The real-life diet of a seven-day vegan: “Did I feel healthier eating grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables? No”

Andrew Leci goes ultra-vegan for seven days. He lives to tell the tale, but finds it a sobering experience

There are several reasons why people decide to become vegans. They can be divided into two broad categories – ethical and dietary.

Vegans don’t eat or use anything that used to have a pulse, nor their by-products. This extends to dairy (milk, butter, cheese, yoghurt) and even honey – the exploitation of bees is a serious concern. Strict vegans don’t wear materials in which animals had a part to play, and this obviously includes leather, silk, even wool. If you see someone wearing a fur coat, the chances are that they are not a vegan.

The clothing aspect notwithstanding, it’s not difficult to understand why people in the modern world are cheesed off with the exploitation of animals and a food industry that is causing any amount of environmental distress. The moral / ethical standpoint focuses on both the exploitation of animals, and the harm that’s being done to the environment as a result of that exploitation – think great swathes of rainforest being ‘redeployed’ from their natural predisposition to absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen, to raising cattle for mankind’s burger fix.

I stand up, applaud and take my hat off to those who have made this life choice. They are more committed than I have ever been (notwithstanding my three years as a vegetarian back in the 1980s, during which time I gained two things: nine kilograms and ‘frequent visitor’ status at my general practitioner’s surgery) and are probably good people. At least they care about something. Vegans have a reputation for being sanctimonious on occasions, but that will always come with making an ethical call that involves discipline and, to some extent, sacrifice, when those around them are not prepared to.

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Did I feel good about it?

I am in less admiration and ever so slightly less tolerant, however, of those who choose veganism for health reasons. And in this I include those who feel that a vegan diet will enable them to lose weight.

Did I feel lighter after my week as a vegan? Yes.

Did I feel healthier? No.

My scepticism is purely based on the fact that a strict vegan diet lacks certain nutrients that are essential for good health. When I say ‘certain’, I mean ‘quite a few’, and this requires the intake of supplements.

Examples include vitamin B12 – which is vital to blood and the nervous system and is important for protein metabolism. Its deficiency can cause anaemia and heart disease, and it’s only available to vegans in the form of fortified foods (plant milks, some soy products, some breakfast cereals) and… supplements. The human body knows what it needs to function optimally, and those on a vegan diet have to work ever so hard to make sure that those needs are met. It’s a hint.

The vegan diet also lacks vitamin D, iodine, calcium, zinc and long-chain Omega 3 fatty acids – the last of which help to prevent and manage heart disease by lowering blood pressure and reducing triglycerides. All these deficiencies can have consequences, and vegans need to supplement with supplements, reinforcing and not even needing to supplement my argument – and maybe, mine alone – that veganism on health grounds is not entirely sensible. That’s me being kind. If your body is telling you that it needs things, it may be a good idea to listen. You’re nuts if you don’t.

My week as a vegan, quite frankly, was not a difficult one. Maybe it was because I knew it was for only one week. After starting the ball rolling with some fine dining at the Artemis Grill and Sky Bar, I did manage to pop by Original Sin in Holland Village for a burger. “Impossible”, you say, and hey, you’re right.

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Plant-based meat substitutes are gaining traction, and Impossible Foods Inc., along with Beyond Meat (a company quoted on the NASDAQ and valued, most would say absurdly, at US$10 billion / S$13.62 billion) are on a roll and in a burger bun. I found it amusing that most of the diners at Original Sin were eating burgers and pizzas (all vegetarian, obviously), and I’ll think about why later.

When not dining out, eating plenty of fruit was mostly a pleasure, but finding nuts that didn’t contain animals products or were not processed in factories in which animals products are made, was more problematic than I’d imagined.

What killed me

But the real killer was alcohol. At the start of the week I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as vegan wine and beer, and that many (possibly even most) types of alcohol are not suitable for vegans. Grapes, hops, barley, malt… all fair enough, but brewers and vintners use animals products in the ‘fining’ of their products, and they were something that this ultra-vegan (for a week) was conscientious in avoiding.

It led to a number of amusing (sometimes awkward) conversations with service personnel who did look as though they were questioning my sanity. The most common exchange was, “Is this wine vegan?” followed by a usually polite, “What?” or a less polite, “Security!”

Many wines contain egg whites – they remove particles of tannin (particularly in red wines) and help to produce more roundness and softness in texture. Isinglass – a substance produced from the swim bladder of fish – is used to clarify beers and wines. Casein is deployed in white wines and sherries for fining, and is a milk protein. These are all tripwires for dedicated vegans, and the alcohol manufacturers are only starting to wake up to the fact that for some people, the ‘need to know’ basis is coming from them rather than those who possess the information.

There appears to be very few people in the service industry, or even in the restaurant industry as a whole, who know about these things, and even fewer, I would suggest, who give a rat’s arse. It’s not an issue that they have to deal with often, and until such time as it is, most will be unlikely to bother.

When veganism becomes more fashionable and more celebrity adherents get their tickets for the plant-based food train (Paul McCartney, Miley Cyrus, Lewis Hamilton, Ariana Grande, Benedict Cumberbatch, Natalie Portman – all ‘citations needed’ methinks – are a good start) changes might be afoot. As with most things, if there’s enough money to be made, human ingenuity will kick in and someone will make a fist of it.

In conclusion

It was an interesting week, during which I experienced a range of emotions. Anger: when I really felt like a juicy steak. Sympathy: for those among us who will never have another juicy steak in their lives. Empathy: for people who don’t eat bacon (OK, this is not empathy… let’s go back to ‘sympathy’).

Admiration: for those who talk the talk and walk the walk and have strength in their convictions. Sadness: for the animals who got on the wrong side of the evolutionary family tree and ended up on plates rather than seats at the dinner table.

And joy: just kidding. There’s not much joy involved here, because despite my facetiousness, like some (but not enough) people, I fear for our environment and feel guilty about the ways in which we have yoked other species and see them as fit only for the purpose of doing our bidding. I wish we weren’t here.

My week as a vegan? It opened up my mind; made me more conscious of my body, and gave me an insight into an alternative way of life that I would love to have the strength to follow. But I am weak, and need a sausage. Not a soy-based one that costs twice as much as a meat-based / offal / sawdust version. I tried that, and three quarters of it is still sitting in the fridge waiting to be eaten because I abhor food wastage but can’t bring myself to eat it. I have to respect my taste buds. And this is something that vegans around the world have decided against – for one or two reasons.

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