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Posts Tagged ‘vegetarian’

Die Wellness. The first time I heard this now commonplace word was probably some time in 2003, courtesy of my GCSE German textbook. Back then, ‘wellness’ had not seeped into and overtaken our health culture – at least, my world was free from its connotations – and instead it was a new word for my expanding German lexicon: easy to remember, difficult to translate, conjuring up images of Germans doing aerobics or Nordic Walking. My edition of the Duden gives a rough definition of die Wellness as ‘good, well, shipshape’, with a reference to ‘light physical exercise as a way to reach desired wellbeing’. There is no mention of avocados or headstands; my Duden gives me no reason to believe that wellness is now a strict and relentless regime that will somehow make me Good.

I don’t need to introduce the more recent understanding of Wellness (with a capital ‘W’) and the industry built around it. I should, however, point in the direction of Ruby Tandoh‘s brilliant analysis of this regime, which is definitely worth a read. No, wellness with a small ‘w’ has been on my mind a lot over the past weeks and months, as I have found myself, relatively speaking at least, not well. And, ironically, as I begin my return to better health, I am finding that many answers lie in avoiding what is preached by Wellness, and instead navigating feeling healthy by trying out new ways of living that are definitely not endorsed by any of our beloved Wellness ‘gurus’.

Now, just to be clear, there is nothing seriously wrong with me. I’m suffering a very sudden onset of B12 and Ferritin anaemia (only 6 weeks ago my iron levels were Popeye-esque), and have to have some extra tests to work out why this quick plunge in blood health might have occurred. But I’m female, semi-vegetarian and training for an ultra marathon: likely this is No Big Deal. One thing that is a big deal: the symptoms of anaemia, which generate tiredness that sleep can’t cure, inability to think straight or remember things, breathlessness and sudden need to sit down and have a rest. I have been able to return to a more functional physical state only a couple of weeks after being diagnosed thanks to relentless B12 injections and some small changes to my diet and lifestyle. And this is where wellness comes in.

This time last year I was in the process of becoming a ‘proper’ vegan, and had just about cut out dairy and egg from my diet. I was also consuming a very large amount of veg, easily managing 12-15 portions a day (hint: veg = fibre). I took a vitamin supplement, as advised by my doctor. I was also doing lots of running, and while I felt like I was doing all the ‘good’ things, I was feeling increasingly bad. I wrote about my vegan phase here, so I won’t repeat myself. I chose veganism for ethical issues, but it also coordinated handily with the sudden explosion of vegan cookbooks and recipes in newspapers: it seemed like a good thing to be doing. Moreover, everywhere I looked I was being told to ‘just eat more’ fruit and veg, and that red meat and sugar-laden supermarket bakes would inevitably lead to my early demise. I also read Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run at that time – there is no doubt that veganism worked for him as a runner, so why not me too? All in all, it seemed like a good fit.

(I appear to be having an anti-vegan rant, but as I’ve never tried to subsist on the meat-laden diet of the Hemsley sisters I can’t comment on that. I only know that spaghetti that is really just raw courgette makes me fart excessively, and the fact that the existence of spaghetti is demonised in some circles makes me very sad.)

So fast-forward a year and back to my health. As I mentioned, I am feeling better. The doctors’ advice is consistent: I need to eat more of the stuff that is deemed poison by many Wellness ‘experts’. This includes fruit juice, breakfast cereal, dried fruit, meat (trying to work up to red meat but am a bit scared), fish, eggs, dairy. I also need to rest more, and do what I can to feel good again. For me, this has included lying on the sofa listening to old REM albums, gardening, walking painfully slowly and shouting at my husband when he keeps speeding up, lots of bubble baths, cuddles with my cat, gin and tonic, time off work, time off from my running schedule, allowing myself to feel rubbish and have a good cry/moan about it, chocolate cake. And lots and lots of  really slow yoga (I love this amazing gentle morning sequence by Yoga with Adriene). This is how wellness currently looks, for me and my current situation.

We all have our own version of wellness and what makes us well. Often it involves tablets or injections, or perhaps a strange sachet to pour into your morning glass of evil fruit juice. We’d be forgiven for thinking that there is such a thing as a one-size-fits-all Wellness, with expensive food and cult lifestyle choices as the main bringer of physical and emotional well-being. Matcha tea, dynamic yoga (with lots of ‘inversions’ of course) and avocados might work for some people, but for most of us a bit of balance is enough, occasionally supplemented with a trip to the pharmacy when things go awry. The fact that there are now wellness ‘events’ where attendees pay to be told how to live ‘healthily’ in one very specific and perhaps damaging way is both mind-boggling and sickening. This whole thing is just one big lie. I know, because I tried at least some of it (I’ve never managed a headstand, I must confess) and it made me unwell. Now, in order to undo this Wellness-induced unwellness I am enjoying bowlfuls of sugar-laden cornflakes with a side of supermarket-bought orange juice and a sachet of something pharmaceutical. I might even go for some red meat at some point. This is my wellness. It won’t sell millions of recipe books and I won’t be writing a newspaper column any time soon, but if it leads me to feeling fully-functional again then I couldn’t care less. And if we can return our understanding of wellness to those smiling Nordic walkers enjoying some gentle exercise before a bit of tea and cake, then we’ll all be a lot better off.

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I whipped this up after my long run on Sunday and it hit the spot perfectly on a chilly January day. I tend to get very cold very quickly after a long run, and it isn’t uncommon for me to turn blue if I don’t have a shower immediately, but this served as an all-in-one recovery drink and a warm blanket, meaning that I didn’t have to wait for nourishment until after I’d showered.

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I made it with whole dairy milk because we had some on a short date in the fridge, but it could quite easily be made with scrummy non-dairy milk, too. Equally as easy, and n doubt just as tasty, for vegans and milk-lovers alike!

Protein recovery hot chocolate

1 scoop protein powder (we use pea protein which is GROSS on its own, hence the need to dress it up)
1 mug milk
1 tbsp hot chocolate powder (I use Green and Blacks, which is vegan, but any will do)
Half a banana (optional)

  1. Heat up the milk in a mug in the microwave for 2 minutes
  2. Meanwhile, blend the protein powder, chocolate powder and banana with 100ml of water
  3. Add the warm milk to the blender and whizz to combine
  4. Pour back into the mug and pop in the microwave for another minute until hot

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On going vegan.

I turned pescetarian when I was 16, and two years later made the full leap into vegetarianism. It always felt completely right; any worries that my family might have had about lacking energy or poor health didn’t pan out. In fact, paying attention to what I ate prompted me to get fit, start running, and was probably one of the main factors in losing 6 stone. It was a big part of my identity, too. Being one of three Catherines in my university friendship group, I was soon given the nickname ‘Veg’; I had a vegetarian birthday party, and put the icing on the vegetarian cake with a vegetarian wedding (my non-vegetarian husband was also keen, I might add). We’ve enjoyed living our lives around delicious meals packed with greens and pulses, and becoming vegetarian definitely lit the first spark of what has now become my huge passion for cooking and food.

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In 2014 I attempted Veganuary, with mixed results. It felt limiting, and I didn’t like the fact that I was eating processed foods such as vegan ‘butter’ and vastly increasing my soy consumption, but I did notice that my constant stomach cramps disappeared. I also missed butter. A lot. I went back to my normal vegetarian self, but earlier this year I noticed that, without making any effort or conscious choice, I had become just about vegan. Apart from (organic*) milk in my tea, I noticed that I ate dairy almost exclusively at weekends, when Daniel and I would share a pan of porridge or when I’d eat eggs or buttery toast after a long run. I started to experiment a little: almond milk in my tea, nut butter on my toast – I didn’t commit myself to anything, but I noticed that it was quite easy to avoid animal products when eating at home.

A month or so later, and my heart felt like it wanted veganism. I’d been doing some reading and I wasn’t happy about eating animal products at all – despite being perfectly happy with our organic milk at home, having a cup of coffee or even a meal while out started to bother me. I wanted to know about what I was eating; were these eggs in my vegetarian breakfast from happy hens, or was I unconsciously tucking in to something I wouldn’t eat if I knew where it had come from? So I went vegan.

I addressed some of the issues that I’d encountered during Veganuary by avoiding processed ‘veganised’ food; I ate tahini and nut butters by the bucket-load (literally!), and steered clear of processed veggie sausages. I made sure all the tofu we bought was organic, and bought only organic almond and soya milk. It started to get very expensive, especially as my running increased towards ultra-distance and I was hungry all the time. I was eating pulses every day, and bags and bags of greens. The only things I genuinely missed were yogurt and butter, but I kept a large stock of homemade granola, bread and vegan cookies to keep myself feeling chipper (I was still hungry all the time). It was during this period that I gave blood, and was pleased (and slightly surprised) to find that my iron levels were perfectly healthy.

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Writing all of this makes it sound idyllic, but there was a dark side. Plant-based foods are of course very good for our health, but one of the main reasons for this is their fibre content. Veg, fruit, pulses, wholegrains, nuts – all high in fibre. Even the almond milk that I put in my tea was adding yet more fibre to my diet. For a long while I couldn’t understand why I felt so terrible. I was under a lot of stress with the final months of my PhD, pushing myself hard physically, and travelling a lot for work and races: I’ll say no more. I ended up in the doctor’s surgery, convinced that I was dying of something terrible; I felt bloated and tired all the time, was afraid to leave the house in the mornings, and I started putting on weight despite lots of running and exceptionally healthy eating. I had some tests done. Lots of tests. I was secretly praying to be diagnosed as coeliac: I would have happily given up scones and bread for the rest of my days, if only I could have stopped feeling so awful. The tests were all clear – I wasn’t infested with parasites, I didn’t have Crohn’s (thank goodness), and I wasn’t suffering from coeliac’s disease either. The doctor suggested adding some stodge to my diet: ‘does vegan stodge exist?’ he enquired.

No, not really. So I started eating eggs, cheese, milk and all the other non-vegan but perfectly vegetarian things again, and I started to feel a little better. I stopped waiting indoors all morning until I was confident that I wouldn’t need the loo for at least another 20 minutes. Life started to feel easier. I wasn’t so hungry, and I had a lot more energy (mainly because the food I was eating stayed put long enough). Moreover, I didn’t feel that I was doing anything contrary to my ethical values – in my view, sticking with organic dairy and well-sourced eggs is a perfectly ethical way to go about food consumption. I had observed first-hand how veganism simply wasn’t for me, and couldn’t support me physically through the amount of running (and perhaps also PhD-ing) that I wanted to do every week. Importantly, I realised that I could eat in a way that I was happy with, and make good food choices, that would also allow me to feel good physically: the way I was eating worked for my heart, my mind and my body.

Eventually, I started to feel a bit bogged down with all the eggs, and I found myself turning in an unprecedented direction. I started eating fish again, and just before Christmas I had my first bite of chicken since that chicken burger back in June 2003. It tasted bland and completely uninteresting, but it was ethically-sourced organic meat, and I genuinely felt that it did me some good physically.

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Recovery shake of dreams.

Since then I’ve been eating chicken and fish once a week: always choosing things that I’m confident are as ethically good as they can be. I recently saw a comment on Twitter about meat-eaters being basically animal killers, but I don’t think that this is true. The source of our food, from the simple British-grown carrot to the dodgy reconstituted chicken meat of a supermarket-brand nugget comes with big issues, from the question of waste and fairness, through environmental impact to animal cruelty. No diet is immune from the pressures of ethics, and a thoughtless vegan diet can be more problematic than a thoughtful meat-lover’s.

This Veganuary, I’m feeling all sorts of intermittent guilt and disappointment for not being able to take part. It’s a great experiment to take on just for a month, and it can be really eye-opening. There does appear to be a general move towards veganism, which is of course awesome, but it’s a way of eating that simply isn’t for everyone. Whether for health reasons, practical reasons or simply because you just love butter that bit too much, veganism isn’t the only way, and neither is vegetarianism. It’s perfectly ok to be an omnivore, and to find a balance that works in all directions. Other veggies will probably agree that vegetarians are often put on a pedestal by meat-eaters, as if they are somehow better than the regular omnivore, but with the new availability of good food, and the increasing awareness and casual activism seen in this area, this is a distinction that simply doesn’t have to be true.

*since we moved in together in 2010 we’ve only ever bought organic milk and butter. We’re now trying to make sure that all of the animal produce that we buy is organic.

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When we do our weekly online shop I inevitably envisage a relaxing Sunday evening sitting around the table with a bottle of wine and a lovingly-prepared veggie roast dinner. I optimistically add leeks, Savoy cabbage, sweet potatoes and a whole number of other Sunday-roastesque ingredients to our virtual basket, looking forward to what will surely be a feast. But then Sunday evening comes and I never quite have enough time for that couple of hours in the kitchen, with a glass of wine to accompany some slow and indulgent weekend cooking. Instead I’m often tired and lazy from all the running, as well as a little fooded-out from all of the indulging that has taken place in the previous days. In reality I rarely feel like cooking up a veggie shepherd’s pie or a nut roast, and a number of times I’ve ended up turning my Sunday dinner ingredients into this amazing stew. The first time I put its deliciousness down to the fact that, at that time in a busy weekend, anything quick and easy will taste like the best meal that ever happened. But then I did it again, and for the second time I found myself rejoicing at this quick and healthy stew was actually more enjoyable than the product of any massive cook-off that I could muster. This Sunday saw the third instance of me being ‘too tired’ to cook a big meal, and when I sat down to the first spoonful of this meal I decided it was worth sharing with the world.

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Bar some cabbage and leek-chopping it’s relatively easy to prepare, and can be left for 20 minutes or 2 hours (and probably more – it’d do fine in a slow cooker) to cook up, depending on whether you’re starving hungry or eager to sit in the garden with a Sunday evening G&T while you work up an appetite. There’s not much to it other than a bunch of veggies and some herbs/spices, making it a simple and gloriously healthy choice for the end of a treat-filled weekend…but the tahini added at the end gives it an amazing creaminess and indulgence, which to me turns it from a normal veggie stew to a delicious treat. This recipe would probably serve 4 with some bread on the side, or 2 large portions and a smaller one for lunch the next day. We ate it all between two of us and spent the rest of the evening groaning on the sofa. It was worth it.

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Tahini-Beany Stew

2 leeks, sliced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 inch piece of ginger, chopped
Half a savoy cabbage, finely chopped
4 medium-sized sweet potatoes, cubed
2 tins beans (a combo of borlotti, cannellini, chickpeas or butter beans all work)
2 carrots, chopped
Veggie stock
2 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp chilli flakes
2 large Tbsp tahini (or more – add liberally!)

1. In a large casserole dish, fry the leeks in olive oil on a low heat with the lid on. When they’re soft, add the ginger and garlic with the sweet potato, carrot, rosemary and chilli. Put the lid on and sweat for a few minutes while the kettle boils.

2. Add enough stock to cover the veggies and bring to the boil then reduce the heat to a simmer. After about five minutes add the beans, stir and leave to cook with the lid on for another five minutes or so.

3. Stir the cabbage into the dish and maybe add a little more water if it’s getting a bit dry (you can make it as soupy or as non-soupy as you like). Now you can leave it, with the lid on, for as long as you like: if you like your cabbage bright green and just-cooked, 5-10 minutes will do fine. If you like your cabbage soft and slurpy, leave it for 20 minutes or more!

4. When you’re just about ready to eat, dollop in the tahini and stir gently. Turn off the heat and let it melt into the stew.

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