It all started with a flippant comment in the office (yes, I spend two days a week in an actual grown-up office now. It is so cool it has neon pink staircases). Someone was laughing about how loads of people in their church had watched the film ‘Cowspiracy’ and now they’d all gone vegan. Crazy! Hilarious!
But somewhere inside something registered, because this is what I am like – I have a compulsion to keep trying to make the world better and improve myself, whatever the cost. (The to-do list will never end; I will never do enough). I hadn’t even seen the film, but slowly the cogs started to turn and I started to think, “oh no, I might need to become a vegan.”
Which is obviously crazy, right? Why would a passing comment from a friend make me feel like I needed to make such an insane and drastic lifestyle choice? Veganism had always seemed so extreme, anti-social, and unappealing. It’s not that I don’t ever eat vegan meals, or that I think they all taste disgusting. But it seemed an austere life.
The issue that pretty much dwarfs my personal tastes, however, is the environment, and the growing tide of evidence about the negative impact of eating dairy and meat that I can see out of the corner of eye. There was of course the film ‘Cowspiracy’ itself which I watched one evening on netflix. (If you haven’t seen it, an activist goes researching what is damaging the environment and climate most and discovers that the worst culprit globally is the cattle industry, because the amount of dairy and beef we are consuming is completely unsustainable for the planet to provide). But it doesn’t take much googling to discover that lots of people dispute the statistics quoted in the film.
Around the same time, however, I started to see articles like this one, reporting on the UN and IPCC’s recommendation that we move away from a reliance on animal products in our diet, because the planet cannot cope. Even Boris Johnson, a man I cannot claim to admire, wrote this column in which he ridicules the very idea of cutting down on meat consumption before completely supporting the scientific analysis of the underlying environmental crisis. (His argument – change of diet is completely unreasonable – imagine having to do something as inconvenient as altering our diet to save civilisation – the answer is to somehow curb the global population drastically in the next 30 years, which is clearly far more practical and reasonable a suggestion).
I have never seen the UN as a particularly radical force in the world, given the number of committees and members and agendas it must somehow accommodate. So when the UN recommends a vegan diet, it strikes me as unusually bold.
And then I thought I would see what George Monbiot had to say on the matter, knowing him to be terrifyingly radical but also incredibly well-informed on all issues relating to climate change. And of course, I found out, he is pretty much a vegan nowadays. Sigh.
I had, and have, two main reasons for resisting becoming a vegan. I’m not saying they are good reasons, but I am being honest:
- I comfort eat. Food brings me happiness and pleasure. In this season of life characterised by frequent sleep deprivation and intense parenting in my waking hours, nice food just helps me keep going. I don’t think it’s out of control, I’m not overweight and I don’t go crazy. But food really helps me cope, and the thought of cutting out so many comfort foods because they (mostly) contain dairy, and sometimes meat, feels like a bleak prospect.
- I don’t want to become the nightmare dinner invitee or house guest. I want to be able to receive the hospitality I’m offered without having to turn everything down. I hate fussiness. (I actually quite enjoy the creative challenge of catering for guests with dietary restrictions, but I hate to enforce it on anyone else).
My husband pointed out that I tend to be fairly black and white about these things and maybe being immediately extreme wasn’t the best approach to lasting change. Which I considered to be wise, whilst also still wanting to make a dramatic decision. (Then again, firebrand George Monbiot only considers himself ‘almost’ a vegan).
The other contributing factor here is that I would like to eat better. I have always thought diets were a waste of time, not least because once the diet is over we just go back to our old habits. And I’d like some new and better habits, but honestly I just don’t know where to start. When confronted with a piece of cake in my hunger my train of thought goes something like this: ‘I can resist because maybe it will make me imperceptibly thinner or negligibly healthier or I can just enjoy this treat.’ You might be able to guess what I usually choose.
I don’t look at my body with disgust (although in the rare event that I weigh myself, I do loathe the numbers), I don’t feel a compulsion to be thinner (although it would maybe be nice, if I was also healthier and stronger). I have some good habits – I mostly cook from scratch, we eat fruit, we eat plenty vegetables, we try to eat vegetarian more days than we eat meat). But I also feel a bit stuck. I don’t want to be a health nut but I’d like to make a few better choices.
I feel like I have more of a chance when my motivation towards change isn’t just about my body.
And all this coincides perfectly with Lent, which starts this week. If you miss the January bandwagon, Lent is, of course, the next best opportunity to give something up.
Only Lent carries another set of underpinning beliefs, as a season of church life. I haven’t always marked Lent (some churches do, some don’t), but in recent years the season has started to mean more to me. I shudder at the thought of deprivation, but the discipline of removing things from our lives which have become distractions from the most important things, or ways of numbing ourselves from our own pain or the world’s pain, even just indulgences which have become too normal – that feels like an important exercise to undertake. We let go of something as a step of faith, in the hope that there will be something more real and more substantial on the other side. Our step of faith is towards God and the promise that he could be more to us than the things we leave behind.
So the Lent resolutions feel more weighty for me – less about new plans to undertake, and more about hard choices and things I need to leave behind. Giving up certain kinds of snack food like chocolate can seem like a shallow way to tread this path, but who am I to judge the call anyone else needs to make. Food is a huge source of pleasure for me, but also my go-to drug for numbing my emotions and pacifying my distressed heart. And so changing how I eat feels like a big and a hard thing.
We have gone vegetarian for Lent before, and this year I am going to try to eat in an increasingly vegan manner as the season goes on. I’m not enforcing veganism on the rest of my family, although as I’m chief cook they will get to eat many delicious vegan meals in the coming weeks (frankly, my kids would happily eat pesto pasta every day anyway, and vegan pesto is easy to find). A little googling has thrown up a few snazzy vegan snack companies out there, and, more helpfully, I stumbled across this helpful list of accidentally vegan snacks.
And beyond Lent, who knows? I hope we’ll grow new habits, discover a better way to live and make some permanent changes to our diet. I would be happy if we cooked meat very occasionally and saw it as a huge treat. I’m not going to make our families or friends cook vegan food for us when we go to stay. It’s hard to predict what course we’ll chart after Lent, or how well we’ll adapt to the changes.
(Dear God, please leave me caffeine, alcohol, gluten and sugar.)by