As we come to the end of January, Catherine Ball, a trainee at Grand Union Housing Group shares her reflections on life as a vegan in 31 bite-sized tips.
1. There is no such thing as the “perfect vegan”. Veganism is a lifestyle which aims to eliminate the exploitation and cruelty to animals as far as is possible and practical. Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learnt is that doing your absolute best, given your circumstances, is enough.
2. Veganism is not a “diet”. It is a lifestyle motivated by values of animal welfare and goes well beyond avoiding meat and dairy. This can be easy to forget in Veganuary, as January is the month that people pledge to lose weight and eat healthier. According to the Vegan Society, the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle are simply an added bonus.
3. Prioritise my health and mental health. Both have thanked me for going vegan, but it did take time and experience to get to this point. When it came to meals out I either felt left out or like a massive hindrance (!), and I was generally unsure if I was getting the right nutrients. Now, it has helped me to experiment with new ingredients and reward myself with delicious food.
4. Veganism may not be accessible to everyone. Not everyone can afford the luxury of choosing the food they do and don’t eat and not everyone feels it is socially acceptable to do so. Some people are not in a good place with food and such a major lifestyle change could risk their relationship with food getting worse.
5. Eating vegan doesn’t have to be more expensive. Many stereotypes exist; one of them being that veganism is a thing for the middle class. A lot of vegan speciality food is aimed at those with more money. However, t its simplest and healthiest, a vegan diet is whole‐foods and plant‐based, which is often far more affordable than a Western diet focused on meat and dairy. If not, buying cheap meat and dairy means seriously compromising on quality.
6. Giving up cheese is fine. I used to exclusively survive on cheese, but cheese was a habit and I soon stopped craving. Plus, when I realised what cheese had been doing to my skin and overall health, it became much easier to eliminate!
7. Nutritional yeast. Where to buy it, how to apply it… It is a great cheese substitute, or simply a great addition to anyone’s life, even if they do eat cheese. Nutritious, nutty and cheesy. Great in soups, on pasta and in sauces.
8. Being vegan is not automatically the healthiest option, but I believe it really can be. Turning vegan was the push I needed to look at what I was eating and learn about nutrition properly for the first time. Vegan junk food is both irresistible and incredibly unhealthy, it is all about balance!
9. Being vegan is not automatically the most sustainable option. However, the evidence shows that reducing meat and fish consumption as far as is possible is the only way we will sustain our growing population. This is not to say that becoming vegan automatically means a tick in the sustainability box. There is so much more to be done and it is important to ensure that the vegan food is sustainable as well.
10. Cruelty‐free beauty is the way forward and so many people are turning to cruelty-free brands, be they vegan or not! Exploiting animals for beauty is completely unjustified and thankfully more and more people are starting to realise. I have always had a love‐hate relationship with my skin (strongly leaning towards the latter) but I am confident to say cruelty‐free skincare is far superior. My favourites include Aveda, Green People, The Ordinary, Glossier, Mario Badescu and bareMinerals.
11. I hold myself to higher standards. Through adopting a vegan lifestyle, I have taken a closer look at my wider consumption and purchasing, becoming better connected with health, the environment and worker conditions. Our buying power is a vote, and we are voting with everything we buy or do not buy.
12. Meat and dairy are inefficient ways of eating. Species (plants, animals and humans) are organised in food chains. Between each level in the chain, known as “trophic levels”, energy is lost. This means that more energy is needed to sustain higher levels of the food chain, or higher “trophic levels”. For a fixed amount of food, it is most energy efficient for humans to eat from the lowest levels, with plants occupying the lowest level. This is because, for that same amount of food, less energy is needed to produce it which makes it a more efficient source of nutrients and calories for humans. Meat and dairy are therefore inefficient ways of feeding the human population.
13. Animal agriculture is the largest user of agricultural land and the biggest cause of land-use change. 80% of agricultural land worldwide is used for livestock production; either as grazing land or producing feed for livestock. This is a far less efficient use of land than if it was used to produce plants for a plant-based diet. Whilst some argue that intensive animal agriculture is necessary to feed the growing population, it is the opposite as it only provides 18% of calorie intake. A recent study finds that completely eliminating the consumption of meat and dairy products could reduce global farmland by three quarters.
14. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters. If the industry continues as it is doing, by 2050 animal agriculture’s emissions could make up 80% of the greenhouse gas budget. It already emits more than the transport industry, with emissions coming from feed production and land use change, animal digestion, manure and the processing and transportation of animal products. Reducing meat and dairy consumption will also make more impact than other industries in reducing the total impact on Earth considering emissions, water pollution, land use and habitat loss.
15. I’ve influenced more people than I thought I would and intended to. I am incredibly pleased about opening up the minds of my non‐vegan friends and introducing them to a vegan lifestyle. I am incredibly grateful that those closest to me are so open minded and understanding, and I love being sent vegan product recommendations from them!
16. Stop worrying about what other people think. I became vegan two years ago when taking part in Veganuary, except I was not open about it at the start. Initially telling people I was “just cutting out [insert meat or dairy product]” because I was afraid of the judgement and scrutiny. Adopting a whole new lifestyle is a major change, and it is something positive to shout about whether or not you call yourself “vegan”.
17. Be thankful for those who respect my decisions and respect theirs too. I am so appreciative when someone goes out of their way to accommodate me because I by no means expect it. Just as I expect people to respect my choices, I respect theirs too.
18. Veganism is one of the fastest growing social movements in the UK which means that it is constantly getting easier! Visiting other countries reminds me that I am lucky to be a vegan in the UK.
19. There is a wonderful community of vegans out there, both in person and online. This community is where I learn about new vegan food and products, and I turn to it if I need a little support.
20. Coming across new vegan items never stops being exciting. Two years on and I enjoy stumbling across vegan food and products more than ever. Whilst being a result of increased demand, they in turn create more awareness of veganism.
21. Accidentally vegan food is wonderful and often the cheaper option! My favourite treats include bourbons, fizzy fangs, and Sainsbury’s Basics garlic bread.
22. Animal agriculture is contributing to antibiotic resistance, alongside the pharmaceutical industry. Antibiotic use increases as a result of the intensity of farming. Farming uses antibiotics for disease treatment, prevention and to promote animal growth. Animals living at high densities, in poorer conditions are at greater risk of infection and are given antibiotics to maintain productivity. This contributes significantly to the global concern of growing antibiotic resistance in humans.
23. Food is medicine, and this is something I’d never have thought of before turning vegan. I now know which nutrients the human body needs and how to get them from the food I eat. Food is not just energy, the right food feeds our brain, protects our mental health and so much more. Recent studies even show the potential a plant‐based diet has to ameliorate and even reverse many illnesses.
24. Reading labels will become second nature. Finding that food shopping doubled in time and that milk powder was (nearly) in everything, reading labels frustrated me at the beginning. However, I learnt a quick scan could identify the most common culprits, what E numbers actually were (E931 = Lanolin, a yellow wax secreted from a sheep’s skin), and to guess a food’s suitability without reading the label. I now feel empowered when reading labels. Consumers have both a right and responsibility to know exactly what they are eating.
25. Take better notice of what goes into my food. As consumers, we know very little about what food is made of. Sometimes food is not made of what we expected. Take bourbons which are not actually made with cream. Sometimes food is made with something nasty, like lanolin. Lanolin is an additive used in chewing gum or as a glazing agent and I wish I had known what it was sooner. I always read labels, or better yet cook from scratch.
26. Being stuck on a desert island is not my biggest challenge, despite everyone’s apparent concern. Being a vegan means reducing cruelty as far as is possible, so no issues would arise from this (unlikely) predicament. More common challenges include avoiding milk powder, accidentally consuming something I have been wrongly assured is vegan and explaining that plants do not have “feelings”.
27. My horizons will broaden. A few years ago, my interest in food didn’t go beyond the fact that it was tasty and necessary calories. When turning vegan, I found that I had to cook for myself more and wanted to cook for myself more. Having to think outside the box at mealtimes can be a challenge; but cooking delicious and exciting meals is a reward. In the past two years as a vegan, I have branched out and tried more new food than ever. Veganism is the opposite of restrictive if it is embraced.
28. Being a vegan has taken me to the best of places: dog cafés, takeaways, pubs, bakeries, food stalls and independent restaurants. Walking into the closest chain to grab a vegan meal is not always possible. Sometimes finding a meal means scrolling through reviews on Trip Advisor and Happy Cow (see below) or searching a place on foot for an hour. It is always worth it, not only because of the unique experience, but because I am more likely to be supporting local, ethical establishments.
29. There’s an app for that… I use Bunny Free to search for companies by name or scan the barcode of products to see if they are cruelty free. Happy Cow is my go‐to when I need to quickly scan the local area for vegan‐friendly eateries or locate health food shops when on holiday to pick up essentials. Again, when on holiday I scour Trip Advisor for restaurants that have catered for vegans off‐the‐menu. A really useful thing I have learnt to do is check vegan “tags” and “places” on Instagram as pictures of vegan food are very popular.
30. Becoming vegan is not the be all and end all, and it is better to inspire people to make better choices than guilt them into a decision they cannot sustain. I recently encouraged someone close to me to try Veganuary to see if they could get anything from it, with no specific end goal in mind. They have learnt how to make lovely new meals, had great fun doing it and say it will forever change their eating habits. It does not matter if there is not an end goal, what matters is that they are improving their food choices and are thoroughly enjoying doing so.
31. Becoming vegan is one of the best things I have done for myself. I am happier in myself for the change, food excites me more than ever before and I love sharing my experience.
By Catherine Ball, Graduate Trainee at Grand Union Housing Group