Cheese, as far as I can tell, is entirely irreplaceable. And meat, of course, is amazing. But too much or either has its downsides.
I’ve always tried to steer towards healthy eating, but my ‘ideal diet’ is thwarted by a lack of self control. Strict ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ are somehow just not as appealing as a burger with my beer.
HOWEVER, last year, for the whole of August and September, to pledge support for a friend hiking up and down Arthur’s Seat for 24 hours straight, I ‘went vegan’. I treated it like an experiment: what would I even eat? Just how annoying would it be? (Would I become annoying..?)
The result: I didn’t hate it. In fact, I really enjoyed most of it! But not all.
Removing meat was easy. Freedom from dairy, not so much. It turns out that milk (be it cheese, butter, lactose or whey) is everywhere. Luckily, there is an upside to dietary rules: they encourage exploration and creativity. So when I did break through through the milk mindset, it led to many yummy new things…
The foods I enjoy the most – Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Mexican – are pretty good mates with plant-based ingredients, so I happily obliged by eating more of them. But the best bit was finding completely new dishes, not just meals minus animal. Now I’ve tried it and seen how easy it is to make, I’m not sure how I ever managed without Skillet Beer Chili Mac – from the very awesome Thug Kitchen. So. Damn. Good.
So achieving a tasty vegan diet was certainly not an issue.
I also saved money, lost a notable amount of weight and gained muscle! But this coincided with me going back to the gym…. And the weight loss started to reverse as soon as I discovered all the delicious junk foods that happen to be vegan, some of which were also painfully expensive (looking at you, £6-a-tub Booja Booja ice cream…)
No surprise there, then: you can eat healthy or crap, cheaply or lavishly, whatever your dietary label.
But what I did find an issue was having to think about what to cook when you really can’t be bothered (easy veganing takes experience and planning), and the genuinely awful choice of anything meat free – let alone actually vegan – when you’re out and about.
This leads to the top of my list of dislikes: the inescapable fact that ‘animal’ is delicious. And I don’t want to lose it from my diet. So this is where I struggle…
Working in the field of sustainable development, I’m very aware that food production and distribution have consequences for people and the environment that are deeply intertwined. The challenges of health, hunger, poverty, pollution, water, energy and climate change all meet, and so often compete, when it comes to food. I’m also aware that – on average – vegan (and vegetarian) diets carry the lowest negative environmental impacts, and that our diets will have to shift if we want to secure a future that can balance these challenges.
So there feels like a real conflict between what I want and what I believe. I want to keep eating meat and cheese, because they make me happy and it’s annoyingly inconvenient to avoid them in many situations. Yet I believe in playing my part in reducing the unsustainability of how the world currently works. Food choice is, after all, one of the biggest ways we can make a difference on an individual level, particularly when it comes to your carbon footprint.
Ignoring this conflict, or downplaying one side, is clearly not going to work for me. So I’ve decided to take a pragmatic approach and focus on what I can gain, instead of what I should avoid. I want a diverse and healthy diet that supports a better relationship with nature. I also want the freedom to eat the foods I enjoy.
So I now pack vegan lunches for work (cheap, easy and delicious, when you figure out what you like), am mostly vegetarian for the rest of the time, and eat meat when it looks amazing. And, 6 months later, this works very nicely for me – my mindset has genuinely shifted towards what I feel is a better diet.
But there is one thing I feel is most important: to aim for something that is sustainable for me. That means aiming for consistency, not perfection – because sticking to strict rules isn’t my idea of fun, and has never worked for me in the past. Besides, what else am I meant to do with the creme eggs that have mysteriously managed to find their way into my lunch routine?