My journey from bread-free to vegan

A recent trip to Brazil has unintentionally pushed me down a path of omitting different foods from my diet. Every morning, wherever we stayed, there were gargantuan buffets with multiple breads, cheeses, cakes, which I found hard to resist. In fairness, the stodge did help soak up all the cachaça: a potent rum-like spirit that is the main ingredient in caipirinha cocktails.

In most places I managed to eat a balanced veggie diet, with pay-per-kilo restaurants featuring a range of salads and plant-based dishes, common across the country. There were, though, a few places where the vegetarian option didn’t go beyond pizza or crepes. And then there was pizza-gate… The day all five of us ordered a large pizza, much to the amusement of the bar staff, as the pizzas are so big they are meant to be shared between 2-4 people. I almost cried into my pizza – partly due to the overwhelming size; partly due to the caipirinhas the night before…

So by the end of the holiday, I had most definitely seen enough bread and cheese to last me a lifetime month or two. In January, I gave up drinking, and I didn’t want that to be the hardest thing I’ve ever given up, so I declared I’d be giving up bread and cheese throughout March. On returning to London I had a couple of days to get my final fix. It was here that I chickened out of the double denial and decided to avoid bread in March and then cheese in April. I also wanted to see what affect each in isolation had on my health as I often suffer from really bad stomach cramps and other digestive issues.

The biggest hurdles were breakfast and events. At my work we get free toast so it’s usually the easiest – and cheapest – option. Instead I switched to muesli, Greek yoghurt and occasionally fruit. I got into this pretty quickly and within a week I wasn’t even lusting after thick seeded toast drenched in butter. I found muesli more filling and it was nice to mix it up with different fruits.

Work events were harder. There were several meetings or events when the main or only option was sandwiches. I should have put in a gluten-free request but didn’t think ahead in time. At these meetings I either grazed on the other options – usually crisps, spring rolls or cake, which are hardly any better for me than bread – or grabbed something else before or after.

I usually eat salads for lunch and dinner rotates around curries, stir fry, chillies etc, which usually aren’t bready, so most other times I didn’t even notice the omission from my diet. It was only weekend breakfasts when I would usually have eggs on toast, or a couple of times when eating out where bread-based dishes like burgers were the most common or only veggie option, that I had to do a bit more thinking. At the end of March we went for curry and not having chapatti or roti was rather tough!

Health-wise, without bread I definitely didn’t get as many bad cramps or stomach problems and I felt much less bloated. I had realised that after the first week or so of not having bread I actually didn’t miss it much – it’s all just about breaking the habit. I did though, very much enjoy my celebratory return to bread: scrambled tofu on toast, but have been eating less since allowing it back in my diet.

Homemade scrambled tofu with spinach & tomato.

Homemade scrambled tofu with spinach & tomato.

In April, back on the bread, I gave up cheese. Giving up cheese has been easier than expected (apart from the one time I slipped at a BBQ and had some grilled halloumi….) as I realised that I don’t actually eat it that often. Sometimes I have feta or halloumi in my boss lunch salads, but very rarely in an evening meal. Again, eating out was a slight challenge, particularly as a lot of veggie options are really uninventive – I don’t know a single vegetarian that is excited by a goats cheese tart or a cheese and pickle sandwich – but most veggie meals can be easily adapted to have without cheese.

I haven’t noticed any change to my health by omitting cheese, probably because it isn’t as big a part of my diet as I had thought. I think my obsession with cheese jokes means I feel like cheese is a much bigger part of my life than it is. What did the cheese say when it looked in the mirror? HALLOUMI! Anyway… giving up cheese has always been the sticking point in trying a wholly dairy-free diet – but now that I’ve omitted it for a month I’ve realised it is not that tough.

So I’ve decided that for May I’m going to finally try a whole month completely vegan (whilst keeping the cheese jokes). I believe veganism is a complete lifestyle: vegan clothes, vegan products and so on. My change will be purely dietary but I am interested to find out more about the broader concept of veganism. Coincidentally, at the end of May I am going to VegFest in Bristol: a vegan food festival with different talks, demonstrations and stalls which I’m sure will give me further insight and inspiration.

Being vegan is more than just a dietary choice – it is about sustainability, understanding the food industry and making more ethical decisions in life. Yes, you can do this on a vegetarian diet, and even a meat-eating diet, but to a much lesser degree in my opinion. I hope that by omitting dairy produce I will reconnect with the compassion that made me become a vegetarian when I was eight, and has been periodically backed up through books such as Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and Felicity Lawrence’s Not on the Label. I expect to learn more throughout this endevour – so far I have learnt that we currently have 3 vegan MPs (I might need to edit this following #GE2015), that Jay-Z and Beyonce have done a 22 vegan challenge and that there’s a brilliant vegan board game called Veganopoly. Every day’s a school day.

IMG_0527

My first dietary change will be breakfast – no more dairy yoghurt or butter. I am already a fan of nut butters and soy yoghurt so that change should be straightforward. I cook the majority of my meals from scratch and these are often, unintentionally, dairy-free. It will be shopping where I will need to be aware of what dairy ingredients (as well as all sorts of other nasties) are hidden in many everyday foods. Eating out will involve a slightly new way of thinking, and I’ve already been scouring menus recently to see what I can eat or what adaptation I could request.

Mac cheese is, however, one of my biggest vices, and even though I rarely cook it at home, I do gravitate towards it on a pub menu. I’m sure it’s some physcosomatic way of getting over the childhood trauma of Kraft cheesy pasta. I’ve already had to resist macaroni whilst off cheese – opting for stuffed aubergine with pearl barley (minus the mozzarella) in The New Cross House recently whilst my friends devoured mac cheese. The aubergine was super tasty and I didn’t feel anywhere nearly as bloated as I would’ve if I’d had a full-on mac attack: win win. By random coincidence, last week Minimalist Baker’s vegan mac cheese recipe appeared in my twitter feed – the vegan gods must be watching my turmoil – so that will be getting rocked out pretty sharpish. Thankfully it doesn’t include vegan cheese (sheet of plastic, anyone?) but gets the creaminess from cashews instead.

It will be interesting to see what a difference a vegan diet has on my health. So far I haven’t noticed any sizeable changes from having no cheese but once I cut out all dairy and eggs, that may change. If I don’t get more mental clarity, as outlined by One Green Planet, I will be asking for a refund on my mung beans!

I’ll be posting my own recipes throughout May but any other recipes, advice – or requests for more cheese jokes – are most welcome.

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