Today we chat to TJ, a plant-based nutritionist living in London. He talks about why he refers to his diet as plant-based, helping young people lead healthy lives and how even nutritionists can’t resist a Hobnob.
Tell us a little about yourself.
For the past year I have been studying a master’s degree in nutrition at University College London, where I’ve really deepened my knowledge of nutrition and turned my passion into a livelihood. I now run my own website called Meat Free Fitness, where I provide delicious recipes, nutrition information, fitness guides, lifestyle tips, and debunk the myths surrounding getting fit on a plant-based diet.
I also run a healthy eating workshop at CARAS, an amazing charity that supports young people who have sought refuge in the UK, teaching them vital cooking skills to prepare them for healthy independent living.
How long have you been plant-based?
I became vegetarian in 2013 and then started restricting dairy and eggs in 2014. So I went cold turkey on eating meat (excuse the pun), but becoming plant-based was more of a gradual process over the following year.
What was your diet like before and how long did you follow that lifestyle for?
I must admit, I really enjoyed eating meat before becoming vegetarian nearly four years ago. I did consider myself to have a reasonably nutritious diet, as I’ve always been interested in keeping fit and healthy, but I had nowhere near the variety that I have in my diet now.
I had nowhere near the variety that I have in my diet now.
What was the tipping point that made you become plant-based?
I think I always knew that it was something I wanted to do, but I used to have concerns that ditching meat would affect my progress at the gym and that veggie food might be bland. However, the more thought I gave it, the less I could justify continuing to eat meat just for those reasons: the animal welfare and environmental issues became far more important to me. I suppose different issues become more important to people as they grow and develop.
Did you do much research beforehand?
Yes, I did a little bit of research, but I did most as I went along, rather than understanding everything beforehand. So for the first month or so, I did find the diet quite boring as many of the recipes I knew before were based around meat. However, I found some great support on The Vegan Society and PeTA websites, which provided some cooking inspiration and covered the basic nutritional points to watch out for.
Did you have a supportive network of family and friends around you? Are any of them plant-based?
Yes, I’m really lucky to have amazingly supportive family and friends. It probably initially came as a bit of a surprise because I was just a typical young lad, and some people think vegetarians or vegans lead some kind of extreme tree-hugging lifestyle. But for me it was just a rational decision – I couldn’t justify eating meat any longer when I weighed it up against the animal welfare and environmental damage it does.
So after that slight initial surprise, it made perfect sense to my friends and family. They all admire the decision, and it got lots of them thinking about the impact of their diet too.
What did you think you’d miss the most, if anything?
Before becoming vegetarian I thought I’d miss steak, but after the first month or so I started creating really tasty veggie dishes. Then I genuinely didn’t miss it at all. When I started cutting back on eggs and dairy, I thought I’d miss cheese a lot. But again, once I started creating really delicious dairy-free meals and desserts, I didn’t really give it any thought.
Did you have any accidental or purposeful slip ups in your first month?
I label my diet as plant-based rather than vegan because I do allow myself the occasional ‘slip up’. I never eat meat, poultry, or fish, and when I cook at home, pretty much everything I buy and make is completely vegan. But I will occasionally choose a non-vegan option at a restaurant or when friends cook for me. Of course I will always prefer to opt for vegan options, but I enjoy the flexibility and balance when going out with friends, and don’t want to stress over ordering food.
I want to encourage more people to stop eating meat, and I believe a slightly flexible approach is the most appealing / accessible, and will therefore have the biggest overall effect: I believe a militant approach is more likely to just put people off the idea altogether. I think it’s important to have mutual respect for peoples’ food choices – while I admire strict vegans, I certainly don’t judge people for eating meat (it’s how most people are brought up after all) and I commend the efforts of meat eaters who try to reduce their meat intake.
I think it’s important to have mutual respect for peoples’ food choices.
What was your go-to recipe or meal for the first month?
I was given Anna Jones’s cookbook ‘A Modern Way To Eat’ which is full of delicious recipes, and I made her vegan chilli loads, because it was really hearty, packed with protein, and would freeze really well so I could make huge batches of it. Over time I’ve experimented and developed it – it’s still one of my favourite dishes!
How did you find the first month? Did you notice any changes?
I didn’t go cold turkey with dairy and eggs – I gradually cut back on the amount I ate. So there wasn’t really a first month for me. However, the more I cut back, especially with cheese, the easier I found it to digest my meals and generally just felt lighter. Probably because I wasn’t digesting large amounts of saturated fat anymore!
Also, an interesting fact is that vegans tend to have higher iron levels than vegetarians, because milk and cheese have very little iron. Vegans, however, tend to replace cheese products in their meals with beans, pulses, and whole grains, which are high in iron. This could be another reason I felt better when I began cutting out dairy and eggs.
What were the vegan options like eating out then? Did you find it difficult? And how did you cope?
Living in London, the vegetarian and vegan options at restaurants tend to be really great. I have also mastered the art of strategic ordering, where if there are no vegan options, I’ll order a vegan starter and a couple of side dishes to create a proper main meal. However, eating out is the one time I won’t stress too much if it proves difficult to choose vegan options, as I think it’s important to allow some flexibility occasionally.
If there are no vegan options, I’ll order a vegan starter and a couple of side dishes to create a proper main meal.
What’s the vegan scene like in London now?
There are loads of vegan restaurants, pop-ups, and street food stands in London – probably too many to try out in one lifetime. More and more people are becoming vegetarian and vegan so the scene is growing, and I like to think it’s because more people are thinking rationally about the impact of their diet. This is especially true among men, where the butch, alpha male meat-eating stereotype is becoming less fashionable compared to more modern compassionate guys who think critically for themselves.
Was there anything that you learned was vegan that you didn’t think it would be?
Hobnobs… I still can’t believe it to be honest! Of course, as a nutritionist, I probably shouldn’t be recommending them anyway, but if you are going to allow yourself a treat, then at least you know they are free of all animal products!
What did you wish you’d known then that you know now?
There are a number of concerns that I had that turned out to be completely unfounded. You can get plenty of protein and iron on a plant-based diet; you can make really delicious recipes, and you can have a huge variety with your food. If I knew all that I would have ditched eating meat much sooner.
What would be your advice to anyone thinking of going vegan or currently doing Veganuary?
I would say to make life easier, invest a little extra time in the preparation. Homemade food is so much tastier, healthier, and cheaper than shop bought meals, so you’re less likely to get bored if you cook your own food. So make sure that every meal you prepare can be made either in a big batch so you can freeze some portions, or so that the leftovers can be used towards another dish. For example, any leftover chickpea ratatouille tastes great stirred in with some whole meal pasta for a quick nutritious supper the following day.
And remember to read the rest of the 31 Vegans’ First 31 Days stories here.