The data is in – one of the best things you can do for the planet is to go plant-based in your diet. The authors of a 2018 study found that avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest thing that individuals can do to reduce their environmental impact on the planet and that, without global meat and dairy consumption, farmland use could be reduced by 75% without anyone needing to go hungry.
Of course, there are nuances – switching from mass-produced beef products that are being shipped from halfway around the world, to mass-produced vegan products also being shipped from halfway around the world probably won’t make as much difference as you might hope. Shopping local and seasonal is important – but cutting down on your meat and dairy consumption is something that most of us can attempt and feel good about.
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I went vegan back in 2015. As an annoying little animal rights activist, I’d gone vegetarian at the age of 11 after years of pestering my long-suffering mother about my desire to stop eating animals. This meant I had a 28-year gap between no longer eating animals and no longer eating their products. For a long time, I would never have considered the switch but, by the time the 2000s rolled around, I kinda knew, in a back-of-my-mind way, that if I was serious about fighting climate change, going vegan was a good idea. But the cheese! The omelettes! The Galaxy bars! How would I cope?
Well, how I coped was to gradually cut one dairy product at a time from my diet, promising myself that, if I found anything too difficult to switch out, I’d give myself a break and leave it in. This slowy-slowly method worked pretty well for me and it might work for you too – so here’s how I did it.
The first step I took was to cut out cow’s milk, which I used to have on my breakfast cereal.
No matter how you slice it, cow’s milk is riddled with problems. Methods of obtaining milk from cows are barbaric, to say the least, and of course we all know that cows' ruminant belching and their rather over-active bottoms are a big problem for our carbon levels. Plus lots of people (maybe unsurprisingly!) find it hard to digest the milk that is made for another species’ babies. Fortunately, there are lots of dairy-free milks available everywhere now, so it’s easy to make a switch.
Having said that, you might want to avoid almond milk as well, given that almond farming is connected to drought in California – the steep rise in demand for almond milk has played a part in that.
Instead, I’d suggest using oat milk. Oats are grown here in the UK, so you should be able to find some local brands – or you might even consider making your own, which is cheap, easy and saves on packaging.
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I found that it took me a little while to get used to the taste of nut milk – but only a couple of weeks. Milk is easier for me than for some as I don’t drink tea or coffee – but there are lots of options if you need milk in those drinks. My friend Jenni, who is an ardent tea lover, swears by the Koko brand of coconut milk for her tea. Others might like the Alpro Barista range.
The next step I took on my vegan mission was to cut out milk chocolate. Now, six years later, this seems completely insane to me as step number two. But back then, I wasn’t really all that bothered about chocolate. I was much more of a crisps and peanuts snacker than a chocolate girl, so I figured that this would be relatively easy. And, indeed, it was.
I realise some of you may not have this experience, but for me, it was simple to buy a packet of ready-salted or prawn cocktail crisps (watch out – many salt and vinegar, cheese or meat-flavoured crisps have milk in them, annoyingly) instead of a Star Bar when I fancied an indulgent treat.
What I wasn’t bargaining for was how totally addicted to vegan chocolate I would become!
In my infinite wisdom, I decided that, since I wouldn’t be able to pop to a corner shop and buy a KitKat whenever I wanted, it would be better to have a stash of vegan chocolate in the house, for when the urge took me.
Turns out, when you keep chocolate in the house as standard, the urge to eat it comes fairly often...
My Addiction to Chocolate and How I Beat It is a whole different blog for a whole different day but, for the purposes of this blog, I shall share what I’ve learned about the best vegan chocolate on the market. Hint: A lot of the chocolate deliberately marketed as vegan isn’t that great. But 100% chocolate has no milk in it, so manages to be vegan without even trying. Dark chocolate flavoured with mint, orange or salt is also usually vegan, although Lindt do insist on putting milk in everything for some reason.
My three top tips for vegan chocolate, whether it got that way deliberately or accidentally, are the Moser Roth brand from Aldi – I especially recommend the mint and sea salt flavours – Booja Booja’s award winning truffles – especially the salted caramel – and Nomo’s salted and caramel bars.
I guess even though I switched to chocolate, I’m still addicted to salt!
When I first considered turning vegan, I wondered why I would need to cut out eggs if I was only buying free range ones. Well, free range eggs are usually still produced in hellish conditions. Additionally, it is usually the case that male chicks – who obviously can’t lay eggs – are killed in very unpleasant ways shortly after birth as they aren’t profitable. While this might not be an environmental issue, it’s still something I have no desire at all to support, so I decided to send my money elsewhere. And indeed, while we all know about the evils of cattle farming, chicken farming isn’t great for the planet either, as chickens are fed with soy, which is produced by deforestation, which of course is a big factor in the reduction in biodiversity that is driving climate change.
Having said all that, eggs are a great source of protein for vegetarians. So what can vegans replace that protein with? I get my protein from various sources, including:
• the home-made hummus my fella makes
• bean salads (we buy dried pulses in bulk and cook them in the pressure cooker so we're not going through load of cans or plastic)
• dark green, leafy vegetables
• lentils made into delicious dahls and spaghetti bols...
and, I must admit, from the occasional Oowee Vegan burger, which probably isn’t really doing the planet any favours but is delicious.
If you really can’t imagine a life without eggs, you could look into buying organic or slaughter-free eggs, both of which are better than free-range for different reasons.
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The next things I ticked off my food list were things like margarine, pesto, mayo – non-vegan bits and bobs I had been buying in jars. As my non-vegan items ran out, I replaced them with vegan versions... and quickly discovered that none of them tasted any different at all. Literally, no difference. Free-from pesto is just as delicious as the stuff with the Parmesan in it. Vegan mayo tastes identical. The Naturli' Vegan Block tastes like butter. Milky ice cream can be replaced with Swedish Glace, which I swear is more delicious than the non-vegan stuff. Peanut butter, thank goodness, is already vegan.
Of course, buying ready-made-things-in-jars ain’t great for the planet so, if you can, think about making your own. Pesto is an easy place to start... My fella and I go foraging for wild garlic leaves every spring (they are easily found in Bristol) and then whip up enough delicious sauce to freeze and last all year. We use nuts instead of cheese and it’s great. I’ve not yet tried making vegan mayo, but according to this recipe it looks pretty damn simple, so I might give it a go and report back.
The last thing I gave up was cheese. Oh, how addicted to cheese I used to be! Port Salut, strong cheddar, Brie, feta – even dirty stuff like Tuc cheese crackers and tubs of supermarket own-brand Philadelphia. If you gave me a packet of crackers and a box of cheese, I didn’t need anything else for hours. I was dreading giving up cheese – and I think it’s probably the thing that most people considering going vegan feel they can’t live without. Small wonder, since there is plenty of research out there to suggest that cheese is genuinely addictive.
In reality, I found that, having successfully stopped eating all those other non-vegan items, cheese wasn’t as hard as I feared. I replaced my cheese and crackers snack fix with crackers and hummus. I cook with nutritional yeast, which adds that cheese flavour. And there are, now, lots of really good vegan cheeses on the market. I rate the Violife range, particularly their feta knock-off. Although, if what you want is locally produced vegan fare, packaged in recyclable cardboard (of course you do!) then check out Bath Culture House, which has a great range of soft vegan cheeses that can be bought in Better Food. Their activated charcoal flavour is my favourite.
If you feel inspired, give it a go and see how you get on. Don’t punish yourself – if you can only cut out one or two things, well, that’s better than none at all. I slip sometimes and have a bit of ‘real’ cheese or a milky crisp – although, interestingly, I usually regret that as I have become very sensitive to the flavour of milk and think it’s pretty claggy and horrible these days – and that’s OK. None of us can save the planet on our own. If 80% of us went 80% vegan, however, we would make a huge difference.
Do you have any vegan tips? If so, post them in the chat below.