On September 1st 2012 I became a Vegan. I had previously been a vegetarian for ten months and having done a lot of research I came to the conclusion that I would be healthier by being a vegan. While alleviating suffering of animals was important to me, more important was the issue of what constitutes a healthy human diet. I hated vegetables and I knew I needed to do something about that. I also ate far too much chocolate, crisps, biscuits, cakes and fast-food. It was time to do something about that. However, today as I sit here writing this, I’m still a fat, unhealthy person (who happens to no longer eat animal products). So what happened? Well, the first lesson I have learned is that its perfectly possible to be an unhealthy fat vegan. What went wrong? Well after a few healthy months of being vegan, I discovered all the vegan crisps, dark chocolate, ginger biscuits, apple pies etc. So, while your access to cakes or milk chocolate is severally restricted, being a vegan doesn’t mean you can’t eat a diet full of sweets and other junk food….which in many cases is what I have done. In fact, living on chips, coca cola and white bread is perfectly vegan. However, I think I needed to eat this way in order to learn the important lesson from it – processed food is NOT food.
When I first went vegan, there were two things I thought I’d struggle with – addiction to cheese and addiction to milk chocolate. And for the first few weeks I did, but later I found dairy free chocolate, I found dark chocolate and I found the amazingly delicious Tofutti. Addiction to cheese or chocolate can be broken but it takes a few months for the cravings to completely go. It does also help to have alternatives and there are many out there (although vegan cheese is disgusting so I wouldn’t recommend it). There are plenty of replacements for milk and butter so that should never be a barrier to someone becoming a vegan. Something that fascinated me at first was the realisation that the majority of people in the world don’t drink milk. Humans are naturally lactose intolerant but a small minority of the human population has developed a tolerance to it due to a random genetic mutation. What’s also fascinating is that those countries where most milk is drunk, also have the highest levels of osteoporosis (brittle bones) which seems counter-intuitive when everyone tells you to drink more milk for strong bones. The scientific reason for this is that milk contains a protein called casein which acidifies the body and causes it to leech calcium from the bones to counteract the acidity. It’s much better to eat soy products or green leafy vegetables to get the calcium because there’s no acidifying effect then. Another common fallacy is that you need meat or animal products to get protein, but that turns out to be completely untrue. In fact, we eat far too much protein in the west and according to research by Dr Colin Campbell, too much protein is what helps cancer develop. The ideal amount of protein is around 10% and that amount is found primarily in…..plants. Yes, plants contain protein. Not as much as meat but that is a good thing. As long as you get the right number of calories and eat proper foods, there is no chance of a protein deficiency at all.
Over the past year I have learned a massive amount about nutrition and its been very interesting, yet also quite worrying. I learned that living in the UK, it was vital to take a daily dose of iodine (unless you regularly eat seaweed) and a vitamin D tablet (whether you eat meat or not) because of the weather and soil type here – most people wouldn’t know that. I learned that as a vegan or vegetarian it is very important to take a vitamin B12 supplement each day and to get omega 3’s its vital to have either 7 walnuts or 1 tbsp of ground flaxseed per day.
I learned that the human body is primarily designed to eat plants. Over 95% of our system is designed to eat a herbivore diet with the occasional bit of meat to top up on vitamin B12. Pretty much no part of our digestive system is designed to eat meat. We are instead very similar to our closest evolutionary cousins, the apes, which eat a diet 95% plants, 5% insects. Which raises another myth – that our ancestors diet primarily consisted of lots of meat as the Paleo Diet people like to claim. That’s utter rubbish as any anthropologist will show – they did eat some meat but it was a scarce resource which couldn’t be relied on, instead archaeological evidence shows that our ancestors ate grains as a major part of their diet. In fact for most of human history, and still in most parts of the world, meat is a luxury and people primarily eat a diet of carbohydrates e.g. potatoes, rice, bread, with fruit and vegetables.
I learned that being a vegan is the single most important thing you can do to help the environment and I would recommend that anyone who wants to reduce their impact on the environment considers becoming a vegan. Why? Because the CO2 emissions, environmental pollution and damage caused by the food production industry is much higher than that caused by the entire transportation industry….in other words, it doesn’t matter how many hybrid cars you drive or bus journeys you take, if you are eating meat, dairy or eggs then you are doing a lot more damage to the environment. In fact a vegan who drives a big car is doing less damage to the environment than a meat eater or vegetarian who walks everywhere.
There is another aspect to being vegan and that’s the desire to reduce the suffering of animals. No matter what people want to believe, or how many animal welfare laws are passed, or whether you eat free range, organic foods, the fact is that there is a massive amount of suffering inflicted on animals in the food industry. The methods used to kill the animals are not humane, many animals are killed without even being used because they aren’t useful for food and the whole industry is based on one idea – “animals are there for us to use as resources and are only useful/ valuable because of what they can do for us.” If people want to eat meat, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t kid themselves thinking that animals are looked after well or that they are treated humanely. If you eat meat, eggs or dairy, then you condone animal suffering! Do the research, watch the documentary Earthlings here and you’ll see what I mean.
Ok, that was a bit of a rant, so I’ll get back to the health side of things. I discovered that we should all be eating a very large salad of dark leafy greens every day and that when you do that, not only do you feel full, but it turns off the hunger pangs in your brain for hours afterwards. I learned that you cannot lose weight by going on a diet – you will simply put it all back on when you come off the diet. Instead you must change your entire lifestyle – forever. That is the only way to lose weight sustainably. Don’t cut down what you’re eating, instead replace unhealthy foods with healthy ones and you’ll naturally reduce calorie intake. I’ve discovered scientists, doctors and nutritional experts who have reversed diabetes and heart disease simply though changing people’s diets. I’ve discovered what Kale is and I found out that I like spinach. It is possible to sauté onions in water instead of oil and its pointless eating iceberg lettuce because it contains pretty much no nutrients at all. Also, fruit juices are not good for you if you want to lose weight – its much better to eat a proper fruit. I learned about a wonderful new idea – the green smoothie. Check it out sometime. The last point to make is that I’m not convinced by the vegan arguments against eating honey.
This past year has been a roller-coaster for me. I’ve learned so much about nutrition and health. I am more convinced than ever that I was right to become a vegan and that my health depends on it. I eat a lot more fruits and vegetables than I used to. I no longer miss cheese or chocolate. I also still eat far too much junk food. And that is my final lesson – being vegan is not enough for health. All the doctors and nutritionists that advocate vegan-ism say one thing – It must be an oil free, whole foods, plant based diet. That’s why from tomorrow (1st September 2013) I will be changing my diet once again to remove any product that contains oil as an ingredient and will no longer put oil in my foods. This will cut out all crisps, cakes, doughnuts, biscuits, some dark chocolates and vegan butter from my diet. I already primarily eat whole foods e.g. brown rice, but I’m also going to cut out bread for a while too and switch to potato or rice as many “wholemeal” breads are actually white bread that’s been coloured again. I will then follow a much healthier vegan diet – one that is oil free, whole foods and plant based. The four food groups around which my meals will be based are fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. What does that mean in practice? Well for breakfast how about porridge with blueberries, banana, apple and cinnamon? For lunch how about soup with salad and a jacket potato? For dinner how about bean and vegetable chilli with brown rice? There are lots of options, but all healthy ones. I’m hoping this change will make me a much thinner, healthier and more energetic person. Being vegan is good for the environment, good for animals and good for your health – but it needs to be a certain type of vegan diet – one that follows an oil free, whole foods, plant based diet. If you want to find out more about the nutritional and health side of things, I would recommend going to Youtube and watching video lectures by Dr Colin Campbell, Dr Esselstyn, Dr Fuhrman, Dr Mcdougall and Dr Barnard. They have heavily influenced me and they have some vitally important and fascinating things to say about what constitutes a truly healthy diet and the wonders it can perform for you.
Thanks for bearing with me through this long post. I hope its been interesting and that you’ll consider the lessons I’ve learned this year for your own life.