Back in January I was cozily powering through those dark, winter nights accompanied by my best friends, red wine and Netflix. Faced with the nightly argument over WTF to watch, having exhausted all of the boxset options, attention turned to the many documentaries on there.
Vegucated was the first of its kind I had watched, late last year on maternity leave, pre-baby, whilst twiddling my thumbs – which isn’t easy when they resemble enormous sausages due to all of the baby weight I saw it as my duty to gain and then lose for your blog reading pleasure.
It struck a chord immediately. I was already pescetarian, but it was enough to make me quit fish immediately, and I LOVED seafood. I forged ahead with the veggie lifestyle and was happy to continue consuming dairy, mostly in cheese and chocolate form.
Until the Netflix war led me back onto the documentary path. Suddenly, I couldn’t rationalise my cheese addiction when it was stacked against all of the health benefits of a 100% plant-based diet. Prior to this, I knew very little about the animal welfare arguments against consuming dairy and animal by-products – I naively assumed there weren’t any. No cows were killed in the making of my pizza, so what was the problem?
I still consider myself to be far from an expert in these matters, I have literally just watched a few films, read a little on the internet and talked to people. So I am not here to preach; live and let live and all that. I have no issues with other people’s choices, but I found myself struggling to live with my own.
As it was soon to be February, I resolved to take on a month-long, dairy-free challenge to see how I coped with and felt about the change in diet, outlook and habits.
And so, #fuckdairyfebruary was born.
Here are a few things I subsequently learned… 28 in fact, one for each day of the challenge which I will pretend was on purpose, and not just because I couldn’t think of 30.
1. I didn’t miss anything. Seriously surprising for someone who comes from a long line of cheese addicts.
2. Vegan doesn’t mean healthy. I had visions of becoming a member of that hated breed of people who just lose weight “without even noticing”. I put weight on after initially confusing things I could eat for things I should eat.
3. So in the same spirit, not all “treats” revolve around dairy.
4. Having said that, if you don’t choose your dining venues wisely, it can feel dairy is inescapable (quick pub lunch at the nearest carvery? Green tea and fries for me then).
5. Withdrawl is a b*tch. Sounds ridiculous, but I went through a hippytastic “healing crisis“. Coincidence? Possibly, but Jak was on the vegan train too and we were both ill for at least half the month.
6. I did feel better…. post-crisis. I can’t say I noticed a crazy surge in energy, but my skin has been good and to quote a vegan friend, Gem, I don’t feel quite so “stodge”.
7. Vegan comfort food (or as our friend Katharine would call it, “nurture food”) is just as comforting. Homemade pie and chips, lasagne, mac and “cheeze”, all the carbs.
8. It can be a talking point – I had messages from old friends doing similar challenges, or forwarding recipe ideas.
9. Equally, it’s not as interesting as you may think to most (I became that Daily Mash militant vegan). In a good way, too. I felt guilty at times asking about ingredients or adaptions until I was reminded by several people that catering for different dietary requirements is standard for anyone who works in food, so any guilt was all down to my own desperation not to cause a fuss (my ultimate worst).
10. Breaking up with your milkman is hard. It took over a month, and even the mini member of the household who isn’t dairy-free doesn’t drink cow’s milk.
11. Substitutes work, some of the time. A couple of the cheese alternatives I tried were fine, others weren’t which makes you rethink recipes and habits – often in a good way. It turns out you can eat pasta which isn’t smothered in grated cheddar – who knew?
12. Bagels are your friend.
13. Tastebuds change – and I never really believed this prior to the challenge. Green salad had never tasted so fresh; dark chocolate now tastes like “normal” chocolate and former coconut hater Jak is now a Coyo convert.
14. 1kg tubs of peanut butter don’t go as far as they used to.
15. Virtually nothing is labelled up as vegan, I spent the month reading ingredient lists and now even my non-vegan friends are pros at scanning packs for milk powder.
16. And speaking of milk powder, it is in practically everything. Whyyyyyyyyyyyy?
17. Chain places are great. I had my only vegan pizza of the month at The Brickworks. Incredibly for Accrington, it was one of two pizzas on the menu (as well as other vegan options). Chaz and I also enjoyed a #cheekynandos.
18. Vegan hotel breakfasts are easy. Fresh fruit, Marmite toast, granola, hash browns, beans and mushrooms saved me from a horrific hangover (it’s not a hotel breakfast without at least three courses).
19. You may find yourself shrieking “I can’t believe it’s not dairy!” when you discover a really amazing vegan product. I was sent these Pudology millionaires’ puds by Ocado as a review product (either cool or scary they know me this well) and was pathetically excited at how good they were.
20. People adapt. After my mum initially sent this Guardian article to our whatsapp group (apparently a joke but we learned our pass-agg skillz from the best), she soon switched the Wednesday night treat she leaves me after her childcare day, from Lindt to Bournville #bestbabysitterever #worstbossever
21. Indian restaurants and takeaways mostly cook in oil, not ghee, as it’s cheaper – so the majority of the veggie dishes are vegan. A top tip from our friend Jade and news to me – which made a curry house trip for my mum’s birthday a breeze.
22. Vegan fishless fingers are scarily similar. I know lots of veggies and vegans don’t like substitutes and I’d never bothered much until this month. Yet in the spirit of trying new things (and a #TBT to my former fish finger sandwich obsession) I explored a few bits and these were my fave.
23. Cake tastes all the sweeter when you eventually find one you can eat. Thanks to Little Barista in Burnley, I tried a coffee and orange cake and a chocolate coconut flapjack slice over the month, while my mum and Quincy tucked into buttered toasted teacakes (in San’s/Beyoncé’s own words, #iaintsorry).
24. Come prepared. Jade takes a Tesco falafel and hummus wrap meal deal to weddings and christenings in case she goes hungry – top tip.
25. Support is plentiful – I joined a Facebook group for local vegans who post really useful tips and experiences on an almost daily basis.
26. Eating out is a doddle… Mostly. Venture into Manchester and you’re laughing, nip down to your local garden centre café for lunch and you may be struggling. In which case…
27. If in doubt, call ahead. I ate lots of great food during the month and one such dish was a delicious veggie curry made especially at a country pub in the Lakes (the Stanley Arms in Calder Bridge) after I called beforehand. I’m sure I’d have found something to eat either way (salad and chips is always an option), but the chef was more than happy to accommodate my request.
28. It’s fun. I used to have a stupidly inaccurate perception of vegans as being sad and deprived, but I actually loved it and found it really easy. Which leads seamlessly to the question…
After an interesting month, I’ve decided to keep the vegan party going for a while longer. I am reluctant to commit to a label indefinitely, but I’m enjoying it so far and see no reason to stop now.
Honestly, I can’t say I’ll never eat (non-vegan) pizza again. But every time I consider it, I remember my reasons for starting this. OK, so health-wise I may not have exploited the benefits of the vegan lifestyle to their full potential just yet, but you only have to scan Peta’s Facebook feed for plentiful reasons to give this a try.
If you are curious about exploring this kind of thing, here are the documentaries that prompted my switch:
And if you’re still interested after that, Peta do a free vegan starter kit which is a good place to start.