I’m not a vegan veteran. I’ve been vegan for just over a year now, and I have to say that I’ve faced my share of challenges. When I look back at my pre-vegetarian days, I remember feeling overwhelmed when I’d look at recipes and articles about plant-based “superfoods”. It all seemed so difficult. I had no idea what it meant to eat a plant-based diet (would I starve?) and I’d feel out of place in Organic/Whole foods stores.
Two years down the line, with plenty of trial and error, I feel more confident and can navigate my way around a weekly plant-based meal plan. I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be a newbie and hope I can shed some light on the simplicity of a plant-based diet for those who might be toying with the idea of adopting it.
Let’s start by defining what being vegan is NOT. It is not a fad nor is it only for the wealthier part of society. Unfortunately, that is the impression a lot of people have of the lifestyle and diet – “too expensive”.
Most simple Asian dishes are naturally vegan. One of my favourite dishes is Indian Dal (lentil curry) and rice. It’s comfort food for me – warm, nutritious and doesn’t cost me an arm and leg. Growing up, I came to see Dal and rice as a poor man’s meal and it is what a lot of the underprivileged in India eat till today.
A simple meal of Dal, Rice and Veggies.
Even in Mediterranean regions like Greece, it is traditional to eat meals free of animal products during the fasting periods.
So what does it mean to be vegan? The following definition from the Vegan Society (registered charity since 1979) sums it up perfectly:
“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Like with any diet/lifestyle, there are those who will take things to extremes and those who will take on a “holier-than-thou” stance, possibly even wagging fingers at anyone who isn’t doing it “right”. There is no right or wrong. The reason I chose to be vegan was out of disgust at how the industry is exploiting innocent animals and keeping us in the dark.
So being vegan does not only pertain to food, it means making conscious choices every day to lead a lifestyle that emphasises compassion. Finding alternatives to most of what we’re used to, is initially a challenge. Which is why adopting a vegan lifestyle should be a well-thought-out decision with emphasis on simplicity, practicality and sustainability.
For the sake of keeping this concise, I’d like to stick with the diet aspect of veganism, starting with redefining a vegan diet. I like the term “Whole-food Plant-based Diet”, which focusses on whole, unprocessed plants that include fruit, vegetables, tubers, legumes and whole grains. It excludes or minimises the use of refined oils, sugars and flours and excludes animal products (meat, dairy, eggs and, in some cases, honey).
There has been plenty of evidence showing how beneficial such a diet is and I can vouch for it as well (I’ve been on both sides of the playing field and have witnessed tremendous improvements in my well-being). I won’t go into details, but here are some articles for your perusal:
Health benefits of being vegetarian
20 Health Benefits of Going Vegan, According to Science (+6 Delicious Vegan Recipes)
So far so good, you’ve understood the concept – maybe even agree with it. The next phase is applying it i.e. you look up recipes and head to the store. You’ve probably found some items in your regular super market, but suddenly you’re faced with things like “Nutritional Yeast”, “Quinoa”, “Chia” ,”Hemp seeds” and nut butters to mention a few. Off you go to your nearest Organic/Whole foods store where the prices are sometimes shocking. Now, you may be in a position to spend about 12 – 33 euros on a jar of almond butter, but not everyone is.
Imagine a family on one income with 4 or more mouths to feed…..imagine a family living off benefits. Now imagine what a plant-based diet looks like to them…..
I recently had a chat with a fellow plant-based eater who insisted that all food you buy must be organic. Whilst I completely agree that organic food is better for you, I am also aware that it is expensive to buy organic produce and that option is not available to everyone.
If you took a look around areas that house low income families, you’ll rarely find a Health food store around the corner, nor will you find these families shopping at the local farmer’s markets. What you will find is a local discount supermarket and lots of cheap fast food around, what in geographical terms is called a “Food Desert”.
In Germany, a person living on benefits (Hartz 4) receives about 404 euros per month. The break down here http://www.hartziv.org/ shows how that amount is estimated to be used. It approximates 143 euros for food and non-alcoholic beverages – insufficient for buying organic all month long.
In the past few months I’ve met people who’ve come across as very dogmatic in their approach and application of a plant-based diet. It’s easy to do so when you’re not struggling to get by every month. Even if you’re not, one should never feel nor be made to feel like they’re not living up to certain standards. A plant-based diet is as the definition states above. No one says you need to live beyond your means to eat plants!
If you are enthusiastic about spreading the message about plant-based eating, then it’s the welfare sector of our society that needs reaching out. We all shop around for a good bargain, but this group doesn’t have a choice. The message needs to be tailored so that it’s attractive, practical and most important, affordable for them.
I spend under 65 euros per week at my local supermarket. This usually includes 3-4 weekday meals and 2 weekend meals with at least one or two meals I can freeze. Most of the produce is not organic, but if I find something reasonably priced, I will pick it up.
Before I get heat for saying that I don’t shop at the uppity organic stores, let me re-iterate that I support organic farming and eating 100%. The pesticides used in conventional farming practices can wreak havoc on your body.
That being said, here are my ideas on how you can adopt and healthy, plant-based diet without breaking the bank:
- Making inorganic fruit and veg safe to eat:
Soak fruit and veg in a solution of sea salt or white distilled vinegar solution or baking soda can help remove bacteria and pesticides.
Fill a tumbler/sink with water and add salt/vinegar/baking soda (A general rule of thumb would be to mix 1 teaspoon of salt/vinegar/baking soda in a cup of water). Stir solution till it’s clear. Soak the produce for about 2 minutes and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Pat dry and refrigerate.
Another option for non-organic veggies like carrots and cucumbers, is to scrape the skin off.
- Steer clear of ready to eat foods labelled “vegetarian”, “vegan” and “low fat”:
There’s plenty of processed, junk food out there and they are expensive. Always check the back for hidden sugars and ingredients you’ve never heard of.
For example, cereals like Special K are sugary, contain quite a bit of salt, barely keep you satiated (who sticks to the recommended 31g serving size?!) and cost a whopping 3-4 euros for 300g.
Now take a pack of simple whole grain oats – about 50 cents for 500g. Add nuts or seeds and maybe some fruit and you’ve got your hunger under check for a good 3-4 hours. A pack of oats in our house lasts a good week.
I could go on about the processed vegan cheese and vegan “deli meat” etc., but I think you get the point.
- Make your transition easy:
This is going to contradict what I’ve said above, but it is such an important part of transitioning to a complete plant-based diet.
If you’ve been raised on meat, cheese, milk, eggs etc. you’ll find that whilst you transition to a plant-based diet, your body will crave these products. Most people find the cheese is the hardest to give up. Look at this phase like experiencing withdrawals.
You are trying to rewire your brain and body to associate fruit, veg, nuts and grains as equivalent nutrition sources, and this can take time (sometimes up to a year). During this period, allow yourself to indulge in vegan junk food like deli “meat”, vegan “cheese” etc. Know that it is only temporary and like with cravings/withdrawals, there will be peaks and valleys.
- Drop the idea of “Superfood”:
Yes, superfoods are a myth, and a marketing ploy for you to spend big bucks.
Every climate region allows certain fruit and vegetable to thrive and no fruit/veg is superior to another. It’s not the way nature works.
Blueberries have been marketed as a superfood for a long time now and I see the tiniest punnets being sold in India -a country not home to the blueberry bush – at extortionate prices. People in countries where Blueberries do not grow have been doing just fine without this “superfood”.
So what’s so super about it? Nothing. It’s still of nutritional value but hasn’t got the fountain of youth hidden in it.
Which brings me to my next point.
- Don’t feel pressured into buying fancy items if your budget doesn’t allow for it:
Quinoa, kamut, hemp and chia seeds, matcha…everyone’s talking about them! Not everyone has access to these products.
Rice, potatoes, millet, wheat etc. are just as nutritious as a carbohydrate source and are affordable.
Cheaper alternatives to hemp and chia would be legumes and flaxseed, both of which are grown worldwide.
- Support local farmers and buy seasonal produce:
I’ve noticed that German “farmer markets” may or may not have the actual farmers on site. I’ve been told that some are distributors for a particular (or maybe several) farms. Their fruit and veg always look really good, but a lot of it is non-organic, imported, and costs a LOT more than the local discounters.
I once bought a single courgette (zuchini) from my local farmer’s market – I paid 2.19 euros AND it was imported!!
Now take items like potatoes, swiss chard, carrots and other veggies you’re more likely to find grown in a neighbouring farm – they’re are equivalent in price or cheaper than the supermarkets.
Here is a list of seasonal fruit and veg grown in Germany:
Seasonal produce in Germany Source: Bundesvereinigung der Erzeugerorganisationen Obst und Gemuese e.V.
If you have the garden space and know a thing or two about sowing seeds, you could plan to have your own produce all year round! You could also start small by growing herbs in pots.
- Cook from scratch and freeze portions:
If you have time over the weekends, get the family involved and make a meal. Freeze portions of it for when time is not on your side. You can also pre-cut and prep your veggies so they’re ready to be thrown together for your weekday meal. Planning and prepping can save you loads of time and money, and it ensures that you’re not tempted to pick up pre-packaged and processed foods.
- Nut butters and plant-based milk don’t have to be store bought:
If you’re in possession of a food processor, you can easily make nut butter and plant-based milk at home.
If you can’t afford a blender and can’t make nut butter, get your hands on a bag of peanuts and go to town on it!
Cheaper plant-based milks are oat and rice milk. If the taste doesn’t appeal to you, add water or fresh orange juice into your morning cereal.
- Finding cheaper replacements for coconut oil:
I’ve found coconut oil here in Germany very expensive, and it drives me crazy because in India it is the cheapest oil you will find! I’ve stopped cooking in oil for about a year now and use water instead to fry onions etc. If you’re looking to get a coconutty flavour, you can add coconut milk instead of water.
If you do buy oil, look around for bargains on cold-pressed oils. These are minimally processed but might not be stable under high temperatures.
Honey consumption is a matter of debate in the plant-based community. If you still want to consume honey, make sure it’s from a keeper who takes care of his/her bees – again local is the way to go. You can also visit local apiaries and decide for yourself.
If you want to explore other options, maple syrup (can be pricey), rice syrup, agave syrup and the like are good substitutes. Like with all sugary items, you don’t want to consume these in bulk. Opt for whole fruits if you want a sugar kick.
So there you have it – my 2 cents worth on how to make a plant-based diet work for everyone.
As for veganism, it is the element of intent that sets it apart from other lifestyle choices. Vegans strive consciously to avoid harming other life forms. This does not mean that vegans do not hurt others inadvertently, but that it is never their aim to do so.(1)
As much as we try to live a totally harm-free life, it is impossible. “All animate sentient beings inflict some form of injury or death to others simply by their existence.”(1)
Don’t get buried under the rules, standards and marketing jargon people throw around with regards to a simple plant-based diet. The key here – as with any diet, exercise program, and basically anything new you adopt – is to keep things simple, practical and ensure that it can be sustained long term.