Cooking / Food / Society

My Vegan Experiment

I did it. For three and a half months I lived completely vegan. Never being an excessive meat eater I decided to do an experiment by living vegan from the beginning of the year 2014 until Easter. After reporting a few times about vegan lifestyle for radio and internet in 2013 I was inspired to try it out myself: I already lived mostly vegetarian but could I really live without eating any cheese or without the obligatory milk for my coffee? Could I really say no to a creamy pasta sauce when having a night out with friends? For me vegan lifestyle seemed to be what most people still think about it: A sacrifice. Sacrificing the joy of eating delicious cheese, sacrificing a tasty cappuccino or a cake for a greater idea. Would I be able to refrain from old habits? I know that eating (especially cheap) meat encourages industrialised agriculture with its intensive livestock farming and mechanical butchering of animals, but to know about these problems and to change one’s own lifestyle are two completely different things. And even though I was inspired I was also terrified, not sure I could really go through with something like that for more than three months, knowing that I would never fit into the standards hard core vegans are setting themselves. I still for example did wear leather shoes and my beloved leather jacket.

The hardest thing for me proved to be not the change of food but to explain my choices to everyone around. Whoever learned of my experiment had a massive amount of questions often enough starting with:

 

Are you hungry?

No, no, no!

Actually at the beginning I started to experiment a lot in the kitchen. The months before I started I had spent no time at all to prepare something nice to eat resulting in eating some crap food easy to cook or even better to heat up only. Some pasta here, a simple slice of bread with whatever was left in the fridge there – but I never cooked anything special, especially not after a long day at work when I simply could not find the energy to prepare a nice dish at all.

When eating vegan you have to start preparing your meals yourself, simply because there are not many vegan oven-ready meals on the market. For once I began cherishing cooking again and I ate better and more than I had done for a long time. Eating a vegan Sunday roast made of seitan resulted in me feeling stuffed like a bird ready to be roasted for Christmas dinner. Lentils and beans suddenly became rather attractive, I never knew how many varieties one can buy and how many different dishes can be created from one kind of beans alone. Vegan for me became one great adventure, exploring completely new ways of cooking and baking. I would never have guessed a cake made of anything except milk and eggs can taste that delicious.

And the best part: In the first weeks I actually lost weight and that far easier than with every diet I had ever tried out before. That actually changed rather quickly when my body got used to the new diet and I detected chocolate pudding, vegan bakery, tiramisu, soy ice cream, chocolate… now I am back to my original weight. Who would have guessed?

Still not convinced: Here is a picture gallery with a few of my creations:

 

 

 

Will you get all your vitamins? What about calcium? And protein, where do you get that from when you don’t drink milk or eat yoghurt?

Let me answer that with a question: Why would anyone think that eating more vegetables, fruits, lentils and grains instead of cheese and meat is unhealthy? When I was at school I was taught excessively about the food pyramid and that one has to eat a lot of what is pictured rather colourfully at the bottom of the triangle: Vegetables, fruits, lentils and grains… hm. Actually for vegans even proteins are no problem at all: soy products, seitan (wheat gluten), lentils and nuts consist of a lot of protein that can easily substitute milk proteins – not even speaking of those found in meat since I already forewent that most of the time.

The only problem in vegan nutrition is a lack of vitamin B12. Humans have a problem in extracting it from plants and therefore mostly gain it the indirect way by eating meat. But since B12 is effectively and in great amounts stored in the human liver one needs to live vegan for more than a couple of months to experience any effects from lack of vitamin B12 – weakness, fatigue or concentration problems. Only in the long term vegans will need dietary supplements – today many producers of soy milk already include synthetic vitamin B12 in their products to counteract malnutrition.

One indicator for my health is always my hair: If my body lacks substances – especially minerals – my hair always starts to crack. So when brushing my hair makes the bathroom look like some wild lion has chased through it leaving half of his mane behind, it is quite a good indicator something is amiss. During my vegan experiment nothing like that ever happened. My hair is still healthy and smooth.

 

Don’t you miss anything?

No, not even at a family gathering where everyone wanted me to try some oh so delicious pork or duck. “But you surely eat some dessert, dear?” Nope. What I miss is eating in peace without explaining every five minutes why I do not want to eat anything else but vegetables. “It’s a diet, you know…” Far more easy to explain one refrains from food because one is trying to lose weight than to explain a vegan lifestyle to your grandparents.

It becomes a bit harder when going out with friends, normally in a restaurant there are not many dishes a vegan can choose from. The best I got were two dishes marked as vegan, mostly it resulted in eating pasta with tomato sauce scraping away the grained parmesan cheese to the amusement of my friends. I would have loved to have a vegan restaurant nearby like the one I visited with my boyfriend in Hamburg. When confronted with that great a vegan meal even a non-vegan and excessive meat eater would probably recognise that food made of plants is not disgusting or strange but good looking, fantastic smelling and with a taste that can be compared to any dish in a high class restaurant.

But six weeks into my experiment it suddenly happened: I got this incredible craving for cheese and meat. Had anyone offered me a steak I would have gladly bitten into it, hot and still a bit bloody, without regretting anything. A cheese tray in front of my nose – or better mouth – I would have eaten and eaten until I was sick. Gladly it was a Sunday evening, no shop open, I was home alone and no one tempting me. But apart from that I did not miss much. I always loved milk chocolate and when months ago I had once tried out vegan milk chocolate (with rice or soy milk as a substitute) I did not like it very much. It had such a different taste, so not what I knew. But after living vegan for four weeks I bought that chocolate in a store in Bremen and ate it while on a train journey. Maybe my sense of taste had already changed, but this chocolate suddenly tasted like actual, normal, non-vegan milk chocolate – sweet and creamy with crunchy hazelnuts coated in this delicious brown gold. I had the same experience with yoghurt: I always thought soy yoghurt somehow disgusting, leaving a thin coating of something indefinable on my tongue, tasting far to nutty for my liking. Now I like soy yoghurt (not every sort, but some). The only thing I will never, never, never ever enjoy is soy milk in coffee. It always turns into blobs swimming around in the coffee like little microbes or fishes, looking bad and tasting even worse. I now drink my coffee black. Without sugar. Without milk. And especially without soy milk. Thank you very much.

One thing that changed drastically in the last months was where I bought my food. I soon realised that living vegan also means to buy most of my food organic. There are very few real vegan products in a normal supermarket and even though I was not completely strict and allowed myself to buy products with the warning “Could contain traces of nuts and milk” I never bought anything that included milk or egg products in their list of ingredients. Which meant: Reading every damn ingredient list, searching for hidden lactoproteins. And I found them in the most peculiar places. I never would have guessed that roasted salted nuts also contain milk proteins for a better taste. So the shopping always took more time and was more thorough, making me realise how much the food industry really tempers with what we eat. I do not think that simply buying organic products is the solution especially not since some big corporations started to infiltrate that market as well. But I realised that it was far easier to find food that did not include hidden ingredients and a terrifying numbers of additives when buying organic food. That comes from reading too many ingredient lists: The quantity of used E123, E456 – or whatever the numbers might be – is really disgusting. I want food and not a strange code of numbers where I actually do not know what hides behind it.

To make a long story short: I had decided to end my experiment with a delicious Easter brunch with friends, indulging in cheese, eggs, coffee with lots of milk, bacon and… But when I actually went shopping I was completely shocked. Instead of running like a maniac towards the cheese counter to shop till I drop, I simply could not decide to buy anything at all. What had seemed so utterly delicious during a few hard days I had during my experiment now seemed utterly boring. I had no appetite for it at all. So I went for the simple choice and bought what I had liked before. And yes, it was great. It tasted good. And I ate a massive amount of eggs at Easter. Yesterday I went shopping again with the idea to live AVAP – as vegan as possible – but not to refrain from every animal product, just from those conventionally produced in industrial agriculture. My plan was simple: Only buy cheese and meat when you know where it comes from. Try to eat more vegetables. Try to live more healthy. So I went through the organic supermarket, shopping what I thought I needed for the next week. And suddenly when I paid at the cash desk and packed everything in a bag it hit me: I had bought not one animal product, my complete shopping was vegan. And not because I had made sacrifices again but because I never realised that unintentionally I went only for the vegan food leaving aside my favourite goat cheese. I actually started to enjoy and appreciate what veganism has to offer: a lot of great, tasty, often unconventional and inspiring food, not always healthy (damn those sweets) but never boring.

 

Jessica Holzhausen

 

Addition: My body coped very well, by the way, when I changed my food to vegan, but the way back turned out to be actually quite impossible. The only two times I drank milk and ate (cheap) cheese in the last two weeks I was sick afterwards. And not only “my digestion is not so well” sick or “my stomach hurts a bit” sick, but actually really sick with cramps and even a gift for the ‘god of the porcelain bowl’ in my bathroom. That was not what I had expected and in mind…

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