What I didn’t learn from Veganuary

Many people will still be experiencing a welcome relief since Veganuary finally ended. It was a long month, but no longer do you feel the watchful eyes of friends and work colleagues on you at all mealtimes and you can safely return to your old habits with impunity. Or at least, without anyone questioning your food choices publicly. However, many people will have also been surprised to discover that their month of meaty abstinence really wasn’t all that bad. In fact, whether you waltzed through the month as a born again vegan or if you barely made it to the February, only confirming your commitment to being a proud carnivore, you may have done yourself more good than you realised. For some, choosing to follow a month-long vegan diet may have left them with some unexpected side effects. Thankfully, I don’t mean the compulsion to continue telling everyone about their month of denial. But even those that ditched veganism the second they could, may have inadvertently adopted some better food habits that could last a lifetime.

Now I have to say that I am neither advocating veganism as the magic bullet to guarantee a long life and inner peace nor suggesting that following a vegan diet is the best way to get a healthy, balanced diet. There will always be people brimming with good health who follow a particular diet and obviously, this includes many devotees of veganism. However, there are also plenty of others who rely too heavily on ready meals and junk food and it makes no difference to the quality of their diet if they are labelled as being vegetarian, vegan, paleo or gluten-free. In fact, some of the biggest cake eaters I know also happen to be vegetarian.

Nonetheless, having to follow a vegan diet as a newbie for Veganuary will have forced most people to do 3 things routinely if they were to do veganism ‘properly’. By which I mean, if they were to achieve a healthy, balanced vegan diet. Like anything else, repeat these 3 things enough times and they will become habitual. And for those that lasted the month, they may now have a healthier default mode when it comes to food. However, these 3 habits can actually be adopted by anyone, regardless of whether your diet includes all things animal or not. Therefore, even if like me, you side-stepped Veganuary altogether, you can still benefit by taking on these better food habits. In other words, we might as well take on the lessons learnt from those who took one for the team in Veganuary. Here they are:

1. Think more about what you are eating

It sounds pretty simple and probably something I often do to get through a tough workout. However, for a newbie vegan, it’s not quite so straight forward when you realise just how many everyday foods and drinks are by products of animals. It’s not just vegetarianism 2.0 and it would have been a sharp learning curve for those who only signed up to this on a whim on New Year’s Eve. Despite the growing trend in veganism that has prompted a massive surge in vegan-friendly foods available in most supermarkets and cafes, it can still be confusing. Which meant that many vegan newbies had no choice other than to adopt the first better food habit, to spend more time thinking about what you eat.

Now this doesn’t mean day dreaming of plump sausages and crispy bacon, although it may have been difficult for some to follow a vegan diet so soon after an indulgent Christmas meat-fest. Newbie vegan would have had to devote more time in their day to think about and plan their meals, simply to get it right. But doing this will mean that you are much more conscious about what you are eating and that can help you eat a healthier diet. How many people grab food where and when they can and blame their bad food choices on the fact that they don’t have time to do anything else. If you make time to think about and plan your meals, then you place more importance on what you eat and will have more control about the choices you make. Which means that no matter what diet you are following, you will have more opportunities to plan ahead and make healthier choices where possible.

2. Try to eat a wider variety of foods

Instinctively it may seem that those who went through Veganuary must have spent most of their time eating less of a variety of foods while avoiding everything animal-related. However, the truth is that it would have forced many newbies to eat outside their comfort zone. Once you get the hang of what is and isn’t vegan, the next important challenge many would have faced in Veganuary would have been how to eat a balanced diet. We are routinely told by the NHS and Change4Life that to eat a healthy, balanced diet we should be basing it on the Eatwell Guide. However, it looks somewhat different to vegan eyes when you can no longer rely on even some common vegetarian staples of milk, eggs and cheese. Once you cross out the foods that aren’t vegan, you’ve got some blank spaces to fill.

This would have forced vegan newbies to look further afield for some initial alternatives.  However, not many people would have survived the boredom of a month of eating their way through a book of ‘101 ways with lentils’ recipes. In other words, many who went through Veganuary would have been compelled by desperation to try something new. There is an abundance of beans, grains, pulses and vegetables to discover and many newbies would have been surprised at the variety of alternatives available. There is a common misconception that tastes are fixed in childhood, but this is not true. Tastes can change, even when you are an adult, despite most people’s firm reluctance to try new foods. I, for one, avoided trying stilton cheese because it ticked all the boxes for mouldy food. However, after a long dinner that was far too small (and with a little Dutch courage) I found that despite its appearance, I loved it. Hunger is always a good motivator.

In the same way, to follow a vegan diet ‘properly’, there are some important essential vitamins and minerals that you need to ensure your food will provide, such as iron, calcium and vitamin B12. Therefore, it would have forced newbies to try some new sources out of necessity, including grains, pulses, vegetables and fortified foods.

But this also works for non-vegans, which is why everyone can benefit from taking on this second food habit. Trying new foods and adding them to your diet increases the variety of what you eat and provides a greater range of nutrients which in turn, guards against deficiency. This is true no matter what diet you follow so it pays to keep trying new foods and eating a wider variety rather than sticking to a limited number of foods and a routine of meals that never varies. At the very least, if you adopt this habit, you will surely enjoy your food more.

3. Cook more

Most people will read this, roll their eyes to the sky and mutter that they don’t have any time to cook. However, hear me out when you consider those who went through Veganuary. Of course, for many it would have been possible to make it through the month living off vegan convenience food. However, in order to do it properly, newbies would have been forced to learn how to cook some of the unfamiliar vegetables, pulses and grains they were trying out. Most people would have also been surprised to find out how easy it was and how versatile these new foods were in dishes. Not to mention that many of the bog-standard vegan staples such as beans and lentils are surprisingly inexpensive. Surely, that is something we can all benefit from, no matter what diet you follow.

Making the time to cook not only allows a bit of trial and error but it makes it easier to prepare something healthier, tastier and more fulfilling. In addition, if you make the time to cook you can prepare meals in batches and freeze leftovers. This means that on busier days you can defrost something homemade to eat rather than having to rely on ready meals or take-aways. Whether you are vegan or a carnivore, adopting cooking as a habit and making it norm when it comes to food preparation will help you eat a healthier diet (and a tastier one, too).

There will be those who finished Veganuary, embracing it like a new food religion as veganism has become one of the fastest growing lifestyle trends. The less converted may at least come to realise that they had probably been relying too much on the same animal products in their diet out of sheer habit. And there will those who ended the month at the other end of the scale, returning to their old ways with a vengeance. For some, abstinence will only have made the stomach grow fonder. And like putting on an old cosy t-shirt that magically makes you feel that everything ok again, it is easy to relax and carry on with your ‘business as usual’ diet again.

No matter how you ended Veganuary, or if like me, you avoided experiencing a month of avoidance, there will always be room for improvement in your diet. It is never too late to adopt better habits so we might as well learn from others who had to step up. Devoting time to thinking about what you are eating, eating a wide variety of foods and cooking more will not guarantee a golden ticket for a long life. However, they will go some way to helping you eat a healthy, balanced diet needed for good health, no matter what discipline you follow. When it comes to food, there is no diet where you can have your cake and eat it too but at least these 3 food habits will help to make healthy eating a piece of cake.

And now for the recipe, suitable for vegans, carnivore and the rest. I thought I would go for a healthier snack that can be munched while you cook other things. The only problem with these Spicy snacks is that they are difficult to stop eating them…

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