A monthly exploration into the world of sustainability in the built environment with commentary and input from UCEM’s Vice Chancellor and academics.
‘I couldn’t live without cheese’
Posted on: 1 February, 2023
Did you take on the ‘Veganuary’ challenge to go vegan for January? Donna, one of our current Student Officers for Sustainability, has been vegan for a number of years now and shares her experiences of veganism with you, if you’re thinking of taking the plant-based lifestyle long term.
“Although my initial reason for going on an adventure towards a plant-based diet was health… my choice is now more aligned with sustainability and for the animals, in addition to health.”
I never set out to be vegan. In fact, I was firmly in the camp that I would never be able to give up cheese and I really enjoyed the taste of meat especially as it’s such a large part of my culture’s cuisine.
That all changed in March 2017 when I began weaning my daughter on to solid food and it became apparent that anytime she ate dairy, it came straight back up again. After nine months of daily cheese binges, I immediately blamed myself (as most parents can relate to, I’m sure). Google reassured me that I was not to blame but my social media algorithm decided that I should know more about a dairy-free existence. And that was it, down the rabbit hole I went. Although my initial reason for going on an adventure towards a plant-based diet was health, through further research and time, my choice is now more aligned with sustainability and for the animals, in addition to health.
I certainly did not become vegan overnight. It was a very gradual process beginning with the removal of red meat and seeing what alternatives I could replace it with. First, I swapped out beef so made a lot of lentil bolognese and bean burgers. I then cut out pork, then chicken and fish were the next to go. My favourite sandwich filling used to be the classic egg and cress, until I discovered that firm tofu could substitute this.
I knew from the start that chocolate and cheese would be the hardest to swap, so I actively made the decision to do these last. I genuinely did have withdrawal symptoms and when I checked why I was feeling this way, I found out about how addictive cheese is! The Independent reports that ‘scientists found that cheese is particularly potent because it contains casein. The substance, which is present in all dairy products, can trigger the brain’s opioid receptors which are linked to addiction’.
I vividly remember buying dairy-free cheese as a replacement. No one at the time had warned me of what a terrible idea that was! That first bite, a measly one day of no cheese and all I remember is thinking, why on earth would anyone willingly eat something that tastes like rubbery smelly feet? Needless to say, I left dairy-free cheese well alone for months after that experience.
Thankfully, brands have improved their dairy-free recipes drastically. I would definitely recommend at least a six-week break when introducing dairy-free cheese after stopping eating dairy cheese.
I regularly hear the misconception that a plant-based lifestyle is more expensive, but I disagree with this. When I began writing this in Autumn 2022, I spent around £50-100 per week to feed a family of three, including lunches for two members of the household.
Dependent on what you’re making, vegan food can sometimes take longer to prepare, however, I work full-time, care for two children and study part-time at UCEM and have a varied repertoire of whole food meals that I can prep and cook in 30 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when all I have the energy for is a vegan pizza or chips!
A little internet search is all it really takes to find some amazing (and free) vegan recipes (you could try BBC Good Food for some initial inspiration).
As of February 2023, I have been fully plant-based for 5 years and 11 months.
There are many vegan calculators available and using Vegan Rocks, I have saved:
The amount of water equivalent to just over three Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The amount of grain equivalent to the weight of 71 grizzly bears.
6157m² of forested land is just under the size of a football pitch
18,471 kg of CO₂ is the equivalent of a round-trip from Gatwick to Dubai around 10 times by plane.
I used to feel that I wouldn’t make much of a difference alone, but if everyone makes small changes to their lifestyle it will create a bigger impact.
What can you do?
Far too often, the concept of veganism is shrouded in negativity and perfectionism, whereas I think it should be seen as an exciting way to experiment and be creative with different dishes that you might not have tried before. For February (or indeed any other point during the year), why not challenge yourself to swap out one meal a week with a plant-based or meat-free option? Or if you’ve been thinking about transitioning into a vegan or vegetarian diet for a while now but perhaps have a couple of vices, start by swapping out what you are willing to part with.
Important things to remember:
Living a completely vegan lifestyle isn’t for everyone – and that is okay.
You don’t have to do veganism perfectly – if an imperfect journey empowers you to swap out a meal or gradually your diet then go with the flow!
Have fun – be inspired by others, find different and exciting recipes to experiment with and share your successes with your friends, family and colleagues.