We live in a generation where being vegan is the easiest and (sort of) most accepted it’s ever been. Cruelty free alternative meats are everywhere; vegan cookbooks are readily available (just look at the Food & Recipes tab) and there’s almost always some way to eat out whilst eating vegan. I wanted to take advantage of this thriving time for veganism and potentially start my own journey towards a plant-based lifestyle. To do this, I challenged myself to ‘Veganuary’ – to eat entirely vegan for the whole of January.
I say ‘challenge’ because I knew this was going to be a challenge; my whole life I’d been told that you need to have a range of food groups on your plate, with a big portion of my diet having been dedicated to meats and dairy products. For a long time, this never seemed that unhealthy to me, I was just following what everyone had told me was best. But since hitting student-hood, it’s become my natural born instinct to question everything and reassess how I want to live my life.
I’d been interested in veganism for a couple of years but never felt it was the right time, that it would be impractical whilst living at home, that it would be too costly, etc. But after educating myself with research and documentaries, as well as some much-needed advice from my vegan best friend, I felt more confident about beginning my journey to becoming vegan.
I began my first week with a food shop at Tesco where I was pleasantly surprised to find it very easy to shop vegan; most of the labelling disclosed whether the product was suitable for vegans and the Free From range was particularly handy in finding replacements for items like mayonnaise. Perhaps my favourite purchase from the supermarket was the vegan sausage roles from the Linda McCartney range – they were absolutely delicious! Even more shocking was the fact that my weekly food bill had somehow managed to stay roughly the same as it was prior to undertaking this new diet.
That’s not to say that the week was completely easy. The biggest struggle was fitting veganism around my hectic work schedule; working as a cleaner means early starts, with little time to prepare food in the morning, as well as needing easy food to eat on the go. The first week taught me the vital importance of preplanning meals and having vegan friendly snacks readily available to combat cravings.
As my second week came around, all the excitement and anticipation of the first week started to dissipate and in its place I was left feeling tired and grumpy. I struggled to focus on anything and constantly felt like I was looking through a sluggish haze. This was by far the biggest disappointment; I’d always heard that after a week or so of being on a vegan diet you’d miraculously gain a tonne of energy, and here I was experiencing the exact opposite.
After reassessing my eating habits from the previous week, I concluded that my fatigue was a combination of not eating enough protein rich foods and needing a B12 supplement, as well as generally just not eating enough.
The week wasn’t all bad though; the weekend was rounded off with a trip to Pizza Hut as a pick-me-up for my low moods. I ordered the Veggie pizza with vegan cheese after hearing some good reports and, I can assure you, I was not disappointed. I can honestly say I have never enjoyed pizza more.
However, when week three descended, things only went from bad to worse. Although I was finding it easier to find and make vegan food, my general fatigue and low moods were not improving as well as my skin breaking out all over my body. To completely top off my terrible week, I spent the last half of it horrendously constipated and bloated, which only exacerbated my terrible mood.
I didn’t understand – I thought I was doing everything right; I was religiously taking my B12 supplements, watching my protein intake, eating more and I only felt worse for it. This was not what I was promised from a vegan diet. I tried to do some research online to see if anyone else was experiencing the same things I was.
It seemed that everybody had a different opinion, all of which concluded it was somehow the fault of the person, never the diet; to question the integrity of the vegan diet was blasphemy. It was at this stage that I began to feel resentful towards veganism – was it all just propaganda?
After weeks of discomfort, I went to see my GP. She advised I took a blood test to check for anaemia as she suspected I might have had an iron deficiency. I am still waiting upon the results to confirm or deny this.
That appointment marked a turning point for me; it became clear that I could not continue another week feeling like I did. With multiple essays and presentations lurking at the beginning of February, I couldn’t afford to not be on top of my game. I broke my vegan streak and focused my diet onto food rich in iron – this included meat. I felt horribly guilty and ashamed when I ate chicken for the first time in almost a month; I felt like I’d failed.
Despite this, I can’t deny that I felt physically better. My energy started to come back and I wasn’t feeling so emotional all the time. I had finally started to feel a bit more like myself again.
Despite not having the best of times being a vegan, I can still see merit to it. I learnt valuable lessons about my body’s capabilities and I will certainly keep up with certain aspects of the plant-based diet such as replacing cow’s milk with almond milk, using coconut oil instead of butter and so on. Since eating vegan, I have been forced to stop reaching for the convenience of takeaways and have expanded my cooking repertoire to much healthier dishes. Never have I been more conscious about what kind of foods I put into my body. Having said that, never have I been more obsessed about food in general. There were plenty of times where I wanted to stop eating altogether out of stress or fear that I would make myself feel worse.
I believe it’s important to acknowledge that everyone is different; whilst veganism did not suit me the way I wanted it to, this does not mean it won’t suit other people. There are plenty of people around the world who swear by this way of life and have never felt better in themselves. But it must be stressed that veganism is not the magic cure-all. There are people that this diet will not suit, despite their best efforts, and that is fine too. They should not be made to feel guilty or ostracized for listening to what their body needs, just as those who choose to be vegan shouldn’t either.
Perhaps in a month or two I might try again, next time giving myself more time to transition into a vegan diet rather than going cold-turkey (pun intended) overnight. But for now, I’m more than happy to not worry about labelling my food, vegan or otherwise.
Words by Georgina Radford