For many, summer will see us roll off a gastronomical precipice, our gut pummeled by a merry-go-round of BBQs, wedding feasts and excess summer boozing. Caomhan Keane tried a Vegan diet to remedy the damage done to his system, and got the bloods to prove it.
Talking about vegetarians before his death last year, the journalist AA Gill referred to our herbivorous kin as ‘people who get pleasure from not eating things”.
When I announced that I was taking it a step further and going vegan for two months, I was accused of setting out to get pleasure from not eating anything at all.
So disdained and disparaged is the diet, it’s envisioned by many, that a life without cheese, chocolate and red wine is no life at all.
But ever since turning the big 30 I’ve struggled with my voracious appetite. Comfort eating and late night raids on the fridge, freezer and on one post-pub occasion, the bin, resulted in a variety of gastrointestinal illnesses, a stomach cramped and protruded, with the equivalent of an oil slick meat-sweating across my face, clogging my pores.
Constantly plagued by headaches and heartburn and with a family history of cancer, heart disease and diabetes, my body was firing the starter’s pistol on its own decline.
Enter stage-left, Veganuary, a 31-day challenge originally set up for those who want to start the New Year paying off the gluttony and slothfulness of Christmas. While the month its name puns is their busy time, Veganuary operates year round and is a painless way to pay the piper for the rubbish we funnel into ourselves throughout a season of weddings, bbq’s and ‘cans by the canal’.
“It’s agreed upon as one of the healthiest diets you can undertake by organisations like the World Cancer Fund,” says Dr Conor Kerley, a Doctor of Nutrition, Lecturer & Dietitian. “Those who follow plant-based diets have lower rates of cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, strokes, and even Alzheimer’s.”
A move to focus on health and the environment rather than animal welfare has seen the popularity of veganism rise. A recent poll by iReach found that, of the 2% of Irish people who consider themselves Vegan, one-out-of-four did so for just that reason.
“But just because you’re eating faux chicken instead of real chicken doesn’t take away from the fact that it is heavily processed and isn’t very friendly to the body,” says Dr Kerley. “You need to focus on the whole foods as opposed to junk vegan foods. Focus your diet on vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains and you’ll do quite well.”
One way to help you with this is to download the daily dozen app on your phone and use that as a guide. It suggests that you try to fit both Cruciferous veg — like broccoli, sprouts and cabbage and other greens like Kale and spinach into your diet, while also making room for other veg, root-veg, mushrooms, corn and root-veg too.
Fruit-like apples, oranges and bananas need to be eaten in addition to berries. While nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, spices, and water also need to be ingested. (The 12th item on the list is not a food but exercise).
But while a vegan diet might sound like it belongs in a warren, not a kitchen, the key to surviving it is not to mourn the bloodless, fleshless hole at the heart of your plate, but to embrace the challenge of the grub less gobbled.
My sweet and sour chickpeas, mango and apple curry with pineapple rice, and red Thai gnocchi were so delicious, none of my travelmates realised they’d been on a vegan diet for a full week, until I pushed my luck with tofu and spinach in a peanut-butter sauce.
A black bean and sweet-potato chili with homemade sour cream, or a curried broccoli and cashew stir frycould be made quickly and lasted the whole week. While in just 25 minutes you can make the most devastating raspberry and ginger-biscuit granola bars.
After a day of grumbling about the almond milk in my coffee, I forgot it was there. Olive oil on spuds is now preferable to ones drenched in butter. Maple syrup on veg kicks honey’s sweet ass. While a whole new world of corn on the cobs opened up for me, a magic carpet ride of chili, curry and coconut glazes.
Cutting eggs out led to a noticeable drop in my constipation and the inevitable panicked run to the jacks.
Switching to a plant-based diet remains tough. A number of products had me spitting.
Most restaurants will have a vegan option, and in some cases a specific vegan menu. And if you were delayed in getting home of an evening you discover the true definition of weak from hunger.
It’s also incredibly time-consuming. I had to box off a couple of hours each weekend, so as to cook meals en-masse and freeze them, to ensure I wasn’t binging on waffles with beans, chips or quorn.
Is it any wonder that 27% of vegans polled by IReach admit they’ve knowingly strayed from their diet?
However, I noticed the benefit in other areas of my life. My sleeping- which exploding alarm clocks, electro-shock therapy, pills, potions and apps failed to fix, improved exponentially within days. My sick bouts, stopped immediately. My energy levels soared, while, thanks to the introduction of beans, oats and nuts to my diet, my zinc intake increased, resulting in a younger looking pallor.
Say any of this to a meat eater and they’ll deflect your truth with Serena like vigor. So I visited Dr Kerley who conducted a test, which measured body fat, water retention as well as a lipid profile, before and after the 60 days of a mostly whole-foods, plant-based diet.
My Glucose level dropped from the high end of normal, 5.2 to 4.6, which given my family’s history of diabetes, is significant.
My triglycerides, an independent risk factor in heart disease, dropped by a full percentage point, from an unhealthy 2.38 to 1.38, thanks to my cutting back on my calorie intake, which also contributed to a weight loss of nearly three quarters of a stone. While my Ferritin levels, which have to do with the iron stores in your body, actually increased on the diet, disproving the myth that people on a plant-based diet get less iron than carnivores.
Best of all was my cholesterol, which fell a full percentage point again, from 5.8 to 4.8.
While there’s a whole industry of attractive looking chefs peddling its benefits, I found every meal I needed for free on Pinterest, that didn’t require ingredients that were hard to find.
The combination of spices, pastes and an inventive use of condiments resulted in grub that shook up my culinary routine.
So, should I decide to return feasting on flesh at a later date, I’ll have a selection of delicious accompaniments to drown your guilt with.
And remember, if you slip up now and again, despite the orgasmic spasms of any meat eaters, you haven’t failed at anything.
My impressive bloods were achieved in spite of occasionally falling off the wagon, leaving my bedroom looking like Chicken Licken had a bad date with the Fantastic Mr Fox.