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Through the lentil curtain: a beginner's guide to becoming vegan

Be it for health, for the animals or for the planet, veganism is on the march. In light of Veganuary, Food24's resident vegan introduces this fulfilling, healthy and compassionate way of living.

by: Lisa Wallace | 03 Jan 2018

How do you know if a person is vegan? They tell you...

It's a standing joke, and I used to laugh at it (I still laugh at it) but this time I get it. Since becoming vegan I've realised that you actually do have to tell people, not simply for catering purposes but because it's a commitment; a belief that's important enough to share. Why? Because veganism is one of the most effective ways you can help our planet, reduce the suffering of animals and improve personal health.

'Vegan' is the word and movement of the moment. As people become more conscious about what they eat, so too has this philosophy progressed. Vegans adopt a lifestyle that avoids any form of animal exploitation – not just by diet but in what clothes are worn, products used (from cleaning supplies to shampoos to cosmetics) and environmental activism. It's not about not eating eggs or dairy or meat, it's about a lifestyle that is informed, committed and compassionate. 

Marianne Erasmus, former publisher of The Vegan Life magazine says, "The huge shift towards veganism is really interesting. It reflects a growing awareness of our impact on the world, because the basis of veganism is not only about what’s good for the individual, but what’s best for the planet." Veganuary is a charity that inspires people to try be vegan for one month – January – and hopefully throughout the year too.

I've called on a number of reliable resources (The Vegan Life, PETA, Vegan SASouth African Vegan Society and Veganuary, among others) to highlight the value in considering this way of life. If it makes sense to you, maybe it will inspire you to live this way too...

ALSO READ: SA gets first vegan magazine

The vegan diet

Veganism follows a vegetarian diet that also excludes eggs, dairy, honey, butter and any other animal-derived product. It may seem really daunting and you may ask yourself two very normal questions: What can I eat then? How will I get protein?

As a result of societal norms, there's this wild misunderstanding that protein only comes from animals, and that we need an animal protein at every meal: eggs for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch, steak and vegetables for dinner. Right? According to Vegan SA, South Africa's biggest vegan directory, cooking vegan food is not that much different to cooking a meat-based diet, except that it's healthier and often cheaper. Many meat eaters believe that by "going veg" you're removing food choice. But it's usually the opposite – you might find you're exposed to new, different and more delicious foods than on a meat-based diet. Read about the nutritious ingredients and foods available to you here. The list is infinite!

ALSO READ: Indulge in Food24's favourite vegan recipes 

The stand against animal cruelty

"Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any other way". This is PETA's (People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals) motto and mantra. Often the decision maker for people to adapt to a vegan way-of-life is animal cruelty. Animals are sentient beings. They feel emotions, can suffer, and their lives matter to them.

Five fast facts about the meat and dairy industries:

  1.        According to PETA, the average American consumes 26 chickens, half a pig, one turkey, a tenth of a cow and 40 fish per year – so even just one person becoming vegan can make a difference.
  2.        Milk is actually intended for a cow's calf, but dairy cows are forced to produce 10-20 times more milk for human consumption than they would naturally. Their living conditions are cramped and mastitis, an infection of the udder, is common due to the unnaturally high milk yields. The saddest yet: dairy cows' calves are taken away once they are born, to be fed formula instead of the milk naturally produced for them. Male calves are either killed shortly after birth or raised for veal (which is another sad story in itself). 
  3.        Factory farmed animals live unnatural lives — they do not breathe fresh air or stretch their legs, they are fed a diet of hazardous antibiotics, they do not interact with members of their own species as they would normally, they do not even have the basic right to rear their own offspring.
  4.        Corporations have thus taken living, breathing creatures and turned them into nothing but a product, 'livestock' from which they can profit.
  5.        Chickens bred in factory farms live cramped inside metal cages, live amongst their faeces, disease and dead chickens, while their beaks are regularly trimmed to prevent them from pecking one another.

image: iStock

Honey I'm home

So what exactly is wrong with honey, it doesn't hurt the bee? A typical honey bee produces merely a twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. It travels for kilometres each day and visits up to 1 500 flowers — so that honey that you're swirling in your tea or spreading over toast has been painstakingly made, produced to feed the hive in winter when food is scarce. Other natural sweeteners, like maple syrup, agave, molasses or date syrup hurt nothing but are equally tasty. 

Get PETA's free Vegan Starter Kit here.

The environmental issue

A plant-based diet is better for the earth. Why? Because livestock consume more protein, water and calories than they produce and meat production contributes to global warming, pollution, deforestation, land degradation, water scarcity and species extinction. In opposition, a vegan diet requires about a third of the land needed for conventional Western diets. To that end, 3.5 billion humans could live off the food currently fed to lifestock.

The health factor

I can't say my vegan journey began after watching Earthlings. Quite honestly I will never be able to watch that documentary, or any similar; I don't respond well to visceral, cruel treatment of animals – it's far too upsetting – so I think forcing that kind of content on others in an attempt to get them to become vegan is futile. No one likes to feel forced. Rather, informed and educated.

I did however watch a documentary about plant-based living. Although these sorts of documentaries have two sides and are in part factually incorrect/have nutritional errors, Netflix's What the Health made an impression. In fact, it was the final pendulum that swung me in the vegan direction after months of privately sizing the thought up.

The film exposes the collusion and corruption in government and big businesses that is costing the US trillions of healthcare dollars, and keeping people sick. The film argues that cholesterol, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis and other chronic ailments can be cured or at least prevented through diet – a plant-based diet. Again, there are two sides to this argument, but I am testament to rapid health improvement since switching to plant-based. Within four months of being vegan my normally high cholesterol levels had dropped by 2.3 points. A vegan diet is proven to help reduce cholesterol and saturated fat, while increasing carotenoids, healthy fibre, vitamin C and folate. Yes you may need to supplement, largely for Vitamin B12, Iron or Zinc, but the positives far outweigh any negatives. 

ALSO READ: 2018 Food trends: SA restaurant consultant says chefs need to embrace all dietary requests to succeed

image: iStock

What are the negatives?

On a personal note, transitioning into vegan living and following a plant-based diet isn't always easy. It's easy in the sense that, in today's age there are so many health products available to vegans and to anyone with a specialised diet – gluten-free, sugar-free, grain-free, etc etc. But there are of course days when one really does miss milk in one's coffee, dreams about cheese and charcuterie and really feels like a double cheese burger. There are however alternatives that, although may take getting used to, are worth it for the vegan plight.

Initially, switching to a plant-based diet that involves significantly more roughage (vegetables and lentils will do that to you) you may experience bloating (I christened it my vegan belly). I believe with time, drinking a lot of water, ensuring a healthy gut via regular probiotics, living a healthy 360° lifestyle (I'm not always good at that) and staying informed about what foods are available to you, trying new recipes and subscribing to vegan "groups" or websites, it's easier to stay committed and feel supported

One person choosing to become vegan makes a huge difference...

Did you know that you could save 100 animals per year just by adopting a vegan diet? Going vegan literally saves lives.

In a lifetime, each of us will eat more than 7 000 animals so by choosing to stop, many lives are spared. It won’t save the animals who are in farms and slaughterhouses today, but, as a simple rule of economics when demand decreases so does supply: as people buy fewer animal products, supermarkets and butchers will reduce their orders, and so fewer animals will be bred and killed. Their numbers would decline, but considering their living conditions it's probably best. Less land would be used to rear livestock, new habitats would be freed up and wildlife populations would flourish. 

Keen to take on Veganuary? Sign up here, it's free! 

ALSO READ: Try these epic vegan recipes from Food24

Resources to get you started on your Veganuary or vegan mission.

Vegan SA: The South African Vegan Directory

South African Vegan Society


Vegan Life Magazine


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