Plant-based eating is gaining a lot of traction. Recent research shows that animal agriculture and mass fishing is simply not sustainable for a family of 7.7 billion people – rearing the beef for a single burger requires 2500 litres of water – and when you stack that up alongside the outstanding health effects of a vegan diet (studies have shown not just reduction, but complete reversal of heart disease and type 2 diabetes); and whether it’s fair to exploit and kill animals when we don’t need to, it’s an approach that makes sense for an increasing number of people.
In my adolescence I had a six year fling with vegetarianism, but I was exceedingly bad at it (toast and pot noodles were my mainstays) and unsurprisingly got sick, which had nothing to do with not eating meat and everything to do with a diet devoid of nutritional value. But when I went back to meat, I was all in.
And boy, was I an enthusiastic omnivore. I loved meat, the bloodier the better (my friends’ running joke was that my steak order was ‘just rip its horns off and wipe its arse’), and would delightedly tear into ribs, T-bones, poke the marrow out of bones with a skewer – you name it. As for street food in far flung places, I was the one who’d try just about any body part cooked any which way – or not cooked at all – and I didn’t need to know what it was.
Then I discovered yoga. Bloody yoga, with its pesky ethical precepts, the first of which is non-violence. It took me a few years to adopt the philosophy, but when I began my teacher training I knew it was time. I started with cutting out meat, and whilst I didn’t care if I never ate steak again, I struggled with chicken and ham and I occasionally fell off the wagon. The idea of giving up my beloved fish and seafood was a bridge too far for me, and so I was a pescetarian with the odd Christmas lapse for several years. (I will say at this point: be aware that your intestinal habits will change when you make shifts in your eating. Whenever I lapsed, I couldn’t move my bowels for almost a week… which told me all I needed to know!)
I reduced the amount of fish and seafood I ate a couple of years ago, and I became more picky about its sourcing (google what trawlers do to the ocean and you’ll understand why). But I’d started to become uncomfortable with eating sea creatures when I went diving and was mesmerised by an octopus which changed its colour from a velvety purple with black spots, to a streaky pale pink to match the coral around it when it saw me. I never felt right eating calamari after that, and deep down I knew it was only a matter of time until I stopped.
And then, ten months ago, I watched some documentaries on Netflix. I think What the Health was first, then Forks Over Knives. I was profoundly disturbed by what I learnt. But just to be sure, I did my own research and read various studies. What I learnt about animal agriculture was ugly, and that was the end of my love affair with cheese, Greek yoghurt, eggs, and finally milk in tea and coffee. I experimented with a lot of plant-based milks and eventually found one I didn’t mind. So, I was done. I went vegan.
Well, I say I went vegan, but in truth I went vegan when I was at home. I still tour, and it’s trickier when you’re on the road than when you’re in charge of the shopping and cooking. Honestly, I used that as an excuse. When it was even a little bit hard to find a vegan option, I’d say ‘oh well’, and go back to dairy and eggs and fish… but I knew I was kidding myself. When I got home from tour I re-watched the documentaries, along with Cowspiracy and the latest one, The Game Changers, with, of all unlikely vegan characters, Arnold Schwarznegger. And then I really was done – no more excuses – but by that point I honestly didn’t need them. I’d been in it long enough to know how good I felt being fully vegan, and when it’s better for me, the planet, the animals AND I feel great, that’s a pretty strong set of motivators.
I’m not here to push the vegan cause – if you’re interested enough to be reading this then you’ve probably educated yourself on the topic anyway, and if you haven’t, then the four documentaries I’ve mentioned say it better than I ever can. What I want to point out is that it hasn’t been an overnight process and that I wasn’t a natural. It’s been about seven years since I started down this road, and I’ve picked up a lot of tips and ideas along the way. If you’re thinking of reducing the amount of animal produce you consume, I hope they help you too.
- You don’t have to do it all at once. Real, lasting change tends to happen incrementally, and if I’d tried to go from viking to tree-hugger overnight, I’d have been face-down in a vat of pate by lunchtime. Aim for the bits that you’re least attached to first, and drop one thing at a time.
- Find alternatives and give your taste buds a chance to adjust. I can’t do black coffee, but I’ve found a plant milk alternative that I like, and now dairy milk just smells sour to me. If you really hate the taste of something straight away then that’s probably not going to change, but if you experiment and find something that’s palatable, you’ll probably grow to like it.
- One of the things that I really missed when I cut out all flesh was the ‘bitey’ texture; but there are some truly brilliant ‘plant-based meats’ out there now which satisfy that craving, so experiment. They’re no more expensive than meat, and you can use them occasionally rather than making them a staple as you get the hang of animal-free meal preparation. There are even vegan fish alternatives now, and here in Australia I love the brilliant ‘Sophie’s Kitchen’ brand of plant-based prawns. Mushrooms are also a fantastic and cheap way to add that resistance ‘bite’.
- Realise that just because it says ‘vegan’ on the label, it’s not automatically a health food! There are plenty of vegan junk foods around, so read the label if you’re using processed foods. ‘Organic’ does generally give you an indication that a product is not chock full of chemicals.
- Until your change is well established, I suggest sharing your journey only with those who you can rely upon to be supportive – otherwise go about your business without making a song and dance about it or sticking absolute labels on yourself. A lot of people can’t wait to police you and shame you if you slip up, and it’s just unhelpful. It says a lot about them and nothing about you, but who needs it? If your new habits are noticed by someone you suspect is going to give you a hard time, you can always deploy the ‘mostly and less’ clause – ‘I’m eating mostly plants / I’m eating less animal produce’, which takes away their ammunition.
- Learn how to cook. Honestly I think this applies no matter what you eat if you want optimum health, but you’re going to have a cheaper and easier time if you get in the kitchen. You don’t need to do a course or be Gordon Ramsay, just follow some simple recipes and practise.
- Get your go-to basic meals covered. If you regularly rely on a quick omelette, learn how to make a vegan version (simply whisk chickpea flour with plant milk to get a similar consistency to beaten egg and use exactly like you normally would). Likewise most people struggle with missing cheese, so learn how to make a cheesy sauce (boil raw cashews for 10 mins in just enough water to cover them; use a hand blender to smoosh them and the remaining water to a houmous-like texture; mix in generous amounts of nutritional yeast. Add water for a runnier lasagne type sauce, or use as is for a dip). Nutritional yeast is your friend for cheesy flavours, and most large supermarkets and health shops stock it these days. There are some wonderful and inspiring vegan cooks out there – my favourite is avirtualvegan.com
- Get savvy about which nutrients you might need to pay extra attention to. B12 is harder to find in a vegan diet, but it doesn’t actually come from meat – it comes from the bacteria ON meat (mmm, yummy). It’s readily available in fungus and river water, but since most of us don’t drink direct from rivers, you can find it in our magical friend nutritional yeast, and yeast spreads like Marmite and Vegemite. Calcium and iron is plentiful in dark leafy greens like spinach, and tofu and pulses also contain calcium. Some research studies have shown that although dairy products do contain high calcium, the acidifying effect they have on our bodies means that we have to leach calcium from our own bones to redress the pH balance, leaving us worse off than we started. Omega 3s can be found in non-fish oils, especially algal oil (that’s where the fish get it from – they’re just the middle man!) Personally I take calcium, B12 and Omega 3 supplements, and I have my vitamin and mineral levels checked in an annual blood test, but I’m not a nutritionist so don’t take my word for it – do your own research.
- Don’t believe the hype about protein. Again, do your own research, but be canny about checking who the research is funded by (something the documentaries expose), and be prepared to be shocked. As I understand it, it’s not possible for a human eating a normal amount of calories to be protein deficient, as there’s ample protein for the human body in plants. Certainly Arnie, vegan ultra-athlete Rich Roll, and the average silverback gorilla don’t seem to be going weedy from a plant-based diet! But if you’re still concerned, beans, pulses, tofu, shitake mushrooms and nuts have high protein levels; and if you’re a shake junkie there are plenty of plant-based protein powders out there such as pea protein.
- You don’t have to relinquish your social life, you just have to get creative in restaurants. I’ve eaten quite happily in steakhouses with carnivore friends by ordering side dishes and asking for them to be prepared with oil instead of butter (sweet potato wedges, spinach, broccoli and mushrooms yes please!) Getting used to the idea that vegetables are a valid main and not just a side dish is key. Likewise brunch – I often order the veggie breakfast but ask to swap the eggs for avocado. Even in Bavarian sausage houses I’ve got by on chips, sauerkraut and beer – not mega healthy admittedly, but then neither is a pound of sausages! If I’m eating with friends I generally suggest we eat out rather than go to someone’s house, as then everyone can have what they like. The dinner party situation has not yet arisen for me, but if it ever did I’d probably chat to the host ahead of time and opt to either eat the veggie side dishes, bring my own, or – and this is always an option depending on where your head is – get over it for a night and simply be vegetarian (which most people can manage to cook for).
- Get excited about beautiful fresh produce. Substitutes are great, but underpinning that with tons of fresh vegetables and fruit means that you’ll really reap the best health benefits of plant-powered living as well as save money. I routinely eat 10+ portions of fruit and veg a day, and whilst many people report being a little gassier than usual when they make the transition, rest assured that it does settle down!
- It’s perfectly possible to do this in a house of people who aren’t on board. I do most of the cooking in our house, and whilst my husband likes to eat lots of plants, he occasionally adds a piece of chicken to the vegan meal I’ve prepared, and that’s fine.
Finally, there’s one really tricky thing about going vegan, and it’s this – we have a reputation for being evangelical wankers.
Q: ‘How do you know if someone’s a vegan?’
A: ‘Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.’
And I hate to say it but it’s true – it’s human nature to want to sing it from the rooftops when we discover any new approach that’s really working for us, but it might not be helpful. So, how to not come over like Judgey Judge McJudgepants with your non-vegan mates? I’ve found the least alienating approach to be a) minding my own business about other people’s lifestyles and b) softly softly. If I go out for a meal with someone, I’ll order what I order and they won’t know I’m vegan unless they directly ask me (or they’ve read this!) If they offer me a piece of milk chocolate, I don’t say ‘no thanks I’m vegan’, I just say ‘no thanks’. If someone comes to my house to eat, I’ll check there are no allergies then I’ll prepare a delicious planty feast but won’t draw attention to it, and if they want to know more…. well, hopefully they’ve just experienced how delicious and non-restrictive eating this way can feel! If someone asks me why I eat this way, I say ‘good for me, good for the planet, good for the animals – what’s not to love!’ and leave it at that. If they’re curious then I’m happy to chat about it, but ramming it down people’s throats and demonising someone’s behaviour never makes friends and generally has the opposite of the desired effect. I’m sure I’ve slipped up a few times, but I aim for keeping it relaxed and letting questions come to me.
It’s getting easier and easier to eat this way as it becomes more mainstream and whilst it took me a while, I no longer miss animal produce at all. Personally I’ve never felt better. I’m strong and full of energy, and I feel really good about my choices for myself, other living beings, and the planet. It was a long road from viking to tree-hugger, but for me there’s no turning back!