Lately, veganism has become an increasingly hot topic. Though the majority of vegans object to animal exploitation, more recently veganism has become a dietary choice for many in pursuit of a more environmentally friendly way of living, or for the health benefits it can bring.
Recent documentaries, notably Cowspiracy, have highlighted the incredibly large carbon footprint of the farming industry, claiming it is responsible for 14.5% of total global emissions, higher than all forms of transport combined. These kind of shocking figures suggest that perhaps we should all be making an effort to eat fewer animal products, alongside the movement to use fewer plastic bags and take shorter showers.
Personally, the prospect of cutting out such a large group of foods is daunting. However, like many, I am guilty of avoiding thinking about the brutal reality of the cheap meat industry. Additionally, not a day goes by without press on the dangers of not eating right; last week, the World Health Association described excessive consumption of processed meat as being as carcinogenic as smoking.
But is this realistic on a student budget? Would it be possible to eat a healthy, balanced diet devoid of any animal products, without landing myself in even more student debt? I decided to give it a go for a week to see whether being vegan is really as hard as it sounds.
Day One: Monday
I start off my vegan experiment with a lot of apprehension, anticipating a long week ahead. My go-to breakfast would usually be scrambled eggs, but instead, I rustle up a speedy breakfast of sautéed mushrooms with avocado. This feels quite extravagant, and it’s actually pretty filling when paired with a banana as a mid-morning snack. So far, so good. I whip up some dairy-free hummus and make myself a salad of spinach, carrots and celery for lunch. Who needs eggs?
By the time dinner time arrives, I’m feeling quite peckish and make a hearty soup out of parsnips, using almond milk instead of regular milk, and lots of spices. I haven’t really noticed the difference of not having any animal products in any of my meals today, which is a promising start! I can’t deny that eating so healthily has made me feel rather smug. However, there are still six days to go…
Day Two: Tuesday
Although I really enjoyed my avocado breakfast yesterday, they aren’t the cheapest food, costing at least 70p per avocado. So, I opt for the much cheaper choice of porridge. Although non-dairy milk is more expensive than regular milk, it promises a lot of health benefits. I manage to find some almond milk on special offer which claims to be not only naturally lower in fat than cows’ milk, but also high amounts of Vitamin E. I find it’s just as delicious, if not better than regular dairy. However, when it comes to using a sweetener, I struggle. Instead of using honey to sweeten my porridge, I mash up a banana instead, and it’s not great. Whilst filling, I find myself wistfully daydreaming of eggs as I struggle to finish the bowl.
In the hopes of disguising the vegan element of my dinner, I choose some vegetables with a meaty texture: aubergine and mushroom, which totally trick my tastebuds. I add some kidney beans to replace the protein I would otherwise have gained from the meat, which, at about 11p per serving, are a far cheaper alternative. All in all, it’s a really tasty substitute, and I can’t say I miss the inclusion of meat at all.
However, I am struggling with snacking. I find some vegan energy bars which are made from blended dates and nuts, and while they’re tasty, they cost around £3 for a pack of four. Optimistically, I remind myself that at least they are a lot healthier than the refined sugar and fat in most other bars, and provide 18g of protein each.
Day Three: Wednesday
In the evening, I face one of the major vegan nightmares: being cooked for.
Again, porridge for breakfast, and I take a packed lunch of carrot and celery sticks with hummus to uni with me to keep me going through my busy day. It has to be said, eating so many vegetables does make you feel quite good about yourself. However, I have been experiencing extreme chocolate cravings all day and manage to find some dark chocolate containing no milk. I’m not usually a big fan of bitter chocolate but after these few days, it tastes heavenly and I have to resist demolishing the entire bar in one sitting. In the evening, I face one of the major vegan nightmares: being cooked for. Thankfully the friend cooking for me isn’t afraid of a challenge, and rises to the occasion, cooking a delicious Mediterranean-style meal. However, I can’t help but imagine that this wouldn’t be the same for everyone; the limited options central to the diet make me a bit of a nuisance as a dinner guest, so I am grateful to have a considerate host.
Day Four: Thursday
Today I struggle. I have lunch out and am rather limited to my options: the smell of bacon in the café is calling my name, but I manage to resist and instead order a vegetarian sandwich of sundried tomato, hummus and spinach, asking for the goats cheese that came with it to be removed. The result is a tasty sandwich, but I can’t help but miss the cheese that would have brought it all together. Similarly, at dinner-time I am almost overcome by the desire to slather my baked sweet potato in butter, and the thought of melted cheese on top is enough to make me consider giving up this whole experiment altogether! Instead, I comfort myself with the knowledge that I am at least forced to be relatively healthy without being able to eat dairy, after all, cheese isn’t exactly low fat. But I don’t think I ever appreciated quite how delicious it is.
I am beginning to realise how much mindfulness is required within this sort of lifestyle
Although a lack of dairy has felt quite good, removing this from my diet has meant that I am concerned about my calcium intake. I do a quick google of plant-based sources of calcium, finding spinach and broccoli contain high levels, so I am careful to include these. I am beginning to realise how much mindfulness is required within this sort of lifestyle; seriously thinking about the nutrients I am getting from my food is something I haven’t really had to do before, but perhaps something I should be considering more.
Day Five: Friday
Today was one of those days when nothing quite goes right, and, to be honest, it was difficult to stick to the vegan diet. Grabbing a quick lunch when running late to my lecture was a nightmare; I didn’t have the time to prepare anything so ended up eating an avocado and a banana. What have I become? I miss the convenience of whipping up some scrambled eggs. This puts me in a bit of a bad mood, especially after spending a lot longer than normal picking up some snacks for a film night with friends. After wandering the aisles, I find some popcorn without any animal products, and search through bag after bag of sweets to find some without any gelatine or milk. The level of label checking required in this diet makes shopping a far longer process. I also take along some grapes. I have to say, fruit does seem a lot more appealing over confectionary now: at least I don’t have to check the label when buying it!
Day Six: Saturday
Very tired of banana porridge, I buy some maple syrup to sweeten it, which is quite a bit pricier than the honey I would usually use, but it makes a difference, and I really enjoy my breakfast for the first time since Monday. I’m still really enjoying having almond milk, and I think I’ll keep it on after the challenge. The rest of the day doesn’t feel too challenging either; using beans as a replacement for meat has become a bit of a habit. Moreover my new love for dark chocolate has become almost an issue as I resist the urge to buy it at every opportunity. Now there’s something I never thought I’d say.
Day Seven: Sunday
THE LAST DAY! After a full week now, I think I’ve really got into the swing of veganism. Today, I didn’t feel as if I was doing anything differently. Perhaps I’ve just gotten used to obsessively reading labels and thinking up the meatiest vegetables to put in my dinners, but today was the first day I didn’t feel as if I was submitting myself to some bizarre extreme diet. I didn’t even feel limited.
That being said, I am extremely excited to eat eggs tomorrow. And don’t even get me started on cheese. I have been thinking about lasagna far more than any sane person should. But I did it! One whole week without a single animal product. And I survived!
So what has this experiment taught me, aside from the fact that I like cheese more than I ever thought possible? Well, firstly, I’ve realised that in reality, being vegan isn’t as unnatural and crazy as it initially sounded. Although it is certainly limiting, it challenged my culinary skills and my knowledge of what sort of nutrients I should be giving my body in order to keep in good health.
The major difficulty I found was how veganism related to social situations. There certainly seems to be a lot of judgement out there about the diet, a stereotype that it is more of an identity than vegetarianism: veganism seems to define a lifestyle rather than just being a preference. I personally struggled with the feeling that I was being an inconvenience when it came to being cooked for, or just spending time with friends as the strict nature of the diet meant that I felt as if I was constantly saying no to things. This also applied to eating out; though many places now offer vegan alternatives, it is still incredibly limiting, and involves a lot of jealously eyeing up at your friend’s plate, wishing you could eat cheese.
Though I can’t say that I ever see myself becoming fully vegan, I will definitely be cutting back on my meat and dairy consumption. Although it costs quite a bit extra at times (maple syrup and avocadoes won’t be featuring in my shopping basket for a long time!), I can certainly see how regularly using kidney beans or chickpeas as a meat substitute can not only help the environment, but save you a few pennies here and there in the process, something which, as a poor student, I can definitely appreciate.