. A huge pot of vegan veg pasta kept me going for days, as did a big roast pumpkin salad with kale, lentils and rice. I never felt hungry, never felt I lacked energy, and never felt I was eating anything remotely bland or boring.
Granted, eating out can be tricky, but restaurants are generally very obliging when it comes to substitutions. There are also plenty of fast food outlets offering vegan dishes, too. Leila is great for salads and mezzes, and although I love a good meaty burger, I was highly impressed by Mooyah's black bean burger topped with any one of their flavourful sauces (a number of them are vegan).
I’ll be honest, I’m helpless before anything cheesy and, if we’re going to be frank with each other, I caved on a few occasions. It’s a pretty drastic lifestyle change, so cut yourself some slack if you falter a bit at first; veganism is no walk in the park. What it is, however, is healthy, eco-friendly, ethical and worth trying.
Four to try Vegan documentaries
An eye-opening look into corrupt corporate farming practices in the US, and the severe – even fatal – effects they can have on our health. It was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards in 2009. It may be six years old, but it's just as relevant today.
This crowd-funded film explores veganism from an eco-friendly perspective. Its statistics on the environmental impact of the farming industry will shock you. Perhaps in equal measure to the environmental groups who refuse to comment on it.
An endearing tale of three meat-eating New Yorkers who challenge themselves to adopt a vegan diet for six weeks. It covers the highs, the lows, the good, the bad and the ugly, in a sincere and touching way as they discover more about the farming industry and what it takes to become, and stay, vegan.
Forks over Knives
Examines the claim that most, if not all, degenerative diseases can be prevented, and even reversed by avoiding animal products and processed foods. It looks at case studies where it was successful, as well as at cultural food habits and their correlation with health and disease.