Tish enjoying a #rawvegan hotdog. Still / The Weekenders

This year, I participated in Veganuary. If I’ve learnt anything in life it’s that if you give something a fun name, people will do it. I proved this point, because for 31 long days, I abstained from meat and animal by-products: eggs, milk, cheese, and gelatin (except for when I didn’t).

On my journey from chicken nuggets to Quorn nuggets, I realised something about veganism that truly surprised me: it was so much more dictated by social dynamics than I had ever previously thought. 

Going vegan suddenly took my diet from being something personal to something I had to announce the rules of at every table, setting myself up with expectations that other people could keep tabs on. While I found many positives in going vegan, I disliked the way that it sometimes felt more like a spectacle and less like a lifestyle – but let me explain why I decided to give it a go.

A vegan “carrot dog” from bar Ascot, Wellington. Photo / @healthsensation

My history with Veganism

I am no vegan. In many ways, I am the anti-vegan. I often claim I am the most lactose-tolerant woman on earth. I recently had a chicken bacon deluxe from McDonald’s for dinner three nights in a row. The lady at my local bakery knows who I am from the sheer volume at which I come in for a mince and cheese pie, and I think I would pass away without a semi-regular serving of mac and cheese.

I like to think this makes me the ideal candidate to review veganism: I did not go vegan for ethical, social, health, dietary or financial reasons, I just wanted to see what it was like. However, before I could bring myself to do this, I had to make peace with my negative feelings towards being vegan.

I have been sceptical of veganism for many years. Being vegan is constantly heralded as an answer to all of your problems (Heal your gut! Lose weight! Cure your skin issues!), but time and time again I have seen it used only as a coping mechanism. The veganism I am familiar with exists only to hide an eating disorder. It exists to disguise anxiety and manifests itself as the most socially acceptable way to restrict and control yourself when you feel out of control somewhere else. Historically, in my world, veganism was a symptom rather than a choice.

It was also the butt of many jokes: in 2014, the face of veganism were influencers like Freelee the banana girl, who claimed to eat 51 bananas a day and spent most of her time cyber bullying non-vegan people on the internet. 

This kind of content resulted in veganism being made fun of constantly – we were living right in the era of the “But, bacon tho!” era.

I shared some of this mindset myself. I used to have a habit of joining Facebook groups I wasn’t supposed to be in, as a joke – sports teams I wasn’t a member of, school reunions for schools I didn’t go to (which I personally found hilarious but can’t deny has Cole Sprouse 2014 undertones.) As a result, I have been avidly entertained by the Facebook group “Vegans NZ” for the past five years. 

I thought their conversations were funny. One user posted about how they adopted a horse to save it from being killed, only to face a barrage of comments saying they were cruel and selfish, because “it’s not vegan to own a horse”. 

My favourite post was when someone asked, “How do I fix my ant infestation in a vegan way?” to which one lady genuinely answered, “Politely ask the ants to leave.” 

If you’d told me back then that I would be non-ironically scrolling through Vegans NZ for recipes and advice in the lord’s year 2023, I think I would be genuinely surprised. 

However, as I saw people around me repair and expand their relationship with food, I began to see the upsides. The first time I saw veganism in a positive light was in 2016 during a conversation with my French teacher, who was a devout vegan and often told us about ‘La B-douze’ shots she needed to keep her iron levels up. One Monday morning we asked her about what she did on the weekend, and her reply shocked us: she said went to a barbeque and had eaten venison. What did this mean for her vegan status? Did she just throw all her morals out the window? In reality, it was quite the opposite. 

She explained that the reason she was vegan was because of her ethics; she was passionate about animal rights. Her friend who was cooking the meat told her that the venison was sourced from a deer that had been living near his farm. It was an old deer, and had lived a full life outside of captivity, before being shot quickly and humanely by a skilled hunter. She said that because the deer did not suffer through its life, the venison was not unethical to her, and so she ate it.

This was the first time I was taught that veganism didn’t necessarily require a blind commitment to a diet, but was rather a process of critical thinking. Since then, I had begun to see other examples of people being truly intentional with their diets that made my respect for veganism grow. 

Ironically, I found the tales of people being “unvegan” the most inspiring. Vegans who helped their flatmates to slice up their raw chicken because they hated the texture, vegans who eat plant-based at home but choose to order steak at a restaurant to up their iron levels, vegans who eat meat while they’re overseas so they can fully experience different cultural dishes. 

The more flexible plant-based people I met, the more I realised veganism could be seen as a reclamation of your own choices, rather than a restriction of them. 

So I gave veganism the chance to redeem itself. You know what they say, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence… (Because it actually gets the chance to grow, instead of being used as pasture to fatten up cows for the slaughter.) (Sorry, that was ‘Vegans NZ’ talking.)

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The pros and cons of Veganuary

Pros:

Less food waste

I found that I actually used up all of the ingredients I bought before they went off: a whole loaf of bread, a carton of almond milk, a bag of spinach. 

Usually I am like a Sim with the whims turned on (completely driven by random cravings), so I’d go out to get the things to satisfy that exact craving rather than using something similar that would do the job. Instead of going out and buying cream, milk, yoghurt, etc for different recipes, I just had to use almond milk for all of those things instead: and it did the same job! This made me realise it’s less about the food itself and more about the role it plays in the meal: e.g sweet, sour, creamy.

More consistent meal times

I am not sure of the science behind this but during Veganuary I ate breakfast more consistently than ever. This meant I wasn’t doing as much random late-night snacking as well, because I felt like my meals kept me fuller for longer. Obviously everyone’s bodies are completely different, but this was something I noticed for me personally.

Easier to throw meals together

I found that because all of the food I had “went together” (vegetables, fruits and nuts tend to all work together no matter what the combination), it was easier to create impromptu meals from whatever was lying around in the fridge.

I found myself doing things I wouldn’t usually think of doing (like putting potato and cucumber together in a pasta salad), which worked with each other well, but aren’t two ingredients I would have automatically combined.

Ate my leftovers

As someone who famously hates eating leftovers, this was what shocked me the most. You won’t catch me eating a burger the next day (bun gets too soggy) or reheating tuna in the microwave (tastes weird afterwards) – but vegan food was much easier for me to eat a second time around. I found that it lasts a lot longer in the fridge as well, which again helped with food waste!

Creativity without restriction

My greatest concern about veganism was that I would feel restricted and like I had no options – but this was not the case. Maybe because it was only temporary for me, but overall, it felt like a fun challenge where I got to try an array of new foods that I ended up loving.

Cons:

You must be organised and plan meals in advance

There were a few times when I got completely caught out and just had to eat the closest thing nearby, especially because of medication I was on that needed to be taken with food. I also hate meal prepping, so planning things in advance was not appealing to me at all. 

I was still successful most of the time so spontaneity is not completely off the cards, but it makes it a lot harder to just show up at an event/in a new city/at a shop you’ve never been to before and just hope for the best. Be prepared to fail!

It’s mentally taxing

It’s draining to be at the supermarket for an extra 20 minutes trying to work out what you can and can’t eat when you’re already starving. This could definitely be fixed by being more organised (see above), and it’s a lot easier to go in with a plan rather than losing your mind in the aisles trying to complete the mental jigsaw puzzle of what ingredients could team up to be your dinner tonight. 

You feel annoying talking about veganism every five minutes

Having to ask if there are vegan options somewhere is somehow extremely embarrassing, and re-explaining myself to everyone I socialised with made me feel unbearable. 

My flatmate probably had to sit beside me having the same conversation 10 times. There is such a stereotype of the ‘preachy vegan’, and I could feel myself jumping through hoops to avoid being associated with that kind of caricature. However, this definitely got better over time, because you usually only have to tell people once before they know to order an extra vegan pizza for you.

You have to read food labels

This is not something I normally do (I don’t even know how to read those nutrition labels), and I plan on keeping it that way. They often do more harm than good unless you have a medical reason or an allergy. However, during Veganuary, I read more labels than I’ve ever read in my life to check if innocuous-looking foods secretly contained milk powder. 

If you are someone who has suffered from disordered eating and tends to fall into the trap of cutting calories to lose weight, this may be confronting. I recommend only reading the ingredients and not looking at the nutrition facts if this could be a potential trigger for you, or getting a friend to read them for you until you’ve learnt the things you can definitely trust.  

I felt like I was letting people down when I slipped up and ate something not vegan (see below…)

Meals that were kindly ‘veganified’ for me by friends.

The social impact

The main lesson I learnt during Veganuary was: veganism is so much more affected by social conventions than almost any other factor. Even ethics fall second to wanting to fit in with your community: a concept that manifested itself in unexpected ways for me. 

My friends went to extra lengths to ‘veganify’ our meals together: cheese was swapped out for vegan parmesan, potatoes were scrambled together to be a main dish. Then, a few days later, when I hadn’t planned lunch in advance and ended up having to eat a chicken sandwich, I would feel huge pangs of guilt. 

It felt extravagant and self-entitled to rearrange an entire group’s dinner plans just for me, only to break my veganism days later due to my own poor planning. This made me realise that one of the key factors stopping other people from exploring veganism is the idea that it feels silly to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid dairy and meat one day, but not the next. 

This works both ways: the fear of negative social interactions traps people into not going vegan for fear of messing up, but it may also trap people into staying vegan even when it’s not serving them any longer, because of a reputation they feel pressure to maintain.

Treating veganism as an accolade or title to uphold can turn it into a negative experience. It’s time to take veganism off the pedestal it never asked to be put on, and allow people to engage with it without social backlash for making “mistakes” or “giving up” – it’s a diet, not a test you’re trying not to fail.

In my opinion, the key to practising veganism in a way that is truly healthy is flexibility.

As backwards as it sounds, we as a culture need to allow vegans to be occasionally non-vegan without being judged or criticised, in order to actually encourage it, because being ‘casual’ about veganism makes it less intimidating to try out. The run-on effects from this are that non-vegan people will be able to eat vegan meals without feeling silly or like they are doing something ‘outside of their character’ – effacing the concept that being vegan says anything about your character at all, and rendering it back to what it actually is: a diet, not a litmus test for being a good person. 

While eating is a social activity that brings people together in so many ways, the way you treat your body is not up for discussion by the people around you. What you choose to fuel yourself with is personal, and what is right for you won’t look like what is right for somebody else. Veganism is always touted as a health solution, but health is never black and white: it’s always better to eat a slice of pepperoni pizza when you’re drinking than it is to drink on an empty stomach, and it was better for me to ‘fail’ and eat a chicken sandwich than to take my meds without having eaten.

From this experience, I am grateful that I have learnt that there are healthy and genuine ways to approach veganism, rather than just using the lifestyle as a veneer to hide an array of deeper issues. Your health and happiness are not worth being compromised by other people’s expectations – so make the judgement call based on what makes you feel full and fulfilled, not what would most impress the polite Ant Lady from Facebook.

(You can view Bryer’s Veganuary vlogs here.)

Where to get help for an eating disorder:

  • 1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor.
  • Healthline 0800 611 116, available 24/7
  • EDANZ 0800 2 EDANZ – Support for family of those with an eating disorder.
  • If you think you are suffering from an eating disorder, see your GP immediately for a referral to specialist services.
  • If it is an emergency or you or someone else is in immediate danger, call 111.

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