Educating Myself

I’m not going to lie, converting to a plant-based lifestyle has not been easy. And I’m not completely there yet. Maybe I’ll never be totally plant-based, but what’s important to me is that I’m heading in the right direction.

One of the biggest surprises for me during this whole journey has been how much I have educated myself about our food and where it comes from. People often ask me if I miss eating meat or dairy, but once I found out how most of that meat and dairy gets onto your plate, I lost any desire to put it into my body. If someone can honestly say to me that they know where their meal comes, what it consists of and the impact that it has on the environment and other humans and they still feel comfortable eating it, I say good on them. For me, though, there are just too many problems here in the western world that could easily be solved if we all went a little bit more plant-based.

The issue of food running out is already becoming a public issue here in the UK. Supermarkets and markets have been fighting over the price of milk and celebrity chefs are doing their best to get people to use the bits of meat that are usually thrown away. In an interesting article published by the BBC, solutions to the problem of food shortages are discussed, including growing meat in a test tube and farming insects, all of which scientists are currently wasting thousands of pounds to test. An add-on to the article is a debate about whether a vegetarian could eat a test-tube burger. Not only am I horrified that the BBC would pose such a question, which to me only has one answer (no, of course a vegetarian could not eat a test-tube burger), I also wasn’t impressed with their assumption that people only turn vegetarian for two reasons, religion and animal cruelty. The argument for vegetarians eating this processed mutant food is that, although the initial sample still has to come from a live animal, the animal doesn’t die therefore it’s OK.

In the same article Dr Elizabeth Weichselbaum, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, talks about the importance of eating meat for a healthy diet. OK, so let’s have a quick look at where the western ideal of a nutritional diet has left us. On Friday 24th February 2012, The Metro newspaper published an article about the rising numbers of hospital admissions due to obesity. The statistics they quote are scary:

‘The number of weight-loss stomach operations has risen 12 per cent in one year as fatter people try to reverse the rising tide of obesity.
There were 8,087 operations in England’s hospitals in 2010/11, up from 7,214 the previous year, according to NHS data.’
The Metro 24/02/2012

One in four people in the UK are now classed as obese. What is even scarier is that in the child population, the figure is three in ten. We are teaching our children how to live unhealthy lives and become overweight. Only 25% of the population eat the recommended 5-a-day of fruit and vegetables, which by the way is supposed to be a recommended minimum. What shocked me the most in the data was that 20% of people said they walk less than 20 minutes a year. I can’t even comprehend how that can be possible. Reading the article reminded of when I worked with children about ten years ago. Serving dinner to a group of young boys one night, I asked them if they wanted carrots and one of the boys asked me what a carrot was. I was stunned that a child could not recognise what is a very common vegetable in the UK. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. The boy tried the carrots and liked them so much that the next night he asked for just a plate of carrots. Unfortunately, though, there are a lot of children out there who do not get the right advice.

My hope is that we won’t start regularly breeding insects or growing burgers in a test tube to feed the planet, and that in twenty years time eating a plant-based diet will be the norm and not the exception. Twenty years ago, when I was a child, we faced a very similar crisis. The hole in the ozone layer was a very real threat to our existence. The answer was right in front of our noses, to stop using CFCs, but the use of these chemicals was so ingrained in our daily rituals that most people couldn’t comprehend life without them. The best way to make change is to educate, and that’s exactly what happened. My peers and I were taught about the dangers of CFCs from a young age, and as a result we have grown into a generation that don’t use them. In particular, there is a film called ‘Two Seconds to Midnight’ that we were shown at my high school and that had a profound affect on me. If you think of the entire history of Earth as a 24 hour clock, with the Big Bang at midnight on the first night and present day at midnight on the second night, then humans only arrived on the planet at two seconds to midnight. However, we have had more impact than any other inhabitants. This was the film that led me to think about my place on this planet and the footprints that I leave behind. We have the opportunity to teach today’s children about the benefits of leading a plant-based lifestyle, to stop them becoming a generation of morbidly obese adults and to prevent food shortages. I don’t think we can afford not to educate them.

Vegan Body Builders

One of my biggest pet hates is people who stereotype and make assumptions, but I must admit that as much as I try I am sometimes guilty of it myself. Whilst browsing through the Meatless Mondays website I was pleasantly surprised to find an article which provides advice for vegan bodybuilders. Apparently there are over 5,000 bodybuilders who use fruit, vegetables, beans and wholegrains to aid their training. What I find even more interesting is that they manage to consume the same amount of protein (what you need to make your muscles look really big) as their omnivore competitors, but consume less fat and toxins.

Personally, I don’t think I could physically eat the 4,000 calories a day needed by bodybuilders, wherever it came from, but it’s interesting to know that a plant-based diet is an option for different groups of people.

The 8 Principles of Planeat

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post explaining why I’m a plant-based vegetarian . As I mentioned in the post, my main inspiration was watching the Planeat movie. Following on from that, I thought I’d share with you Ann Esselstyn’s 8 principles of a plant-based diet and the impact they have had on my diet and lifestyle.

 

1. Eat Oats

Eat oats for breakfast every day. Oats help lower cholesterol and also reduce artery inflammation. When I first read Ann’s Principles, I was already eating oatbran for breakfast, so it was good to know that I was doing something right. Since I found out that I’m allergic to gluten, I’ve had to switch to buckwheat flakes, but I still eat them the same way. Personally, I like to heat the flakes up with half-water, half-soya milk and drizzle a bit of local honey or agave syrup over the top. It’s also a handy breakfast to prepare when you’re in a rush to get ready in the morning. I put the buckwheat on a low heat whilst I dash round my apartment finding my work clothes and packing my lunch. I only have to stir it a couple of times and, about ten minutes later, it’s ready to eat.

 

2. Eat Greens

Eat greens, especially leafy greens. That’s where you’re going to get all your nutrients from. Don’t worry if you’re not keen on complicated cooking, kale is super easy to prepare. Pull the leaves off the stalks and put them in a shallow pan (I use a frying pan) with about an inch of water in the bottom. Cover with a lid and steam for three minutes. They taste great on wholemeal bread with lemon or as a side to most meals.

 

3. Eat Beans and Lentils

Beans and lentils can be used as a replacement for meat and dairy, and they are really versatile. I keep a tub of red lentils in my kitchen and throw a handful into soups and stews when I’m cooking. Without wanting to sound like a stereotypical vegetarian, I’m going to talk about the merits of hummus. Over the years I’ve tried various types and brands of pre-packed hummus and, whilst it is perfectly edible, I’ve never been a huge fan. Inspired by Ann Esselstyn’s 8 Principles, I decided to give in another shot. You should, however, avoid hummus that contains tahini, and Ann has a great, simple recipe for making your own hummus. Blend together chick peas, lemon and garlic and add cumin, vinegar, red peppers, parsley or cilantro (coriander to us Brits) to taste. On a personal note, I don’t eat garlic, so instead I use chilli, which tastes great. My top tips are to boil the chick peas for a couple of minutes longer than the instructions tell you, or boil them at all if they’re ready cooked, for a smoother texture.

 

4. Eat Whole Grains

Whole grains are easy to identify, just make sure the word ‘whole’ is written before them on the packaging. Health food shops are a great place to find these. Holland and Barrett have stores in most towns and cities here in the UK.

 

5. Eliminate Oil

Ann urges everyone to empty all oil, even virgin olive oil, out of your cupboards. Instead any liquid works. Vegetable broth (no sodium), water, wine, beer, orange juice, carrot juice, vinegar are all viable alternatives. When I first read this I was dubious, but I have since tried using lots of different liquids including orange juice, vinegar and white wine vinegar and found that they do actually work. Most vegetables also contain enough liquid that they don’t need much else to cook them anyway. I never use oil at home anymore, and I try to avoid foods that contain a lot of oil when I eat out.

Coincidentally, whilst conducting my own experiments with alternatives to oil, I saw an episode of The Secret Millionaire on Channel 4 where the same thing was being done but for entirely different reasons. The secret millionaire in this particular episode was trying to fry a hamburger, and asked his neighbours if he could borrow some oil. They told him he didn’t need oil, and he could fry his burger using water. Theirs was a discovery borne out of necessity, as in such a poor neighbourhood oil was a luxury they could not afford. I found it interesting that in these economically challenging times, the cheapest option quite often also turns out to be the most environmentally friendly.

 

6. Drink Water

Water is the best drink you can have. You should drink at least 2 litres a day, more when you exercise, and wait 30 minutes between drinking and eating to avoid heartburn. What’s more, you’ve got to pay for water in your water rates anyway, so you save a fortune in all the other drinks you don’t buy.

 

7. Avoid Sugar and Salt

Avoid sugar and salt as much as possible. Use lemon juice, lime juice and hot sauces instead. If you are used to eating a lot of sugar and salt, you will crave it at first, but that will pass. If you want to treat yourself to something sweet, try agave syrup (plant-based) or honey.

 

8. Read Labels

Read the label on anything you eat that has a label and know what it is you’re eating. This has been a habit of mine since I first turned vegetarian, and I’ve learnt so much from it.

 

The people who brought us Planeat have also made another movie call Forks over Knives. Check out the website here.

 

 

 

 

The Plant-Based Traveller

I’ve been living a plant-based lifestyle for almost a year now, and one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is travelling.

Travelling is one of my biggest passions, and I was determined to prove that it is possible to be a plant-based traveller.

I’m not going to pretend that I stick to a completely plant-based, organic diet whenever I travel. I do, however, try to be conscious of what I eat and choose plant-based options whenever I can.

I assumed trying to find suitable food when away from home and out of my comfort zone would be a nightmare, especially when faced with a language barrier, but it’s actually surprised me how little effort it takes.

At first, I had far more questions than I was finding answers for.

Where can you get vegan food at 1am in Rhodes Town after a night out partying with friends?

How do you explain a plant-based diet in Italian?

Why is it difficult to find parsnips in Austria?

That last one was a problem that both myself and my brother came across. Even when we found out the German name for parsnips and asked for them, people looked at us like we were making the word up. My brother later discovered that parsnips are considered pig food in Austria, so most people haven’t heard of them. Recently, some of the fresh produce shops have started to stock them to cater to us crazy Brits who like eating our pig food.

OK, so maybe you don’t want to be plant-based when on holiday. After all, holidays/vacations are generally a good excuse to let the health kick go for a week or two. Be careful if you are going to do this, though. I tried to go back to eating dairy for one weekend not long after I started living plant-based, and I got very ill very quickly because my body wasn’t used to it.

If you do want to travel plant-based, though, here are some tips that you might find useful.

  1. Be prepared. Without wanting to sound like your mum or a boy scout, this really is the best piece of advice I can give you. Research your destination before you get there. With the dawn of the internet age, gone are the days of walking round in circles in foreign destinations, map and guidebook in hand while you try to figure out where that great restaurant is that everyone talks about. Happy Cow is a great website that allows you to search vegan and vegetarian restaurants by location, and Lonely Planet also list good restaurants. As well as restaurants, check out health food shops and fresh food markets in the area.
  2. Think about the accommodation you choose. If you’re going for half-board, do they cater for vegans? I know from my experience working in the Alps that most hotels, even the smaller guest houses, will provide soya milk and other vegan options if you ask. On that note, please be aware that in some countries such as Austria the shops are closed from 12 noon on Saturday until Monday morning. If you’re flying in on a Saturday, you’ll need to let your hotel know in advance so they have time to shop. Self-catering is the easiest option, because you can prepare your own food. Personally, I choose to stay in hostels as they usually have really good kitchen facilities.
  3. When you are eating out in restaurants, don’t be afraid to ask. Any decent restaurant will be happy to accommodate special diets/allergies. They may look at you a little strangely at first, but at the end of the day they want you to spend money in their business. You have to accept that you’re not going to get a slap-up, 5 course vegan extravaganza everywhere you go, but you can usually find something. When at a works dinner once on the island of Symi in Greece I was given a Greek salad for my starter and then another Greek salad for my main! And when you do manage to find that great vegan restaurant that everyone has told you about, it will taste even better. Seasonal restaurants are also becoming increasingly popular, so you may want to include these in your research list.
  4. Learn the local lingo for ‘I’m a vegan’. Have it written down on a piece of paper to carry with you so you don’t have to worry about pronunciation problems. One of my guests in Rhodes once asked me to write down ‘thank you’ in Greek for him so that he could use it whenever he wanted to thank one of the locals for something, which I thought was sweet.
  5. Always carry snacks with you for those occasions that you can’t find a restaurant that will cater to vegans. Come to think of it, that’s a handy tip for anyone. I remember occasions when I couldn’t find any food at all, vegan or omnivore. Nuts and fruit are really handed to carry around with you, and I usually have a little sandwich box in my rucksack with pieces of seasonal veg in (carrots, peppers(capsicums), cucumber etc). It’s common practice now for supermarkets to label their fresh produce that is from the local region and/or organic, and most big supermarkets stock a ‘bio’ range (nuts/seeds/rice cakes) as well.
  6. Don’t forget your water bottle. Look out for water fountains where you can refill, and remember to keep drinking your 2 litres a day. It’s easy to forget to drink water when you’re disctracted by the tourist attractions.

If nothing else, leading a plant-based life always makes for interesting conversation. A friend in Kefalonia told me ‘If you don’t eat meat then you can’t drink red wine, it will make you too drunk’. As I don’t like red wine anyway, I never got to try this one out. It’s an interesting theory, though. Some friends in Rhodes very kindly invited me to their Easter BBQ, a big celebration in Greece. On explaining that I was vegetarian I was told ‘That’s OK, you can have chips’. Unfortunately, the chips were being fried in the animal fat dripping from the lamb spit. Needless to say, I politely declined and stuck to the Greek salad.

Why I’m a Plant-based Vegetarian

I keep referring to the fact that I’m a plant-based vegetarian. So, what is a plant-based vegetarian?

Having been a regular vegetarian (I didn’t eat of wear anything that an animal died for) for seventeen(ish) years, I knew a few facts about the impact our diet has on the environment. I’m always keen to broaden my knowledge, though, so in November last year I watched the Planeat film. According to the scientists in Planeat, the less animal-based foods and the more plant-based foods you eat the better, both on a health and environmental level. Their mission is to create awareness of the benefits of a plant-based diet, encourage consumers to reduce their meat and dairy consumption and be inspired by plant-based cuisine. Already being a vegetarian, I fully admit that at the start of the film I was quietly confident that my diet was already pretty environmentally friendly. I was soon brought down a peg or two, though. As Gidon Eshel, prof. of Physics and Geosciences at Bard College explains, vegetarian diets aren’t actually that much better than an average omnivore diet, and in fact a poultry-based diet can have less impact on the environment. This is due to veggies tending to over-compensate by eating more dairy products. Which brings me neatly to another important message that I learnt from Planeat. In the Western world we are brought up to believe that we should eat lots of animal-based protein. The research of T Colin Campbell shows that too much protein from an animal-based diet is damaging to our health. As you may have guessed already, I’m no scientist, so please watch the film or visit the Planeat website for a more coherent explanation of this theory.

It’s important for me to differentiate between what I believe to be be a vegan and a plant-based vegetarian. I’m not a vegan. For a start, I eat local, ethical honey and use bees products as it’s an enzyme not a protein. Also, to me a vegan is someone who cannot eat or use any product where an animal is involved in the production. As a plant-based vegetarian, I try my best to eat organic whenever possible. To produce organic food on a mass scale you need to use animal fertiliser, ie cow dung. Fifty percent of cows born are bulls, and bulls cannot be kept together, so a lot of them have to be killed. If you want organic food, then you have to accept that animals will be killed.

Planeat inspired me to make changes in my life. My plan wasn’t to transform completely overnight, but simply to make small alterations towards the Planeat philosophy.

My first step was to convert from cows milk to soya milk. As I was born with eczema, I’ve always been aware that dairy isn’t good for me (I found out recently that I’m actually allergic to it) but, as a vegetarian I’ve always been told that I should have more dairy. I did drink soya milk once before for a few months. I was living in Austria at the time, where due to my vegetarianism I was fed so much cheese that I almost couldn’t breathe. Drinking soya milk in my tea and pouring it over my breakfast cereal was my attempt to compensate for the dairy-overload.

Since making that first step into a world without animal protein, my lifestyle has changed completely. My cooking skills have also greatly improved. I’ve been working hard in my little kitchen to find plant-based alternatives to my favourite meals and treats. Some of the earlier experiments were a disaster, to say the least, but here are some images of my successes:

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What started out as me trying to educate myself a bit more and make ‘a few small changes’ has evolved into a major passion. I never could have imagined where this path would take me. I now lead an almost completely plant-based lifestyle, I buy local and seasonal, and I am much more knowledgeable about where our food comes from and what it does to our bodies and the planet. And there’s still so much for me to learn.