Ten days as a vegan... here's what I learnt

I’m all about tying blog posts into internationally-recognised days, so when I looked ahead and saw World Vegan Day on 1st November I thought ‘sure… why not?’

Now one thing to know about me… I’m a serious lover of all things dairy. Give me some raspberry yoghurt, give me halloumi, give me (all of) the brie. I’m also partial to lamb, bacon and chicken (strictly free-range only!) so this challenge was a pretty colossal undertaking for me. I didn’t want to attempt too long a period of time, in-so-doing turning the whole thing into a negative experience and/or dooming myself from the start, so I set the challenge at ten days. Ten days all vegan, only vegan, all the time. Game on.

Given my aforementioned appreciation of non-vegan foods, my declaration was met with a lot of dropped jaws, gasps, incomprehension and straight up laughter by friends and family. They weren’t being overly dramatic… I found it hard. But not always for the reasons I expected. Here’s the low down of what I experienced and learned during my ten-day stint.

I sat up and started paying attention

No surprises here. When you’re strictly vegan, you all of a sudden start paying a lot more attention to what you’re putting into your body. It made me blatantly aware of how culpable I usually am of not paying attention, and that kind of struck a chord with me.

As such, I was healthier by a country mile

I very quickly learned that a huge amount of processed foods are not vegan and have some form of animal by-product in them; even foods you'd never suspect. I started reading the labels of every single thing I picked up off the shelf and found this out pretty promptly, so I had to start avoiding a lot of processed food products and things we buy without giving a thought to where the components that make them actually come from. I avoided a lot of processed food which meant, ipso facto, I avoided a lot of unnatural and unhealthy shit.

Find a vegan friend... they’ll become an invaluable ally

On the first day of my challenge while hesitantly pouring almond milk into my cereal for the first time, I mentioned my challenge to a colleague. She excitedly told me she had been a vegan for a year and had a bunch of tips she’d email through, which she promptly did. My feelings of trepidation about the whole escapade quickly turned into excitement which matched hers as I read through her email. Going vegan – even only for a short while – is a massive change to daily life, and it’s pretty daunting. Having someone who’s tried and tested so much themselves to share their knowledge with you is amazing. From putting me onto Vegan Richa to get meal ideas emailed out every week and introducing me to the legendary Linda McCartney range to telling me what wines I can buy at the supermarket and what food chains I can still eat at (Nando’s... who knew?), her countless pearls of wisdom were invaluable. Her best? “One thing about being vegan is that potato is life.” Preach.

Cooking from scratch is less of a choice, more of a lifestyle

Not to say there aren’t options for food you can buy and heat up, but unless you want to be having sweet potato chips for dinner every night, you’re going to need to get involved in food preparation. I found this fun as part of the challenge and given the short time frame found it easy to embrace the process, but as someone who generally doesn’t take much enjoyment in cooking, I would really struggle with this should it become the norm.

Some of the best things in life are vegan, so it’s fine

So long as I can still have my coffee and my wine, I’m OK. Not all wines are vegan, but lots are, and so long as all wine isn't off the table, I'm happy. I got fully on board with soy milk ad was delighted to learn about almond and coconut milk too; though having to pay 50p extra for every coffee I ordered is less than ideal.

That said, there will be times you will really feel you’re missing out

Chocolate and cheese are universal treats... simple as that. Yes, there are vegan chocolates and vegan cakes and lots of yummy vegan options, but the fact is you WILL find yourself in numerous situations where you’re in a little vegan bubble of not being able to partake where you really would like to. Case in point, my friend’s birthday where her flatmates made her a FRESH BROWNIE TRAY and I walked into a house full of that delicious rich home baking smell that got right in my nostrils and tortured me from the inside out. I had come prepared with a delicious fruit salad to placate myself but even raspberries can’t compete with fresh, gooey chocolate brownie. Just accept that there are times it will really suck.

London is a great place to be vegan, but not everywhere is

I had it very easy doing this challenge in London, and especially Soho, the area I work. Hugely popular UK chain food store, Pret-a-Manger, opened a trial 'Veggie Pret' in Soho last year, literally in the building I work in (it proved so popular they have now opened two others across London). I’m also two blocks away from Britain’s Hare Krishna HQ where their restaurant serves delicious, cheap meals, and a few doors down from swanky Mildred’s if I feel like a treat meal. But I know how lucky I am to be in Soho particularly. This is a country where going for Sunday Roast down the pub is about as sacred a rite as any (except maybe going to a football match) and I know it wouldn’t be nearly this easy outside of the city.

As I learnt in Oxford, where I failed my challenge on the tenth day... sob

I went for a girls’ day trip to Oxford on my tenth and final day of the challenge, and it seems the whole of London’s population had the same idea. We arrived at lunchtime and everywhere was full to bursting, so choice was very limited. Short of making a packed lunch to bring with me, or going hungry, I had to relinquish. When I realised I was going to fail the challenge anyway I figured why not fail spectacularly... I had shepherd’s pie. And if you’re wondering... yes, it was phenomenal. The table behind us may have thought Meg Ryan was in the house for the declarations of joy I made as I ate.

Eating out is really tricky

Most places have a vegetarian option on the menu, regardless of the cuisine, but finding places that cater to vegans is next level hard. It’s not impossible of course, but based on my short experience, I often had to dictate where we went on evenings out with friends and family, and that can get a little tiring from both sides.

Something unexpected... being vegan made me feel like a bad human

I’m someone who cares deeply about the environment, my impact on it and how much waste I generate; it’s something I reflect on regularly. I actively make consumer choices based on this environmental consciousness. I never, ever buy anything with palm oil or microbeads, and I try to avoid unrecyclable or unnecessary packaging... something the U.K. is big on. About a day into my challenge, I realised I was going to have to put aside these morals for the next nine days, and it’s something I really struggled with. Already so limited in what I could consume, being picky and putting my foot down on these matters was virtually impossible. Unable to drink regular milk, I had to have soy, coconut, or almond, but all of these, in every store I went to, came in waxy cartons that can’t be recycled. Into the landfills they go. Also to my dismay, a huge number of sauces, ingredients and packaged vegan foods had palm oil – one of climate change’s greatest allies – in them too. If going vegan full time, this is something I would need to look into further to seek alternatives.

So, what are my final thoughts having (almost) completed a ten day vegan challenge?

As well as the obvious heath benefits, I enjoyed the challenge for making me so much more aware of the food I am eating, and being more involved in the process of making it. It made me feel I had more authority and control over it all. Really, we always do, but I think we have all in the western world become so blind to the origin of our food that we allow companies to feed us whatever they want.

This said, I do pride myself in being pretty clued-up and making informed, responsible consumer choices. I even wrote it about here. While I can understand the vegan argument, I personally am not on board. I don’t believe consuming animal products and meat is inherently wrong and evil; we are omnivores by nature. I think the industry that has grown from our appetite for meat and dairy is evil, and I actively endeavour to avoid it, supporting instead alternative free-range, organic and cruelty-free sources, hoping for their growth as more and more people do the same.

If I did believe wholeheartedly in the reasons for veganism, then this challenge would have been a lot easier; to do it because I thought it was right and necessary. Doing it as I did merely for a personal challenge was not easy. In fact I don’t mind telling you it was really bloody hard. While I have a huge amount of respect for vegans and think power to them for living as they believe is right, I have come to the conclusion that for me, life is just too short... eat the cheese.

My first home-cooked meal of the challenge - "creamy" garlic mushroom Alfredo. I'm inclined to say it was a wild success. See the recipe here.

Soy cappuccino and vegan brownie at my local cafe... life is good.

Home-cooked Sunday brunch featuring Linda McCartney sausages, herb-y mushrooms on toast and coffee with almond milk... YUM.

My favourite meal I cooked during the challenge - fried rice with cashews, mushrooms, onions, beans and all the good stuff.

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