Veganuary is over. How did you get on? Here’s how the four-week vegan challenge went for our writer Parisa Hashempour. Plus she clues us in on the vegan cookbooks that saved her this month.
The time has finally come, the end of my month of veganism is here. And what a month it’s been- from my very first vegan dinner of potato and beans to experimenting in the kitchen, experimenting with my beauty products and heading to some of the yummiest vegan eateries in London town. 50,000 people took part in the Veganuary challenge. According to the Veganuary charity, this means that over 5 million animal-free meals were eaten this month plus Italian chain restaurant Zizzi’s have reported a 150 percent increase in the sale of vegan food this month. So, how did the month go? How am I feeling now? And most importantly, will I be keeping it up?
The biggest challenges of being vegan
As a massive meat lover, I knew that this challenge wasn’t going to be an easy ride. And there were times when I honestly questioned my resolve. Here are a few of the biggest challenges I faced in my month of veganism.
Being wary of dairy
It lurks in the strangest places; it hides in crisp packets, salad dressings, breakfast bars and even guacamole. You even have to be careful with most vegetarian options that you find in the shops as although they’re meat-free they often contain egg or dairy. Plus even foods like Lactose-free cheese can still have casein in them, an ingredient that makes up the protein in cow’s milk.
Using my imagination
Especially at the start of this challenge, it was really hard for me to come up with meat-free and particularly dairy-free recipes. When you start to really think about it, the number of meals we eat every day that contains dairy are huge, often without us realising. Salads free from meat often contain cheese and even the dressings on our food often contain egg, milk or honey. While some of my usual go-to meals were a definite no-go anymore, I was surprised by how many of my usual meals could be tweaked to make vegan versions.Thai green curry could be thrown together without chicken, courgetti bolognese could be made without mince. Plus there are quick options too – whenever I was feeling lazy I just made myself veggie fajitas.
Luckily, the internet is also littered with vegan superstars ready to share their recipes with you such as YouTubers Bonny Rebecca and High carb Hannah. Naturally, Instagram proved a massive inspiration point and Instagrammers such as @plantbasedpixie and @sweetsimplevegan made my journey a great deal easier.
Check out more amazing plant based Instagrammers here.
Swapping for sugar
As Niomi Smart, plant-based YouTube sensation revealed to Healthista in the second week of my challenge, ‘Sugar is vegan. So you can totally over indulge.’ Curbing my sweet tooth and staying away from sugary snacks was the hardest part of this challenge for me. Especially when I discovered there are so many delicious vegan cookies and cakes kicking about such as these delicious vegan cakes from Lola’s cupcakes. Not to mention the fact that both Skittles and Oreos are totally vegan.
Staying strong after a couple of drinks
As soon as you’re a couple of glasses in it gets harder and harder to say no to the delicious Stilton that you just know would taste amazing with your red, red, wine. Luckily my friends were very supportive and pulled the plate away when they saw my resolve weakening (or then again maybe they just wanted more cheese). I will put my hands up in the air and say I did have a tiny slip up once in the early hours of a Saturday morning in a kebab shop at 3 am where I stole a little taste of my friends delicious smelling chicken kebab. I was kicking myself the next day as this was right before my vegan challenge was completely over but I’ve added a day of vegan penance to make up for my foolish, gin-induced mistake.
Eating at home was easy but all of a sudden going out with friends became that little more difficult. I skipped out on a wine and cheese evening with friends. And when I went out with a friend to a Vietnamese restaurant I upset our usual routine. We’d usually share a few meals between the two of us but there was only one starter and one main on the menu that was completely vegan so we ended up just ordering for ourselves.
Going for a meal is best planned ahead and I missed out on one or two dinners with friends, choosing to meet everyone afterwards for drinks instead to avoid the hassle. Although there are ways around this like choosing places with good vegan options such as Tibit’s or Zizzi’s (which both proved to be amazing for meat product free food) or calling ahead, this could be a lot of hassle and I didn’t want to put out my friends in order to meet my dietary demands. That being said there were some amazing places for me to eat out as a vegan and I look forward to trying a few more – check some of them out here.
This was the biggest shocker for me. Some of my favourite beloved wines and beers contained animal products. My all-time favourite, Casillero del diablo is not vegan and uses animal derived proteins in it’s fining process. I would spend time in bars googling the different beers and wines in order to figure out whether or not I was allowed to drink them.
And there were some weird ones. For example, Guinness brewed in the UK contains Isinglass which is substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish but Guinness brewed in Australia is totally vegan-friendly. Luckily Yellowtail Shiraz red wine is very much vegan, so my Saturday nights weren’t completely over (although be careful because their white wine isn’t).
You can get some vegan-friendly vino for £5.75 here.
The benefits of being vegan
My energy levels were through the roof
This really took me by surprise as I had definitely bought into the stereotype of the frail vegan. I had expected that being meat free would leave me without much energy. In fact, the exact opposite happened. I am really not a morning person and yet I found myself springing out of bed in the mornings ready for my gym class without as much difficulty as usual. For all I know, this could be a placebo effect but I can’t help but feel it made a significant difference to my energy and my mood.
My weight stayed the same
I wasn’t looking to lose weight when I undertook this challenge. Although I have some bits of my bod that could do with a little less jiggle, I’m pretty happy with my weight and wouldn’t want to lose too much. Again, when it came to veganism, my views were all skewed. I equated being vegan to being skinny and underfed. I 100 percent did not all of a sudden shred a million pounds. In fact, my weight stayed exactly the same. To the point decimal.
I lost body fat and gained muscle mass
According to the Tanita scales that I used to measure myself before and after, my body fat was 1.5% less at the end of the challenge. Plus my muscle mass was 1kg more. This difference is interesting because I didn’t increase my exercise routine throughout the month. The only difference to my exercise was that because I felt as though I had more energy I found that I was exercising in the mornings more frequently than I had been beforehand. The super successful vegan fitness fanatics of Instagram such as Stefanie Moir, Mackenzie Forbes and Vicky Hadley are all starting to make a little more sense to me.
My metabolic age dropped
I’m proud to say that according to Tanita I now have the metabolic age of a 15-year-old. My metabolic age supposedly dropped by two years after undertaking this challenge. The idea is that a lower metabolic age equates to a high metabolism. In which case I can only assume that the kinds of foods I was eating such as such as spinach, blueberries and oats helped to boost my metabolism. This also makes some sense as I was drinking a lot more green tea than usual as I tried to avoid a builder’s brew and I was adding things like chilli to my meals to add some extra flavour to plain old veggies.
I had a happy tummy
I quite often have severe stomach pain and nausea as a result of IBS. And although I would have to test it for a longer amount of time to get a more accurate picture I had absolutely zero problems with my stomach and bowels throughout this month. This could mean that something I was eating before (perhaps dairy) was causing the problem but by reintroducing things slowly I should be able to figure out what foods make my tummy unhappy. In fact, as soon as I finished this challenge I had a bit of a dairy binge and it left me with a crippling stomach ache.
Here comes the difficult part. I’d love to say that I’ll be able to stick to being vegan for the rest of my life but I doubt that I could make that promise, sometimes we have to give into our cheesy demons. One thing I have definitely learned is that I don’t need meat, egg or dairy. When I’ve told people about Veganuary I’ve heard multiple people say ‘I just couldn’t do it’. But I’ve quickly learned that in fact if I can, then anyone can do it.
Now that my challenge is over, I’m still tempted by the smell of bacon but I don’t have the same desire to mindlessly eat meat that I used to have.
For me, the hardest part of all of this is that I can’t justify eating animal products anymore, even though I desperately want to. In the past, I wouldn’t really think through the act of eating meat. When I ate beef I didn’t ever relate it to the cow. Of course, I knew that this was where it really came from but becoming vegan has meant I’ve had to think through what I’m eating much more thoroughly. Part of this has given me a much better understanding of what I’m putting into my body. Constantly checking labels and thinking more deeply about my choices has impacted the way that I view eating meat. Now that my challenge is over, I’m still tempted by the smell of bacon but I don’t have the same desire to mindlessly eat meat that I used to have. And according to PETA each vegan saves nearly 200 animals per year – that’s a statistic I’d love to be able to contribute to.
So for this reason, while I think I’ll be having some celebratory wine and cheese on the weekend, I definitely don’t think I’ll be cooking up a meaty Sunday roast. I’m very aware of the damage that agriculture causes to the environment, the benefit that veganism has had on my health and this awareness means I will definitely be thinking more carefully about the food that I’m eating from now on. Realistically, I now know I am physically able to survive, thrive even, without meat products. Ethically I now wonder why I would continue eating meat, eggs and dairy.
As much as I love cute cat videos, I’m not the biggest animal lover in the world but according to charity, Animal Equality, 56 billion animals are killed a year for food. That is a completely incomprehensible amount and the more I mull it over, the less I agree with it. Not just because numerous studies have proven that animals are sentient but also because as delicious as it tastes we don’t NEED meat anymore. In fact, the environment is suffering as a direct result of animal agriculture and farming animals for food might just be the exact opposite of what we all need right now.
Realistically, I won’t be cutting out meat, egg and dairy forever (especially egg and dairy). But it has certainly given me (vegan) food for thought. After this month I know that I will limit my non-vegan food intake and try my hardest to live a more plant-based life. Perhaps even just sticking to a vegan diet on weekdays will reduce my carbon footprint, improve my health and ease my conscience a little. Or maybe I can have a monthly creme egg, battered haddock and cheesy pizza blowout once a month and a strictly vegan lifestyle the rest of the time.
One thing is for sure, this month has given me a much better understanding of veganism, the amazing foods that vegans can eat and the huge benefits that can come from leading a vegan lifestyle.
My vegan breakfast
Here is what I would typically eat in a day.
My morning meal is absolutely my favourite of the day – mostly because I have such a sweet tooth and breakfast is often my sweetest meal of the day. I like as much time as possible in bed in the morning so I like things that I can quickly throw together when I arrive in the office for work. Throughout the month a typical breakfast for me might be porridge with chia seeds and fruit, Lizi’s granola with Alpro dairy-free milk alternatives (my favourite was hazelnut milk on my granola and coconut milk in my coffee) or rye bread with a delicious vegan topping – marmalade on the mornings I had a sweet tooth or avocado sprinkled with salt and chill if I fancied something a little more savoury.
My vegan lunch
Lunch often consisted of left-over dinners from the evening before, salad pots or sandwiches from either Pret or M&S (my favourite was the avocado, olive tapenade sandwich from Pret) or my all time favourite – falafel. Falafel is hands down, the best thing about vegan life. Smothered with tahini and chilli sauce it tastes better than a lot of meaty foods.
My vegan dinner
My evening meal was always the hardest to come up with. Typically I would make either some kind of lentil curry, vegetarian fajita mix or a vegetable hot pot. I love to fry onions and garlic in a pan, add mushrooms, courgette (or aubergine), a can of tinned tomatoes, chickpeas and spinach and to let it simmer for a while. Then I’d toast some wholemeal pitta bread and pour the mixture inside. It is the quickest, most simple and yet delicious thing I’ve ever tasted. Definitely my meal of the month.
The best vegan cookbooks
YouTube famous Niomi Smart has caused a lot of excitement with the release of her first book. I spoke to her earlier on in my challenge and she gave me her top tips on being vegan. With over 1.7 million followers on her Instagram alone, it is no wonder that this book shot to number 1 on Amazon within minutes.
Eat Smart is a beautiful and simple cookbook that makes healthy eating easy. It walks you through your plant-based day from your morning smoothie to your evening dessert. And with plenty of options of snacks to feast on too, you won’t be left hungry if you follow Smart’s instructions. I tried to make a few recipes from this book but my favourite was Smart’s simple avocado and strawberry on Rye lunch. It was the perfect combination of sweet and savoury and the balsamic added a lovely vinegary tang.
Available to buy here (harper collins), £9.50
Vegan Goodness is a celebration of veganism without being preachy. Vegan blogger and Instagrammer Jessica Prescott left her home in New Zealand at the age of 17 and lived around the globe, gathering inspiration as she went. Now she lives in Berlin with her husband and son and uses her local farmers market to get the amazing fresh produce that she uses in her recipes.
I love this book for taking classic recipes like Thai green curry, pizza and kebabs and giving them a healthy, vegan twist. Jessica Prescott creates vivid vegan dishes packed with flavour and texture but that aren’t overly complicated to create. Her food is rich in protein and iron and shows that being vegan doesn’t have to be difficult.
Available to buy here (hardie grant), £13.49
Vegan Love Story
Known for their vegan and vegetarian restaurants in both London and Switzerland, the people behind Tibits have created this brilliant cookbook. Vegan Love Story is packed with amazing vegan recipes which I have loved for proving to me this month that vegan food in no way equates to blandness.
80 delicious recipes pour out from these pages including a delicious cucumber soup. ‘It was like nothing I’ve ever had before, full of flavour and richness yet it is light in texture a great detox soup or starter’ explained Healthista writer Ony Anukem.
Available to buy here (New Internationalist), £27
The Earth Diet
Liana Werner-Gray grew up in the Australian outback and often hunted for food with her aboriginal neighbours. At the age of 16, she moved to Brisbane to pursue a modelling career and quickly became addicted to sugary junk foods, not having had them before.
I especially love this book for the simplicity of its recipes and also ingredients. And I wasn’t the only person on the Healthista team that couldn’t get enough. Healthista writer and fellow vegan Amanda Lundgren made the vegan curry from this book and thought it was delicious.
‘The potatoes made it super filling and satisfying, and I loved the subtle sweetness that the coconut milk and maple syrup gave to the dish. All of my roommates were asking what I made because it smelled and looked so good.’
Available to buy here(Hay House UK), £19.99