Friday, 31 January 2014

A Veganuary in Review

The Veganuary campaign caught my eye on Twitter in the run-up to Christmas, and just happened to coincide with a period of serious umming and aahhing about the food choices I did and didn't want to make. It's been exciting to see the momentum that it's picked up over the course of January, and while I don't feel that I've been a fully on-board participant (for reasons that I'll go into shortly), it's been a fun and surprisingly challenging experience that I'm glad I took on.

Before I begin to try summarising all of the things that this vegan month has brought, some important facts need to be considered:

1) I've been meat-free since 2003.
2) I became fully vegetarian in 2005, by which I mean no gelatin, no anchovies, no oyster sauce, etc.
3) In my view there is nothing more glorious than bread lavished with a thick layer of salty butter. Nothing.
4) I've been considering and reconsidering my vegetarianism for a year or so, and in November I started eating fish again.
5) During marathon training I've tended to give up milk - at least during the week - as I find my gut is more sensitive when I'm putting myself through so much physical torture training.

Based on facts #1, #2 and #5, I thought that going vegan for a month would be a breeze. We eat pretty much no dairy in our evening meals, I tend to stick with veggies or soup for lunch, and porridge can easily be made with non-dairy milk, right? I'm sure that it was much easier for me than it would have been for many meat-eaters out there, trying out veganism for the first time, but in fact it was much more of a challenge (and at times, a headache) than I had anticipated.

I started Veganuary on 2nd January (see above about my half-hearted commitment!) after a New Year's lunch of fish and chips - my first in years and years and years, at a lovely pub in Sandsend after a day walking in torrential rain. The batter was light and beautifully crisp and the fish was gloriously chunky, but still, after a few mouthfuls I could only think 'meh', and secretly wished that I'd ordered the vegetarian chilli. By the next day - a Thursday - I was ready to go, and we'd planned a menu of our favourite dairy-free meals to see us through the following week. But all my enthusiasm came undone almost as quickly as it had started, when I tucked in to a slice of freshly-baked bread the following Sunday, smothered with peanut butter. I tried olive oil, still it wouldn't do. So I bought some vegan 'margarine' (eurgh what a disgusting word) and have died a little inside (probably literally) every time I've used it.

Did someone say portion control?
A few days later I had a latte in my favourite coffee shop. Normally I would have got a frothy latte made with organic local milk, but my vegan option was distinctly less joyful, and moreover it was made with non-organic soya milk. My point has always been that, in my opinion at least, it is the small choices we make (organic dairy, no soy wherever possible, locally-produced cheese, etc. etc.) that make the biggest impact: turning vegetarian and living off manufactured Quorn nuggests of despair and soy-based proteins is probably not the best way to make a more positive impact on the world. But there I was, drowning in dairy-free, soya-shaped options, eating crayon-coloured melted plastic on my beautiful homemade bread, and feeling very much like veganism might be the worst choice I could make.

I was feeling pretty gloomy about the whole thing, and also missing cake (I have since baked a few great vegan cookies and muffins and have inevitably eaten more cakes than I ever would have otherwise), when it hit me like I imagine silence might hit any long-suffering victim of tinnitus - I no longer had stomach ache. Months and months - years and years! - of grinding cramps in my intestines went silent one day, and honestly haven't made an appearance since. Over the course of the month I feel as if my insides have taken a new lease of life - they're dancing a glorious, pain-free dance and everything just feels easier. I also feel lighter, somehow - not in the literal sense, too much cake for that, but in a physical sense, nonetheless.

Vegan cookies - they looked better than this in real life!
Once I realised that this little experiment was having such a positive effect on my health, and consequently my mood, it suddenly became pretty easy. I stopped fretting over the margarine and instead started to enjoy trying out new recipes, as well as going back to some of my old favourites. The next test came when I ran a half marathon on 20th January. Normally I'd have eggs after a long run, but instead I stuck to lentil soup. The weird cravings hit me harder than usual, and for some reason I found myself halfway through a rather large bag of crisps (why does anyone ever eat crisps?) before I noticed that they weren't vegan. Ah well. A better post-run recovery plan should have been in place, because it turns out that my usual recovery staples of eggs, milk and chocolate biscuits can't easily be replaced with lentils.

So now I am balanced between two lifestyles, unsure about which way to go next. Overall health is a big question, but to me the ethical side of what I eat is equally as big, and in my opinion veganism doesn't cut the mustard. Again, small choices over big sweeping commitments. I honestly don't know what I'll do next, but I'm pretty sure it won't involve fish - it turns out that it wasn't really for me, as delicious as Elly's spiced mackerel recipe was. I'm also sure that it won't involve soya milk or vegan 'butter' (pah!), but it probably will involve more avocados, nuts, nut butters and tahini. Just as my palate has transformed over the past 10 years to the point where fish and chips taste a bit 'samey', so too has it changed over the past month to find serious satisfaction in a handful of nuts, a 'creamy' tahini sauce, or a drizzle of maple syrup.

Essentially, though, I think it's too easy to get bogged down in the shoulds and the shouldn'ts. While it's all too typical of our gloriously privileged society to think that we somehow have the right to have milk on our cereal and meat on our dinner plate every day, consideration of these issues is the first and most important step: once we start thinking, we're already acting. Vegetarianism, veganism, raw food, whatever - at the end of the day they're all sweeping commitments to habits that aren't ever going to be 100% ethically sound. Maybe the most important thing any individual can do in this respect is to consider their options alongside their choices, and to do whatever feels the most right, both personally and generally. That way we're more likely to make choices that stick for the longterm, and even when these choices change as we change (as has happened to me), to keep thinking and keep choosing what works best on both levels at any one point.

I definitely recommend testing out veganism, as it turns out that cutting out dairy can leave you feeling 100% better, and that's always worth a shot. Other than that, though, there are some seriously delicious vegan recipes out there that are worth trying out - my top 5 are linked below!

Oh She Glows' Roasted butternut squash pasta sauce

Oh She Glows' Roasted Buddha bowl

Oh She Glows' Creamy avocado pasta sauce

Oh She Glows' Creamy cauliflower 'Alfredo' 

Veggie Runners' best ever roasted squash


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