I Bless the Rains down in Africa

By Kirk Lilwall

editor’s note: this entry is a cross posting from Kirk’s own blog.  Kirk is currently in Kampala Uganda working on a documentary film.  To read more about Kirk’s experience in Uganda check out his blog.

We have been having crazy thunderstorms over the last few days so I’ve been working away at the film and (clearly) neglecting my blogging/writing responsibilities.  Sorry.

As many (if not all) of you know, I decided to give the vegan diet a try back in January of 2012.  Well, it’s been over a year now and I’m still eating on a vegan diet.  This was a concern when I decided to come over to Uganda.  I wasn’t sure I would be able to avoid meat or dairy but decided that it wouldn’t be a big deal if I needed to go off being vegan for a few weeks if necessary.

Not at all necessary, turns out.  Eating vegan here has been very easy.  In fact, I may be eating even healthier here than I was at home.  The ‘fake meat’ option is not one I have here in the same amounts (I did find some fake sausages and chicken yesterday that is imported from South Africa but it is expensive and I will not be eating it very often if at all.)

Uganda is one of (if not the) biggest exporters of organic goods in the world.  Almost everything they grow here is organic (by organic, I’m talking about food that is grown naturally, outside in the sun and the rain, without the use of harmful pesticides, and without any kind of genetic modification to the seeds, etc.)  Coffee, pineapples, mangoes, papaya, cucumbers, squash of all kinds, bananas, plantains, wheat, rice, etc…  All organic.  In fact, we did a test and it appears that the most expensive things in the grocery stores are by far the NON-organic products.  Why?  Because they are imported from South Africa, Kenya, etc.

The other factors working in my favour is that there is a large Indian influence locally which means plenty of Indian dishes of the vegan variety for me to choose from.  The local food is also very much available in vegan.  The idea of portion control is thrown around a lot in North America (the concept being that we should be eating a more balanced diet; a steak, for example, should be no more than the size of a deck of cards rather than the size of the entire card table.)  Portion control here is just a way of life.  This is partly due to the fact that meat is expensive here (unlike in North America where you can get plenty of government subsidized meat for crazy cheap on any of your local value meals) so it is treated as a compliment to the meal rather than as the main course.

This is not to say that there is no fast food or junk food here.  There is a very large billboard that I will do my best to get a photo of that advertises for a fried chicken chain that seems to acknowledge that the food is bad for you.  This will be made clearer when I post the photo.  Coke is everywhere here.  As is, oddly, Coke Zero.  There are not any MacDonalds’, Burger Kings, Wendy’s’, etc.  Not one.  There are local chains and South African chains but nothing North American.  It’s awesome.

You can buy chips and crackers and many of the chocolate bars we are all familiar with (Nestle is, sadly, very present here.)  The best part about these things is that they are expensive.  The chocolates and chips cost as much if not more than they do at home.  Again, because they are imported.  The coke is bottled locally and is therefore very inexpensive.  There are also ads for it everywhere, largely aimed at children and families.  Coke/Pepsi/all sodie pop seems to have undercut the market making it the cheapest option once again.

Another that I am struggling to get used to is drinking bottled water.  It’s the only water I have consumed here when out at a restaurant etc. (my wonderful in-laws lent me a water purification filter so I can drink filtered tap water at home.)  The bottled water consumption here makes sense in a lot of ways (certainly makes more sense than drinking it in North America, frankly) but it still feels wrong.  One of the things that makes me wary of it is the local tendency to burn garbage in the yard.  Don’t like to think what I’m breathing in as I pass by; there’s a very good chance there is plastic from water bottles or coke bottles burning in those yards.

Anyway, the vegan experience here has been not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be.  The breads tend to be made of local, organic, whole wheat.  Some of the pastas are egg based but I’ve eaten pasta only once since being here and that was at a restaurant and they assured me that they had made the pasta themselves and that there was no egg in it.  It has been a wonderful experience so far as far as food goes.  Having so many fresh and organic options available to me pretty much at all times has been something I will have to adjust to losing when I return home later this month.

kirk

Vegan diet – six month update

By Kirk Lilwall

“My refusing to eat meat occasioned inconveniency, and I have been frequently chided for my singularity. But my light repast allows for greater progress, for greater clearness of head and quicker comprehension.”
Sir Thomas More

Six months.  When I set out to try this diet, I never thought I would make it six months.  Since I have made it I thought I’d re-visit this blog after six months and talk about some of the things I have noticed over that time:

  •  I feel good.  I have more energy, am better able to focus, and am simply feeling less achy/more able in both body and mind.
  • Some of my friends are struggling with my diet change.  While I have come to a point where I don’t even think about it, I have some friends who can’t see how it is possible to eat vegan. There is a tendency to point out things that are not vegan, complain that meat substitutes are not good (see below for my take on that), make jokes about not getting enough protein (a myth that continues to pervade our society), and apologise for eating meat or even talking about it in front of me (as if I have some kind of medical condition that means I can’t eat meat and so I must miss it, right?)
  • Substitute meats (burgers, chicken, sandwich meats, bacon, etc.) are not that important in a vegan diet.  I’ve found these foods to be good transition foods but I don’t rely on them on a daily basis.  Unlike when I ate meat, my meal is not built around the protein.  This isn’t to say I don’t eat veggie burgers; they are just something I eat occasionally or at a barbeque.
  • My health has absolutely improved.  I have fewer headaches than I used to.  I sleep better than I did.  I now have empirical evidence of my improved health; I have lost 33 pounds since I switched diets!  This despite still eating vegan pizza, potato chips, vegan chocolates and deserts, veggie burgers and fries, etc.  Were I to cut out the unhealthy parts of my diet (I’m working on cutting back, I swear!) I’m sure I would lose even more weight moving forward.
  •  I can find something at most restaurants that I can eat.  Folks at restaurants seem to want a challenge.  You can ask them to change their meals to suit your needs (pizza with no cheese, fajitas that are more than just onions and peppers – they will add any of the veggies they have if you just ask, and any number of foods that don’t have to be made with the cheese sauce or dressing)

At this point, even though I never thought I would make it this far, I see no reason to re-introduce animal protein into my diet.  As the myths and fears around eating a vegan diet continue to fall away, more and more people will accept it as a possibility in their own lives (even for just one day a week.)  Many celebrities are trying and permanently switching to a vegan lifestyle (not that we should do whatever celebrities do, by any means) and, more impressively, more and more world class athletes are switching as well (if protein were really an issue in the vegan diet could you really be a vegan and an all-star baseball player or a champion mixed martial artist?)

It has been a fun ride so far and I will try to keep posting here as more things occur to me or folks ask me about my experience so far.

Thanks for reading and happy eating!

kirk

My 30 Day vegan challenge – Week 4 (and day 30)

By Kirk Lilwall

“What the caterpillar calls the end the rest of the world calls a butterfly.”
~Lao Tzu~

 30 days have come and gone.  The whole idea of this challenge was to see if I could indeed make it 30 days without any dairy, fish, or eggs.  While I had been ‘vegetarian’ (technically lacto-ova pescatarian) for a while before embarking on this challenge, I had noticed that my reliance on those select animal proteins that I still consumed was becoming more and more prominent.  I ate so much fish you’d think I lived in a coastal town.

Looking back over my previous entries, I realize that I never really explained my background nor my reasons for wanting to try a vegan diet.  I was very much raised in a ‘meat and potatoes’ home and it wasn’t until a few years ago that I decided to switch to vegetarianism.  While I am an animal lover and an environmentalist, the reason for my switch was purely selfish.  I wanted to lose weight and I am afraid of eating my way to diabetes.

While I did lose some weight the results were limited by my love of junk food (especially sodey-pop.)  But there were other benefits in that I felt better and learned to cook new foods without relying on a piece of meat to be the centerpiece of the meal.

Now, why did I set out on this challenge?  I don’t fully know.  Again, I need to lose weight.  Also, my love of the natural world is strong (and the meat industry is undeniably a major contributor to climate change.)  My love of animals is stronger than ever, I suppose.  Did I do it to be contrary?  Difficult?  Different?

I’m honestly not sure why I did this challenge but I do know that I have enjoyed it.  I have lost a little weight, I sleep so much better than I did, I got to try some foods I may not have otherwise tried, and I just plain feel better.

With all of that said, I think this challenge may be shifting from 30 days to lifestyle change.  I’m a believer in possibilities (as in, nothing is impossible, only highly improbable a la Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy) so I will not say that I will never knowingly eat animal protein again but I will say that I plan to continue along this vegan path as far as it will take me.  I hope that you’ll join me as I plan to continue these posts as I travel.

Thanks for reading and happy eating!

Kirk

My 30 day vegan challenge – Week 3

By Kirk Lilwall

Be kind whenever possible.  It is always possible.
The Dalai Lama

There is a phenomenon I’ve noticed.  While some people do not know how to react to my new Vegan-ity (not sure that’s a word), there are some who seem to have figured out how to use it in their favour.

I should tell you that I, like many of my friends and family, do not like to be the person who decides for the group.  Like, perhaps, many of your friends, my friends and I will often spend over a half-hour trying to decide where we should eat when going out.  No-one will just pick somewhere!

Enter some of the more opportunistic and clever amongst the people I associate with.  There are a couple of people who will now play this card almost instantly when a similar conversation comes up: “Well, Kirk, you have the most restrictive diet; where can you eat?”  This forces me to decide or, at the very least, provide some options.  They are now relieved from having to decide anything, as I must choose where we dine.  It can be a little frustrating but I’ve decided I will start to use this to my advantage.  There will be more Kale and beans consumed in the near future for anyone who plays this game.

Part of my experiment with vegan life, is examining the culture around the issue.  This weekend I had the opportunity to see a film called Forks Over Knives.  It is a documentary that follows and outlines the work of two doctors doing separate research and coming to the same conclusion: a whole foods diet that has very low or no animal protein in it is far healthier than one that has high amounts of animal protein.

The research not only shows that heart disease, diabetes, and many forms of cancer are higher in diets like the ones commonly practiced in North America and the West but that a switch to a whole foods based diet can prevent and, most amazingly, reverse these conditions.  It is certainly a film worth checking out and, if you want to delve deeper, check out The China Study, (a book that outlines some of the research highlighted in the film.)

The other thing I’m doing is reading a book called Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry.

As you might have guessed from the title, this is not light reading.  This book has many first hand accounts of workers, inspectors, and other members of the meat industry.  It is both shocking and disturbing.  While I think everyone should be educated about how this industry operates (your health may depend on it) I would advise anyone who reads this book to do so with care and caution.  I have been moved to tears several times, feeling empathy for both the abused animals and the abused workers.  I’m about 2/3 of the way through the book and will say that if I do decide to eat meat again in the future, it will not be store bought, processed meat.  Organic, locally sourced certainly seems to be a much safer and prudent choice.

Today marks 21 days for my vegan adventure and I can honestly say I feel really good.  Please feel free to keep the comments coming (as well as the handy links!)

Thanks for reading and happy eating!

Kirk

My 30 day vegan challenge – week 2

By Kirk Lilwall

“Chicken isn’t vegan!?” – Todd Ingram, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

This week lead to some new challenges and new discoveries.  What I’m discovering is, that it’s not that hard to cut out animal protein if you approach it from the right point of view.

People hear that I’m trying out a vegan diet and they are immediately amazed at all of the limitations that I will face.  This is not how I see this.  If I were to focus on limitations, I’m not sure I’d be able to see all of the possibilities.  Don’t get me wrong, there have been moments of “I can’t eat that?” but they are few and far between.

One of the things that I discovered this week (through conversation with my partner and her mother) was that sugar is not necessarily vegan.  Seems weird, right?  Part of making sugar, is the filtering process.  It turns out that a lot of commercial sugar is filtered through animal bones.  The use of ‘bone char’ is used to remove the colour from sugar (to make it nice and white rather than brown.)

This means, of course, that animal product can end up in your sugar.  Luckily, this is not nearly as common a practice as it once was.  If you want to be extra diligent, you should buy sugar that is raw or organic.  You may want to avoid refined sugar if you are concerned about this possibility.  Another thing to note, brown sugar is not necessarily raw.  It can actually be white sugar that has been coated with molasses to make it brown.  Read labels!

I should note that I was thrilled to get a comment on my first entry.  I hope I answered the question asked but if you feel my answer was incomplete, please enter the conversation in the comments sections below these posts!

Thanks for reading and happy eating!

Kirk

My 30 Day Vegan Challenge – Week One

By Kirk Lilwall

I must have a prodigious quantity of mind; it takes me as much as a week sometimes to make it up.    ~ Mark Twain

One week ago, I decided to try switching to a vegan diet.  I also decided that I would blog about my experience; sadly it has taken me a week to come up with a first entry.

The plan is to try it for at least a month and, if it doesn’t prove too dramatic or difficult, I would consider remaining vegan ‘forever.’  I will be using a wide variety of resources including the many, varied vegan blogs that exist, internet vegan cooking shows, (I found one called The Vegan Zombie that is amazing,) various cookbooks, (The 30-Day Vegan Challenge for example,) and my friends and family.

I will try to document for you my ups and downs as I move through this month and beyond.  With that in mind, here are some things that came up during my first week:

  •  My love of both Indian and Mexican foods is serving me very well.
  • Reading labels is very important, as there is dairy hiding in the strangest places.
  • If you find out that you accidentally ate something non-vegan, (ex. “These onion rings were cooked in the same oil as the chicken,”) it’s just not a big deal.  Chalk it up as a lesson learned and move on.  Maybe, accidentally eating something non-vegan is no reason to throw out the whole experience.
  • Lots of junk food is not vegan; I may lose weight this month without even trying!
  • Cheese-less pizza is amazing!

As I learn more of these lessons, I will pass them onto you.  I’d also be happy to answer any questions people may have (just leave me your query in the comments.)  I’ll also be trying many new recipes this month that I will review here.  Some of them will involve animal protein substitutes, (ex. Tempeh bacon,) and others will be vegan by design (ex. curries and burritos!)

Thanks for reading and happy eating!

Kirk