Why I won't be eating turkey this Christmas
Going vegan was the best thing I have ever done for myself.
Published 10/12/2013 | 02:30
Vegans are perceived – on the rare occasions when anyone thinks of them at all – as being at the Taliban end of the food spectrum. Joyless, fanatical, and a bit angry.
Saying you are vegan has traditionally been perceived, even by some vegetarians, as being a bit extremist, a bit over the top. Yet in the past decade, it is a way of living which is becoming increasingly popular, for three reasons – health, ethics, and the environment. And it's not just for soppy bunny lovers either – Mike Tyson is vegan. So is Geezer Butler, the bloke who founded Black Sabbath.
The term vegan (which basically means consuming food that is 100pc plant based) was coined in November 1944 by a man called Donald Watson, when he helped found the Vegan Society. It was formally defined in 1951 as a belief "that man should live without exploiting animals", which meant that it was entirely idealogical and as such remained a very niche market for a very long time.
But then, the richer the West became, the more Western health deteriorated – could there be a link between cancer, obesity, heart disease, and a Western diet heavy in animal fat and animal protein?
Also, people began to wonder just how long humans could continue eating meat, fish and dairy at the current environmentally unsustainable rate. We also began to hear about the horrors of factory farming.
Change started to creep in. More and more experts began agreeing that a plant-based diet is best for your own personal health, for the well-being of animals, and for the sustainability of the planet.
Politically, ethically and environmentally, going vegan is bulletproof – but is that enough to make you attempt the transition? Or like me, might you need a more selfish motive?
Approaching my 46th birthday, I am overweight and achey, and prone to sugar binges. I have been like this for years, but the achiness is getting worse. Although not a meat eater since my teens, two words have always put me off going vegan – 'soya milk'.
Never mind that it is a complete protein, gram for gram nutritionally equivalent to cows' milk – it's horrible. Plus, I have lost all interest in cooking, and am known domestically as Madame Ping – as in, "Ping! Dinner's ready."
Something needs to change, but I have no idea what, or how – I don't want to do any stupid diets (been there, done that, lost weight, put it on again – ad infinitum). All I know is that I need to do something right now to safeguard my long-term health. But what?
As if by magic, I am asked to interview a world expert on the plant-based diet. After speaking with Cornell University biochemist Professor T Colin Campbell for almost an hour, in which time he tells me of the conclusive evidence over a 50-year period he has found that links animal protein with cancer, a lightbulb goes on over my head.
Here is the man who inspired Bill Clinton to go vegan – if it's good enough for Bill, it's good enough for me. I will give it a go. After all, how hard can it be? I am already meat-free – all I have to do now is let go of fish, dairy, eggs, and all other animal ingredients.
Oh, and processed foods. Will it be a logistical, foodie-neurotic nightmare?
The truthful answer is no. There are two reasons it's not as hard as I'd anticipated – firstly, plant-based products have evolved enormously since I last tried soya milk back in the 1980s when I first thought about veganism. I had spat it out, and resigned myself to a life of dairy, despite Professor Campbell pointing out that no other mammals besides humans continue consuming mother's milk after weaning – and not even our own milk, but that of another species. Give up dairy, he says.
Ethics aside, from a purely physiological perspective, cows' milk is designed for baby cows, not for humans. Animal protein promotes cell division in humans, he says. And not in a good way.
Meanwhile, things have moved on in the world of dairy-free. While I still hate soya milk, I discover that almond milk is very nice, that rice milk is perfectly palatable, and that oat milk isn't too bad either. Hazelnut milk makes nice smoothies, as do vanilla, chocolate and banana rice milks. Bingo.
And soya yogurt is absolutely yummy, as is soya custard and soya ice cream. You can even get cream made from oats and it works like normal cream. Who knew?
Also, my immediate environment is vegan friendly. I live in a town with a significant Green population, so it's full of wholefood shops and cafes, and soyaccinos and soya lattes and vegan cakes are on the menu in almost every coffee shop.
But what if your local environment is strictly meat and two veg? What if you live out in the sticks? You have to be organised. Shop online, stay ahead of yourself. Go to www.irishvegan.ie for a list of suppliers.
That's the most important aspect of embracing a plant-based diet – you have to plan ahead, if you don't want to live on crisps and end up with scurvy. So plan ahead and also get plenty of vitamin B12 in your diet. B12 is the only thing which a vegan diet lacks.
I am now going to take my plant-based show on the road, to spend three weeks travelling and camping in a country that likes to eat horse, veal, and tweety-bird drowning in cream sauce – France.
This is where the be-prepared part of veganism kicks in. I load up the car with a ton of non-perishable food, and mentally prepare for a non-food oriented holiday in a country that is obsessed with eating.
In preparation for all-day drives, I have a snack box next to the driver's seat – bananas, cereal bars, dates, cashews, and a few homemade protein shakes to ward off hunger. Soya protein, blended with banana and rice milk. Like steak, but better.
There is no word for vegan in French. In fact, unless you are travelling in south India, or Japan, or bits of South East Asia, you may find yourself very, very limited. The thing is to not get into the mindset that you are missing out – think of it more as a challenge.
Then, when you do stumble across a tiny section in the giant supermarche that sells delicious soya-based caramel dessert alongside blocks of fresh tofu, you may actually scream with joy. Which is not something you might have done a couple of months ago. Plus, every fancy ice cream parlour in France does sorbets – it's not all about soya beans.
Forget restaurants though, unless you are in a major city, and even then, don't hold your breath. Expect anything from blank incomprehension to bewilderment to pity. You may end up paying full whack for a plate of floppy white pasta decorated with a single basil leaf. It's not their fault. They just don't get it.
What you do get in Mediterranean countries is the most delicious, abundant, perfect fruit and veg – which will result in the healthiest holiday you'll have ever had. And a massive sense of achievement at the end that you didn't throw in the towel.
I can already see and feel physical changes after less than two months. Clearer skin, sparkly eyes, more energy, a feeling of lightness and spring in my step. The aches in my joints are easing. And because it takes more preparation and thought, I am fully conscious all the time about what I am consuming – this is what addiction expert and psychotherapist Maria Cotter calls 'mindful eating'.
No more distracted grazing, and no more bingeing – all my binge foods are off the menu, because they all contain animal fat (ice cream, cake, chocolate).
Instead I rediscover food and cooking with new interest and vigour. The internet is a fantastic resource for vegan eating – apart from all the recipe ideas there is also that warm inclusive feeling that you are not the only maniac alone out there in tofu-land.
So I buy a good blender, load up supplies at the wholefood shop, and explore new foods – initially it might seem expensive, but homemade food is cheaper than processed in the long run, and won't contain any scary ingredients that you'd normally only find in a laboratory. I systematically try new stuff – some of it is fantastic, some horrible.
I make tons of stuff from scratch – soup, smoothies, tapenades, sauces, salsa, flapjacks, even tofu cheesecake. Most of it works, some of it is disastrous – like medicine, yoga, or riding a bike, it's all about practice. The tofu cheesecake takes some refining, and my kids won't touch it.
They say the very idea is wrong, but I am enthused about a dessert that tastes like decadence but is in reality a low-fat protein hit. I swap honey for agave syrup (which looks and tastes like honey, but is from a cactus plant), and still have the odd square of binge-proof dark chocolate. I discover ginger nuts are vegan by design, and eat a whole packet in one sitting. Old habits die hard.
My aching joints have almost stopped aching. Coincidence? Who knows. I have lost some weight, probably because I am exercising more, and my digestive system is as efficient as a shiny helter skelter.
Most amazingly, my food cravings have gone, and I am no longer enslaved to sugar. I still have treats – the occasional slice of vegan chocolate cake in my favourite tea shop – but not on a regular basis. I have peace of mind around food, for the first time ever – and as an animal lover, am delighted and relieved to finally be out of the cruelty loop.
Obviously, this delight only applies to me. Tell someone who has just invited you to dinner that you are vegan and watch their face manage a mixture of reactions from oh-no to FFS to unrestrained eye-rolling. The trick is to not foist your new plant-based life upon anyone but yourself.
Until people get used to it, offer to bring your own, where ever you are going. Some hosts love the challenge, and get creative, while others shut down in a panic.
Also, don't expect to convert anyone – my children, raised meat-free, have become slavering carnivores in response to my veganism, so I now buy them free-range chicken and hope it's just a phase. They probably hope the same about me.
Fully into the swing of plant-based life, it now feels entirely normal, and I am astonished that I have not wavered or fallen off the wagon.
My body feels more finely tuned, and tells me when I am full. When I get a sugar craving, I make flapjacks. They're not sexy, but they do the job. Friends make jokes about coming to my house for dinner made of hedge, and the dog gets terrible wind from being fed my culinary mishaps.
I invite my family for dinner and serve homemade mango and lime cheesecake for dessert. Except of course it's not cheesecake.
Opinion is divided – most of the plates come back empty, but I suspect the more polite family members have simply taken a deep breath and shoved it down.
It's a work in progress.
But in terms of health, well-being, and that smug deep down feeling that you are not harming either yourself or anything else anywhere by your food actions, going plant-based is the best thing I have ever done.
On a satisfaction level, it is up there with giving up smoking. It's a win-win.
And like it or not, it's the future.