Veganuary: Healthy For Me, The Planet, Or Neither Of Us?

Over Christmas, I practically bathed in butter. Every day I gobbled sausages, cheese, hot chocolate and crispy roast potatoes cooked in beef dripping, wolfing it all down in a kind of frenzied panic because — hey — it’s Christmas, for fuck’s sake, and it won’t last forever.

Except it can last forever, quite easily, unless you make a wild and unmaintainable New Year’s resolution to become a totally different human at the stroke of midnight (or, if you’re a sane and rational person, just attempt to live a little healthier. But I am not, and so I didn’t).

I opted for Veganuary, because I’ve done in in the past. I was vegan on-and-off for a couple of years, starting back in 2016, and I remembered how good it made me feel. All the usual sat-fat options were off the table: cheese was impossible, bean burgers were dry, and almond milk was expensive and made your tea look like vomit.

If I couldn’t have it, I wouldn’t have it, and this kind of religious denial of pleasure appealed to me.

This might be a good moment to tell you a little bit about my personality. I am not great at just ‘trying to be healthier’. I need a regime: a strict set of rules I can follow to prevent the mere thought of a tub of Philadelphia entering my brain. It’s categorically unhealthy, I know, but that’s where we’re at right now.

So anyway, New Year’s Day rolls around, and I’m ready. I’m buzzing, in fact (mainly with a colossal hangover, but also about 1% excitement, too). I make some porridge with oat milk, and watch as my brother and his girlfriend sink their teeth into a cinnamon bagel with lashings of butter. I am smug, and I am only slightly envious. After all, it’s not because I’m restraining myself, it’s because I can’t.

Again, my mentality is mildly troubling, but that’s a topic for another time.

I had other motivations for going vegan, too. Global warming; sustainability; all that jazz. You don’t watch as much David Attenborough as I do without hating yourself for what your steak habit is doing to the planet.

So, yes. I had visions; visions based on my previous experience four years ago. Chickpeas, lentils, vegetables and quinoa. Barley and radishes with a home-made mustard dressing. Eating less because the taste was a bit naff. Feeling stronger and fitter and lighter — not necessarily on the scales, but in myself — and feeling proud of what I was sacrificing to give back.

But the world has changed since 2016. Veganism had roots back then, but they hadn’t infiltrated the big chains in quite the way they have today. Now, walking through Manchester, every advert is for a plant-based take on a fast food classic. KFC have an Original Recipe QUORN burger; Subway are doing a Meat-Free Meatball Marinara; Greggs have their vegan Steak Bake and sausage roll. Papa John’s have even brought out a jackfruit ‘pepperoni’ pizza, complete with vegan cheese.

This is wonderful, obviously. Wonderful for my food envy, and for my palate, which is used to meaty, spicy goodness.

What isn’t so wonderful, is that a large portion (get it?) of people who try Veganuary to dip their toes into healthier foods, to strip back the mayonnaise and cheesy dressings and go a little more… basic. And sure, the Papa John’s ‘pepperoni’ invention might not pack the same artery-clogging punch as it’s meatier counterpart, but it still comes in at 4.9g of fat per slice, only around 2g less than the original American Hot. For Greggs, the calorie and fat differences between their vegan and non-vegan products are almost non-existant.

But some responsibility has to be placed on the consumer, surely? We can’t walk blindly into veganism with high hopes of healthier lifestyles, and still keep funnelling KFCs as though they’re salad bowls. It’s logical — a deep-fried item, no matter how little animal product it contains, will never be a salubrious choice.

This is fine. Especially for the people who have ecological motivations for taking a deep-dive into the meat- and dairy-less pool of Veganuary. For some (me included) it’s a month-long trial; a way of testing the waters and seeing where positive changes can be made for the rest of the year.

So we have to ask: is veganism better for the planet? Not directly consuming animal products doesn’t necessarily equate to an absence of suffering. We all know about the horror of palm oil, and the Californian droughts brought on by the cultivation of water-intensive almond trees.

But what about the wider picture? What would happen if meat and dairy were off the table entirely?

According to research done in the US, it simply wouldn’t be sustainable. If every human on the planet adopted a purely plant-based diet, there wouldn’t be enough food for us all. That’s because the soil in the pastureland used for grazing livestock doesn’t contain the necessary nutrients for plant growth, meaning vast swathes of resources would go to waste.

Another consideration is cost. Three years ago, my brothers bought me a vegan recipe book, complete with instructions for how to make ‘beef’ wellington, ‘bacon’ and mac and ‘cheese’. Almost every recipe required something from the jesus-christ-that’s-expensive shelf at Tesco: unsalted cashew nuts, dates, organic soy sauce — the list goes on. And that’s only naming the things I could easily find; to make half the recipes, I needed nutritional yeast and vital wheat gluten, only sold in Holland & Barrett for the monthly price of a mortgage on a one-bedroom flat.

So is it sustainable, this vegan lark? Is it sustainable for me, and my penchant for milky lattes and hot, buttered toast? Is it sustainable for my coronary health, for my waistline? Is it sustainable for the planet and its limited supplies of arable land? Is it sustainable financially, for every human on any income, when judgement of those who make environmentally poor dietary choices inevitably starts to ramp up?

No. At least, I don’t think so. It seems to me that, as with anything, balance is key. The US researchers concluded that a plant-based diet with small amounts of meat and dairy held the most promise for our future needs. It appears that once again we need to look at our polarised mentality, and consider the idea that there may be a nugget of gold in dipping in and out of animal products, without the label.

As for me, I’ll see Veganuary through. Not because I’m convinced of its powers, but because I haven’t tried Costa Coffee’s ‘cheese’ toastie yet, and I’ve got to finish what I started.

Published by Mary Hargreaves

Writer.

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