I’ve written a lot about vegan food and health over the last year, but I haven’t really gotten to know who I’m talking to. Am I talking to people who are already vegan and just looking for recipe ideas? Or am I talking to people who want to be vegan and need inspiration? Or am I talking to people who have no interest in veganism, but just like eating vegetables?
I think if I tell you a little bit about myself and my journey into veganism, maybe you, my readers, could tell me a bit about yourselves and your experience with veganism. People learn from other people’s experiences so it would be good to get a conversation going and share ideas and stories with each other! Let me know in the comments. Plus, you’ll get to see old pictures of me! Agh!
My Vegan Journey
My first encounter with veganism was in 2011 when I moved into a house in Belfast with an American girl. She was from LA and was a vegan, apparently. She was not a great advocate for the lifestyle, however, as she did not explain her reasons for being vegan very well. Myself and the other Irish housemate hadn’t a clue what the point of it was! She mentioned something about animal agriculture being bad for the environment, but it went over our heads completely. We were both Irish and the only farms we ever knew were the rolling green fields with sheep and cows dotted over them – all over the country. To believe that that was bad for the environment was too far from my understanding to even take it in.
This girl didn’t last too long in Ireland being vegan anyway. She had some frozen meat substitutes in the freezer but I think once that was gone she just ate the dinners we were making saying it was “too hard” to be vegan (in Ireland). I remember thinking (even though I didn’t understand the lifestyle) she’s a bit of a shit person to give up on something she believes in so quickly and so easily. Funny how the next few years turned out!
Then, that same year, I found myself watching 4OD one night, searching for some sort of entertainment that would be educational at the same time. I had seen a few episodes of The Food Hospital and it really interested me. The idea that we could cure illnesses with food was new to me. Then I stumbled across a documentary about the raw food diet which showed people who ate only raw fruits and vegetables, and they were the picture of health!
Something about this stuck with me. I remember thinking to myself: “I will follow that diet when I get my own house and money”. I never forgot about it! But in the mean time I carried on trying to be as “healthy” as possible with my berries on my cereal and not eating sweets or crisps. And I must point out that being “healthy” was equal in importance to being “thin” in my mind. These healthy diets only interested me because it seemed like a great way to get skinny. I wasn’t overweight or anything but I wanted to be really lean.
Fast forward around a year later, I had just gotten my first smart phone (iPhone 4) and I was living in Spain for my Erasmus year.
It was great not to have any studying to do and in my free time I did a lot of browsing on Instagram. I was introduced to fitness bloggers and food bloggers and those random bloggers that can make themselves look so good in photos! My desire to lose weight and be skinny drew me to these accounts and I followed all kinds of fitness and diet gurus in an attempt to inspire me to take some sort of action. I even chanced a Paleo recipe once! I kid you not! I was attracted by the weight loss stories but it didn’t last because I couldn’t be dealing with no spuds or fruit! Hell no!
Then, I can’t remember who it was, but I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for doing this – they shared an image to Instagram with 6 documentary titles in a kind of a collage format. I had a lot of free time, so, as you do, I watched them all. They were: Forks Over Knives, Vegucated, Food Matters, Food Inc, Hungry for Change, and, Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead. One by one, by belief system was torn down, my faith in the world was destroyed and my understanding of our food industry was turned upside down. The health aspect of those films completely blew me away. Meat and dairy could cause heart disease and cancer? What?! Dairy is not meant for humans?! No way??
I could’t believe my eyes when I saw the vast factory farms from above in Food Inc. I genuinely never knew about this side of agriculture. I wonder why? It would probably be more convenient for the meat industry if I didn’t! Food Inc also showed some graphic clips of cows in a bad bad way. I looked away so fast I couldn’t tell you what the situation was but I do remember it being a dairy cow and her not being able stand on her hooves, instead she was down on her knees and being beaten by either dairy farm workers or slaughterhouse workers. I felt sick. I got lightheaded. I started to cry. I tried to tell myself that wasn’t a realistic depiction of farm life and that it definitely does not happen anywhere other than that farm. But it was too late. I had seen an animal suffer and that was never going to leave me. After watching all these documentaries I knew I wanted to be vegan but I had no idea how, and I was so afraid of what people might think. Coming from a town in rural Ireland, people are quite set in their ways and I was afraid of being seen as a weirdo. So pathetic when I think about it now! I was living in Spain at that stage though but still I was only concerned with how I would be perceived at home if I was a vegetarian or vegan.
Coincidentally, this new discovery of mine coincided with the horse meat scandal that hit the UK and Ireland in early 2013. There were a lot of horse meat jokes and comments about how disgusting it was doing the rounds on Facebook. I saw a comment underneath one of them from a girl I would know from my home town saying something along the lines of “Thank God I’m veggie anyway”. I got a funny feeling in my stomach when I read that! It was excitement I think. I couldn’t believe there might be an actual vegetarian around my age, in similar circles to my own, in my home town! It sounds so strange thinking back as times have changed so so much in the last few years, but this caught my attention straight away. I wrote to her to find out the hows and the whys and the whats. I was so glad to have someone to ask questions to and relate to and that’s what gave me the final push to do it. My plan was to go vegetarian, but, because lent was coming up, I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could be vegan and give up dairy and eggs. So I gave up dairy and eggs for lent and cut out meat altogether. But, because all that seemed like such a drastic change, I didn’t stop eating fish. I didn’t know what else I would eat in a restaurant so I needed to keep something “normal” in my diet.
My last meat meal was a “bocadillo de jamón” or a serrano ham baguette – the norm in Spain. This kind of meat happened to be my favourite meat and I was most worried about giving it up. I wasn’t worried about any other kind of meat though as I was never a big fan of beef or chicken. I did love Spanish and Italian hams though.
After that last bocadillo I never touched any animal meat again. Except fish! I struggled with giving up cheese over lent because we ate out a lot and there were never any cheese-free and meat-free tapas, or salads, or anything for that matter. Being able to eat fish was my only consolation. I took a liking to soya milk though – especially the sweetened version – and thus ate my weight in cereal both morning and night. I also learned that cheeseless pizzas are delicious! You know a good pizzeria by how tasty their pizzas are without cheese.
After lent was over, I hadn’t forgetten about what I had learned about eggs and dairy, so, I never really went back to eating them. Eggs weren’t a problem: I didn’t buy them and I didn’t order them when out – easy. Dairy was easy when at home, I never bought it or added it to my food. But when eating out I think I was less strict than what I was during lent. I didn’t question if dishes had dairy in them anymore, but I still made a conscious effort to ask for the salad without the cheese, and the pizza without the cheese.
Then, around Easter that year, my vegetarian aunty came to visit. I liked talking to her about it because I knew she would understand my new found interest in vegetarianism and “get” me. I hadn’t stopped eating fish at that stage but I knew there was a side of the fishing industry that I didn’t know about and I knew it would horrify me, if the pictures of Instagram were true! I just wanted to be kept in the dark for as long as possible – I loved fish! I couldn’t imagine going on my annual holidays to Portugal and not having the garlicky prawns! But, I have a dominant conscience, and when my aunty Barbara said that the fishing industry is horrific and that no one should be eating fish – I didn’t even ask why. I put my hands over my ears and said ” I don’t want to know! I’ll stop eating it but I don’t want to know!” And I never ate fish again.
So, by May 2013 I was completely vegetarian and I rarely ate cheese, milk, or eggs. I wasn’t healthy then though. In the mornings before getting the bus to work I would –very guiltily– have a napolitana or some other buttery eggy Spanish pastry with a café con leche. I would always get the coffee with soya milk though! But for some reason I never thought to ask what was in the pastries. I knew they weren’t vegan though and I felt incredibly guilty for eating them, but I was always starving, and craving a sweet fatty snack. We were eating out a lot at that time too – especially pizza places. And although I did get my pizzas without cheese, I still drizzled garlic oil and chilli oil all over my pizzas. All this eating out and eating salty processed foods and drinking a few times a week made me balloon out! I was by no means fat, but I know my body and that was the biggest I’ve ever been – ever! It was gradual at the time but I remember coming to the end of my time in Spain and I had put on a very significant amount of weight (5kg to be exact). I knew it wasn’t because of my vegetarianism, but more, in spite of it.
After moving home, avoiding dairy was harder than it was in Spain. I worked in a restaurant that made the best desserts and I would always get some leftovers at the end of my shift. All the desserts would have had butter, cream or eggs in the recipe. So, not vegan. Another thing that was very hard was rejecting other people’s food. I desperately wanted to be vegan but when other people cooked for me I found it very hard to refuse their food or even to ask them in advance to make it vegan. It was a big enough shock that I was vegetarian so I felt too awkward going that step further. That being said though, when cooking and buying food for myself I always made sure it was vegan. And I still watched my vegan YouTubers and videos from vegan activist’s like Gary Yourofsky which maintained my new compassion for animals and kept that desire inside me to eat like they did.
Fast forward to November for 2013, I saw a leaflet for “Vegan Month” and they were calling on people to sign up to this challenge to go vegan for November. I was back in Belfast at college and living with my one of my best friends Laura. I knew Laura would be supportive and not judge me for trying to go vegan for a month so I did it, and I did it well! At that time I definitely still depended on going vegan for weight loss – meaning, as well as believing in the ethical argument of veganism, I also believed that it would be the key to weight loss. I believed that if I could just go vegan – I would lose weight automatically. (This was kind of true but not exactly) I was trying the 5-2 diet around the same time that I tried the vegan for November challenge, and the two of these actions, plus eating out less and drinking less, caused me to lose that excess weight that I picked up in Spain.
But, as soon as November was over, I was offered a vegetarian lasagne – literally the 1st of December! Again, I wanted to be polite so I ate it. And although it tasted good – it didn’t feel good inside. I knew that veganism was for me at this stage and I dreaded Christmas because I knew I’d be offered a lot of non-vegan foods and I wasn’t ready to be bold enough to refuse yet. At Christmas I was presented with a delicious mushroom paté and stuffing and nut roast and beautiful vegetables. All fantastically made vegetarian food, but, I knew there was a lot of butter going on there! I let it pass but I did feel conscious about it and it didn’t sit well with me.
By early 2014, I was nearly fully plantbased, apart from the occasional indulgence into the desserts at work, and when in awkward situations in restaurants! Lent came around again and I thought this is my chance to use Jesus as an excuse to go vegan! If you go off something for Lent in Ireland no one questions it! But if I went vegan any other time of the year, I can guarantee someone would have told me to cop myself on! (Handy tip – use Lent to go vegan…!) So that Lent, I went off 2 different things: 1. eating desserts at work; and 2. eating chips at work. 40 days and 40 nights later I was fully vegan. I wasn’t using the word yet though! There was still a bit of a stigma around it and I didn’t want the abuse. Such a coward I was! I was weak minded but most people go through the same thought processes as I did – it’s completely natural. That was that anyway and over the next year I was learning so much about food and ingredients! I definitely made a few mistakes along the way – there’s honey in a lot of cereals! And pesto has cheese in it! But even if I did make some mistakes I never turned back. And I’m healthier and happier for it!
Going vegan was long, and it didn’t happen overnight. I made mistakes, and I gave in to social pressures. But, that didn’t mean I had to give up! You just need to keep going and power on because trying is better than doing nothing at all.
I stopped thinking about the weight loss aspect of it all soon after becoming vegan. It soon became apparent that I could eat what ever I wanted – within reason – and I never gained as much weight as what I did that time in Spain. It has stayed the same over the last two years but when I get into a good exercise routine I always tend to slim down – as you do! I stick to a mostly wholefoods diet – always plant based, as low in fat as possible and very low in salt. Lots of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils, greens and potatoes. I eat bread, sometimes every day of the week, sometimes not for 2 weeks! It varies but in general my daily diet is wholefoods. No oil, low in fat, lots of fruit and whole grains. I eat until I’m full – even if it means eating a half a bag of pasta in one go. I have lots of energy and I’m very rarely sick. Very very rarely. At the moment I’m taking a break from exercising because I need to get my body back into alignment as I have a lot of back and neck issues which I am trying to rectify through Pilates and yoga, but, when I’m fixed i’ll hopefully be back running and cycling and whatever else.
That’s my vegan story. Tell me about yours in the comments!