All about that plant-based

By Georgia Jordan

OVER the last few years, plant-based eating has soared in popularity in Australian cities and shows no signs of deteriorating. Veganism, once a blurry concept practiced by a small minority, has become internationally trendy thanks to leading cities like Los Angeles—famous for the healthy lifestyle of its citizens—and the advocacy of vegan celebrities like Natalie Portman, Russell Brand, Ellen Degeneres, Thom Yorke, Ariana Grande, Jared Leto and more recently Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé. Wholefood stores, organic pressed juice franchises (such as Greene St Juice Co.), “healthy” takeaway chains (Boost, Subway), vegan and vegetarian cafes and restaurants (Green Cup, Smith and Daughters, Yong Green Food) are popping up all over Melbourne. The money-hungry scarecrow of fast-food chains has been knocked to the ground as people flock to these health outlets like crows to a plentiful vegetable patch.

Never in my seven years of plant-based eating have I felt compelled to cross the border of vegetarianism (the commonly-held term for those who eat no animal product bar eggs and dairy) into veganism (no animal product at all) and recently, amid all this vegan-fever, I began to wonder why. Probably I was turned off at the prospect of sacrificing taste, nutrition and maybe even friends to border-control. But if all these celebrities are raving about the benefits of a vegan diet—even the fictional Envy Adams of Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is adamant “being vegan just makes you better than other people”—and an international health-boom is sweeping through big cities, surely it must be possible to follow an interesting, varied and energising, entirely plant-based diet. Thus, I decided to give it a go. I planned to become vegan for one week minimum, with the possibility of extension depending on how I felt mentally and physically. 

People are often deterred from veganism thinking it would take too much effort to ensure your body is receiving adequate nutrition.

Kirrily Zoon, who I attended school with in Tasmania and now lives in Melbourne like me, has been vegan for one year and eight months in total (she was forced to return to vegetarianism in order to stay with a host family overseas). When she decided to become vegan, she conducted some research to ensure she would maintain good health.  

“I wanted to combat everyone's misconception that vegans are unhealthy… so I spent extra time researching what I had to do to ensure a balanced eating plan…

“I have just memorised a few rules to make sure I'm getting enough of what I need. I know which foods are the highest in what nutrients and I stick to a few staples then mess around with the flavours to jazz them up but I eat a lot of spinach which I always couple with vitamin C. I add flax or chia to foods for omega 3/6 and tofu or vegan-friendly protein powder.

“Now it's just second nature.”

I made an appointment with dietitian Jessica Butcher to garner some vegan foodspiration and avoid the trap of simply subtracting animal product from my diet and with it key nutrients our bodies need. 

I left the appointment feeling assured a vegan diet does not equal a boring diet. You can read all the excellent information Ms Butcher shared with me in my article How to Get All the Nutrients You Need on a Plant-based Diet. I felt excited to raid the supermarket and rush home to plan out some interesting dishes. When I would usually buy milk, eggs, yoghurt, butter and white rice, I bought soy milk (I later tried rice milk and almond/coconut milk), quinoa, coconut yoghurt (CO YO: so delicious but so rich you have to stop after about four spoonfuls) and coconut oil. On top of my other usual products I added chia seeds, walnuts and almonds.

I whipped up a beautiful vegan alternative to one of my favourite recipes: banana bread. In fact, I think I prefer it vegan! 

I invited my vegetarian housemate along to Shakaharithe “longest running exclusively vegetarian restaurant in Melbourne”and tried something I never had before: chestnut pot pie. Within the ramekin bowl I received, a layer of mashed purple congo potatoes hid flavoursome chestnuts and vegetables underneath, with a watercress, goji berry and walnut salad dressed with an olive oil vinaigrette on the side, along with a chai tea with soy milk. 

Although I discovered how tasty and nourishing a vegan diet can be, and this is becoming more and more well-known, people, myself included, remain tentative of long-term commitment.

“Perhaps the reason for hesitation is a fear of being thought a crank by one’s [omnivorous] friends,” Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, author of The Ethics of What We Eat, suggests.

I met an omnivorous friend in South Melbourne without warning him of my new dietary restrictions. We stopped at the second place we looked at, Grill’d (another child of the “healthy” fast-food movement). I ordered a Garden Goodness, what I usually order, replacing the cheese and mayonnaise with a couple more vegetables for added flavour.

10 out of 10: would order again. 

Ms Zoon says she finds eating out in Melbourne quite easy.

“Especially in the more 'hipster' suburbs. There are plenty of vegan options in Fitzroy, Collingwood, Northcote and even the food court at Emporium has a fully vegan place too! It was pretty tricky in Tasmania though but things are changing and it's becoming more common to find vegan friendly place.”

My vegan friend, Tshepo Ngwenya of Perth WA, said, "while it’s great to see many exclusively vegan/etarian restaurants opening up, it’s important that people recognise vegans as regular people.  

I think what I favour more as a vegan are stores, cafes and restaurants that are surprisingly vegan friendly.

“…[vegans are] not just the urban hipsters who gather in Fremantle (the Brunswick of WA). Places like Boost Juice offer a menu that is over 25 per cent vegan. Most frozen yoghurt venues offer soy based alternatives.”

Although I sailed through my plant-based week—without much fuss and feeling totally energised, enjoying new foods rather than lamenting those lost—there was one fly in my vegan soup. The various milk alternatives I tried simply did not cut the mustard. For someone who only drinks tea about once a day the coconut/almond milk may be a good option—the refreshing coconut/almond flavours really complement one another—but I grew sick of the almond taste about three cups in. The rice milk was very tasty but also higher in sugar than many of the other milk alternatives and was, like all the others except soy milk, fairly watery. Soy was hands-down the best due to its creaminess and taste, but is often high in sugar and contains soy isolate, which lacks the nutrients offered in whole soybeans and—like most highly-processed ingredients—is debated to be detrimental to health. 

Thus, I discovered my Achilles heel and returned to regular cow’s milk once my week was up, with my dietitian Ms Butcher's words in mind:

"It doesn’t mean you are a bad person if you do want to go back to that [vegetarianism], that’s totally up to yourself."

It's important to remember, while dietary philosophy is appearing more and more in the media and flowering along our streets, that your diet does not dictate who you are, morally or otherwise. 

Personally, I have decided not to be vegan (milky tea is close to my heart) but following an entirely plant-based diet—free from any animal product and full of variety—in a city like Melbourne would not only be easily achievable but also enjoyable and nourishing. 

For those considering veganism, Ms Zoon recommends a gradual transition.

“If you try to cut everything out at once you are setting yourself up for failure. Just try a slow transition then commit yourself to maybe a 2 month trial. Also, read up on nutrition and perhaps get a few vegan recipe books and experiment with how great you can make it!”

Cartoon by Michael Leunig. Used with permission. 

Cartoon by Michael Leunig. Used with permission.