What has changed after a decade being a vegan?
Reflecting on how my attitudes, tastes, and life in general have changed in a little over ten years since becoming a vegan.
I became a vegan in September 2013 (as I’ve previously written about). Until that point, I had been living what I termed a “meat-reducing” lifestyle, in which I hadn’t even turned fully vegetarian (I still ate meat when eating out, but no longer at home), but was generally aiming to limit my intake of meat and other animal products.
In the decade since then, veganism has exploded from a super-niche philosophy that many people hadn’t even heard of, to something that is now, while still pretty niche, is at least widespread in terms of product availability, labelling, and general understanding (in the UK at least, from where I write).
The cultural shift around me has enabled my life as a vegan to change. Plus, simply being vegan this long has let me learn and change in my own way too. Here are some of the things that have shifted in that time.
The mainstreaming of vegan products
When I first went vegan, if you wanted to eat out, most places offered one vegan option if you were lucky, and that was near-universally some form of falafel! If you were unlucky, maybe you could have chips or a very plain salad!
Now I do love falafel, but when it’s the only thing you can have it starts to get a bit tedious (especially when the quality of said falafel wasn’t always great).
My how times have changed. Now many restaurants have an entire separate vegan menu! Most supermarkets have multiple vegan/vegetarian sections for dairy-like products, meat-alternatives, frozen savoury and deserts, biscuits and snacks, and more! Vegan labelling is common not just on food but on all sorts of other goods such as shoes and bags.
It’s so easy to be vegan now I find it a little bewildering that otherwise compassionate and careful people still haven’t en masse become vegans. At least in many cases all these vegan options now mean a lot of people are at least, by choice or accident, drifting closer to veganism (mirroring my own meat-reducing days).
There’s maybe only one downside to the proliferation of vegan stuff, which is that some of the early innovative and interesting vegan products and brands are starting to give way to more mainstream options.
When more vegan products started to show up early in my vegan life, they tended to be inspired by wide-ranging food cultures (and were often delicious!), where as today you can commonly find examples of vegan versions of say, a plain chicken sandwich made with some sort of meat-alternative, which have supplanted many of the more creative and flavourful alternatives, with less artificial ingredients, that used to be more common. Maybe this appeals to tastes of the masses more here in bland-food Britain, but it’s a disappointing turn for my tastes!
Likewise, I’ve noticed some of the smaller vegan brands seem to be fading away at a time when big brands are getting in on veganism and releasing vegan versions of well-known products. While it’s great to see vegan options being part of the product portfolios of these mega-food-producers (and hopefully in time starting to shift demand away from their animal-based products), it’s sad to see this sometimes coming at the expense of the creative pioneers, of often more interesting other vegan products.
The way bigger companies see veganism and sustainability more broadly as a trend they can cash in on also means you have to be quite a careful shopper sometimes. While many more products are clearly labelled as vegan now (which is super helpful), there’s also a growth in marking things as “plant-based”, which doesn’t always mean 100% plant-derived. Shifting to less use of animal products is good, and helpful for those reducing rather than eliminating animal consumption, but it’s rather annoying for a vegan to pick up something that looks very much like it’s trying to be vegan, only to discover it’s not quite bothered to finish the job!
On a related note, there are plenty of products that aren’t marketed as vegan but completely are. Checking the ingredients of pre-prepared food is just one of the everyday challenges of veganism. Once you learn what is and isn’t vegan it’s mostly quite straightforward. Except when some companies insist on tinkering with their recipes and randomly adding and removing milk and egg powders from their formulations. I’ve encountered this many times, most frustratingly with the delicious Cadbury’s Bournville Fingers, which have bounced back and forth between being vegan and not a couple of times now; to my great frustration and irritation every time they randomly, and obviously needlessly, add milk back in.
For crying out loud food producers, just commit to making anything that can readily be vegan be vegan. That way you stop eliminating a section of the market and make your products more sustainable!
Am I healthier?
I feel like this is one of the big questions people want to know when they discover I’m a vegan. My answer is mostly, not really?
I eat what Brits might consider perfectly normal foods; curries, stir-fries, pasta, pizza, fajitas, etc. And indulging my sweet tooth with chocolate, icecream, yoghurts, etc. They happen not to contain animal products. But otherwise it’s not a significant change to my pre-vegan diet, where I likewise made and ate all these things.
That said, going vegan encouraged me to try cooking new things, and using new ingredients, and so my diet is a bit more varied.
I’ve put on a little weight over the last decade, most noticeably a little more still from covid lockdown period which I’ve not quite wiggled away back to my former physical self yet. I suspect that’s all more to do with ageing and levels of activity than diet though.
Otherwise, I feel just as physically able as I’ve ever been. I’ve not been inflicted by anything bad as a result of going vegan, while I think I am broadly a little more healthy in my diet, but to little consequential change in my body.
The biggest difference is I eat a lot more vegetables these days (I used to be very veg-averse), and in a lot more variety. Also a bit more fruit, but not such a noticeable difference as I’ve always loved fruit.
I used to think the mantra about consuming five-a-day for fruits and vegetables was quite a fanciful goal. While now I can’t quite fathom how I ever felt that way considering most meals contain multiple vegetable portions, a smoothie I have nearly every day is packed with fruit and nuts, and I snack on fruit in great quantities too. I didn’t think I ate that poorly as my younger self, but I really must have been looking back and considering how few fruits and veggies I ate compared to now!
The other dietary change is I’m more aware of nutrient intake. Now to be clear, a decent vegan diet (ie. not all junk food), is super healthy and full of nutrients; all those fruits and vegetables I eat these days ensure that! Plenty of sources of protein too, for anyone reading imaging that’s a problem ( a very tiresome and baseless rebut many throw at veganism).
There are just a couple of things that one really needs to keep an eye on in a vegan diet, which are B12 and omega fats. I have taken supplements for both for a few years now, plus a general multi-vitamin. B12 and other vitamins are fortified into almost all vegan milks too, so I dare say I’m getting plenty that way anyway.
In contrast, pre-vegan me never paid any attention to such things, and as someone not that keen on dairy or fish, and meat reducing too for a long time, I think it’s fairly likely B12 and omegas were pretty rare in my diet before. So becoming vegan has made me actively more aware of those nutritional needs, and more proactive in addressing them.
One other consideration on the health front is processed-food, which I think veganism has shifted my attitude on a bit. I’ve always made my own meals from base ingredients mostly, but with some processed things such as breads, cheese, and snacks and sweets such as chocolate, yoghurts, icecream, biscuits, cereals, etc.
So I often kid myself because I don’t eat any fully pre-made ready meals, and do make all my own meals, that I’m not eating much processed-food. But if I’m realistic there’s plenty of it in my diet, as constituent parts of the meals I make, and snacks.
Going vegan initially helped a lot in phasing out some processed goods, because there wasn’t a vegan version to have. But over time as more vegan alternatives have entered the market I have drifted back to some things form my pre-vegan days in now-vegan forms.
I’ve also drifted into areas I’d never have considered acceptable before. At least every couple of weeks I’ll have meals with some sort of vegan meat alternative now, and like to sample some of the more snacky things too such as vegan chorizo. Whereas before, I’d not consider it an option to have some icky processed meat product. So the innovation of vegan products has helped shift me away from that attitude; but maybe it’s one I would benefit from re-learning!
Driven by climate change, growing to care about animal exploitation
I originally shifted to “meat reducing” and then veganism because of climate change and other environmental concerns. If you’re not familiar with the rationale: Producing food via animals is simply vastly inefficient, because you need to feed and water them for extended periods of time before you get any food out of them, and in doing so you use vast resources of land to produce food crops for animals, or land for them to graze on.
There is a crossover area of environmental footprints when it comes to the most efficient animal-derived food products, and the least efficient plant-based ones. But generally, for a comparable nutritional intake for humans, the same area of land growing plants to feed directly to humans (rather than feed/pasture to produce animal products) would produce a huge amount more food, and use a lot less water and energy in the process.
Because of this, going vegan at the individual level is one of the most effective environmentally conscious choices you can make, because you directly halt inefficient use of resources to feed yourself. That helps slow climate change, and ecosystem destruction.
For year-one vegan-me, that was all I needed. The natural world is in the midst of a mass extinction event, and climate change is already causing chaos around the globe; anything to alleviate that is on my agenda.
I view agricultural animals as a problem to be fixed. Simply, they should not exit. Animals bred for centuries to produce meat, eggs, and dairy at utterly unnatural rates, and domesticated to the point of being dependent on humans to be able to exist at all, have no place in the natural world. Every herd of cows that exists today means they are consuming the space and resources that a whole ecosystem of other creatures should be in. Animal agriculture literally blocks nature form being able to exist.
I still feel that way, a transition to widespread veganism would mean populations of agricultural animals dwindle to the point that they eventually become extinct. And I’m fine with that; real nature returns in their place, in vastly greater diversity, and that’s a great thing.
But what has changed is my sympathy towards these animals while they do still exist.
People who eat meat and other animal products can do so either by accepting the need to exploit and murder animals as part of their diet, or by doing their very best to remain ignorant of the suffering their diet causes to avoid thinking about it. I feel more informed about exactly what animal agriculture involves now (grinding up live male baby chicks because they have no use for egg-laying was a shocker to learn about, for example), but I was more in the acceptance-of-murder as part of life camp, before I stopped being part of that system of consumption.
The longer I’m vegan, the more appalling what we do to animals feels. The hypocrisy of supposed animal-lovers gladly eating dead animals every day, feels absurd. The propaganda the animal agriculture industry uses to make their exploitation come across as “humane” becomes ever more obvious. The simple mathematical fact that producing animal products in the quantities desired by everyday eaters of animal-based food cannot be done at the scale required without causing suffering to literally billions of individuals every year is unavoidable. The fact that even the most kindly cared for free-ranging animals are ultimately murdered so that we might eat them is unavoidable — FYI, even if you don’t mind the killing of another being, free-range is not an easy out for welfare or sustainability, as there is not enough land on the planet to eat meat regularly with the size of our population.
Murder and suffering. Murder and suffering. That is what I see when faced with the meat aisle in the supermarket. When the person in front of me at the till has a pack of chicken breasts, I know that means several birds have been killed for that food which could easily be the same quantity of tofu, Quorn, seitan, chickpeas, etc, etc (all more healthy, more sustainable, mostly more tasty too, and all free of murder).
Truly it’s disgusting the scale of suffering we cause in the name of food, fashion, cosmetics, and so much more. Completely avoidable, completely unnecessary. Once you let yourself break out of the social conditioning that it is acceptable, or needed for us to survive, flourish, or be content, it just becomes ever more appalling what we do to other creatures.
Animal products now physically repulse me
I now find the smell of milk and meat utterly disgusting. Walking down the supermarket aisles with these products is overwhelming in how repulsive the smell is. A smell I don’t remember even noticing existed at all before!
Maybe this is related to the psychological shift above, in finding these sorts of products philosophically unacceptable and developing a degree of disgust about them.
I wonder maybe if it’s also my body reprogramming itself, after breaking the habits of consuming products which are more prone to spreading disease and decaying into inedible gack. Maybe my body shifting to more sensible self-preservation reactions to what are dangerous undesirable things to consume or even be near; dead bodies!
I learned to like dark chocolate
Chocolate was my final hurdle on the path to veganism. I am a life-long chocoholic with a serious addiction to sweet delicious milk chocolate. I could give up all the other animal products quite easily, but chocolate was hard.
When I first went vegan there were almost no plant-based milk chocolates to be found. Just a few truly terrible rice-milk based things, which were a poor substitute for the glories of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Galaxy, and all the other chocolatey goodies I once adored.
Thankfully chocolate is one area a new vegan today would not struggle with. There are so many delicious vegan chocolates around, including all manner of “milk” chocolate bars.
But until that time came, I needed chocolate, and that left me with either only having that terrible rice-milk stuff, or forcing myself to face my chocolate nemesis; the cruel bitter disappointment of dark chocolate. My sweet teeth were not best pleased, but eventually, I tried enough bars, and trained myself to actually like dark chocolate (when I found it utterly unappealing before).
It’s a mini version of any transition into veganism; there will always be some things that are harder to let go of than others. Some things where there’s not an easy swap and you need to adapt, experiment, and find new things to love instead of hoping to find an exact replacement. But it can be done! With the growth of veganism and vegan products, it's ever easier now too.
Today, I enjoy so much vegan chocolate, milk and dark (even white when you can find it, that remains a rarity). I get to savour versions of old flavours I missed for a while, but have also expanded my pallet to enjoy flavours I would not once have gone near. I’ve grown and bettered myself from that experience. All while halting the suffering of animals in my name, and reducing my environmental footprint. That extends to many aspects of vegan life, and it feels pretty win win!