Veganism for the Non-Foodie

If you are considering reducing your meat intake or going completely vegan it can be daunting for those of us who do not enjoy cooking. Nikki Botha, an avid animal rights activist and vegan chef, has kindly offered us her best tips for those making the transition or for those who need to be re-inspired.

Nikki Botha (Good Food Fund, China)

But first, why do people choose to be vegan?

Each vegan/vegetarian chooses why they omit meat from their diet for a variety of different reasons. Below is a list of the most common justifications:

  • Animal Rights
    • Ethical vegans do not eat meat to protest the cruelty that animals endure and /or simply that some people don’t consider animals food due to them being sentient beings.
  • To combat Climate Change
    • Sir David Attenborough explains that reducing your meat intake is the most effective way to immediately combat climate change due to unsustainable industrial farming practices (See video below). We have to modify our diet in order to survive.
    • If you intend on reducing your meat intake for helping slow down climate change, keep in mind that soy-based products are incredibly water intensive so watch out for using tofu and pre-made vegan snacks. Nikki suggests using chickpea flour for those of use who want to substitute ethically for tofu.
  • Health
    • Some people reduce or stop eating meat as some variations are high in saturated fats which can lead to a raised blood cholesterol. This becomes dangerous as the high levels of LDL increase ones risk of developing heart disease.
  • Religion

Here is what Sir David Attenborough has to say about the matter:

Nikki Botha: An Introduction

Nikki: I would like to start off by saying: I get you. I get where you are coming from. I was a meat eater until about the age of 17 when I made the decision to become vegetarian and after 18 years as a vegetarian, I made the decision to go vegan – this was 10 years ago. I have been through all three diets and I can say without any hesitation whatsoever that the decision to go vegan is hands down the best decision I have ever made. I can thus highly recommend you to make that change and adopt the lifestyle full time (regardless of your reasons to do so).

I can also tell you with absolute certainty that veganism isn’t as daunting as you think it is. It really is very, very simple (I’ve been where you are remember?). Now I also know you’re mostly likely going to tell me it’s easy for me to say because I am a chef, right? I had zero interest in spending even a second in the kitchen prior to going vegan. I hated cooking and everything to do with it. To put this in context:

  1. My home economics teacher told me in high school the only hope there is for me is to marry a wealthy man who is able to pay for someone to cook.
  2. I once made food so bad it made my teenage sister’s friends cry ( hashtag truestory).

What I am trying to say is, veganism is so simple and so exciting that it can turn someone like me in to an international vegan chef. Yes people, I’ve cooked for local and international celebrities, had recipes published, created award winning dishes, headed up catering for high profile international events, etc. And, I also teach vegan cooking. Not bad for someone whose only hope was a wealthy husband!

The first thing you need to do is understand why you are making the transition. It’s not enough to say “Let me try it and see”.  If you’re serious about sticking to a plant-based lifestyle, you need to know what you’re in for (so you don’t give up prematurely) and you need to understand WHY you are doing it (which serves as an inspirational reminder in times of “weakness”).

As Olivia mentioned earlier, there are 4 main reasons people (you included) go vegan :

  1. Health

If you’re going vegan for health reasons, you’re doing it right. Your health will automatically start improving once you start eating exclusively plant based. However, keep in mind that a vegan lifestyle can be as unhealthy as eating animal products. Keep a close eye on your nutrition. As you get into a rhythm and been doing it for a while, you don’t even think about nutrition anymore – you automatically keep to a nutritious regime as it becomes habit to eat a certain way. My general rule of thumb is the more colour variation on your plate, the more variety nutrients. A white plate for instance – rice, cauliflower, potatoes – is basically a big plate of starch. Balance your nutrient intake. Also remember that your greens are the elite Olympians of vegetables. So learn how to make dishes with loads of greens. Golden rule for greens: ALWAYS ALWAYS check the quality of your greens before consuming any. They are a potential breeding ground for ecoli so keep an eye out for slimy dark green pieces which are NOT fit for consumption) and wash greens thoroughly.

For those of you who are concerned about protein, iron and B12:

– Think beans, chickpeas, tofu, soy products, lentils, seitan (all hail the mighty seitan!!), etc are PACKED with protein – much much better protein than you will find in any animal product. If you’re worried about protein, stop. If vegans had a problem with protein, we’d all be dead right now. Instead, we have vegans who are high performance athletes and at the top of their discipline.

– Iron: one word. Greens.

– B12: I am not going to lie. B12 can be an issue. That being said, there are good supplements available on the market if it does become a concern. Just have your iron levels checked every now and then to make sure they’re in a good range. And just remember – people are different. Some people have issues with B12 and others don’t. Up until I went vegan, I always had issues with anemia and low B12 and I regularly had to have those HORRID, painful B12 jabs which put the fear of God in me for needles. Since I went vegan, no issue. At all. My husband on the other hand collapsed at JFK in NYC because of extremely low levels of B12. Yet we consume the same foods every day. He constantly has to monitor his levels, I don’t.

  1. Environment

If you’re doing it for the environment, you’re doing it right. Animal agriculture is the biggest contributor towards Earth’s impending collapse (and with it the human race). It’s bigger than all the other issues combined. Slay this beast and the war is halfway won. The solution is as simple as what is on the end of your fork. You cannot get a simpler solution that than. So next time you look at your fork before you put it in your mouth, ask yourself: is what I am eating fracking up this planet or can I sleep soundly tonight? If during your vegan journey you need inspiration to say no to what is on your fork, always remember that.  If you want to know more about animal agriculture and the impact on your future, Google is your best friend.

  1. Ethics

This is my personal reason for going vegan. It is also the most confronting, difficult and controversial reason. For those of you who choose this for the start of your vegan journey, all I can say is strand strong, stay fast and keep the course no matter what. You’re about to enter a minefield of opposition and ridicule. Yours is a brave journey. Carry with you the knowledge that you’re on the right side of justice.

  1. Religion

To you I say: any religion which includes active compassion towards ALL living beings is worth looking in to.

Nikki Botha (Good Food Fund, China)

WHAT YOU’RE IN FOR

Once you’ve made your decision to go vegan, three things are going to happen.

  1. Your body is going to go through tremendous change. BE PATIENT and remember every body is different. Some bodies react negatively when making the change and some bodies make the transition easily. It differs from individual to individual. It’s not necessarily that you’re doing something wrong. Think of it this way: (let’s say for the sake of argument you’re 21) for little under 21 years your body has been used to receive certain foods to sustain health and growth and as your body developed it adapted its functionality around the nutrition it received. Sudden deprivation of certain foods will confuse the body. Those confusions manifest in the way it physically functions. 21 years of physical indoctrination isn’t always easy to undo. If you find your health declining too much, I would suggest you make a slower transition to “train” your body to make a full transition easier. Start by going vegetarian. Vegetarianism is a great way to make the transition but should not be the end goal. Just don’t give up on going fully plant-based. Once your body feels comfortable with a vegetarian diet, start cutting out dairy and eventually egg. Again – don’t give up. I pinky swear it’s worth it.

There are many people who seem to make the transition look easy, but it’s not a competition. It’s not about who gets there first, it’s simply about getting there. If you have health concerns (see above health section on reasons people go vegan), consult a medical professional and/or a dietitian.

[NOTE: Olivia and Nikki both suggest seeing a dietitian in order to make sure you maintain utmost health at all times. Jessica Kotlowitz is the dietitian we both recommend in Cape Town.]

  1. People will start treating you differently. Many new vegans find themselves in a supportive environment but many new veggies are faced with hostility, ridicule and marginalisation. If you’ve never heard of “Hmmmmm bacon”, remember this moment.

If you live in an household which is not supportive of your decision, this is going to be hard. I am not going to lie to you. There is no one generic way to fix this problem. No one family has the same dynamics. If you’re brave and strong and firm in your beliefs and you don’t mind facing the storm heads on, remember to act with dignity, conviction and reason at all times. People will eventually give up once they realise they’re repeatedly hitting their heads against a brick wall. For others who just want to get it over and done with, quietly persist and don’t let anyone batter you back into ignorance.

As for ridicule? Not worth the effort. If they’re beyond education, don’t entertain their need for your attention. Rather use your time and energy where people are willing to listen. The only way to lead is by example.

  1. The way you view the world will change. You’re going to start seeing the world through a different pair of glasses. You are going to become a lot more aware of the impact dietary choices make because you can feel physical changes in your body. You’re going to have a lot more energy. Because you have more energy, you stress less. Because you stress less, you sleep better and because you sleep better, you have more energy. Your increased energy levels will influence how you interact with others. I get snippy and snappy when I don’t have energy and the last thing I want to do is ‘to human’. I just want to blob.  But when I have energy, my tolerance levels increase and I become more social and approachable.

YOUR PRACTICAL CONCERNS

I want to touch on some of the common problems people face based on questions which have been posed to me and from what I have read online.

  1. But what do I cook? How do I cook vegan? Let me put it in to perspective for you. Meat eaters eat approx. 5 to 6 different types of animal. In comparison, there are thousands upon thousands of edible plants we can consume. With such staggering choice, the possibilities are endless (granted not all are habitually consumed but you get the point that I am trying to make). Interestingly, “South Africans…consume about 28 million chickens a week. Roughly half a bird per person, per week, 52 weeks a year. 26 whole chickens. That’s a lot of bird.” – Business Insider

Eliminating animal products out of your regular dishes and food choices is actually quite simple. You don’t realise it but you eat vegan every day. Think of all the food stuffs you regularly consume which will fall under plant-based. It’s quite a variety, isn’t it? The easiest thing to cut out first are the meat products. Simply remove meat from your regular food and/or replace it with a meat substitute (faux meat, proteins such as beans or chickpeas, etc). The more difficult ones to avoid would be dairy and egg. These two products are in almost EVERYTHING. Trying to navigate avoiding eggs and milk can be tiring and demoralising at first. But once you start knowing how what products to buy when you go to the grocery store, shopping for vegan products becomes second nature. If you’re more inclined to cook for yourself, there are plenty of substitutes you can use to achieve the same results that you are used to. Tofu is FANTASTIC to use for vegan egg dishes. It lends texture and, because it is tasteless and absorbs the flavours, it can be cooked with kala namak (Indian black salt) to recreate the sulphuric, eggy smell and taste you’re become accustomed to. I make omelettes, frittatas, quiches, scrambled “egg”, poached “egg” and so on using tofu and kala namak as my two base ingredients. When I teach vegan cooking, the first thing I teach them is how to make scrambled tofu. It’s quick (from prep to plating takes me 11 minutes), it’s cheap, it’s nutritious, it’s ridiculously easy, it’s versatile, and it can be prepared and kept in the fridge for a quick grab and go snack or an “I am too lazy to cook” snack.

Olivia’s go-to, pre-made, vegan snacks are made by  Quorn, Fry’s and Linda McCartney

If you are looking for vegan-protein powder for shakes, smoothies or pancakes Olivia is currently testing these three:

Kauai Plant Protein, Phyto-Pro and Muscle Wellness (Vegan Protein)

However, I wouldn’t use tofu as an egg replacement in baking. Using tofu as an egg substitute for cupcakes or cakes or pastry will be disastrous. If you are a baker, you will be looking at using things such as flax seed, banana, apple sauce and, “buttermilk” (soy milk, vinegar and oil). There are plenty of egg substitutes available on the internet if you need inspiration.

Soy milk in tea or coffee may ruin your morning cuppa. If you’re not used to the taste of soy, it can be overpowering. When I made the switch, I thought soy milk was the devil’s mother’s breast milk. It was awful. Then I discovered the organic soy milk at Woolworths. They use apple concentrate to balance out the taste of the soy. I don’t buy it anymore because regular soy milk is cheaper, but it did help me train my taste buds. Nowadays you have all kinds of plant milks available on the market: soy milk, rice milk, almond milk (Olivia’s choice), oat milk, coconut milk, and and and and. Again – many choices to choose from.

Another great way to get ideas for cooking is to have fellow vegans over once a week or so (especially in the beginning) and prep food together. It’s a quadruple combo: you get food prep done so you don’t have to find time each day to cook, you get to socialise with friends, you get to swap meal ideas and, you will always have something to snack on if the need arises.

If you’re a foodie and you enjoy taking time out to cook, or you like to cook one or two specific dishes regularly, look up vegan recipes on the internet for your chosen dish. Read recipes, download recipes and practice, practice, practice. Cooking vegan is beautifully creative and you will become a more adventurous cook and eater.

At the end of the day, the easiest way to make the transition is to stick to what you and your body are used to. Drastic changes can sometimes be difficult to process which increases the rate of failure.

Lastly, remember the golden rule of nutrition: the more colour, the more nutrients.

  1. Won’t food be bland and unappetising? Veganism wouldn’t be on such an epic rise if the food was crap. Contrary to popular belief, you’re not going to be licking lettuce and chewing on cardboard. You don’t have to sacrifice taste or texture when going vegan. As above mentioned, your choices are endless!
  1. Cost. Let’s set the record straight. Eating vegan is NOT expensive. It can be yes, but it all depends on how, where, and what you eat. If you like eating store bought replacement products it can get expensive, especially in South Africa where we do not have the scale of choice people have in Europe, the US or Australia. Generally speaking, beans, legumes, grains, fruits and veggies are cheaper than meat. You eat these things daily anyway, the only thing missing from your basket would be animal products.

Another financial factor which you need to remember is that in the long terms, you will be saving thousands in health care.

  1. Convenience. If you’re worried about how available vegan products are and/or how readily available vegan food are on restaurant menus, relax. Although we don’t have the choice people have in other countries, more and more retailers are catering to the vegan demand. Restaurants are following suit, and realise there’s more money to be made by being vegan friendly.

The major pain in the behind is trying to figure out what you can put in your shopping basket as most of the products you’ve been using up to now have animal products in them. You are going to have to start reading labels – unfortunately. But before long the only ingredients you ever have to read would be those listed on a new product. There are also a lot of hidden ingredients listed which you might not recognise as being from animal origin, so watch out for E numbers. If you see a number with a capital E in front of it, check to see whether it comes from an animal. There are hundreds of E numbers and after 10 years of being vegan, even I can’t remember them. Download an E number app on to your phone for a quick check up.

  1. Always feeling hungry. Many people constantly feel hungry once they go vegan. It’s part of your body change. Keep snacks on hand like apples or nuts, and when you do eat regular meals, to include a starch and a protein to help you feel full. This isn’t nutritional advice – this is what works for me. You can also try and do 6 small meals day instead of 3 big meals. This way you are eating regularly without long periods in between meals when you don’t eat. If all else fails, speak to a dietitian.

All of the above should get you over the most difficult part of the transition (the beginning). If anyone has any questions, don’t be afraid to reach out to me or a fellow vegan. This is your journey. Don’t let anyone else dictate the terms. Hang in there, you’re not alone.

If you want to get more help from Nikki she runs vegan cooking courses in Cape Town and I am sure if you ask nicely she’ll be prepared to do it online as well.

I would love to hear from you!

How else are you combating climate change in your home? Do you want to know about zero-waste living?

Would you eat lab-grown meat? As an omnivore or as a vegan?

Cheers, Olivia X

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