HOW TO GO VEGAN WHEN YOU’RE NOT A HIPSTER
Why so many midlife women are going plant-based – and how to make it work.
When William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose magazine, replied to a pitch about vegan recipes with a suggestion that all vegans should be ‘hunted down and forced to eat steak,’ he didn’t get quite the response he hoped for. In fact, he was pilloried on Twitter, and ended up resigning over his feeble joke. It may have been meant in jest – but veganism is now being taken very seriously indeed by major supermarkets, restaurant chains and brands.
There are around 3.5 million vegans in the UK, and that number is growing all the time, due to a perfect storm of health concerns, eco-awareness and animal rights information, powered by word-of-mouth Netflix documentaries such as Cowspiracy and Forks Over Knives, and the growing reach of ‘influencer’ plant-based chefs on Youtube and Instagram.
“Increasingly, I’ve noticed my friends’ questions are less hilariously mocking, more genuinely curious.”
Two years ago I became vegan. But I am not a wide-eyed Millennial, eating at hipster hangouts. I’m 48, I get tired easily without carbs and I live in the West Highlands where fancy ingredients are few and far between and the local Co-op has only just grasped the alarming and modern concept of vegetarianism, never mind veganism. My partner eats meat, as does the rest of my family, visiting friends and the cat and dog. It’s fair to say I plough a lonely furrow as a mid-life vegan.
But increasingly, I’ve noticed my friends’ questions are less hilariously mocking, more genuinely curious. When I post pictures of my cooked-from-scratch dinners on Facebook, there’s less dramatic horror (“But where’s the steak?”), more tentative recipe requests. I am now more confident about cooking vegan food for friends, and eager to show off about how great it can taste.
Over the last couple of years, the booming availability of meat substitutes and innovative replacements for butter, cheese, cream – even crème fraiche – has made vegan cookery less a Wild West adventure, and more of an easy substitution game.
“What used to be considered ‘hippyish’ is now a perfectly reasonable response to a troubled world”
All of this, however, means veganism isn’t a food fad or a passing trend that’s limited to woke students or angry radicals. It’s a genuinely ethical response to the huge problems of climate change, over-farming and poor animal welfare. I spoke to a 40-something friend last week who was shocked to discover that cows are artificially inseminated each year to ensure the milk yield, and even the most mainstream of supermarket shoppers now worries about what effect tearing down the rainforests to graze cattle and grow their feed is having.
What used to be considered ‘hippyish’ and ‘a bit mad’ is now a perfectly reasonable response to a troubled world – and eating tasty food, with vegan options even on offer at major chains like Pizza Express, Café Rouge and Pret, is far less hassle than separating out your paper and plastics.
The other key issue explaining why mid-lifers are turning vegan, is health. Despite the popular conception of the melancholy, pallid plant-eater bleating self-righteously about tofu whilst too weak to sit up, study after study is proving that a vegan diet is, for many people, the healthiest of all. Managed properly, it lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk of heart problems, diabetes and many cancers, and vegans are also less likely to be overweight – not because they don’t eat enough, but because it’s a healthier and usually less processed diet.
“Study after study is proving that a vegan diet is, for many people, the healthiest of all.”>
But despite all the positives, it’s not magic. There can be difficulties if you plunge into veganism without doing the research. I know, because I did it. Within a month I was exhausted. I hadn’t really thought about it, but all I’d done was swap dairy milk for soya, and cheese for coconut-oil based processed blocks. I’d effectively removed most of the protein from my diet, and found myself scoffing crisps to assuage my burning hunger.
It was only when I read up about the importance of vitamin B12 (which is hard to get without meat and dairy), omegas 3 and 6 (found in fish) and getting enough protein that I realised I needed to be much more careful about my diet. I started to eat tofu, nuts, nut cheeses – which are divine – and take supplements to make sure I was getting the missing vitamins. At that point, I felt infinitely better – I had more energy than before, my skin was brighter and at the risk of sounding revoltingly smug, I actively enjoyed cooking from scratch every night.
“I love food. I also love animals, and I think the planet’s probably worth keeping, too”
I still love trying new recipes, and testing out substitutions of my own. I bought Vital Wheat Gluten to make the meat substitute seitan (it has a very similar texture), and have perfected ‘steak’ and ‘chicken’, and I truly enjoy making spicy mushroom curries and vegetable chillis. I’ve even worked out how to make Chinese ‘duck’ pancakes with tinned jackfruit.
I’ve no interest in ‘clean eating’ or deprivation – I love food. I also love animals, and I think the planet’s probably worth keeping, too – so if I can stuff my face with gorgeous food, guilt-free. Well, frankly, what’s not to like?
Words: Flic Everett, editor of Vegan Living magazine. @veganlivingmag