Plant-Based Pause No 4: The Problems With Dairy

In November 2011, I made the decision to progress towards a plant-based diet and lifestyle. Since then, I have learnt so much about where our food comes from, and what it does to our bodies and the environment. Along the way, I have encountered many obstacles and challenges. I have also been asked lots of questions, most of them valid and a few off them more than a little odd. One of the aims of my blog is to chronicle my experiences as a plant-based traveller. So, hopefully these Plant-Based Pauses will provide a little more explanation and maybe answer some questions that my readers may still have.

‘The human body has no more need for cow’s milk than it does for dog’s milk, horse’s milk, or giraffe’s milk.’ – Michael Klaper, MD

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I was born covered head to toe in eczema, and it is a condition that has affected me my whole life. Unfortunately, I was born in the early 80s when health professionals knew very little about nutrition, and parents listened to their GPs without question. Even though there was evidence back then that dairy was highly unsuitable for eczema sufferers, my doctor told my parents to feed it to me, because it was ‘natural to have allergies’. My doctor didn’t have allergies himself. All he saw was the inflamed skin all over my body, he couldn’t feel the intense pain that I felt when anything touched me, or the sickness I felt when my open sores led to blood poisoning and battered my immune system, making me open to other illnesses and infections. Had my doctor advised my parents not to give me dairy when I was a child, my condition would have been a lot easier to manage.

As well as eczema and other skin complaints, dairy has also been proven to be dangerous for people with asthma and respiratory problems. Chef Chad Sarno cites asthma as one of his reasons for switching to a vegan diet.

And what about everyone else? Dairy is a vital source of calcium, right? You’re told as a child to drink milk, eat cheese and have yoghurt for dessert because it helps you grow strong bones and teeth. Then, as an adult you pass this information down to your own children.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERADairy is not the only source of calcium, nor is it the best. It is true to say that dairy contains a lot of calcium, but it also contains a lot of acid. The only way our bodies can neutralise the acid is by taking more calcium from our bones, so the more dairy we eat the less calcium we end up with. That’s why in western countries, where we consume the most dairy, we have the most cases of osteoporosis (brittle bones). There are much healthier, plant-based sources of calcium such as green leafy vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, bok choy, watercress, romaine lettuce), pulses (soya, kidney beans, chick peas, broad beans, baked beans), lentils, parsnips, swede, turnips, some nuts such as almonds, Brazils, hazelnuts, pistachio and some fruits (dried figs, currants, lemons, oranges) and olives – and exceptionally high are sesame seeds.

DSC_0499Aside from anything else, when you think about it, it’s just weird that we drink milk from a cow. Cows’ milk is meant for baby cows. Apart from pets like cats that we control, we are the only species who continue to drink milk after we’re weaned. Naturally, cows produce just enough milk for their calves, the same as any other species (Please bear in mind here that a ‘natural’ cow is nothing like the cows we see in fields today which were specially bred during the agricultural revolution to produce more food). In the dairy industry, cows are artificially inseminated to keep them constantly pregnant and therefore constantly producing a flow of milk. About 50% of the calves born are male, and therefore no use to the farmers, and are shot in the head shortly after birth apart from a few that are reared for veal. Just like any animal, having their babies taken away from them is extremely distressing for the cows and they have been known to bellow for days, calling for their baby. On top of that, they have to suffer infected and swollen udders that are a result of producing too much milk.

There are many, vegan alternatives to dairy that are much kinder to other beings and do not leave you feeling sick. Butter, cheese, ice cream and yoghurt all have dairy-free alternatives. Just look for the ‘Free From’ section in your local supermarket. There are now lots of different varieties of vegan milk. Personally, I prefer unsweetened soya milk, but you can also choose from sweetened soya, almond and rice milk to name just a few. Soya milk does curdle in hot drinks, so make sure you either heat the milk or allow the drink to cool a little before you add the milk. Almonds and cashews make a great cream substitute, just soak them in water for a couple of hours and then blend them. Doing this with cashews makes a great melted cheese replacement.

All this talk about food is making me feel hungry, but before I go, next time you’re about to drink a glass of cows’ milk, please consider how it got there and if you really need it.

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Plant-Based Pause No 3: B12

In November 2011, I made the decision to progress towards a plant-based diet and lifestyle. Since then, I have learnt so much about where our food comes from, and what it does to our bodies and the environment. Along the way, I have encountered many obstacles and challenges. I have also been asked lots of questions, most of them valid and a few off them more than a little odd. One of the aims of my blog is to chronicle my experiences as a plant-based traveller. So, hopefully these Plant-Based Pauses will provide a little more explanation and maybe answer some questions that my readers may still have.

‘One of the secrets of life is to make stepping stones out of stumbling blocks.’ – Jack Penn

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A common concern for vegans and plant-based vegetarians is that we don’t get enough nutrients. People sometimes look at me like they expect me just to keel over in front of them, they can’t believe that I can not eat animals and yet look so healthy.

There are four nutrients that can only be found in animal-based foods: cholesterol and vitamins A, D and B12. Cholesterol is made naturally in our bodies, and omnivores do not need the extra that they get from meat and eggs. Vitamin A is also made in our bodies, as is vitamin D if we have a few minutes exposure to the sun every day. Interestingly, vitamins A and D are both toxic if too much is consumed.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERAIf you eat a healthy, plant-based diet, the only thing you can’t get is B12. This isn’t because we need to eat red meat, however. Some B12 is made in the intestine, but it is not enough so we are advised to consume more in food. Historically, our ancestors would have got enough B12 from the soil, where it is made by micro-organisms. When vegetables are grown in healthy, organic soil, they soak up nutrients through their roots. Also, people in the past wouldn’t have washed their vegetables as well as we have to and would have drunk dirty water, so would have literally been eating the soil. Modern mass-farming techniques, with all it’s technology and chemicals, has stripped the soil of it’s natural nutrients, including B12.

There’s no need to panic, though. Modern technology has also brought us other sources of B12, including fortified vegan milks and margarine, fortified breakfast cereals and B12 supplements (my personal choice because it’s easier to monitor my intake). Yeast extracts such as Marmite also contain B12, but be careful if you have problems with gluten. Until the day that we return to organic farming and the soil is given the chance to repair itself, these alternatives are more than adequate.

Plant-Based Pause No 2: No, It’s Not Natural for Humans to Eat Animal Products

In November 2011, I made the decision to progress towards a plant-based diet and lifestyle. Since then, I have learnt so much about where our food comes from, and what it does to our bodies and the environment. Along the way, I have encountered many obstacles and challenges. I have also been asked lots of questions, most of them valid and a few off them more than a little odd. One of the aims of my blog is to chronicle my experiences as a plant-based traveller. So, hopefully these Plant-Based Pauses will provide a little more explanation and maybe answer some questions that my readers may still have.

‘People eat meat and think they will become as strong as an ox, forgetting that the ox eats grass.’ – Pino Caruso

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I don’t tend to broadcast the fact that I’m a plant-based vegetarian because, to be honest, it’s not really anyone else’s business and everyone has the right to choose their own lifestyle. However, whenever a situation involves food, and let’s face it that’s very often, it’s an unavoidable subject. People notice that I’m not eating the same as them, and that I have to ask lots of questions about what the meal contains. One of the most common reactions, always said with confidence, is ‘but it’s natural for humans to eat meat’. When I ask them ‘why is it natural for humans to eat meat?’, however, I have never yet met an omnivore who has been able to give me an answer other than ‘because it is’. They know that it is natural for them to eat meat, which is when I point out that everyone knew the Earth was flat before Christopher Columbus came along.

Not only do I know that it is not natural for humans to eat meat, I also know why. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that every species could be vegan. Cats, for example, are designed to eat meat, although you will get the odd cat that it the exception to the rule and chooses to be vegetarian (my aunty’s cat Squeakers for example). There are some animals like apes, humans and dogs, however, that are more suited to eating plants.

DSC_0500For a start, we are a downright lazy species. We know this because we have designed a modern world for ourselves where technology does everything for us. We no longer have to move off the sofa if we do not choose to. So, when our early ancestors were roaming the planet looking for food, if they’d had the choice between a plant that grows out of the ground or a meal they had to chase down for four hours and kill, I think I know which one they’d go for. Lots of people today argue that it is the hunter-gatherer instinct in us that makes us want to eat meat. I have no problem with that if you actually go out and hunt the animals yourself, however I tend to find that most of the people making the argument ‘hunt’ their food pre-prepared in plastic containers from the supermarket.

Anatomically, we are better suited to eating a herbivore diet. Firstly, we have the right teeth for it. Most of our teeth are flat and our jaw can move side-to-side, perfect for grinding down and crushing plants. Carnivores, on the other hand, have sharp, pointy teeth that are designed to seize, kill and dismember prey. The four canine teeth we do have are blunt and small, and are thought to be used for display and/or defence (think of when an ape warns off a potential threat). Can you imagine actually trying to pull meat off an animal just using your canines? Try it next time you’re eating a chicken leg.

There are lots of other reasons why we are biologically better suited to eating plant-based, for example our colon which, like in other herbivores, has a pouch structure. Our body also needs lots of fibre, which is exclusively found in plant-based foods. Although it is not digested, fibre is essential to the human body as it pulls water into the intestines to keep everything moving.

And what about that age-old saying ‘Real men eat meat’? Google Rip Esselstyn – does he look manly enough to you? Rip is a committed plant-based vegetarian. After a successful career as a world-class athlete, he changed careers and trained as a firefighter in Austin, Texas. After learning that one of his colleagues had a dangerously high cholesterol level of 344, Rip encouraged all the firefighters at his station to switch to a plant-based diet. They all lost weight, lowered their cholesterol and improved their overall health. Still not convinced? Then head over to veganbodybuilding.com and check out lots of ‘real men’ who don’t eat meat, including some of the 3000 vegan body builders here in the UK.

 

Plant-Based Pause No 1: It’s Not as Scary as it Seems

In November 2011, I made the decision to progress towards a plant-based diet and lifestyle. Since then, I have learnt so much about where our food comes from, and what it does to our bodies and the environment. Along the way, I have encountered many obstacles and challenges. I have also been asked lots of questions, most of them valid and a few off them more than a little odd. One of the aims of my blog is to chronicle my experiences as a plant-based traveller. So, hopefully these Plant-Based Pauses will provide a little more explanation and maybe answer some questions that my readers may still have.

‘Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.’ – Albert Einstein 

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Just over two years ago, I made a change in my life that has had repercussions I never would have expected. I decided to go plant-based. Having been vegetarian for over 18 years (not eating or wearing anything an animal dies to produce), I thought I knew a lot about the food I ate and where it came from. How wrong I was.

Whilst looking through the listings for a local independent cinema, I came across an advert for a showing of Planeat. Watching that one movie would change my life forever. Since then, I have almost completely cut animal protein out of my diet. Apart from the occasional pizza base or soup that contain milk (I’m also allergic to gluten, so sometimes I have to take what I can get, even if it means eating a tiny bit of dairy), I no longer eat animal milk, cheese, yoghurt or eggs. The only animal product I do buy on a regular basis is honey, and I make a point to buy local honey that is ethically sourced. In fact, all the fresh produce I buy now is as local as possible, preferably organic and from the farmers market in my neighbourhood. If I do have to buy from the supermarket, I always buy British.

DSC_0445As a vegetarian, when I first decided to go plant-based, I suppose it was easier for me because I was already halfway there. I’d always said that I couldn’t give up dairy and be vegan, but now that I almost am I can honestly says it’s not as scary and difficult as it sounds.

So, what do you do if you’re thinking about trying this plant-based malarkey? You’ve heard about these strange people who only eat plant-based, whole food as close to the source as possible, and how their back-to-basics diet is curing cancer, heart disease and diabetes. You’ve maybe even seen a few testimonials of people who have tried it and lost weight, got healthier and found a new lease of life. However, completely changing the way you eat and how you think about food is daunting. Don’t fear, though, there is lots of help out there, and from people a lot more qualified than me. The best place to start is to watch Planeat or Forks Over Knives, then have a browse through their websites to learn more. Twenty years ago, when I first stopped eating meat, we didn’t have the benefit of the internet. Announcing that I was a vegetarian made me feel very alone and socially awkward, and I had little support against the critics who told me it was just a ‘phase’ I would grow out of. Nowadays, we have a whole network of friends and supporters online around the clock.

There are lots more people out there who are intrigued by the plant-based lifestyle. I know this because of the amount of questions I get asked, and you wouldn’t have read this far if you weren’t the least bit interested. Most people are just scared to give it a try because it is so far removed from what the majority of us have been taught is healthy. A common question I get is ‘What do you eat?’ After years of eating meals with meat as the base, people are genuinely perplexed at how to form a meal around vegetables and whole grains. I promise you, though, it is not as difficult as it sounds. Give plant-based living a try and after a couple of months you’ll wonder why everybody doesn’t live the same way, and you’ll be the one confidently answering those questions.

My last piece of advice is to go in with an open mind, you’re going to hear and see things that will throw what you know as ‘the truth’ out of the water.

 

Living Plant-Based: Two Years On

This month marks the two year anniversary of me converting to a plant-based lifestyle. Who knew that watching one film would completely change my life?

I’d seen Planeat on the listings of our local independent cinema. It looked really interesting, but unfortunately I couldn’t go on the night it was being shown. When I found out I could rent the film online for just a few pounds, I decided to watch it at home instead.

I think I ended up watching Planeat three or four times over that weekend, and every time I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and seeing. At long last, here were the answers to questions that I had been asking for years. I’d been a ‘normal’ vegetarian for over 15 years, avoiding any animal products that involved an animal dying. I knew it was right to avoid eating animals, but I just didn’t know why exactly. When people would ask me my reasons for being vegetarian, I would reply ‘I’ve always just known that I am’.

DSC_0445When I watched Planeat, all the pieces of the puzzle finally slotted into place. I realised where I had been going wrong. It wasn’t enough to just stop eating meat, to be a healthy and responsible human I had to avoid animal protein altogether.

Just like when I turned vegetarian, I took a step-by-step approach to becoming plant-based. My first step was to swap cows milk for soya milk. Admittedly, it took a few days to get used to the taste, but now the thought of drinking cows milk makes me feel sick. Then I stopped using all dairy products and eggs at home, before removing most of the processed food from my diet and looking at what other things I ate also contained animal products.

After five weeks of cutting out dairy and eggs, my parents came to visit and we went out for dinner. Although I was pretty much vegan at home, I decided to revert back to a vegetarian diet when I was out and about. I figured that a bit of dairy once in a while wouldn’t hurt. I ordered a pizza topped with mozarella, and as soon as I’d eaten it I started to feel ill, bloated and lethargic. It took me about 2 days to get over the feeling. I vowed that from that point on I would live as plant-based as I possibly could.

The most immediate change I noticed was the weight loss. I’d been slowly losing weight the previous year, but I’d been struggling to shift the last few pounds and get down to a healthy weight. On a plant-based diet I didn’t have to try, those stubborn pounds just disappeared. If anything, it’s a bit of an effort to try and eat enough food. Especially with all the exercise I do now. I’d always wanted to be physically fit, but on a vegetarian diet I struggled to get enough motivation to even move off the couch. Now, I have so much energy I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t even drink caffeine anymore (due to allergy reasons), yet I feel I’m running on adrenaline 24/7. And because I’m rarely ill nowadays, there’s nothing to keep me from working out.

My cooking skills have improved a lot, too. I found myself scouring vegan blogs and product websites for new recipes I could try, and I started buying kitchen utensils that I’d never heard of before (yes, there is really such a thing as a tofu press). What’s more, the food tastes great and most of it is easy to prepare. When I cook for family and friends, they are always pleasantly surprised and usually question ‘Is this really vegan?’.

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Educating others about living plant-based is also, surprisingly, a lot of fun and rewarding. I’d never push my beliefs onto anyone else, but whenever I’m eating food that involves interaction with another human, the subject always comes up. People apologise for the amount of questions they ask me, but I genuinely do not mind answering the same ones over and over. It’s been easier since I’ve had a copy of the Forks Over Knives DVD. Now I can just say ‘Here, borrow this then get back to me with any questions you still have’.

The biggest surprise to me, however, is the effect that living plant-based has had on other parts of my life. It has led me to question where I buy my shopping from, how much unnecessary waste I produce and just exactly what I really need in life. The answer to the last one, by the way, is not very much.

This year I pledged to produce less unnecessary waste. I choose groceries with less packaging, and I’ve stopped using take-out cups. Whenever I buy something, I question how much waste it will create and how necessary it really is. Wherever possible, I reuse packing materials. My mantra now is ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’, and I keep these words in mind wherever I am and whatever I’m doing.

DSC_0356Day by day, I am becoming a more ethical shopper. I buy fresh produce that is as local as possible, and only from the country I am in at the time. This ethos is slowly spreading to other items that I buy. I’m currently in the process of switching to all plant-based soaps, shampoo and cleaners, and I’m planning to move to vegan cosmetics in the near future.

Since moving back to the UK five years ago, one of the things I have struggled with is the materialism here. Whilst I was travelling abroad, I owned very little because that was all I could carry. A visitor to Rhodes, where I was based at the time, commented that I had so little, but yet I was really happy. When you have to live with less, you soon learn that you don’t really need much anyway. By living plant-based, my life has automatically become much simpler again, and I feel calmer for it.

When I was a vegetarian I always said that I could never be vegan. The prospect of giving up dairy just seemed too difficult. People always ask me ‘Don’t you miss cheese/milk chocolate/cakes and pastries?’ (delete as appropriate) and the honest answer is No! Once I stopped eating those things, the cravings for them disappeared. And if I do fancy a treat, there are plenty of yummy vegan alternatives. I feel better now than I ever have done, and I wouldn’t go back to my old habits for the whole world.

Living Plant-based, Austrian Style

Recently, I read an article by Doug Lisle on the Forks over Knives newsletter about how living plant-based will one day be the norm, but as with every major change that humans make, it takes time and unfortunately will not be in my lifetime. Although those of us who are already plant-based find it frustrating to watch people stuffing their faces with junk food and processed chemicals, especially when it is parents feeding their children, we have to accept that change will not happen over night. As Doug Lisle says in his article:

‘Think in terms of the march of human enlightenment, and it can help you relax. A hundred years ago, women weren’t allowed to vote. We are only about fifty years since the civil rights movement. Today, we look back in amazement at the primitive thinking of the average citizen in previous eras. Cultural perceptions can change — and usually in the right direction.’

My family have always been fairly supportive of my food and lifestyle choices. Althought they are all omnivores, they cook vegan food for everyone to enjoy when I visit and take my diet into consideration when we eat out. They’ve even admitted to seeing the benefits in living plant-based – mainly that they are ill all the time and I very rarely am. However, they still hold with the idea that was planted in their head as children that they should eat other animals, although they’re never able to explain why. My mum in particular likes to drag me into conversations about my diet, then when I don’t agree with her on something she accuses me of being narrow-minded and tells me that I need to learn to respect other peoples’ beliefs. Although my personal belief now is that humans are meant to eat plant-based food, I do respect the fact that everyone chooses what they eat and what they feed their children. I never preach about being plant-based or try convert everyone to eating vegan, but I’m happy to discuss it with people and answer their questions if they ask.

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Last Sunday, I attended my niece and her cousin’s naming ceremony in Innsbruck. It being Austria, the food consisted of a lot of meat and dairy. Even before I became plant-based, I found the dairy too much in Austria. As soon as I said I was vegetarian, people would give me huge portions of pasta with cheese, pizza with yet more cheese and sometimes just a plate of cheese with a sliced tomato on the side. During my first summer there, years before I was plant-based, I actually chose to switch to soya milk at home just to have a break from all the dairy.

Anyway, back to Sunday. All three families present had lots of questions about what I eat and how easy it is for me to find food, and they were genuinely concerned that there would be nothing for me. I happily answered their questions, and reassured them that as I had already survived two years as a plant eater, travelling around various countries, a day in the Alps shouldn’t be too difficult.

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My sister-in-law had kindly gone to the supermarket before I arrived and picked up a few things for me, including some gluten-free bread. That, along with some zucchini/courgette, corn and potatoes off the grill, olives and salad (with the feta cheese picked out) made more than a substantial plate. I also had a bowl of piping hot carrot soup that my sister-in-law’s mum made. It was delicious. My home-made carrot soup certainly isn’t going to taste as nice now. I would have taken a photo to show you, but I did my usual trick of getting distracted by the food and only remembering my camera after I’d finished.

If all else failed, I could always survive on corn
If all else failed, I could always survive on the corn growing next to the garden

The general response from people was ‘Wow, you really did find enough to eat without choosing the meat’. And for dessert? Handily, the garden we were using for the ceremony is full of pear trees, and the fruit was constantly falling around us throughout the day. How much easier can you get than food literally falling into your hands?

Can you spot the butterfly trying to steal my dessert?
Can you spot the butterfly trying to steal my dessert?

What I’ve Learnt This Week

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Aaaarrgh! The weather in Wales has gone crazy! This week we have had snow, ice, heavy (and I mean really heavy) rain and high winds. After getting soaked in town last night whilst trying to find a taxi home (it’s easier to find an England supporter than it is a taxi in Cardiff these days), I awoke this morning to bright sunshine outside my bedroom window. At last, I thought, some nice weather. About twenty minutes later, the hailstones started. I’ve also seen a rainbow today, and whilst I was drawing the above sketch we had thunder and lightning. I don’t think there’s a weather condition we haven’t had.

I did venture out of the house to go to an open day at a local leisure centre today. My main reason for going was the promise of vegan food stalls. There wasn’t a huge amount of food there, and the producers that were there were for the main part ones that I was already aware of. I did get to try the most amazing vegan, gluten-free chocolate cake, though. I’ll never pass up the opportunity to try cake that I can safely eat!

As well as the food stalls, there were also vegan and anti-hunting/animal cruelty campaigners there. They were very generous, and let me collect lots of literature about being vegan and the meat industry. I’m constantly trying to educate myself about plant-based, environmentally aware living. Here are five new things that I learnt today:

When you buy leather, you can’t tell where it came from or what animal it was made from. I always assumed all leather sold in the UK was from cows, but apparently it is also made from horses, sheep, lambs, goats, pigs and possibly dogs and cats killed in Asia. After the drama we had here last week over horse meat being found in supermarket burgers, I wonder how outraged people would be to discover they’re probably also wearing horse skin on their feet.

Our ancestors got their B12 from the soil on unwashed vegetables and in dirty water. This is the answer to a question that I have been seaching for for a while. I knew that meat is the only place you can get B12 in a modern diet, and it’s the only vitamin you lack on a plant-based diet, but I couldn’t understand how our plant-based ancestors coped before B12 supplements. It’s not advised that you eat unwashed vegetables and drink dirty water by the way, just take the B12 supplement instead.

After dinner mints are vegan. I was so happy when I found this out – I love after dinner mints! I’ve just got to check that they’re gluten-free, and then guess what I’m going to the shop to buy 🙂

In their natural state, when cows reproduce, they provide enough milk just for their calves. The dairy industry keeps cows constantly pregnant in order to ensure a flow of milk.

Unlaid eggs are removed from slaughtered hens and used in the commercial manufacture of cakes, biscuits and fresh pasta. As I always say, if you can’t say what’s in it then you probably shouldn’t eat it.