In February this year, I was sat at a restaurant on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, which winds itself through the sprawling metropolis of Bangkok. It was a typically hot and humid day, and the sun was just setting behind and between the concrete skyline. The menu before me was filled with meat dishes and fish platters that make me drool just reflecting on them. On the back page, a small section was dedicated to meals whose constituent parts lacked the flavoursome meat I thought necessary for a fulfilling and nutritious meal. I read through them: vegetarian Pad Thai, vegetarian Thai green curry, eggplant salad, etc. and immediately dismissed them outright in favour. A young man approached me, removing his pad of paper from his back pocket and clicking his pen. “Hello sir, what can I get for you tonight?” the waiter said, to which I replied, “Hi, can I please get a Heineken and an eggplant salad?” Before I knew it he replied: “not a problem sir” and took my menu away, ready to inform the chef to create the eggplant salad I didn’t even remotely want. I was cursing myself for a good few minutes, but because I am English, and have the characteristic traits of bashfulness and a reserved character that come with the territory, I didn’t attempt to change the order. Instead I went with it, and it was one of a very few defining points in my life so far.
When I finished the tasty yet seemingly lacking eggplant salad, I paid the bill and went back to my hotel room, unsure about my feelings toward the meal. During the elevator ride back I remembered a friend told me to watch Cowspiracy, a documentary that unveils the damaging effects agriculture, and in particular the cattle industry, has on the only habitable planet we have. After sitting through the revealing 91-minute docu-film, I vowed to remove meat and dairy from my diet once and for all – to go to the dark side. To forever become a vegan.
I went onto Thai Airways website, entered my booking reference and last name, and changed my standard meat meal to a purely vegan one. This was my first mistake. I was served the worst meal I’ve ever seen. To this day I don’t know what it was actually meant to be, although it was some sort of unidentified banal vegetables boiled alongside half-cooked rice, or so I was told by the air-hostess. The length of my first vegan experience only lasted the duration of my 11-hour flight.
By no means is this some preachy polemic about why you should become vegan, because, for one, other than the fact that the earth is rapidly and irreversibly changing as we speak in large part because of the contribution that the agricultural industry has on global emissions, there’s no reason you should stop eating animal products. Secondly, the self-righteous preaching and proselytising the pious do is one reason (one of many I will admit) that I can’t stand religion. This is just my experience of being vegan for a month. Do with it what you like.
I decided to write a feature on the topic of becoming a vegan for a month from the point of view of someone who loves eating meat and drinks more milk in a day than most people get through in a week. I sat and deliberated about a plan of attack. Which foods with a high amount of protein could substitute for meat? Which calcium-rich products could do the job milk once did? What the fuck was I getting myself into?
I convinced my flatmate to commit to the month-long period as well, as I thought having someone else to cook meals with and make sure we don’t stray from the vegan path would be helpful, and it was.
For the first time, we had to plan our visit to the supermarket, rather than chucking products as if on autopilot. We wrote a list of things we could not buy that we usually would, and thought of replacements for the ingredients we removed. We made our way around the supermarket, hoping, as always, to get in and out as fast as possible; but not this time. One thing about adhering to a vegan diet is that, especially on your first few food shopping trips, you have to check the back of every item to see whether it says, “may contain egg” or “may contain milk” – a sentence I soon got increasingly sick of. I picked up more fruit and vegetables in that one shop than I had bought in the rest of the year combined, as well as $9.50 vegan bread – bread should never be $9.50. The shop came to $116.12 each, but we did buy expensive items, such as the aforementioned grossly overpriced bread and coconut yoghurt (which was $10 for 100ml) and a whole new set of herbs, spices, and seasoning, which I figured I had to use more of now the meaty texture and flavour of my meals would be lacking.
By the end of the first week I was feeling great! I had more energy than usual, and the sense of dread at living another three weeks as a vegan had subsided, and was replaced by excitement at the prospect of being a quarter of the way through the process and a whole lot healthier than I was before. This feeling gradually fizzled out as I reached the 10-15 day point, where I was having withdrawals of either meat or dairy, although I assumed it was most likely the latter. By the 14th day I was begging my flatmate to allow me a non-soy cappuccino or cereal without almond milk, or even a kebab. I ate barely anything that day, knowing that the dairy I wanted so badly wasn’t present the food I had in the pantry.
As the third week was well underway, I started embracing the process as I had done in the first week. Recipes were coming together, and my journal (which I just note down ‘things’ rather than actively write soliloquies in, said: “Vegan Month: Day 15 – beautiful food today. No problem with veganism. Could do it forever”). Seeing as the previous day turned out to be the hardest day of the whole process, it was somewhat premature to proclaim I was in it for life, but it goes to show how up and down your mood can be just from eating well, or believing that you’re missing a supposedly vital food group from your diet.
For me, the hardest part about becoming vegan for the month was the length of time it took to prepare meals and the limited options at supermarkets. The high cost of veganism is an issue too, although this is simply my take on the issue and the vegan products I bought may have been more expensive than what you might find yourself. You do cut out the large cost of meat and dairy (mostly cheese), which does help to balance out the cost.
A Guardian article entitled, “Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history”, outlined that the victims of industrial farming include “the majority of Earth’s large creatures: tens of billions of sentient beings, each with a complex world of sensations and emotions, but which live and die on an industrial production line.” The process is a well documented but constantly overlooked one by the majority of omnivores, who essentially support animal cruelty by eating meat. The production cycle of beef, for example, is a harrowing one. Regularly, cows are given drugs to make them grow faster and are subjected to wholly unnatural diets designed to fatten them up in order to make them more appealing when they arrive on our shelves. PETA states that this unnatural dieting causes chronic digestive pain in the animals. Their “stomachs becomes so full of gas that breathing is impaired because of compressions of the lungs.” A significant proportion of beef cows don’t make it to the next stage in the process, dying or contracting horrible diseases due to these complications in their stomach. Cows only live to between one and three years of age, a fraction of their 25 year average life expectancy. This process isn’t the worst of the industry though; for a bit of light afternoon reading take a look into the production cycle of veal.
One of the main reasons people may give for adopting a vegan diet is on these animal cruelty grounds. This argument is persuasive, which I agreed with as much prior to this experiment as I do upon completing it, but now my actions match my conviction. Veganism also has remarkable health benefits. Many studies have come to the same conclusion – vegan diets will make you live, on average, longer than a standard western diet full of meat and dairy. A paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2009 outlined that vegan diets usually have higher “dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, iron, phytochemicals, and tend to be lower in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol, fatty acids, calcium, zinc and vitamin B-12” too. Additionally, it outlines that in comparison to vegetarians, vegans are generally “thinner, have lower total and LDL cholesterol, and modestly lower blood pressure.” Indeed, in one other study plasma total and LDL cholesterol were 32 percent and 44 percent lower among vegans than among omnivores (those who eat plants and animals). I personally found that over the last two months of being a vegan weight has fallen off my body and I feel significantly sharper and more alert throughout the day than I previously did. The vegan diet started as a challenge, although with these positive consequences being so overtly noticeable to myself, it become a habit I adhered to, before I felt it was an obsession. For me, the moral and ethical arguments that go hand in hand with veganism in and around the lifestyle form a comprehensively compassionate outlook on life.
One of the most prominent vegan celebrities is James Cameron, who quite rightly stated: “You’re not an environmentalist if you eat meat”. Here, he was referring to the livestock industry and its effect on the world. To put it into quantitative form, the by-products of the industry account for at least 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of all worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. To put this number in perspective, transportation emissions (all planes, cars, etc.) only account for 13 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The production of one pound of beef requires an obscene ten thousand litres of water (and that is a conservative estimate - some claim it is up to thirty thousand). According to the World Wildlife Foundation there are currently 1.1 billion people worldwide who lack access to water and around 2.7 billion who find water scarce for at least one month of the year. In addition, they estimate that by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages. Ordinary people need to take action to protect the most vulnerable people in the world seeing as western politicians are significantly lacking on the issues noted above.
The benefits of becoming vegan are not exclusively personal. It is a lifestyle choice that truly helps the most vulnerable animals on our planet, ourselves included, and more so as the number of us grow. If you were to see how each piece of chicken, beef, pork etc. were treated, not just at slaughter time but throughout its hugely limited and controlled life, you would either become vegan or will have likely shown psychopathic tendencies throughout your life. Give it a go for a day, week or month and feel the benefits.