How it vegan

2018 saw over 160,000 worldwide signing up for Veganuary (over 72,000 from the U.K., over 40,000 from the U.S. …and the rest). These numbers send out a powerful message: Veganism isn’t the latest fashionable trend, “in” diet, or some kind of activist movement that will see its time. This time it’s different. Times are finally changing. 

I know some people can’t see their future without meat or dairy (I was one of them and feel free to read no further if that’s you) but lots of people ask me “why are you vegan?” This is why… 

It started with a conversation…

Rewind to end-2016 and a WhatsApp conversation with one of my friends changed my life. 

My friend: “You still haven’t told me why you eat fish and dairy even though fundamentally you don’t want to.”

Me: “I think much of it is laziness and thinking I’ll have to think so much about what I’m eating. It’s hard to avoid dairy and eggs.”

My friend: “As with everything these are beliefs, and beliefs can (and should) be challenged.”

See the brain is a funny thing. I had such strong conditioned beliefs built up over many years, that I filtered out or reinterpreted all fact-based evidence challenging them. I’ve always been against animal cruelty and would actually admit to feeling more connected to animals than humans. I knew the “organic” labels on my dairy and eggs meant nothing and this all came from an “industry”, but I kept on eating them (the technical term for this is cognitive dissonance). 

I was following the protein train -- convinced that I needed large quantities of eggs, cottage cheese, and Greek yogurt to help me get strong and meet my fitness goals. Added to this, the fear I’d instantly become nutrient deficient if I made a full shift to eating plants. 

The conversation moved onto dairy and got scary.

The dairy and eggs delusion

Dairy was the real game changer behind my decision to go vegan. I admit I was totally deluded about the dairy industry -- for years believing it had to be an integral part of not just my diet, but everyone’s. How could you go a day without having a pint of cow’s milk or a block of cheese in your fridge as one of your staple foods? In most western societies cow’s milk is advocated as “an important part of a child’s diet,” not an allergen as it commonly is…or simply wrong to drink the milk from another species.  

Going back to that conversation…

My friend: “The dairy industry is horrific. I have experienced it first hand as a few years ago I was camping next to a dairy farm – the kind of place where you think they have a good life. I noticed there were a couple of calves outside, each on their own pen. The pens were tiny and the calves literally a couple of days old could barely stand up. They have to be separated from the mother within 48 hours maximum otherwise she won’t stop crying. I went there every night, stuck a finger, hand, elbow, whatever in through the fence….and they would get up on their wobbly legs and start sucking. I couldn’t stop crying, giving those poor little creatures a few minutes of…being able to do what they are supposed to do. It was heartbreaking.”

This sums up only part of an industry that’s based on the exploitation of female reproduction, the destruction of motherhood, and slaughter. In the words of Dr. Michael Klaper, a leading educator in plant-based nutrition “The purpose of cow’s milk is to turn a 65-pound calf into a 700-pound cow as rapidly as possible. Cow’s milk IS baby calf growth fluid. No matter what you do to it, that is what the stuff is.”

As for eggs, going back to actions not matching beliefs -- instead of being sheltered by a mother's wings, the newborn male chicks are ground up alive. What’s right about that? A routine practice of the egg “industry” that we condition ourselves to accept in the name of greed. 

An education for life

What happened after the conversation? I watched “Food Choices”, a documentary about the world’s food choices being the reason for declining health, as well as a major cause of climate change. It was enlightening to say the least and inspired me to educate myself further. And after watching more documentaries and trying to watch the harrowing Cowspiracy, I pretty much went vegan overnight. 

There’s several documentaries out there, some of which got a bad rap for “exaggerating data and misrepresenting science” (“What The Health” and “Cowspiracy” are examples). But one thing is for certain, the harrowing footage in some of them revealed truth, and further reinforced my decision. Some may think this stuff is highly exaggerated, but to me, it’s education, and, it’s sadly reality. 

Then there’s books. A growing number of them on the rise of the plant-based diet, protein, the meat industry, and how to prevent and reverse disease. My favourites so far are Proteinaholic by Garth Davis and “How Not To Die” by Michael Greger. 

Saving the planet

The more I learn, the more I understand that eating plants is one of the most powerful actions I can do to help save the planet. Eating meat places enormous pressure on the world’s resources, with many studies citing that what we eat may have more of an impact on global warming than what we drive. Livestock farming contributes to land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, acid rain, coral reef degeneration, and deforestation. More emissions than from ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport put together. And meat production requires masses of water, land, and grain (grain that is used to feed livestock for meat production could feed 1.3 billion people and it takes 2,500 gallons of water to make just one pound of meat). 

And no, I don’t buy into the argument that if we all stop eating meat, we’ll be overrun by animals and that because the animals would die anyway, we may as well eat them (why…we wouldn’t eat each other?). If humans eat less meat, it would mean less insemination, imprisonment, and suffering of animals, lower demand for animal foodstuffs, and less deforestation. Farming would need to be reassessed in a more sustainable and ethical way. Hopefully the oceans would begin to heal and more birds, fish, and other animals recover and thrive. A slow process, but technology and science is evolving right now, with plant-based innovation set to become the biggest trend of 2018. Even major meat producers such as Tyson Foods are following the trend – or smelling the cash. Surely and slowly, I believe that compassionate consumption is, and will gather momentum.  

Compassion is invincible

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” This Dalai Lama quote sums up the one amazing emotion and effect I underappreciated when I was considering veganism. I was so fixated on all the reasons why it would be difficult and restrictive. Feeling as though I was on the verge of signing up for a life of self-punishment, I had images of all of my favourite dairy and egg-based meals whirring around my head on repeat (egg and chips, cheesy omelettes, ice cream, cream cakes). 

A year or so on, I wake up every day and am grateful for the privilege of travelling this journey to a more ethical kinder lifestyle. Every time I eat or prepare a meal, I’m safe in the knowledge that no suffering was involved and the ingredients are wholesome and delicious. More importantly, my actions are no longer fuelling the brutality and injustices of modern-day food production. I’m not advocating that I’m kinder than anyone else, but my mind feels calmer, at ease, and totally accepting of my choices and their consequences. 

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Nothing stirred the depths of my compassion more than the opening scene of “Unity”, the sequel to the 2005 film “Earthlings”. The film tells the true story of humankind’s killing one another, the animals, and nature --- opening with a scene of two frantic cows trapped in a holding pen before the doors open to the slaughterhouse floor. You don’t see gore or blood, but if you can’t watch one cow left behind waiting in utter despair and terror, pacing back and forth without feeling deeply moved, there’s something wrong. The narrator says “Consciousness is when we feel the suffering of every living creature in our own hearts”. I love this film because it asks us, why do we see opposites in one another? Why do we see animals as opposites or somehow different from us that allows us not to see and feel their suffering?

Out of sight, out of mind…

A lot of people downplay the capacity for an animal to suffer. This was me for a long time and I lived wilfully blind to the truth. I grew up in a town that had a slaughterhouse. Although I hated the stench of death as I’d walk past on my walk to school (I’d sometimes take the longer route to avoid it), and worse still, the squeals of pigs as they were marched to their deaths, all of the atrocity was out of my sight and somehow that made it okay. An hour or so later, my mum would serve up a tasty pork and apple burger. 

See we grow up blinded to the reality, our parents want us to become “strong” and before we know it, years of conditioning really take hold. Children don’t go on trips to slaughterhouses and would we want them to? In the words of Paul McCartney “if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.”

The truth is meat is cheap and clinically packaged to further distance us from the source of it. And no “freedom foods” or “grass fed” label can disguise the reality of slaughter. Driving behind a lorry laden with crates of terrified chickens is one of my worst nightmares. It makes me feel so angry as I ask myself “why do we need to do this?” The truth is we really don’t need to do this at all. 

Mending my broken body…

Reports that vegans are healthier are not myth-based. According to the American Dietetic Association, people who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet tend to display lower blood cholesterol, lower blood pressure, less chance of getting cancer, and a decreased rate of heart disease. Vegan foods are frequently lower in calories because they contain fewer unhealthy fats. 

Reading books like “Proteinaholic” and “How Not To Die” has opened my eyes to preventative medicine. Sadly, over the years the medical view of disease has been that it just happens. And patients expect to be prescribed pills as a quick fix to their ailments. People don’t want to put effort into managing their disease when they can take pills and still eat bacon and cakes.

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What happened when I went vegan? Firstly, within two weeks of giving up dairy, I lost at least three kilos of weight. Contrary to my worry of feeling weak, I felt full of energy and the daily sneezing fits that would start at 5 a.m. disappeared.  My digestion improved (due to increased fibre). My skin was more radiant.

In my first week of going vegan, I contacted a couple of nutritionists to see how I’d “cope” with limited calcium, B12, and iron. Yes, I received some cautionary advice, but the news I received a year on from my GP after some blood screening was so much better. Gone was the high blood pressure I’d suffered from in my late 20s. All of my levels (including iron, calcium, protein, B12) were more than normal and I had impressive levels of “good” cholesterol. I’m now in the top 10% of my age category for cardiovascular health and my body fat has dropped from 32% to 22%. I’m healthier than I was in my twenties. Granted, a love of fitness has helped, but going vegan feels like it has nurtured my body.

Athletes like Jeremy Reijnders (the fittest man in the Netherlands), Scott Jurek, Serena Williams, Lewis Hamilton, and Jermaine Defoe are living proof that ditching meat and dairy doesn’t mean ditching muscle. 

Of course, any diet can be unhealthy if you make it that way. As a vegan, you can live on oreos, jelly tots, and processed foods -- just like you can as a vegetarian or meat eater. Wise choices are key. I take several supplements and as a fitness fan, manage my protein levels (yes, you CAN get lots of protein from plant sources). And no, I’m not perfect…I’m human so am prone to chocolate and alcohol binges, but can safely say I feel much healthier for going vegan. I truly believe and speak from personal experience that stress and lack of sleep are today’s lifestyle game changers. 

Plant-based is delicious, fun, and easy!

So that self-punishment never happened. I’m not going to deny that the first three weeks of going vegan were tough, but mainly because I had to reconsider what to eat instead of the vast amounts of cheese I added to my meals, and look up alternative recipes. But this is where the fun really started. I embraced the world of resources out there in books and social media and found a ton of yummy recipes and support (desserts are my guilty pleasure). Plant-based milks are abundant, as is vegan junk food, ice cream, and wonderful cakes. Within a few weeks, my tastebuds discarded Cadburys and Nestle as fake chocolate and embraced and enjoyed the flavour of the dark raw original version instead. 

Creating a meal from fresh veggies and pulses is affordable and easy and I didn’t have to invest in wacky pastes and ingredients.  An easy lunch can be some colourful veggies chucked in a box with some tinned chickpeas, seasoned and dressed to taste. Lunches are far easier for me these days, and while I’m on the move or at work I sometimes sample the increasing offerings from the likes of Pret a Manger and Crussh. I’ve learned that anything can be recreated without meat and dairy, including the best comfort food (meat and potato pie, spaghetti bolognese, roast dinner, tacos, and fried chicken to name but a few…). The best thing is, it’s all delicious and I have a bucketlist of vegan restaurants in London and beyond to try.

Coping strategies for missing old favourite meals? I went through phases of missing egg and chips and fish and chips (my Grandma’s egg and chips were moreish and fish and chips drizzled in salt and vinegar by the seaside used to be one of my favourite meals). Whenever I felt myself wondering how I’d cope watching my family tuck into their fish and chips, I’d tell myself “it’s just a meal”, “I need to miss this meal in the name of my purpose”, “this is just a habit” (and in a seaside town I now look for chips fried in vegetable oil). Now, the reason why I’m vegan far outweighs the memories of these meals to the point where I no longer crave them. To make the shift you have to feel a deep sense of your “why”, and fundamentally, this should relate to the unnecessary suffering of the planet and its creatures.

A vegan future?

So 7% of the U.K.’s population is now vegan (3.5 million residents), proof that the movement is unstoppable and not just a “militant” domain. These figures give me hope, despite me waking up some days feeling utterly depressed, knowing that mass veganism won’t happen in my lifetime and that every single second, some poor creature is enduring suffering and death. I am safe in the knowledge that social media will continue to spread the vegan word with incredible speed and that veganism is now well and truly “mainstream”. I’d like to give a huge shout-out to James Aspey for influencing my journey. James is an Australian animal rights activist and lecturer and is best known for taking a vow of silence for an entire year to raise awareness on animal cruelty. 

I won’t go back. Other than marrying my soulmate, this switch is undeniably the best thing I’ve done in my life. It will take such a long time, but the shift to a vegan world can, and will happen…and it will truly change the world.