So it has been a long time since I last posted. I won’t get into excuses here, but I feel bad that I never finished describing what happened in my month of being vegan. I made it, by the way – a full 30 days. And then the day it ended I went out and had a fish burger with great lashings of mayonnaise and subsequently felt very unwell and a little guilty. The experience has made me consider spending a month being vegan every year from now on. I have also discovered many really wonderful vegan recipes, which encourages me to incorporate more vegan food into my diet (and blog). Now that the experiment is over, here were the discoveries I found most interesting:
1. It is really not that hard to be vegan
At least, living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, it was nothing like as hard as I had expected. There are many, many restaurants in my neighbourhood that are either vegan or have plenty of vegan options – that, of course, makes it a lot easier. But there are also many great vegetarian and vegan cookbooks and great vegan food blogs to turn to for recipes. Some substitutions are very easy to make, such as frying in vegetable or olive oil rather than butter; while others require turning to ‘vegan products’ such as soy milk and ‘buttery spread’. I was amazed by how easy these were to find. Of course, this is going to be partly because of my location, but I suspect that, given the widespread nature of lactose intolerance, even in more closed-minded areas you will probably be able to find dairy alternatives at least at large supermarkets. I did have to struggle with willpower at times, but it was made much easier by having plenty of food that I actually wanted to eat. When you go to a restaurant where many of the items on the menu look good you will be missing out on other possibly wonderful meals by only choosing one – this is the nature of choices. But you rarely feel like you are missing out so long as you enjoy what you have chosen. Choosing to eat vegan food should be like choosing one of the many good options from a menu.
Having stopped eating red meat when I was very young, it often irritated me when people would say, “I couldn’t possibly be a vegetarian – it would just be too hard”. My thought, being a pesco-vegetarian, was do they really think I am doing something that they couldn’t do? I suspected it was just an excuse, and this bothered me, not because I blamed them for not being vegetarian, but because it was perpetuating the idea that vegetarianism was for abnormally strong-willed people only, or for hippies who didn’t have a place in ordinary society, or for those people who didn’t care much about food in the first place. I was none of these things – my will-power is generally mild to weak, I am not a hippie, and I have always cared a lot about food. But now I realise I have been making the same excuses about becoming vegan. For a long time I have told myself that becoming a vegan would be too hard, I just couldn’t do it. I now realise that it is not too hard, and it is completely within my power to be vegan if I choose. I choose not to, even though I feel it is the ethically best thing to do – but I will not use excuses to justify my decision again. The truth is that we have lots of moral demands on us and we weigh them up against our other priorities. Sometimes this means compromising a little on both – whether that means having one day of the week where you only eat vegan, or giving up eating the animal products that you feel are the least ethically justifiable. And sometimes I just have to realise that the reason I am not vegan is because of choice – the vegans I know are not super-human, I am capable of joining them, but I’m just not quite there yet.
2. The thing I really did miss the most was chocolate
So I have a real sweet tooth. But it is not just that – what I love, what I can’t get enough of is chocolate. There are plenty of dark chocolates that are vegan-friendly, but you can’t eat huge amounts of dark chocolate like you can with milk chocolate (at least I can’t). I have always been like this – as a child I would choose chocolate over all other sweets – I wasn’t particularly keen on gummy sweets (which is a good thing in this case as they usually contain gelatin which is also not allowed if you are a vegan or for most vegetarians). Boiled sweets, marshmallows, jelly (jello) – these were fine, but nothing special. But the dairy-based sweets and desserts – chocolate, custard, ice cream, fudge – those where what I loved, and still do. I joked before starting that the thing I would miss most was chocolate, but I have to admit I didn’t really mean it. However, when I think about the possibility of going vegan again the first thing that comes to mind is chocolate. I could have all the sorbet in the world, and this would still be my greatest struggle.
Side note: Many years ago in Australia there was a company that made delicious ‘creamy dark chocolate’, that had pretty much everything you wanted from milk chocolate, but that was appropriate for lactose intolerant people. I wonder if they still have that and whether it is also appropriate for vegans. Perhaps something like this would be all I need to push through.
3. I had not been eating as ethically as I thought
Here are two things I would have claimed prior to the month of vegan: I drink local, organic milk; and I eat free-range, organic, humane organization certified eggs. Both of these are true – in fact we get our milk from a local deli in glass bottles that are returned to the local New York State farm for reuse when we are done with them (it is one simple way of cutting down on the waste we produce). The mayonnaise I buy is also made with eggs from cage-free hens, and many of the restaurants we go to indicate that they too use free-range eggs. But it is only when you cannot eat milk or eggs that you realise how often you are supporting battery farms without giving it much thought. All this time I had been having eggs in my thai noodles and not thought to check whether they are free range (they are not, and it makes me very sad to say it, but I will not be eating them again); the mayonnaise I have on my chips – contains battery eggs; the eggs in the pancake stack at your basic diner (yes, I have been living in the States for some time now) – battery eggs. This makes me very sad and a little ashamed. I suspect that if you really cared about not eating battery eggs then you would likely halve your egg intake (at least). This is what I am trying to do now, but I forget a lot – it was actually easier when I just didn’t eat eggs at all.
4. Health stuff
So I did lose a bit of weight over the month, but it is very hard to judge that this was a result of going vegan as I started a strict exercise regime several months ago for the first time in my life, and so a little weight loss has been pretty steady every month. The good things were that I was very conscious of eating a lot more vegetables than usual (and I normally have plenty of vegetables in my diet anyway), and I probably ate more protein than I normally do as I wanted to make sure that being vegan didn’t have negative affects on my health. Being aware of the challenges of a particular new diet can actually make you eat better than you did previously. I am sure I wasn’t getting enough iron (I normally don’t), though there were times when I did thanks to seaweed and leafy green vegetables. I should have just taken iron supplements, but I kept forgetting to buy some.
I am not great at noticing gradual changes, but when I started being pesco-vegetarian again I did feel less healthy at first, though I admit I may be have been over-compensating by eating a great deal of extra mayo on everything.
5. I know a lot of vegans
This was actually a complete surprise, but as soon as I started posting about my vegan month on facebook I got many replies from friends who I didn’t realise were vegan. I even had the lovely experience of going to a talk at my university (by a FB friend), and was approached by the speaker and his wife afterwards to say that they had really been enjoying following the vegan recipes on my blog. If nothing else I am certainly glad that I have a few more vegan recipes up my sleeve as there are more potential vegan dinner-guests out there that I had realised.
6. It turns out that we were eating a lot of vegan (or nearly vegan) food already – and you may be too
During hurricane Sandy (we were very lucky to be in an area that did not lose power), not wanting to go out into the rain, I decided to make lunch with things we had around the house. We had two avodacos that needed to be used so I boiled up some spaghetti and blended the avocados, a clove of minced garlic, two teaspoons of olive-oil, the juice of half a lemon, a tablespoon of toasted pine-nuts and a little salt and pepper in the food processor. In about 10 minutes we had delicious avocado pesto. And I had the realisation that I have had many times since being vegan – the meal I had just cooked was, completely unintentionally, vegan.
Indeed when I started the month I realised that almost all the soups I made regularly were either vegan or could be adapted to being vegan just by substituting butter for olive oil when frying up the ingredients. Having had a vegan friend stay with us a couple of weeks earlier I also learnt that the local felafel shop that we go to all the time was serving us vegan felafel sandwiches (so long as we opted not to have the ‘white sauce’ quirted on at the end). Even the experience of having a handful of crisps (potato chips) at a party gave me the funny sensation of thinking that everyone around me was also eating vegan food without even thinking about it. Same with many dips and bread (though check the bread if you are not buying it from a good bakery) and peanut butter.
I have to say that this was part of what made things easier – being able to still eat some things that we ate before the month started made it feel less like a shock. And now I am aware of it I know that we actually eat a couple vegan meals a week without even trying. It is likely that we are not the only ones.