I grew up in a small rural town in Ireland, land of butter, meat and fish on a Friday. If you wanted to lose weight, diets were of the ‘eat less, move more’ variety and I don’t think I even met a vegetarian until I went to university in Wales in 2001. Growing up in Ireland also instilled a suspicion in me of food that was too colourful, too spicy or too raw. If it hadn’t been cooked to a yellow sludge, it was something to be feared.
Fast forward to about 2 years ago, I was at a friend’s wedding. I met a girl who was about to celebrate her 39th birthday but she could easily have passed for someone 10 years younger. I nearly died when she told me how old she was. I asked ‘what’s your secret?’ Her answer - ‘I don’t eat any processed food’. She recommended a book to me called ‘ The Clean & Lean Diet’ - a book based around eating an organic and unprocessed diet. Although not a promoter of a vegan or even vegetarian diet, this book was the beginning of me educating myself about food, ethics and what eating healthily really means.
The following November, I met a yoga teacher called Anne Marie at my first class at Hot Yoga Sheffield. As the weeks went past, we got to know each other better. We’d spend time chatting after class about yoga, about life and inevitably about food. She told me she was vegan - I thought ‘Wow! You must be really disciplined! You’re from New York so you obviously have some sort of insider vegan scoop...I could never do that!’
Time passed. I kept practising yoga. I kept reading - blogs and books, filling my shopping trolley with organic produce, with grass fed meat and with local dairy. But I started to feel uneasy about the choices I was making. I’d put the corn fed free range chicken in my basket and my heart would hurt. My mind would fight the feeling with ‘It’s fine! It’s lean protein, It’s had a lovely life running around on the farm eating corn’. The heavy feeling would lighten and I’d carry on.
January 2016 marked the beginning of new adventures for me. I’d finished working at school and had started at the Yoga Studio. Life was fresh and different and I quickly decided it was time to give up eating meat. I felt great. Lighter, clearer, more open. A block had been lifted and I started leaning more. I watched Cowspiracy and Vegucated. I read How Not to Die. Gradually, that slab of Halloumi in my salad began to seem less and less appealing.
The more I learned, the more I felt that not eating meat was simply not enough. At first it was about my health but as time went on it became less about my dietary choices and more about the ethical stance, which I believed was right. By the end of February, I had stopped buying and cooking animal products altogether.
Soon after, the dermatitis I’d been fighting with steroid cream on my hands for the last 3 years disappeared. I stopped getting that horrible, over-full lethargic feeling after eating and began to feel fuelled and satisfied. My sleep improved. And my relationship with food started to change. Now I was filling my basket with loads and loads of fruit and veg, excited by the colours and the possibilities. A far cry from the yellow sludge of my youth.
The hardest part of this journey? Having the confidence to call myself the ‘V’ word and letting go of feeling like I need to justify my choices to others. I know the stereotypes that exist and part of what is driving me to share this with you today is that I want to play my part in breaking those down. Getting comfortable with saying ‘I’m vegan’ is probably a good place to start.
The best part of all this? Sharing my passion for food, the planet and animals with others who have also chosen this lifestyle. Feeling like I am part of something special, something bigger than me and something really important.
If I could offer one piece of advice for anyone thinking about giving this whole vegan thing a go - it would be to start where you are. Let go of absolutes and ideas of perfection. Know that when your Granny cooks you a roast dinner, that it is perfectly fine to eat it with gratitude and love. The impact you can have by choosing a compassionate life is so much bigger than one food choice which isn’t ‘vegan’. Be brave, keep going and just try again.