Last weekend R’s mum gave me an article written by journalist Anna Magee, who decided to challenge herself by going vegan for 60 days. Fighting past her perception of vegans as ‘anaemic-looking, sandal-wearing hippies’ she switched from her largely meat-based Paleo diet to a vegan alternative, with some interesting, and largely positive results.
At first, however, she encountered the enviable social backlash of announcing her switch to veganism – the snide remarks, the teasing from her partner and the passive-aggressive swipes about diet from her friends.
This is certainly something that a lot of vegans encounter and something that (unfortunately) you find you just have to get used to. That ‘people get defensive of their meat eating’, as Jasmijn de Boo, CEO of the Vegan Society remarks, is rather an understatement. As soon as people discover that you are a vegan, they will often tell you that ‘eating meat is natural’ (with a complete disregard for all of the other ‘unnatural’ things that we all do), or worry (totally unnecessarily) on your behalf about your protein and iron levels – macro-nutritional concerns that I’m sure they don’t harbour for their friends with more unhealthy, but more meat-based diets. They tend to be the ones who linger on the ‘food issue’, while we would be happy to move on to more interesting and less contentious points of conversation, because what perhaps a lot of people don’t realise, is that by not eating animal products I’m not judging, trying to save, preach to, or convert anyone, I’m just not eating animal products. It’s as simple as that.
Magee also struggled with eating out in restaurants at first – accepting pea soup while her pals chomped through sausage and mash – a struggle that other new vegans often find.
There are a few trade secret in this regard:
- Choose your country wisely
When deciding on the type of cuisine you fancy go Italian, Turkish, Indian, Thai or Vietnamese. Italians tend use simple recipes made from the absolute best ingredients and they make everything from scratch, so they won’t bat an eye if you ask for a salad minus the cheese with some additional artichokes or avo, a cheese-free pizza, or an egg-free tomato-based pasta. Turkish or Greek mezze offer heaps of hummus, falafel, vine leaves, aubergine dishes and vegan-friendly salads, while non-creamy veggie curries are menu staples in Indian restaurants (just check that they don’t use ghee to cook up the veggies and avoid naan which contain yoghurt). Thai and Vietnamese dishes are diary-free as a rule and as long as you check for egg and fish sauce there are plenty of veggie options to be had.
- Eat off the menu
If a restaurant is half decent the chef will be making everything from scratch anyway so look at what’s on the menu, pick out the ingredients you like and create your own dish. You would be amazed at how accommodating most restaurants are when you just ask.
- The allergy card
If you’re unsure whether something is safe to eat, ask for the allergy card. Most places have these now and since eggs and dairy are allergens it’s easy to see if something is vegan (assuming you don’t need a card to tell you something contains meat or fish!).
So what physical changes did Magee see as a result of her vegan switch?
Prior to the change in her diet, Magee had been reporting slow recovery from injury and muscle fatigue, but she found that after six weeks she claimed to feel ‘fantastic’ with less fatigue and muscle pain post-exercise. Dr Chidi Ngwaba, from the advisory board of the European Society of Lifestyle Medicine, noted that this could have been down to the reduction of meat protein in her diet, which ‘can lead to a build-up of waste products such as uric acid and lactic acid in the muscles’, leading to muscular soreness and slower recovery rates.
Despite devouring heaps of vegetable fats from avos, coconut oil and nut butters she actually lost 6kg over an eight week period, felt ‘lighter’ and her visceral fat dropped over a point. This is because research suggests that unsaturated fats, found in plant-based foods, don’t appear to accumulate in visceral fat. Moreover, dieticians report that ‘eating more plants and fibre and reducing our consumption of meat, not only leads to weight loss but also reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes hypothyroidism, high blood pressure and certain cancers, especially breast, prostate and bowel’. You also find that when you first go vegan and are still sussing out what you can and can’t eat you just tend to eat less in general. But don’t assume that going vegan is an easy way to lose weight – calories are calories and the laws of eat and burn still apply, so that vegan cake isn’t going to help you lose that pot belly!
Magee also reported regaining her sex drive and losing her PMS symptoms after going vegan. This could be down to the removal of the external oestrogens that come from dairy products and which can have a negative impact on PMS. While taking away diary can help with PSM and with hormone related skin complaints, such as acne, an increase in foods containing chlorophyll, such as kale and spinach, found in abundance in a vegan diet, can help cleanse the liver of excess oestrogen, again helping to combat hormonal symptoms such as PMS.
Her folate and zinc levels were recorded as increasing during the 60 day period, contributing to brighter looking skin and increased energy levels.
However Magee did see a slight drop in her vitamin b6 and 12 and iron levels. This is not unusual in vegans and something to keep a close eye on. You can’t get b12 or 6 from vegan raw foods, so you may need to supplement or eat fortified foods – most soya milk is fortified for example.
Overall, the results experienced by Magee were positive enough to turn her into a vegan, even after her 60 day challenge had finished. She is certainly not alone in making this switch; in the last 9 years the number of vegans in the UK has doubled from 150,000 to around 300,000. You don’t have to be a vegan to go vegan, however. There is a really positive movement at the moment, of people who don’t feel that they need to define their dietary preferences but who choose to eat selectively, ethically, sustainably and healthily. Being vegan suits me and it may suit others, but what is more important is that we all eat in a mindful way, which sustains and nourishes our bodies and which doesn’t impact negatively on the world around us. This means thinking about where our food comes from and whether it is sustainable, as well as thinking about the effect that our dietary preferences have on our bodies and, in turn, what impact our bodies have on the health care system.
All in all this was a really positive and interesting article to read and it’s great to see a mind-shift from a reporter who seemingly came to the challenge with very pre-conceived ideas about vegans and the veganism.