My vegan journey
“So what do you eat?”
It’s the first thing on most people’s lips when they find out I’m vegan, and it’s usually followed by something along the lines of “How do you get enough protein?”
It can be a frustrating question – there’s an underlying assumption that I must be protein-deficient, malnourished and hungry all the time. A pub landlord once asked me, “Why do you do that to yourself?” when I asked if there was anything vegan on the menu. I try not to take it personally, but I can’t help it; I don’t criticise others for eating animal products, so why must they do so for me?
Ok, I get that veganism is not mainstream. Many people couldn’t contemplate becoming vegetarian, let alone vegan. It’s socially expected that we are meat-and-two-veg kind of people; so much so, that a meal without meat isn’t a meal at all. But it’s all just food. I am vegan, but I don’t eat vegan food. I just eat food.
I can understand this mindset though. As a student I discovered I had low haemoglobin, and the leaflets I was given suggested foods high in iron: fish, chicken, lean red meat and eggs. That’s where I stopped reading, even though the rest of the list was a vegan’s paradise: baked beans, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, brown bread, green leafy vegetables and dried fruit. After a few years my iron levels hadn’t increased, but my meat consumption had. One day I realised I was eating meat or animal products with every single meal, and that just didn’t sit right somehow.
And despite having always proclaimed myself as an environmentalist, it took me well into my adulthood to make the link with what I was putting in my mouth. A daily cyclist, a Green Party member, an ardent recycler and plastic bag refuser, a non-flyer, but still, a meat eater.
At a green fair in London I picked up a ‘Vegan beginner’ pamphlet. There it was, in black and white. Animal farming is responsible for 18% of global greenhouse emissions – more than the total generated by the entire transport sector. Raising animals for food consumes more than half of all the water in the world. Half of the world’s harvest is fed to animals. While precious agricultural land is used to grow animal feed, millions starve in the developing world. These were the very things I cared about. That was the moment. I would be vegan.
It took another couple of years for me to truly follow a vegan diet. At first I would eat ‘mostly’ vegan, but I wouldn’t worry about animal products as ingredients, and I wouldn’t insist if someone was cooking for me, and I wouldn’t bother if I was out for dinner – that was too difficult. I would eat meat if it was organic and local. It was a very convenient way of feeling good about myself but not actually making the commitment.
The final push came when I started using a composting toilet – a strange nudge to full veganism I’ll admit, but it’s far easier to process your own poo if it doesn’t contain animal products. So, five years ago, my true vegan journey started.
I haven’t looked back. I instantly felt better. No more meat sweats. No more feeling massively bloated because I’ve eaten too much cheese. No more guilt. Just fresh, wholesome, feel-good food. It’s not boring – there is a world of food out there that doesn’t involve animals. It doesn’t even have to be that healthy – I could just eat chips if I chose. And by asking for vegan when I’m out rather than ducking out because it’s ‘too difficult’ has raised the profile of my diet, to the point that now, many places offer a separate vegan menu, with choices and everything. It’s the new fashionable, and I don’t mind at all.
Being plant-based more than caters for my active lifestyle – I completed an Ironman triathlon in 13.5 hours, which is a fair old effort, and I’ve also cycled from Land’s End to John o’ Groats as a vegan. Finding enough to eat on the road has sometimes been a challenge, and similarly when abroad, but most cities have some kind of Italian or Mexican options which almost always provide something I can eat. I love the label – it’s now part of my personality, and I’m always excited to meet other vegans. It’s no longer the preserve of the hippy, neither does it mean you’ll turn into a rake (I’ve always been skinny, so no change there, but you can definitely be vegan and fat). I have never been happier. Though my initial motivation was environmentalism, there is so much that is barbaric about our meat and dairy industry that I’m very glad to be out of it. My diet is varied, healthy and delicious. My friends are always impressed with what I eat. And I never thought I’d say it, but I don’t even miss cheese.