Vegan Week: The Experience

Photography: Sweet On Veg [Flickr]
Photography: Sweet On Veg [Flickr]
Vegans, who follow a lifestyle completely free from animal derived products, account for only one per cent of the UK population. I’d never even been a vegetarian when I joined that one per cent for a week, but I like falafel and green tea so I was quietly confident that – as long as I could avoid the tantalising smell of bacon sizzling in a frying pan – a week of veganism would be a piece of dairy-free cake.

I said goodbye to my omnivorous ways with a last supper of meaty pizza, smothered in cheese. This was my first mistake. I awoke the next morning to one leftover slice, still in its takeaway box, and sobbed into my cereal with soya milk while my partner enjoyed cold pizza for breakfast.

My second mistake was attempting to replicate my normal diet by stocking up on dairy-free replacements. I’ve long been suspicious of fake meat, and quickly learnt that fake cheese and fake chocolate are just as dubious. By day two of my vegan week, I’d learnt to wholeheartedly embrace the vegetables, and stocked up on normal, milk-free dark chocolate.

I also learnt that reaching out to other vegans for support is almost essential – the more experienced vegans I’d made contact with were a great support network throughout the week.

Twenty-seven-year-old Christina Wilmowski is a mentor for The Vegan Society and has been a vegan for an impressive seven years. Having already been a vegetarian for six years, Christina’s decision to go vegan was an ethical one: “I started looking into the dairy and egg industry more, and realised the reasons that had made me become a vegetarian were so applicable to the reasons why I felt I had to go vegan.”

According to The Vegan Society, “many [animals] suffer serious health problems and even death because they are selectively bred to grow, or produce milk or eggs, at a far greater rate than their bodies are capable of.” As well as providing a more ethical and environmentally friendly source of food than the livestock industry we’re so dependent on, The Vegan Society says veganism is a healthy diet that’s low in cholesterol and saturated fat.

The difficulty, I found, was keeping it balanced. As vegetarian nutrition graduate Michelle Fraser told me, it’s very hard to get enough iron, zinc and vitamin B12 on a vegan diet without relying on supplements. I didn’t take supplements, and did feel a bit anaemic at times, but keeping a plentiful supply of fruit, dark chocolate and nuts in my bag helped a bit.

On the plus side, veganism definitely forced me to be more creative in the kitchen, rustling up feasts full of lentils, beans, chickpeas and spinach. Asian cuisine seemed to be the easiest approach, and most evenings I found myself cooking creamy coconut milk curries or stir-fries.

For new vegan, 23-year-old Ben Martin, the hardest part is the limited choice of lunches at work. This certainly chimes with my experience – I had to plan ahead and prepare myself packed lunches of falafel and salad, rather than just nip to the nearest café. I will never again take for granted how animal-dependent our packaged-sandwich industry is.

Having never before had to think about what I’m eating, constantly reading labels made me feel like a calorie-obsessed dieter, but you really do have to check everything.

Perhaps the biggest shock was being told that a lot of wine and beer was out of bounds. Sceptical, I took a bottle of rosé out of the fridge and read the label: “Contains milk and eggs.” The mind boggles, frankly, but VeggieWines.co.uk was a godsend for working out what I could drink on a night out with friends.

For former vegan Scarlet Harris, the anti-social factor was the most difficult thing about the diet. 36-year-old Scarlet, who is a lifelong vegetarian, said she hated being the difficult one when she went out for dinner with friends.

My final challenge of the week was negotiating a meal in a restaurant. I checked menus online in advance, booked somewhere I knew I’d be able to get more than just salad, but still got a serious case of food-envy when my partner’s chocolate brownie arrived and I was eating fruit sorbet.

Naturally I celebrated the end of the week with a big, greasy fry-up, but I have learnt a lot. Veganism is cheaper and healthier than my normal diet, I’ve added some great new recipes to my repertoire and, having seen that it’s possible, I’ve resolved to eat less meat.

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