Becoming vegetarian at the ago of 5yrs, I have such upsetting childhood memories of crying every time anybody forced me to eat meat. My earliest, and final, memory of eating meat was my parents clapping enthusiastically on Christmas day as I sat on my fathers lap and reluctantly bit into a handful of roast chicken on the bone – a round of applause that I would reserve for praising my children for working hard at school and doing things they enjoy.
Nobody in my family had ever been vegetarian and veganism in the late 80’s – early 90’s was pretty much unheard of. Naturally my parents loved me and ultimately just wanted me to be happy and healthy and to grow up big and strong; it was a time when health and nutrition wasn’t as transparent and people baked themselves into oblivion on home sunbeds, chain-smoked cigarettes and heaped spoonfuls of sugar into their tea and cereal.
My mother always attributed my vegetarianism to learning about animals at school and understanding from a young age that the lovely cows mooing in the field were made into beef burgers on the dinner table which shocked me and spurred my refusal to eat animals which were my friends. But upon reflection she realised my detest for eating meat was pretty much immediate in life, when I would spit meaty food out as a baby and turn my nose up at chicken nuggets and burgers as a toddler my family thought I was a fussy eater – yet I’d happily delve into a jar of pickled onions, eat raw cabbage and clap my hands at parsnips.
When it came to fruit and vegetables I simply couldn’t get enough of them and as a child I would sit in the garden playing with my pet rabbits, sharing our home grown carrots and peas with my pet rabbits. When I got to school age my bones used to click and crack terribly because of my refusal to drink milk. My parents tried everything to give me “calcium” by tempting me with ice cream, cheese, milkshakes and hot chocolates but I hated them all, would become flustered, cry and throw a tantrum with frustration of being force fed something that I really didn’t like. Because of this the family doctor put me onto osteo tablets to ensure my bones developed properly.
Perhaps I was like most young children with food at that age, I loved what I loved and absolutely hated what I hated; yet whilst my peers would beg for pizza, chips, nuggets, milkshakes and sweets I politely asked for a glass of water and an apple. I equally protested over fish, eggs, meat and dairy, only very infrequently having vanilla ice cream at a birthday party or chocolate at Halloween.
Discovering my intolerance to dairy as an adult made so much sense of my lifestyle, which I believe I may have had since I was a child and could have been the catalyst to my extreme refusal to consume animals and animal products. As such I have been vegan for the majority of my life, aside from the odd treat of ice cream or chocolate here and there.
Officially switching to vegan several years ago simply involved swapping infrequent dairy milk chocolate for dark chocolate or rice milk alternatives and ditching dairy ice cream for the same only because it gradually became available. As such I found it almost impossible to eat-out over the years with friends and family as the veggie option on most menus and airlines used to be a bland salad with a boiled egg on top, a plate of chips or a meat dish with the meat picked out and drowned in cheese. Because of this I would always eat at home first and watch others enjoying their meat and dairy meals in front of me without judgement.
So I became known as the fussy eater rather than what we would now call the inspirationally healthy eater. Everybody around me continued to chow down on bloody steaks, tear fistfuls of greasy chicken from buckets and frequently offer me cheese, sweets, treats and meals that I couldn’t and wouldn’t ever want to consume with a jovial “sure I can’t tempt you?” gesture to which I would politely decline with “no thank you, but please don’t hold back yourself on my behalf.”
When veganism became fashionable a handful of years ago it seemed that this huge wave of negativity tarnished plant-based followers as everybody competed to become the most vegan of all vegans. People who had always unashamedly enjoyed meat at every meal were now lashing out and insulting others for not using vegan toothpaste, using beauty products tested on animals and still enjoying real cheese on a Tuesday. A holier-than-thou entitlement made some vegans become unnecessarily aggressive, judgemental and unkind to others which baffled me.
Obviously just because I happen to be vegan I cannot speak for all vegans, all women, all 30yr olds etc. My own opinions and views are personal and I don’t force my lifestyle and choices onto anybody, let alone make them feel bad for not sharing my views which once upon a time were very niche but now more widely acceptable. We are all individuals, we all like what we like and deserve to find what works best for us. Nobody can be 100% perfect at anything, including being vegan, but even a 1% attempt at reducing the frequency of your meat intake, avoiding dairy and choosing not to buy leather and fur is better than nothing at all – just do what you can in your own way for your own reasons.
Becoming a personal trainer and professional plant-based bodybuilder after having my two children I then turned my health and fitness interests to nutrition with a particular interest in meat to plant-based transitioning. I love how many vegan-friendly ranges, restaurants and menus are popping up all over the world and it fills me with such love and positivity to see the health-conscious difference it is making to society as a whole as more people are their intake of meat and dairy in favour of plant-based alternatives.
As much as I adore eating vegan food when I am out and about, it hasn’t always been plain sailing when picking from a menu as very quickly I realised there are two types of vegan options available – the first are vegetables, vegetables and more vegetables and the second are fake-meat alternatives.
It’s understandable that people who have loved eating meat for an entire lifetime are going to massively miss and crave it should they be asked to reduce or completely remove it from their diet. As such, meat-free alternatives are popping up everywhere to duplicate the taste, texture and smell of meat with plants, removing the need to farm animals. I think it’s fantastic that such food is now more readily available, but equally I have my concerns.
Joining a group of friends to watch the rugby at a pub last summer I was thrilled to see a vegan burger listed on the menu and placed my order along with the rest of the table. Upon it’s arrival my heart sank when it came out looking like a beef burger as I was hoping for vegetables – spinach and sweet potato, sweetcorn and mushroom or spicy beans. The burger looked plump, juicy and wonderfully dressed in a beetroot bun and crisp salad with a side of skin-on fries and my meat-eating pals all commented on how good it looked and how they’d be tempted to try it another time now that they know it’s an option on the menu.
Hesitantly I took a bite of my vegan burger and all of my senses went into overdrive as I gagged at the taste and texture and my instincts told me that it was meat, despite knowing it wasn’t. For vegans who have never enjoyed eating meat, having plants made to look and taste like meat is just as traumatic. Like children hating eating sprouts at Christmas, blending them into a milkshake and re-offering them as a tasty drink instead won’t make them hate the taste any less. The vegan fake-meat alternatives for me were everything I’d hated about meat now made from plants which is why I couldn’t finish, let alone begin, my meal. Some meat-free options I can tolerate, others are just far too realistic and meaty for me to feel comfortable.
I am forever cautious when ordering vegan food as I always ask the waiter/ess if the vegan food is like meat or not like meat before ordering and they must think that I’m insane. Having irritable bowel syndrome, twisted bowels and a gluten intolerance means that I’ve spent my entire life cooking healthy, nutritious plant-based food from scratch, every meal made from fresh produce, lovingly prepared and deliciously nutritious. As a result I rarely have processed food and favour salad bowls and vegan street food stalls when grabbing food on the go when I’m out and about.
So when my boyfriend who is non-dairy but still enjoys a steak and chicken came shopping with me at the weekend, when he spotted a fake-steak vegan bake at the supermarket he couldn’t wait to get his hands on it. I have never and will never cook or prepare meat, firstly because it saddens me to see animals lose their life for our convenience and secondly because I wouldn’t know how to cook it. My children live a plant-based diet at home but consume dairy, and for school meals have the meat option of their choosing and enjoy sausages and bacon at their grandparents or burgers when we eat out.
My 13yr old daughter protested from a young age that she also wanted to be “a veggie like mummy” and I refused to let her because I was so adamant that I didn’t want to influence her health or lifestyle in such a way and when she was old enough she could make an informed choice for herself without people tutting “poor kid, that’s clearly her mother forcing her to eat her vegetables.” I have always been seen as the fussy-eater of the family for being veggie, as if I’ve done something wrong and shouldn’t be that way and it was very difficult for me to see and feel otherwise, to realise that veganism is healthy and good for you rather than the deficient absence of meat and dairy to make you big and strong. My teenage daughter now lives happily as a vegetarian but infrequently has “real sausages” at her nanny’s house and my son is absolutely addicted to fish.
I guess seeing skinny, weak or ill-looking vegans in society built a negative perception of malnutrition and ridiculous dieting to the plant-based lifestyle and that unhealthy stereotype in some ways still exists to this day and is very hard to break. I remember one lady discovering that I’m vegan at a bodybuilding exhibition when she asked me what I ate to get in shape after having children and build muscle as a woman. When I told her how I live on seeds, nuts and fresh fruit and vegetables she exclaimed “oh! I’d never have guessed that you were vegan, you look… healthy!” I think it was her polite way of saying that I wasn’t skinny or weak looking. In reality anybody can be skinny or weak looking regardless of their diet if their nutritional needs fall short; most children were a bag of bones in my childhood because we were all forever running around outdoors and burning off energy and calories despite them living on sweets, crisps and biscuits they didn’t over-consume; today people are far more sedentary and the very same diet they have always enjoyed has now led to a global obesity crisis.
So when my boyfriend asked if I’d join him by sharing in a vegan fake-meat bake I politely declined in favour of some homemade vegetable pakoras, rice and daal and set about cooking a feast for the family. Several minutes into cooking, with the fake steak-bake in the oven and a system of spooning my battered vegetables into hot oil before draining the crispy ones off on a plate lined with paper towel, the kitchen became thick with smoke.
It wasn’t black smoke, but hazy nonetheless and the children began to cough and complain that the treat of battered fried vegetables that I was making in celebration for the weekend was going to set the fire alarm off. So I opened the kitchen window, checked the hob for burning food on the ring and tried to fish out any pieces of rogue batter from the oil in the hope of finding whatever was causing the smoke but to no avail.
I had the cooker on for 25mins in total, from switching it on at the wall to loading the oven from cold, preparing and cooking my vegetables, rice and daal before switching it off at the wall again and serving out all of the dinner at once. It wasn’t until I opened the oven door that I discovered where the smoke was coming from as a huge sickening waft of smoke filled the air and enveloped me along with my oven mitts.
The only thing that had been in the oven was the vegan fake-steak bake on an oven tray, I hadn’t added any oil, paper or foil, just placed the pastry on the same tray I’d used a thousand times in the same oven that had served me faultlessly for years. But when I fished the bake from the billowing smoke I discovered it was entirely incinerated to a crisp along with the oven tray which was caused by it going up in flames! How on earth did I not notice!? The air in the kitchen burned everyones eyes and the children continued coughing, retreating upstairs as I wafted a teatowel around trying to shoe the smoke out of the window.
Checking the box for cooking instructions, which I presumed would be the same as any other pastry at 25-30mins in a pre-heated oven, I discovered the guidelines suggested 25-28mins in a pre-heated electric oven at two-hundred degrees on the middle shelf until piping hot. It was then that I realised there was no way on earth I could have burnt, let alone cremated the dinner in such a short space of time within the guidelines. In all my years of cooking I have never heard of an oven tray catching fire, I’ve over-cooked roast potatoes before and burnt the edges leaving them in too long or having them too high in the hope of speeding dinner up a little, but this certainly wasn’t the case. Surely oven trays are non-flammable regardless of what it is that you’re cooking?
I supposed barbecues go up in flames when meat fats splash and splatter causing them to roar as my vegan burgers poodle along on a quiet and nonchalant separate barbecue. I’ve seen chip pans spit oil onto hot rings and flame, grill pans splash fats onto the heating element and cause a flicker of fire, but never in my life has my oven caught fire, if you’d have asked me if it were a risk beforehand I’d have thought it were impossible.
Much to the amusement of my boyfriend and children that mummy set fire to the dinner! I uploaded a rather sorry looking picture of the incinerated fake-steak bake to my Instagram stories and jokingly asked my followers to vote if this could be the universes way of telling me not to buy fake-meat products when I’ve always disliked meat. If my boyfriend hadn’t chose it then I never would have bought it in a million years, the more I pondered on the necessity for fake-meat the more bizarre my musings became.
Responding on my Instagram stories to the poll results of 54% yes, 46% no for the universe telling me not to buy fake-meat I declared that “the more that I consider this the more weird it becomes. The universe definitely set fire to my cooker for entertaining the idea of a fake-steak vegan bake!”
I then went on to say “killing an animal is ending their life prematurely for our own needs (hunger). Eating the animals dead body is unnecessary when other food sources are available. Ergo eating meat is inhumane when we can eat naturally occurring fruit, seeds and vegetables instead. So let’s take those fruits, seeds and vegetables, dress them up as a dead body and eat them so that we can think of eating dead animals without actually eating dead animals.” It seemed awfully hypocritical to my life, but equally I can see why meat eaters enjoy the choice of having a plant-based healthier and humane alternative to eating meat.
Considering I frequently post my vegan meals to my social media to my four million followers worldwide, I’ve had a wonderful response of people telling me over the years that “that looks nice, what’s the recipe?” or “I’d actually try that!” whilst others playfully comment “that would be better with a juicy steak ontop” or “pass the ketchup and bacon!” Knowing that a lot of my followers aren’t vegan, I finished up my musings by saying “personally I prefer things to taste like vegetables, not to be a fake-meat as it’s too realistic and something I don’t like. But I know meat eaters enjoy meat and want a realistic plant-based alternative.”
Whilst my fake-meat vegan bake going up in flames was an absolutely shocking dinner time disaster, it did however open up the discussion of meat alternative foods and a positive plant-based lifestyle which was all smiles and laughs. That was until a vegan lady commented, who in the past has left rather blunt and critical remarks on my food posts – angrily correcting my Jamaican rice and peas post to “rice and beans!” before I shared the traditional recipe from BBC food to show the inclusion of kidney beans isn’t in place of garden peas as the title so misleadingly seems would be the case. Some of my Jamaican followers praised my sharing of such a well loved and traditional dish with a vegan jerk jackfruit twist instead of chicken. I hope that in sharing the food that I love I can motivate and inspire others to try new things and experiment with different cuisines when it comes to plant-based nutrition.
In this instance the vegan lady responded to my pondering over the thoughts of the universe setting fire to my fake-meat as a form of judgement with her own views of “you did something wrong the universe doesn’t care if you eat plant based not fake, saying fake is rude to all of us vegans just cause you choose to hurt and kill animals to eat doesn’t give you the right to knock our food choices.” It seems that despite my social media proudly displaying the words plant-based in my bio with the vegan emoji and all of my food posts being vegan as well as the copious amount of gushing vegan hashtags and encouraging captions that I write about making healthier food swaps for non-meat and non-dairy options, this lady who could speak for “all of us vegans” perhaps had presumed that I was in fact a meat eater.
I never reply to direct messages online, simply because with 4million social media followers it’s not humanly possible for me to do so. So instead I take a screen shot of a message that I wish to interact with, blank out the username and profile picture to hide the persons identity and write my response in red text to then share it to my stories for everybody to see. This way my fans can see my response, realise I see what everything that they take the time to say despite not having the time to respond to everyone, and being anonymous leaves them feeling safe and secure to speak openly and honestly online without being identified – something not many influencers with large followings do.
Feeling somewhat taken aback for being accused of eating meat when I clearly listed it as fake-meat and identified myself in every way and every day as a vegan, I quickly and simply replied to this message with “chill, I’m vegan.” Problem solved. Or so I thought…
I then received a message from the same disgruntled vegan lady saying “how dare you post my pm instead of responding to me remove it please. And if your such a vegan why did you post what you posted?? Also you didn’t block out my full name wtf is wrong with you take it down now or I’m reporting it.” Seeing as I never respond to directly messages, only posting my reply to stories in red text this lady already knew that from viewing my stories and seeing the fake-bake saga in the first place. Secondly, playfully pondering over the necessity for fake-meat doesn’t mean that I’m attacking vegans, non-vegans or anybody, I’m just expressing that my personal choice is more vegetable-like vegan foods as opposed to meat-free yet meaty looking and tasting vegan alternatives.
Finally, although I do indeed block out peoples names and photos for privacy matters, I do leave a little edge of text or corner of a picture on purpose to show that it is a real account and person – i.e not me – writing these things that I am responding to. As heaven forbid anybody should accuse me of sending compliments and kind wishes to myself that I then respond to in order to pretend that I have mail or feel loved!
In this particular instance the vegan ladies name could be partially seen as the letters “je” were part chopped along with the entirely of the rest of her name making you question whether the next letter might be an n or m perhaps. Was my vegan keyboard warrior a Jenna, Jenny, Jennifer, Jemima, Jean, Jeanette, or Jeanie or none of these at all? After you manage to guess her first name I do hope you’ll equally enjoy guessing her last name as well as any of the millions of numbers, dots, dashes and underscore combinations screen names possess on social media these days.
Alas, should you wish to find her on my social media I’m afraid you can’t. I don’t follow her, she doesn’t follow me and I have indeed blocked her as I do with all negativity, unkindness, hate and bullying behaviour. I gave her the curtesy of my response from thousands of my fans who commented about my fake-bake fiasco but it only made her more aggressive and judgemental which is against my ethos.
It isn’t my job to bible-bash people over the head with a vegan cookery book, sell them mushrooms or indeed brainwash them into banning burgers from their freezer. I simply share love, positivity and my uplifting healthy active lifestyle in the hope of motivating and inspiring others to try something new and find out what fitness and plant-based nutrition is all about. If they would rather look at me in a bikini than rustle up a veggie wrap, or eat a doner kebab whilst watching me cycle I will love and welcome them all nonetheless.
It isn’t about who can be the best vegan, the most perfect or holiest in life; it’s about bringing about a positive change and making the world a healthier, happier and kinder place for all to be by starting with your own actions and words. I don’t agree with the popular kids at school who say “you can’t sit with us” to anybody who isn’t deemed cool enough, the people at the gym who make fun of those who are heavier than them or the people who frustratingly tut at parents when their toddlers are throwing spontaneous tantrums in public.
Have a heart, show some compassion and if you have nothing nice to say then please don’t look, don’t follow and don’t say anything at all. As a vegan I hope that my can-do attitude, lack of unsavoury judgement towards meat-eaters and each to their own approach approach to life makes my followers and anybody that I come across in life feel safe and secure enough to give anything a try without being criticised. We all have to start off as beginners with whatever we do, but we can all get there together a lot healthier and happier if we help one another along the way.
Now that we’ve put to bed the negativity towards my poll about the universe potentially sending me signs via a flaming oven inferno, I would like to point out that a lot of people view vegan food as the healthier option to eating meat and dairy – which it is – and because of this it is often seen as a good way to lose weight; but it doesn’t mean to say that just because it is a vegan alternative that it’s always healthy for you and should be consumed regularly. A vegan cheesecake is also a cheesecake, it has calories, fats and sugar which in excess will still contribute to obesity.
A lot of processed vegan foods, such as fake-meats, will contain high levels of fat, sugar and salt, often without the same nutritional footprint of the meat that it is replacing. For example if you switch a meat sausage for a vegan sausage the nutritional qualities will be different – a meat sausage may be higher in protein and iron as well as calories, so many people make the mistake of changing meat for meat-free and then become deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. You can’t eat oven chips and vegan sausages all day everyday and expect to be healthy and lose weight, you have to get a balanced mix of plants, seeds, nuts, fruits and fresh vegetables.
Taking a daily multivitamin is always a safe and healthy way to ensure that you hit your micros as well as your macros regardless of your lifestyle as it can be very difficult to get everything we need nutrition wise from food because we’re such creatures of habit we tend to stick to what we like rather than what’s best for us and consume a balanced and varied diet.
Try to take note of the colour coding on food packaging which ranges in a traffic light system from red for “avoid eating this frequently” yellow for “eat this every now and then” and green for “go go go everyday!” and reduce your intake of processed foods as a whole, whether they are meat sausage rolls or vegan alternatives. If it has been made in a factory, don’t bring it to your family dining room on a regular basis, keep it as a treat and have it less frequently.
We are all adults, we can all make our own informed choices and ultimately decide what is best for us. Some people love the taste of junk food, other people still eat pickled onions from a jar for fun! If we took away everything we enjoy about life then we’d all be miserable and bored, yet if we made a conscious decision to include more healthier, home cooked and unprocessed foods in our diet we can have a better quality of life, more enthusiasm and energy to do the things we love and hopefully a few more years on this beautiful planet with good health to see future generations grow. It all starts with making one small positive change at a time, in your own time.