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What I learned from a month of veganism

A lone slice of pizza in a greasy box.

For January of 2017, I spent a month eating like a vegan; that is to say, only having food and drink that didn’t include meat, dairy, or any other product that is generally considered to commoditise animals (actually forming that list turned out to be more difficult than I thought – more on that later). This was, believe it, not an exercise in further increasing any hipster/sandal-wearer credentials. I decided to do this because: 1) it sounded like a challenge and I like those, 2) I thought it would be interesting to see the sort of problems vegans, vegetarians and others on restricted diets have to face, and 3) it would introduce me to some new foods, and they might be tasty.

So what did that diet actually forego? Well, obviously meat, cheese, milk, and eggs or anything that contains them. But I also learnt that some items are contentious, a notable example of which is honey – vegan associations disagree on whether it’s vegan. I decided to allow honey, based on an understanding of how honey production works and the fact that bees are critical to the health of the environment, so bee populations should be supported. I don’t think there’s an objective answer here, but this justification works for me.

The other complicated topic is alcohol. Apart from the few alcohols that explicitly contain animal products (such as mead or smoked salmon vodka) it would be easy to beleive that pretty much all common alcohol products are vegan. In fact it’s a bit more complicated than that – it turns out that beers and wines sometimes use things like gelatin or egg derivatives as fining agents to remove chemicals from the finished product. There’s very little info on most commercial offerings about whether they use these products, and bar people also rarely have any idea. I found I had to make use of crowd-sourced database Barnivore to check before I bought that my drinks were going to be vegan-friendly.

I’m happy to say that I managed to complete the challenge! And I learnt a lot along the way.

  1. Veganism is not just vegetables. When I first thought about what it would take to be vegan, I figured that I’d mainly be eating fruit and vegetables. Actually I found nearly everything is available in vegan format if you need it, so you aren’t limited to eating ‘just’ veg. Milk, yoghurt, mince, sausages and even cheese all formed part of my vegan diet, and in fact I found that meals I cooked and stuff I ate out wasn’t actually that different from what I ate before. The only issue is availability. Even small or local shops seemed to sell a reasonable selection of vegan milk, yoghurt and meats. Cheese, however, was harder to come by and for me required a visit to a superstore or Whole Foods.
  2. In London, there’s a lot of choice. Restaurants were my biggest concern. After all, there’s often not a lot of choice and it’s also hard to work out what exactly has gone in to what you’re eating. Actually, I found that even supposedly hardcore meat restaurants offered entirely reasonably vegan options (like MeatLiqour, where I had a mushroom burger and bean chilli fries). I didn’t find I was limited to specialist outlets either; shout-outs to Pret, Tossed and Tortilla where it was possible to pick up something nice. I’d be interested to know what the situation is like outside of the capital. As I’ve mentioned, corner or “local” stores did suprisingly well at supplying vegan or vegetarian stuff, but I can definitely believe it’s not like that elsewhere. From looking at menus, some cities (notably Bristol and Brighton) had a stronger presence of vegan options than London, but I assume that they’re the exceptions.
  3. Vegan-friendly substitutes were actually OK. A lot of vegan-friendly substitutions for stuff in my regular diet were actually not lacking taste or horrible in some way. Almond and soya milks were all nice, and actually I found I prefer them to normal milk. Coconut yoghurt was perfectly fine and I couldn’t really taste the difference from dairy yoghurt. Vegan chocolate was kind of weird and quite dry, but other snack bars were pretty good. I used a lot of soya mince (from Tesco) and actually thought it was delicious and maybe even better than meat mince. I failed, however, to find a non-disgusting vegan cheese – the one I tried smelled horrendous and was only vaguely palatable when melted, at which point it tasted like the worst kind of American processed cheese.
  4. Dairy is the hardest part. Not eating meat wasn’t too bad, partly because the food I cook myself didn’t have a whole lot of meat in it anyway or worked fine with meat left out or by using vegan alternatives. Most establishments are also pretty clued up and have something available for the growing number of vegetarians. It definitely made me realise that I don’t need as much meat in my diet and can get by perfectly happily without. Dairy however was a lot harder. I found that a suprising number of foods contain dairy content. Quorn mince, for example, contains egg. And in a particularly frustrating episode on a train platform with no phone signal I took a punt on Cool Original Doritos – the logic being, what dairy could they possibly need? Turns out they contain milk powder, so I went hungry. I actually find the dairy-free struggle particularly puzzling, given the number of people who suffer from lactose intolerance to cater for.
  5. The hardest situations were with other people. I found that the most difficult part of the challenge was trying to not let your decision be a problem for other people. I went to a few restaurants and dinner parties, and it weighed heavily on me when I had to say “by the way, I’m vegan” because of the extra work that’d have to happen to cook something special or avoid a favourite place. So much so in fact that a few times I chose to skip a meal entirely and do my own thing. I found myself keeping it a secret because I didn’t want people to worry about having to fit me in. That’s not a way to live your life though and I’m sure it’d disappear in time. Still, trying to shield people from the extra burden of your choice of veganism is something that I didn’t really consider before starting and hadn’t resolved by the end.
  6. I missed some opportunities to pig out. The most frustrating times were where it was tempting to binge but couldn’t. I did a cyber security outreach event at Birmingham University for which we ordered a huge amount of pizza, none of which was vegan-friendly. I also went to a sponsored dinner where they had both pick-and-mix and a chocolate fountain – none for me though! This was really irritating and actually it felt like I was missing out on rewards I’d earned or something.
  7. I didn’t feel any different. Depsite all the chat about veganism being a more natural diet, I didn’t feel any healthier. I monitored my weight too, and that didn’t significantly change. I did definitely eat less confectionary and that was a positive, but also I found that I ate a lot of high-fat olive oil. A vegan diet is not intrinsically better for you and it’s still possible to eat poorly. There are also a lot of concerns about whether vegans get enough vitamins and minerals naturally in their diet, and most take some form of supplement. After a month, I didn’t feel any less nourished than usual, more tired, or basically different in any way. I attribute this to the human body being pretty good at handling change and if it’d been more than a month I’m sure there would be differences in the long term.

Even though I’m not going to continue to eat fully vegan, it has made me think differently. When I came to the end of the month, I was definitely nervous the first time it came to eat meat agian - I had a strong feeling that I didn’t want to break the month-long streak.

I was actually suprised by how easy I found the challenge. I was expecting to have to bend over backwards to fit a vegan diet into my lifestyle, whereas actually I didn’t have to change all that much. It’s definitely opened my eyes to how straight-forward it is to incorporate some veganism into your lifestyle if you want to. I might choose to adopt some diet changes flexibly, such as vegetarianism or veganism some days of the week. I’ll also be continuing to choose some of the vegan foods I tried: notably, oat milk instead of dairy where I can and exclusively soy mince instead of beef mince - that stuff is good!

If you’re interested, I’d definitely encourage trying it yourself. You can get lots of into on the Veganuary website or from the NHS.