Veganuary: an experiment in being plant-based and dairy-free


As a life long vegetarian, I feel like I’ve been living the non-meat life well before it was “en vogue”. I remember a time (not so long ago, I might add) when eating out meant choosing between a mushy mushroom risotto and a side plate of chips, that may have a whiff of animal fat. How times have changed for us vegetarians since eschewing meat has become fashionable and hip, not just an inconvenience or an oddity that is met with phrases like: “So you don’t eat meat, what exactly do you eat?”, or “You don’t eat meat, but you must eat fish/ chicken”. Yes, true story.

With all of the new options available, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to see if I could live without dairy for a month, after all there are substitutes for everything now, and there’s even a vegan menu in Wagamama! More importantly, I wanted to see if switching to a dairy-free diet could cure my post-Christmas milk chocolate and cheese addiction, and help me switch to healthier eating habits.

So, the start of 2020 was about experimenting with a dairy-free diet, and seeing the bigger picture results of eating more salads and grains, drinking more water and substituting fruit for chocolate, rather than eating Oreos and vegan chocolate, or picking up a meatless sub from Subway. Would I have more energy? Would my skin be better? Would I feel healthier? These were the questions I wanted to answer.

A side note here: being vegan definitely does not equal being healthy. It’s easy to pick up vegan junk food (I’m looking at you, vegan burgers and sausage rolls, and accidentally vegan bourbons), so for me, Veganuary was more about making a conscious decision to eat fresh fruit and vegetables and be more “plant-based and dairy-free” than incorporate a full vegan lifestyle. It therefore feels wrong to say I was vegan in January, because that label is about so much more than food, and I did not make any changes to fit in to the vegan lifestyle, so I’ll say that I was plant-based and dairy-free.

How much dairy did I eat pre-Veganuary?

Not much! I had already cut out cow’s milk from my hot beverages and replaced it with plant-based alternatives such as soy, almond and hazelnut. I had also switched to the Hellmann’s Vegan Mayo, which tastes fantastic, and is great in sandwiches and as a salad dressing.

Hellmann’s Vegan Mayo

Cheese was my addiction. I was limiting myself to 3 servings a week pre-Christmas, but I could have happily added almost any cheese to nearly every single meal I was eating.

I was having butter and eggs occasionally, too, but it was my craving for milk chocolate, specifically Cadbury’s Twirls, which ultimately made me realise that I needed to take a look at my eating habits. Twirls taste oh so good, but eating 2 a day is unacceptable to me in the long term.

How did I find the shift from vegetarian to plant-based and dairy-free?

I found the initial shift far easier than I expected. I didn’t miss cheese or milk chocolate in the first couple of weeks, partly because I ate so much of both over the festive period that I was ready for a break. I found that Flora was a brilliant alternative to my usual Clover for mashed potatoes and toast, and I much prefer the taste of soya yoghurt to regular Greek yoghurt.

Where it got tricky after the first 2 weeks was cheese. Vegan cheese has a long way to go, and the smell and texture was just not for me. I always like to choose the “real” thing, ie I don’t drink Diet Coke or eat low fat mayonnaise; I’d rather eat less of the real thing, than a full size portion of a sub-standard impostor product. Instead of obsessing about finding a cheese alternative, I reminded myself that this was about being plant-based, so eating more fruit and vegetables was more important than trying to make a vegan hot veggie pizza.

What did I eat?

Cutting out dairy didn’t massively change my day-to-day eating habits, but I did notice that I was making healthier choices. I made sure I ate more salads, and I got creative with my ingredients so I wouldn’t get bored; I ate fruit instead of chocolate; I ate a lot of tofu and noodles. I also ate fresh olive bread with lemon hummous, topped with chilli flakes, corainder and spring onion, which is an easy go-to that’s packed full of flavour and goodness.

Fresh olive bread with lemon hummous, topped with chilli flakes, corainder and spring onion

I also tried the Nakd vegan bars, which were delicious as a mid-afternoon snack, and the Coconut Collaborative Salted Caramel Choc Pots and Vanilla Rice Pudding saved me when I had sweet cravings. They were both small, but perfect-sized treats that satisfied my sweet tooth, but didn’t feel too heavy or processed.

The Coconut Collaborative

I didn’t eat out much in January, but there are so many vegan options on the menus now. I’m sure some of the restaurants are just jumping on the vegan bandwagon, but it’s great news for any one who doesn’t want to eat meat to have more than a couple of options to choose from. Wagamama really have some good choices, so check them out. They taste fresh, are full of flavour and are genuinely delicious; you can tell that some real thought has gone in to the dishes, rather than just throwing some meat-free ingredients together and hoping for the best.

What was hard?

Snacks were really tough. Pre-January, I would have eaten cheese and crackers or a granola bar, but with dairy off the table, I ate a lot of carrots, hummous and breadsticks, but they definitely weren’t as satisfying. This is the area I am going to explore further; there are definitely great dairy-free snack options, which I am determined to make at home and/ or discover elsewhere.

Cheese. I can’t eat a jacket potato without it, and although I don’t have pizza that often, I was certainly missing it after a month. If the vegan options improve, I’m all up for trying them!

Chocolate. My beloved Cadbury’s Twirl was visiting me in my dreams after the 15th, and I suddenly started craving rice krispie chocolate treats. This was hard to resist, bit somehow willpower won through and I did it.

What did I notice?

Almost immediately, I had more energy. I was feeling awake during the afternoon when I would usually have a post-Twirl energy slump, and I was no longer in a food coma after dinner. My digestion improved, and my skin was looking fresher and more hydrated after only a few days. Definite plus signs of eating fresh food and drinking more water.

Am I continuing to be plant-based and dairy-free?

Yes, and no.

Yes, I am going to stay plant-based, and keep eating fresh fruit and vegetables instead of turning to quick meals that are unhealthy and processed. I have really enjoyed experimenting with salads and grains, and the benefits have been clear to see. I am going to continue avoiding dairy in drinks, and keep replacing it with almond, hazelnut and soy, and somehow figure out how to make one of these work for Indian masala chai. I am also using Flora instead of Clover, which honestly tastes way better, and I will explore more of the Coconut Collaborative range for my sweet treats.

No, I won’t be giving up cheese. I don’t have it often any more, but I would be lying if I said I was giving up pizza, feta or halloumi forever. I also think I will eat the occasional Twirl as a treat, because one of the biggest takeaways from Veganuary was that depriving myself completely only makes me want something more. Since 1st February, I have gone back to eating a little dairy, and I feel much happier, even though I am still eating dairy-free food 90% of the time. I also feel that improvements in my energy levels, digestion and skin are likely down to increasing my intake of fresh food and drinking a lot more water, rather than cutting out dairy completely.

What I have noticed was that my food bill was sky-high in January. Why do fruit and vegetables cost so much? Why are dairy-free alternatives so expensive? That’s a whole other discussion, but it certainly made me wonder how budget constraints affect diet choices when a 4-pack of apples costs £2.50, but 6 jam donuts only set you back 50p. Perhaps it’s all about mindset and perspective: do your part for the bigger cause, but within the framework of what works for you and your lifestyle. After all, it’s about all of us making changes, however small they may be.

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