Friday, 3 February 2012

Veganuary: A Retrospective

From 00.00 on the 1st of January to 00.00 on the 1st of February, I attempted to be vegan.

There are three instances in which I believe I may have eaten something that came from an animal, which I will list here:

 - I ate a spoonful of some tomato soup which looked clear (and thus milk/cream-free) but, upon tasting, might have contained dairy. I did not eat the rest of the soup.
 - I ate three black olives which may have been contaminated with tzatziki. I did this because a) it was not clear whether or not they had been and b) I have no self-control when it comes to olives.
 - I ate a crisp which turned out to have "cheddar" in the name. My excuses for this are that it was 8pm, I'd been drinking heavily and I hadn't eaten anything that day.

These transgressions aren't groundbreakingly interesting, but they do illustrate my general attitude to the whole thing: I was as cautious as it was possible to be within reason, and thought a hell of a lot more about what I ate than I usually do, but I wasn't prepared to beat myself up over a mouthful of soup or three olives or whatever.

As an experiment, it was interesting. I did not experience the utter, blissful absence of disease, malaise and ill-feeling which the more vocal of the veganazis promise (I guess that's because I haven't given it long enough for all of those pernicious dairy-based toxins to leave my system, right?), but then, neither did I expect to. I wasn't at all ill in the last month, although that's not a great indicator of dietary benefit; I have a pretty tough immune system, and it would be normal in any given month for me to have been healthy throughout. Without going into detail, my digestion was different but no worse or better than usual. I was a little hungrier than usual in spite of eating a decent quantity of food. 

In terms of negative health effects, it's hard to say - so many variables act on the human body on a daily basis that it's impossible to point to anything that I experienced this month and think, "yep, that was definitely a result of veganism." I had some minor sleep and mood disturbances in the first half of the month - very minor - and it doesn't seem likely that these correlate to cheese (it was also January, which suggests itself as a stronger correlative). My skin was a little drier than usual, but that could be atmospheric, or based on spending Christmas in a soft water area and then coming back to a hard water area.

It would have been interesting to have had some kind of blood work done immediately before and immediately after the month, but it seemed impractical to do so. I gave blood during the month and didn't show any signs of anaemia; the donation went well.

I felt pretty good, but I felt pretty good in November and December, too.

I cooked some interesting stuff that I probably wouldn't have made before, as well as some modified versions of old favourites, and in general used more fresh ingredients and spent longer cooking. Houmous became a catch-all savoury dairy replacement. Burritos with cheese and sour cream became burritos with houmous. The cheese-blanket which had of late covered most of my self-cooked meals was generally replaced with a dollop of houmous. It satisfies something creamy and salty and primordial. The lazy dinner option became straight carbs rather than carbs-with-cheese; I don't think this is much healthier objectively, but it might be. I feel much happier cooking with fresh tofu than I did before, which is awesome. I'd always wanted the knack. Lunch at work was nowhere near as boring as I'd feared - with some vegetable-and-salad wizardry and a lot of sweet chilli dressing, I made interesting and delicious lunches every day. My fruit and vegetable consumption - previously already reasonable - skyrocketed.

On the ethics front, it was a reflective period. I'd been vaguely troubled by certain aspects of commercial dairy farming, and was wondering if this month would push me into the "I definitely want to be vegan full-time" category.

The short answer is, "it didn't."

Veganism, to me, is much more of a grey area than vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is easier to make black and white, even if people have a tendency to take the term and do as they will with it (I'm looking at the pescetarians who don't call themselves that here). As a vegetarian, I did not and do not eat anything which was ever alive in an animal sense. Even fish, whose plight and murder does not inspire any immediate visceral feelings in me. Even tasty, tasty bivalves. Now, there were still some ethical quandries inherent in this lifestyle - I believe, for example, that nothing living should have to die so that I can eat it. But I kill insects with something akin to insecticidal glee, simply because I hate bugs and find them weird and gross, and don't want them all up in my personal space. And then there are the lesser-or-greater degrees, like gelatine (I tend to avoid it but am not as troubled if I find I've eaten it by accident than I would be if I'd accidentally eaten meat) or isinglass used in the production of booze.

Veganism is even less clear-cut. On the surface, the simple, "no dairy or eggs" doesn't sound like an ethical problem area. But most of the vegans I know do it to different degrees, or have different exceptions. Some will eat honey, because bee-keeping might actually be helping the bees. Some have no problem buying woollen products (just like some vegetarians will buy leather), others will drink regular wine and beer, or will drink or eat something that they don't know isn't vegan until they find out that it is, or will make exceptions for things which are advertised as containing trace amounts of something non-vegan. 

In terms of strictness, it goes much deeper than this. I delved into the world of vegan bloggers, and found those who are strictly raw, and people who won't eat tofu or soy products because they disagree with the way soy is farmed, or who will only eat certain types of sugar - all kinds of other distinctions beyond the simple "I don't eat eggs or dairy" which marks where the popular conception of veganism begins and ends.

The thing that really troubled me about this blog scene (and there were a lot of things which troubled me) was that each more stringent definition seemed to be pursued in an attempt either a) to detoxify the human body entirely from what seem to be mostly imagined 'toxins' and/or b) to be the most virtuous person who ever lived. 

I don't know what it is about food that makes people attach emotion to it. It's something which I try to avoid doing, and it gently angers me every time I overhear someone at lunch talking about "good" or "bad" or "naughty" (that one really gets me) food. Food has no inherent emotional load or value. There isn't an objective scale, with deep-fried dime bar cake at one end and iceberg lettuce at the other, which demonstrates the value of food. It's food. Take it for all in all. Even if all of the pie slices are bright red on the Sainsbury's package. Maybe you shouldn't eat exclusively that thing, but you probably shouldn't eat any one thing exclusively anyway. 

From a very brief foray, it seems that the emotional loading of food is rife within the vegan (and especially the raw/foodblogging) community. On both an ethical and a health level. There are a lot of people who are searching for the most ultimately sanctimonious way of eating - the thing that is the absolute best for their bodies (rarely backed up by decent nutritional science or historical evidence that most humans can eat meat and fish and dairy and not suffer from ill effects), and which has the least impact on the lives of other creatures and on the world around them. 

I'm all for low-impact food, but not when it becomes the sole focus of one's life. It's a fact of the modern world that mass importing/transportation/farming processes aren't always great for the environment, but also that most of us are so damn busy all the time that it's impossible to live the best of all possible lives, food-wise. We balance the two. We do as much as we can to reduce our impact whilst still getting up and going to work every morning and having a good time. And the puritanical aspect of some of the culinary extremism that can be witnessed on these very interwebs is indicative of a mentality which wants to take every drop of joy out of food and eating. Orthorexia may not be medically recognised, but it's an interesting framework through which to view this effect.

At times, the militance becomes dangerous. I saw at least three examples of people who claimed to manage their cancer/other serious or terminal illness entirely through a vegan/raw diet. It's dangerous both for them and for the people they influence. Touting any dietary changes as some kind of miracle cure for disease - as a cure for the absolute fact of mortality, almost - is irresponsible and should not be encouraged. And yet I didn't see many voices of dissent within those communities. Possibly because the dissenters are all people like me: fans of modern medicine who are angered too much by the concept of a diet curing cancer to stay around long enough to comment. One of the most powerful lessons the Internet has taught us is that you can't engage people in meaningful debate if they don't want to engage, even if you're pretty sure you're right. 

As well as delving into the world of vegan blogging, I also got up to speed with the ex-vegan community, which is pretty interesting itself. It's made up of people who were formerly notable vegan/raw bloggers who decided not to remain vegan and went public about this decision, often because their diets were having a deleterious effect on their health. The response from the hard-line vegans was often outrageous - one woman was told that she and her family deserved to be killed like the animals they had gone back to eating. The response was much stronger than the complaints these hardcore vegans levied against people who had always eaten meat and never been vegan, most likely because of the sense of betrayal invoked by a high-profile vegan publicly going back to meat-eating. Which brings us, once again, to the emotional loading of food and lifestyle.

At heart, what I do and don't feel comfortable eating boils down to the level of cognitive dissonance which I'm happy experiencing. Everyone is walking around with a head full of the stuff - it's how we're not all constantly curled up in the foetal position, unable to comprehend the cruelty of the world. And I'm reasonably sure that this is also how other people decide what they will and won't eat. The level of cognitive dissonance which someone like Sali Owen can process is very different to the level experienced by someone who eats everything - and that's fine. I'd spent the last couple of years wondering if I'd continue to be able to justify (to myself) eating animal products which don't result in the death of the animal. And it turns out that I can.

On a conscious level, I'm concerned about the ethics of dairy farming. I think there are many things wrong with the way we mass-produce food in general, particularly when it's harmful to the welfare of sentient creatures, and to that end I've tried for many years to be as conscious of this as I can when choosing what dairy I do eat (the freest of the free-range eggs, and the like). I drink mostly soy milk, partly because I prefer the taste and partly because I know that it didn't cause distress or discomfort to any cows. But I don't find that I care enough about it to avoid dairy altogether. Objectively, the suffering of animals in dairy production is as distasteful to me as the thought of eating their flesh; on a day-to-day basis, and especially when it's cooked into something pre-produced, or when it's in work, or when it's a trace of milk powder (unnecessary but ubiquitous) in something like tortilla chips, I can't bring myself to care enough to stop eating these things.

It's now the 3rd of February, and I still haven't broken veganism and probably won't until we go to Meat Liquor tomorrow, when I intend to cram large amounts of halloumi into my face. Veganuary was a fascinating experiment, but I don't have the desire or commitment to be entirely vegan all of the time. The current plan is to eat almost exclusively vegan at home and at work (with occasional exceptions), and to be vegan where possible but more likely lacto-ovo vegetarian when I'm eating out. So veg*n, with a tendency towards the vegan end of the spectrum. This is a level of cognitive dissonance I'm content with.


  1. I think orthorexia is definitely 'real', even if not medically recognised as a condition. I read a lot of health & fitness blogs and have stopped reading those where people become militant and/or moralising about their dietary choices - there's definitely a need in some individuals to be in the right about their food, not just healthy and happy. When writing about diet I had some very negative remarks as I eat a pretty unexceptional omnivorous diet, although most people would consider what I eat to be objectively nutritious and I'm pretty healthy!

    1. Yeah, I was going more on the fact that orthorexia is not recognised in the DSM - I agree that it definitely occurs at least anecdotally.

      And people get very hung up about what they and others are eating, and I find this puzzling. What kind of comments were you getting?

  2. This is brilliant, by far the best blog post I've read so far this year.