My Week as a Vegan
by Sven De Hondt
Whilst bandying ideas around at the Inspired Times headquarters, the suggestion of becoming vegan for a week was thrown into the air. Can a dedicated meat-aficionado, like myself, become a devoted vegan within a week and if so, how would I do it? It sounded like a great opportunity to lift a rock and discover what surprises lurked underneath.
Upon hearing the word ‘veganism’, the first image that popped into my head was that of a middle-aged hippy, dressed in baggy harem pants, surrounded by a quaint scent of honeysuckle incense. I grew up thinking that eating animals was a given, rather than a choice. ‘That’s the way the world works’ was my mantra and I steered away from any emotional connection, simply because I see the world as divided, with the human race at the top of the food chain. Of course there are a lot more shades of grey to my admittedly condescending attitude towards vegetarianism and affiliated life-styles (‘raw-foodism, whole-food-lifestyles and plant-based diets, just to name a few), but whenever my vegetarian friends hosted their quornival parties (a party of notorious 'quorn & tofu' debauchery) they always collided against a wall of indifference from my part. Until today.
Here we go...
So… bye bye bacon, au revoir sirloin. Hello tofu and bonjour quinoa. Similar to those trying to stop drinking or smoking I decided to go cold turkey (or cold tofu, to stay in the right lingo) and abruptly break up with my meaty endeavours. Tim Barford, the creator and driving force behind VegFestUK – one of Europe’s leading Vegan events – gave me a helping hand but warned me it might be a bit tricky at the outset: “It’s a lot of work in the beginning, but once you’re set up with the right ingredients you’re good. In this day and age, hundreds of outlets cater for the vegan lifestyle.”
It’s ‘day one’ of my vegan lifestyle and I shuffle around the organic wholefood shop with the hesitant feel of a teenager trying to buy an uncensored magazine at the top of the rack. I’m honestly ashamed by my ignorance. I would have thought quinoa was an African country rather than a grain-like crop and if people would have said that tofu was made out of mouldy mushrooms I might have nodded in consent. The result of my raid on the organic food shop: a package of puy lentils, two kinds of tofu (the silken and the regular one!), black beans, almond milk, a couple of quorn burgers and an array of vegetables that challenged my nutritional knowledge.
The birth of veganism
While Pythagoras and Plato already pointed to a flourishing future without flesh eating, it was Brit, Donald Watson, who coined the word vegan and founded the Vegan Society. “We can see quite plainly that our present civilization is built on the exploitation of animals, just as past civilizations were built on the exploitation of slaves, and we believe the spiritual destiny of man is such that in time he will view with abhorrence the idea that men once fed on the products of animals' bodies." His observations were right on the bat, and while they were said in the early ’40s, they’ve never been as truthful as they are today.
The Vegan Society is still running and is regarded as the oldest vegan organisation in the world. They clearly put health concerns high up the agenda and now they’re definitely reaping what they have sowed. “The increase of a vegan lifestyle is primarily the result of health concerns, especially in the UK,” states Tim. The media has definitely stirred up the awareness on health issues (the horse meat scandal still resonates), while in Australia veganism is getting a wider appeal due to more environmentally oriented concerns. “The advantages of avoiding meat is no longer considered just an old wives' tale,” exclaims Tim. “Science shows that people benefit from a vegan-oriented lifestyle, and the proof is in the pudding: vegans feel better, they look healthier, their skin shines and they’re generally not battling with their weight.”
The vegan pledge
Kirsten Porter, who lives just outside of Edinburgh, and works as a nurse team manager, had been a vegetarian for 22 years. She decided to make a vegan pledge 3 years ago. Her initial intention was to try it out for a couple of weeks, but after reading up on it, she couldn’t go back to eating animal products. “When I was first a vegetarian 25 years ago I found that the selection was very poor but there has been a massive change towards providing more vegetarian friendly products,” says Kirsten, assuring me that becoming a vegan wouldn’t create as many issues as one would anticipate.
However, one concern still remained – I didn’t want to be the odd one out. Questions arise: will my vegan pledge make me the laughing stock of my inner social circle? Can my partner live with a vegan 'other half'? I asked Kirsten how it had been for her. “When I met my husband he really struggled with my veganism and he found it difficult to understand,” recalls Kirsten. “He comes from Kenya and veganism is almost unheard of there. By now he understands my veganism better and supports me to the fullest.” It’s clear from my chat with Kirsten that good support goes a long way.
One of the age-old questions vegans have to cope with is whether they can find enough nutrients. Calcium, zinc and iron are available in large amounts in a lot of vegetables but in contradiction to meat or dairy products, it’s available in a way the body can digest and metabolize. “We’ve been told that milk is rich in calcium,” explains Tim. “It might be true, but it’s not all absorbed by the body. Therefore the body only absorbs very little calcium. With cabbages and broccoli, you're getting large doses of metabolised calcium and zinc.” Another generally accepted myth completely shattered.
Celebration of life
So far my research and eye-opening shopping experiences have led me to life-altering insights. I’m not sure about making an absolute vow to veganism, but I’m willing to alter my rather meat-centred diet. Becoming a so-called ‘Flexatarian’ (a plant-based diet with the occasional inclusion of meat products) is already a big step in the right direction. Tim backs me up. “On a health level a semi-vegetarian diet is already a gigantic leap forward. It’s also a huge step for the welfare of animals, although for people who follow a vegan lifestyle out of moral issues it’s all or nothing.” For now I am at peace with a semi-vegetarian diet. Tim's personal perspective is more definitive: “Veganism is a celebration of life in every aspect.” He underlines his point by saying he considers eating meat as a celebration of death. Such a firm opinion may be a bit blunt and it might not be the cheeriest way to go out, but it certainly jolts my moral conscience. In fact this week as a vegan has clearly served its purpose. My eyes have been opened, my ignorance is stirred and my belly feels satisfied far beyond my expectations.