Is it the latest MIDDLE-CLASS OBSESSION or the path to A-lister-like perfection? ANGELA SCANLON finds out what a month living on a PLANT-BASED DIET can do to your health and your social life …
I like animals. They’re cute and fluffy and unconditionally loving, but I should confess from the outset that my interest in veganism was borne purely out of vanity. I wanted to explore the associated health benefits – the glowing skin and shiny hair, the “leanness” that YouTube sensation Banana Girl raves about.
I wanted to feel light and virtuous and really explore whether a diet without any animal-based products (and I don’t just mean meat – fish, eggs and dairy products are all off the table) could be what I’m looking for. A plan that fuels my body, nourishes me, makes me stronger and tougher and able for the madness that is my life right now.
According to Forbes I’m not alone. Health and wellbeing rather than animal welfare, rightly or wrongly, seem to be the motivation for this new wave of middle-class interest in a plant-based diet. It’s also said to be the very reason why experimental vegans have more staying power. The perception of vegans has changed from the kill-joy “hippie” type who’s a bit grey in the face and hungry looking, and forever preaching about the evils of a juicy steak. In my mind, this imaginary carrot-muncher was a superior sort of being and not much fun to be around. Perhaps I’m getting older, or less judgemental, but veganism no longer seems such a radical choice. And far from dismissing the surly preacher in the corner, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by those who manage to maintain this unwieldy lifestyle.
I wanted to learn and feel evangelical. I wanted to look just like Natalie Portman – glowing and ethereal.
I’ve dabbled in vegetarianism in the past but I figured the only way to really understand veganism was to get stuck in, so I embarked on a 30-day “Vegan Challenge”. I was exhilarated and terrified. The idea of not being able to opt out (I committed to writing about it for THE GLOSS and I take work seriously) made it appealing because let’s face
it, in real life there is never a “right day” to start something like this. It’s always tomorrow or next week or next year or never … Now I had a reason to begin, and something to blame (work) the inevitable awkwardness on as I tried to navigate this new Vegan world. It felt safe. Achievable.
Day one I was high as a kite on purity. I stocked up in Holland & Barrett with tempah and tofu, quinoa, Dee’s burgers (gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free, soy-free, wheat- free and GMO-free!), vegan cheese … the works. I did draw the line at Tofurkey though. I didn’t want to simply endure these 30 days, to eat unpalatable pulses and wind up fat, bloated and rundown. I wanted to learn and feel evangelical. I wanted to look just like Natalie Portman – glowing and ethereal.
During my first week a friend kindly cooked us both a chilli bean veggie dish that was delicious. It was filling and hearty and I ate two bowls along with bread, two ice pops and a banana before going to bed. But four hours later I was restless and still awake. I finally got up and brought rice crackers back to bed with me, eating them in the dark. I started dreaming about breakfast: chia seeds soaked in almond milk. This was the pits.
Searching for a vegan meal in an airport lounge is hellish. There was a choice between goat’s cheese salad with no goat’s cheese or eggs florentine without the eggs and sauce. This was tough.
I knew this challenge wasn’t going to be easy, but travelling takes it to a whole other level of awkward. Searching for a vegan meal in an airport lounge is hellish. There was a choice between goat’s cheese salad with no goat’s cheese or eggs florentine without the eggs and sauce. This was tough. It would require organisation and a steely willpower. I opt for an overpriced salad and a bag of gelatine-free jellies. I hoover up the two frantically but purposefully – every bite matters. But I quickly start to notice something … taste and flavour. Foods I usually drown with dressing or smother with sauce are flavoursome in their own right.
To attack this challenge properly I needed to find out what full-time vegans actually ate so the following day I arranged to have lunch with Ben, a representative from PETA; the 30- Day Challenge is their initiative so I figured he could arm me with all I needed to make it through. We went to a great little veggie place in London’s Soho called Mildred’s where I skulled some fruit and veggie juice and ate nachos – vegan nachos – which I will forever try to replicate. They were delicious and not one bit of me felt deprived or cheated.
Apart from recipes, we discussed the health benefits of veganism. Vegans tend to be, on average, 18 per cent leaner than their meat-eating counterparts, which is proving to be a major incentive for women. Vegans are also less prone to get cancer, heart disease, strokes and diabetes. Add to this the environmental benefits (according to the UN the meat industry is one of the top two or three contributors to the world’s most serious environmental problems) and it’s easy to understand why there has been an upsurge in interest.
My skin looked the best it had been in years, my eyes were clear and bright, I felt lighter and even a little leaner and, despite a manic schedule, I felt full of energy.
Two weeks into my own challenge I could already feel and see the benefits. My skin looked the best it had been in years, my eyes were clear and bright, I felt lighter and even a little leaner and, despite a manic schedule, I felt full of energy. I was sold on this new diet but frustratingly found myself smack bang in the middle of London Fashion Week. The late nights and early starts usually mean there’s no choice but to fall off whatever wagon you’re on. I was anxious, but determined. It should be noted here that canapés are never, ever vegan. Even if you ask very nicely and the lovely waitress with the bohemian plaits and pretty feather neck tattoo says she will bring you some, she’s lying. She will never come back. She will avoid you and tell her colleagues to do the same.
The social inconvenience became the toughest part of this task. I realised to my horror that I’m a people pleaser. I’m the girl who says “why not?” rather than asks “Is it vegan?”. My evil drinking partner friend often attempted to twist my rubber arm into another bottle, but once I told her that her wine had been filtered through fish intestines (they are often used as a fining agent) it was kind of a mood killer. This generally applies to old-world wines so don’t get too panicked. Check the label and try some of the delicious organic/vegan wines on offer.
Eating out can be awkward and restrictive. I discovered that it’s best to order last so that your companions can go about their business while you put in your, sometimes complex, request. If the restaurant isn’t veggie-orientated then get creative by selecting bits from existing dishes to make your ideal meal. Be nice. Veganism is still a niche area and people don’t have to accommodate you but I’ve found if you’re polite and flexible most will try to help …
It should be noted here that canapés are never, ever vegan. Even if you ask very nicely and the lovely waitress with the bohemian plaits and pretty feather neck tattoo says she will bring you some, she’s lying. She will never come back.
You can help yourself too by not having bars of chocolate or blocks of cheese hanging about the house. On a long cold night after a gin and tonic I caved and devoured most of a giant chocolate bar I found nestled at the back of the cupboard. I felt immediately defeated. I was pretending it was okay – dark chocolate is almost always vegan as it’s made with cocoa butter, which is not dairy. But this wasn’t dark and I knew it. It was however the best goddamn chocolate I’ve ever tasted, so more-ish that I had to bury the remainder in the bin to stop myself from finishing it. I felt like Geri Halliwell in her downward-facing-dog days.
Although I’m not a junk-food fiend I had taken solace in the fact that a lot of random convenience foods are by accident vegan. A good friend, who spent three years as a vegan following the same 30-Day Challenge, texted me a nugget of wisdom. “In your darkest hour, take comfort in the fact that Oreos are vegan.” As it happens so are Jammie Dodgers, pink wafers, Turkish Delight, Hob Nobs, falafel, Tesco Apple Strudel, Jus-Rol Pastry, Pot Noodle Chow Mein flavour and Ritz Crackers, although I doubt Natalie would sign off on any of these.
Angela Scanlon is still a part-time vegan, and a full-time pescaterian and hasn’t eaten a sausage since her challenge. She encourages those around her to have a meat-free Monday or a vegan meal once a day. Angela still has not eaten Tofurkey. For inspiration read New York Times bestseller Eat Vegan Before 6.00 by Mark Bittman (Little Brown, about €15).
Learn to live dried fruit and carry it for emergencies.
Get creative when ordering out by fusing elements from different dishes and mixing it up.
Shop online instead of in health food stores, which can be overwhelming and confusing!
Watch out for eggs in baked products, milk in soups, butter on veggies, chips cooked in animal fat, as well as honey, marshmallows and gelatine, all of which are non-vegan.
Scrambled tofu is much nicer than it sounds.
Image by Trunk Archive
Angela Scanlon @AngelaScanlon
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our September issue, out Saturday September 3.
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