Isolation Veganism11 minute read

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been eating what I’m calling an eggy vegan diet: vegan plus eggs. (On the eggs: not many, and none in the past week.)

Why am I doing this? Mainly because there has never been a better time to make radical changes to my sturdiest habits — and that definitely includes my diet.

Contrary to appearances, this post is less about veganism and more about habit making and breaking, using as an example a fundamental part of our daily lives that a lot people believe is almost impossible to change: diet.

The story begins with fragility and its opposite: antifragility.

We are all antifragile

Extreme constraints like those we face in lockdown are often seen as negatives, but without anything holding us in we’d be nothing more than puddles of carbon and water.

Constraints aren’t just fundamental to our existence; they’re the only reason we have anything worth living for: the arts, crafts, science and even play.

In golf, players have to get a little white ball into a marginally bigger hole 410 yards away. That’s the game. But skill only comes into the picture when we add the limiting constraint: the players have to move the ball with a metal stick. Without this constraint, Tiger Woods isn’t worth $640 million.

Constraints ostensibly make things harder, but in so doing make things possible.

This guiding principle explains why humans are, to borrow the neologism of Nicholas Nassim Taleb, antifragile. Fragile objects shatter when mishandled. Robust objects are impervious to mishandling. But antifragile objects actually improve with mishandling.

It’s a wild concept, but true nevertheless: press ups only make you stronger by first breaking down your muscle fibres. At school, understanding begins with confusion.

Similarly, if we adopt an antifragile mindset, the rough treatment we’re suffering under Covid-19 will make us stronger. A sudden upturning of our nest might be mistaken for a vindictive catastrophe; it is rather a ‘moment of change’.

Isolation as a global ‘moment of change’

‘Moments of change’ are occasions where the circumstances of an individual’s life change considerably within a relatively short time frame.

Remind you of any recent events?

This definition comes from a 2011 report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), which summarises the ‘moments of change’ research, analysing these rare opportunities for changing our behaviour, our habits and even our most primal conceptions of who we are.

The NEF study picks out some common moments of change that happen occasionally in most lifetimes: leaving home for the first time, the transition to parenthood, moving house, retirement, energy crises and global recessions.

But I can’t think of a more dramatic moment of change in my lifetime than the Covid-19 pandemic.

Change your environment, change your behaviour

Habits, by definition, are automatic patterns of behaviour: actions we take without really thinking too much. They can be remarkably stubborn and resistant to change — but they’re also tightly bonded to our surroundings.

Think about how hard it would be trying to work down the pub compared to when you’re in the office. You’re the same person — your habits haven’t gone anywhere — but the different environments cue different routines and end up completely changing how you behave.

The opportunities presented by moments of change come about because most of our habits are actually interactions with our immediate physical and social environment.

For most of us, these interactions have been disrupted by self-isolation. The transition from your workplace to working at home is an obvious example of the disruption in environmentally cued behaviour that a lot of us are feeling right now.

But what’s happened to your shopping environment, your eating environment, your exercise environment, your socialising environment? If you’re anything like me, then everything has been thrown up in the air.

All our habitual environments have been shaken up, interrupting the routine behaviours they usually cue.

As NEF put it:

When something interrupts performance of the old behaviour, the need for some degree of conscious direction returns — and once this has happened, the behaviour may be more susceptible to change.

Right now, interruption is happening on a massive scale. Suddenly, we all have to exercise a ‘degree of conscious direction’, perhaps for the first time in many years. The habit discontinuities we’re all facing are opportunities to change our routine behaviour in our relationships, work life, consumer habits, physical fitness and — why not? — diet.

Veganism, dairy and the microbiome

I’ve experimented with vegetarianism before, and for the last five years meat hasn’t been a huge part of my diet (barring one spectacularly ill-fated experiment in 2017), so abstaining from flesh was never going to be an issue.

But then there’s dairy.

Every breakfast for the past three years, I’ve unerringly eaten 250g of high-fat Greek yoghurt, with oats, raisins and nuts. Not, you’ll note, vegan.

A large proportion of meals also came with grated cheese and I’d frequently demolish an afternoon snack of creamy nuts: that’s about 100ml of double cream in a bowl filled with nuts. Not, you’ll note — heck, that’s scarcely edible for most people, let alone vegan.

So going vegan — even eggy vegan — was not going to be easy on my gut.

Lo and behold, my first four days without dairy were peppered with splitting headaches and slothish lethargy. From previous dietary experiments, I’d been expecting this miserable side effect, so I knew how to barrel through.

I like to imagine that these headaches were my dairy-loving bacteria putting up one hell of a fight. On the fifth day, though, they are defeated: starved out of existence and replaced with bacteria that prefer to get their nutrition from celery sticks and tempeh.

This explanation, if not completely upheld by science, is at the very least ‘sciency’, as I explain in this post about quitting sugar. No matter its degree of accuracy, this ‘explanation’ eases me through the temporary fog of headaches and tiredness, out to the other side: eggy veganism.

I have taken this moment of change to try on an alternate personality that’s interested me for a while.

It doesn’t have to go any further than that, of course, but there are intriguing case studies of vegan endurance athletes, the vegan diet is currently ranked as the most nutritious, and there is good scientific evidence that a vegan diet imposes a lighter load on the planet (and no I haven’t had an avocado yet).

But will I want to maintain the diet when lockdown ends?

We don’t want ‘normal’

Historical data from the NEF report suggest that behaviour changes made under pressure don’t tend to last once the crisis is over. Indeed, the hope that everything will go back to normal is why many people are happy to temporarily surrender their usual lifestyles in the first place.

It’s almost certain that I’ll be offered meat or dairy when I return to society — most of my friends and family aren’t vegan and I’m not so wedded to this lifestyle that I’d turn down food if they’re kind enough to cook for me.

But forget other people, after lockdown I myself will be tempted to choose dairy much more frequently than I am now.

Before Covid-19, I went food shopping every couple of days; at the moment, it’s once every 7-10 days. That means I only have to ‘resist’ buying meat or dairy once a week — easy.

My shopping habits feed (pun intended) directly into my eating habits. Change my shopping environment and I change my eating environment: at home I only have eggy vegan choices now.

When society opens back up, will I maintain my new shopping habits? Will my post-lockdown shopping habits, whatever they are, support or undermine my new eggy vegan diet? I don’t know.

But those of us who have used this moment of change to try on an alternate personality — and decide that we want to keep it — must reject the almost irresistible return to normality. We don’t want to abandon our old habits temporarily. We don’t want to go back to ‘normal’ any more. We want change.

It’s one thing to build good habits in this ascetic Covid-19 environment; it’s quite another making them robust enough to survive the shock of opening up. But by anticipating the challenge of impending normality — in the way that I anticipated the headaches and lethargy of quitting dairy — we have at least a chance.

Smug as

So, the big question: how did I replace my heaped bowl of yoghurt every morning? The answer, quite simply: I didn’t — I couldn’t. What in the plant kingdom could possibly imitate animal fats? Genetically, I don’t think it’s possible.

(And, no, the answer is not ‘oat crème fraîche’. Vegetables oils are exactly that: oily. They slimily slither over the tongue and cling to a clammy palate. Dairy fats are, in contrast, fatty. They somehow sink to the bottom of the stomach, leaving a feeling of satiety and a clean taste in the mouth. Mine at least.)

The answer was to cut the Gordian Knot, remove ‘breakfast’ entirely and replace it with something even better than breakfast.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve started my day with a 30g pea and rice protein shake, which I drink while cracking on with work. The green mush is much easier to digest than a big bowl of dairy and keeps me alert throughout my new-found, vegan-inspired morning work regimen.

Smug as fuck.

We’ve. Got. Time.

It’s worth saying that habit change isn’t the same for all people, in all environments and for all behaviours.

I personally find going ‘cold turkey’ has been the best approach for changing diet and has served me well when cutting out sugar and caffeine. I didn’t want to gradually phase out dairy: it would’ve been too hard for me to resist binging. The downside is that I knew I’d have four days of headaches.

But going from zero to a sixty with press ups or running is the quickest way to fail. Run a marathon tomorrow and I’ll be injured for a month. If I’m injured, I can’t build a habit. Far better to start slow and build than to rush for the line and fall.

As well as physical limitations, there are mental limitations.

It doesn’t make sense to force myself to do yoga if I’m not enjoying it. That’s why my daily yoga habit is simply to do as much yoga as I feel like. At the beginning, nearly five months ago, that was five minutes before bed. Now it’s around 20 minutes, twice a day.

My goal is not the accomplishment of some landmark. My goal is to build a sustainable, healthy lifestyle. Cold turkey is one approach and a slow-build while only doing as much as I enjoy is another. For both, I find this mantra helpful: don’t miss twice.

Whichever approach you find most helpful, if there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past four weeks it’s to slow down and take each day as it comes. We’ve. Got. Time.

Over to us

Kintsugi is the traditional Japanese art of mending broken pottery with lacquer dusted with powdered gold. Sure — super glue also works, but kintsugi is a reminder that we can choose to see the beauty in broken things.

Our work habits are broken. Good. Our social habits are broken. Good. Our shopping habits are broken. Good. We’ve probably got another 18 months of on-and-off lockdown. What are we going to do with this fracture in our habits? Are we fragile, are we going to shatter? Or are we antifragile, are we going to fill the cracks with gold?

My eggy vegan diet isn’t nearly as smug as it sounds. After two weeks, I still get faint bouts of acid reflux and I’ve had to shelve the peanut butter. I’ve read some stuff about ‘alkalising’ my food, but until I’ve had a chance to read more studies, I’m dubious.

This is still a journey of exploration for me. Yesterday I discovered one of the great secrets of vegan cooking: miso paste — in fact, sauces in general. The hand blender has become my closest ally.

I know some of you are plant-based: if you are vegan (or close enough), then I’d love to hear what you’ve learned so far. Honestly. Please drop me an email.

Whatever you think about veganism, I hope I’ve convinced you that isolation is a rare opportunity to get inside your own head, have a rummage around, learn some cool stuff and change for the better — or at least for the more interesting.

It’s over to us now.

One more thing…

If you liked this post, then you’ll almost certainly enjoy my newsletter. You can check out the most recent issue on Substack. See ya there - dc:

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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