Vegetarians and vegans get a pretty bad wrap. This can particularly be said of the Complaints usually centre around carrying an air of moral superiority, together with a cult-like determination to convert everyone they come across. While this hasn’t been my personal experience, it is nonetheless a persistent stereotype in the meat-eating community, of which I am a part. Breaking down these stereotypes and gaining an insight into how and why vegetarians and vegans do what they do I believe is key to demystifying these lifestyles. Thus begins my journey of discovery. I’m going to be as honest as possible.
With a hint of trepidation but a heart full of love for our animal friends, I agreed to undertake a challenge; a week of vegetarianism followed by a week of veganism. Now, committed vegetarians or vegans may scoff that two weeks is nothing, and they would be right. However, never having followed such a diet, and not knowing how my body would react, I came to the conclusion that two weeks would be a sufficient litmus test to gage the benefits and challenges of this way of living.
I generally eat meat every day. If not at breakfast, then at lunch. If not at lunch, then at dinner. Often, but not always, more than one serving per day. Beef, chicken, fish, pork, or whatever else, I generally don’t discriminate or preference one over the other. As one of five children, I couldn’t afford to be fussy growing up. I ate what I was given. I’d probably be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the taste of most meat. So, I had quite the challenge ahead. First, I conducted a pre-experiment weigh in: 73.3kg.
Vegetarian week started easily enough. Vegemite toast for breakfast, as usual (yes I am still a child at heart). A salad roll for lunch from the café in my work building. These rolls I get quite often, even in my meat-eating days. They remind me of those I used to get at my high school canteen in lieu of the usual sausage roll or meat pie, and are positively delicious. Dinner came in the form of a dahl curry, which has always been a favourite of mine. “This’ll be a piece of piss”, I said to myself at the end of the day. Nothing about the day was spectacularly different about my normal routine. I felt no different, and didn’t have any craving for meat.
The biggest challenge came two days later. Arriving at my brother’s place for lunch, my mother was in attendance, and had prepared an incredibly delicious smelling chicken curry. Complicating things was the fact my brother couldn’t eat any either; he had just had his wisdom teeth out. As someone who has a passionate pet hate for seeing food go to waste, it took all my will power and inner strength to refrain from indulging. Luckily, we came to the decision to freeze the curry to ensure it lived to see another day. Meanwhile, my mum ducked out and picked me up a vegetable laksa from a nearby Chinese place. It was uninspiring, but I felt good afterwards. It was a victory over the temptation of meat.
Avocado on toast was a love I only discovered as a vegetarian. Luckily, I already have a mortgage.
The week rolled on uneventfully. Salads, noodles, curries, fruits, nuts. All things I find entirely edible, however all things I probably don’t usually eat enough of. I found myself preparing food more than I usually would, including probably my favourite vegetarian thing: Walldorf salad. My salad making skills were refined significantly during this period.
As someone with an unhealthy penchant for fast food, I found that particular food group conspicuously absent. That can only be a good thing. However, I did sneak in a cheeky Hungry Jacks Vegan Burger meal, and not for the only time during the two weeks.
By about day six I was, in fact, feeling slightly better physically. Maybe it was a placebo effect, but I felt like I had more energy, and my insides just felt “cleaner” (not sure how else to describe it). Again, whether this was all in my head, is a matter for science. But I undeniably felt pretty good. There were no adverse consequences to speak of. I conducted a post vegetarian week weigh-in: 73.1kg.
As vegetarian week drew to a close I was faced with the reality that the upcoming vegan week would be another – significantly more difficult – ballgame altogether. Not only was meat off the table, but I could have no dairy, no eggs, no honey, no animal products of any kind. I was a bit worried, but excited about taking up the challenge.
Like vegetarian week, it all started easily enough. After-all, I had done some research. I used a nut-based spread on my vegemite toast instead of margarine (yes, I made sure the bread was vegan). Wasn’t a fan, so reverted to just vegemite. When lunchtime came, my salad roll was the same, but with avocado spread in place of butter. Dinner, again, was not so much of a challenge, at least at first. The dahl curry passed the intense microscope of vegan standards. I began to think this would also be a lot easier than I thought.
The challenge with veganism, I discovered, did not so much come in the form of main meals, but the snacking and those other everyday indulgencies you partake in without even thinking about. Those much-needed afternoon chocolates at work? out. Beers with the boys at trivia? Is it vegan? Then it’s out (most beers are vegan but some contain animal-based fining agents such as isinglass and gelatin). The haloumi salad from the local pub which I’d learned to love during my vegetarian week? don’t even think about it. I found myself genuinely perplexed at what I could eat and snack on. The weekly shop took at least three times longer than normal because I was reading the back of packets and googling everything before committing to the purchase.
I found myself asking the question “Is it vegan?” in a non-ironic sense a lot more than I was comfortable with. I couldn’t help but feel like a monumental pain in the arse to whomever I was dining or snacking with. I began to feel like “that vegan”; that stereotype. I was also unsure as to what extent a vegan needs to let it control their life. I purchased a new car during my vegetarian week, a new car with leather in it. I was scheduled to take delivery during vegan week. As a vegan should I postpone it until I am no longer vegan? Is there a rule book with these sorts of things in it? Luckily there was a delay so the problem solved itself. But imagine living life on a permanent basis with these sorts of questions in your head, I thought to myself.
I was hungry a lot during vegan week. I was hungry a fair bit during vegetarian week also, but not to this extent. Salads and the like just aren’t as filling as meat dishes, I have come to conclude. There were some shining lights in the culinary wilderness that was my time as a vegan. Avocado toast, falafel, a pasta dish consisting of tomato, mushroom and chickpeas cooked up by my sympathetic younger brother. All amazing and all vegan. Together with this, there are some truly amazing vegan restaurants where I live in Sydney’s inner-west, doing amazing things. One particular restaurant serves vegan chicken, beef, pork, fish, and for the most part you’d be easily fooled into believing it was the real thing if you weren’t told otherwise.
However, finding such places in other less gentrified areas would be a challenge, and it’s not financially viable to eat at these places every day if, like me, you are not overly gifted in the kitchen.
There are also other brilliant vegan alternatives to some of the prior mentioned issues; Woolworths sell an amazing vegan mint slice biscuit. Wine, like beer, is mostly vegan, but again, it’s something you need to check on an individual label to label basis. With the time and commitment to engage in the required verification process, there are ways to indulge. But it is that time-consuming process I think that must surely be the biggest impediment to people committing to the lifestyle fulltime.
Despite exercising as much veganistic caution as possible, I still managed to fall foul of the vegan Gods. I purchased a toffee apple which I jokingly posted a picture of on Facebook , as an example of my commitment to fruit. I was quickly informed that toffee apples are not usually vegan. On the last day of my vegan challenge I purchased a tofu laksa from a Malaysian restaurant. Perhaps by this stage my vegan vetting standards had become lax in frustration. I was later informed by a committed vegetarian at work, that the laksa from that particular restaurant contains prawn paste. Whoops. Well, the intention was always there, and that’s what counts, right? It is perhaps an example of how much caution the vegan much exercise whilst navigating daily life. For it is not always clear, and sometimes it’s even deceptive, as to whether something contains animal products.
My post-vegan week weigh in came in at 71.8kg. It seems I lost over a kilo. I think this may have simply been the result of eating less, as opposed to what I was eating: but who can be sure. Is a vegetarian or vegan diet in itself healthier? Vegetarian – most definitely – vegan, well the jury is still out as far as I’m concerned. I didn’t seem to consume much protein or iron etc. I know there are ways around these issues but it’s a significant lifestyle shift. I didn’t feel any better than during vegetarian week. In fact, probably a little worse.
Spiritually, though, may be another matter. “You have a peaceful light and aura about you since you started this challenge,” said my good friend Michelle as I arrived to work one day during my vegan week. Whilst I of course laughed, with being vegan came the unmistakable sense I was being as responsible and ethical as possible towards of plight of animals, even if it was just for one miserly week.
I think the take-away is this though: It’s healthy to think critically about the way you live your life, and how your decisions impact the environment and animals. Experiment, change things up. You may just like what you discover, and the lifestyle changes required may be something easily accomplished if the required passion is there. You don’t have to commit to going all out. It’s a sliding scale and you can ease into it. I, personally, have come to appreciate vegetarian meals much more than I did before the experiment. Whilst my prior go-to meal at the local bar was a chicken schnitzel or pork ribs, it will now be a haloumi salad. It tastes better and I feel better afterwards. Had I never undertaken this challenge I would not have discovered this. So, while I haven’t converted to vegetarianism or veganism quite yet, experiencing it can only be described as a positive.