The Vegan Adventures of An Omnivore

ThugKitchenCookbooksThis past month has been an interesting one on the food front. My Da, for reasons that have already been lost in the mists of time, undertook a bet that he couldn’t be vegan for a month.  I have a vague recollection that it arose from a discussion we had on the sustainability or otherwise of an omnivorous diet, especially one that relies heavily on animal products.

Neither he nor I are vegetarian, let alone vegan so this was going to be an interesting challenge. I decided that I would be pescetarian (vegetarian plus fish) for the month in solidarity, and would explore more vegan meals too. Yeah, I was too half-assed to commit to going fully vegetarian, let alone vegan. So bite me.  (Not you, vegans! That woulnd’t be, well, very vegan, would it?!)

I’m am wholly impressed to report that Da won the bet, sticking to his vegan diet for the whole month. I’m not in the least surprised that he has decided that he would not be carrying on with his vegan diet beyond the month (though it should be said that his diet beforehand wasn’t particularly carnivorous)

My lessons from the month are:

  1. Nothing makes a vegetarian diet appear to offer a cornucopia of unrestricted options like trying to stick to a vegan diet!  Pescetarian felt positively indulgent.
  2. There are some great vegan recipes out there. They don’t even involve ‘fakin’ bacon’ meat-impersonating foodlike substances (which I abhor). The secret is often in a few ingredients that might not be found in the typical non-vegan store cupboard. Nooch, anyone? Bragg’s Aminos?  These magic ingredients add the umami that would otherwise be missing from vegan dishes.
  3. The Thug Kitchen cookbooks were my source of the most consistently reliable and tasty vegan recipes that I’ve tried so far. In fact I’ve found them some of the tastiest recipes, full stop.  It was from the Thug Kitchen books that I learned about Bragg’s and nooch. At first I borrowed the books from my public library. I love my library! And I highly recommend borrowing cook books to try some recipes before committing to buy as not all cookbooks are created equal.  I was so impressed I’ve since bought all the Thug Kitchen cook books (no, I’m not on commission!) and I have continued to explore their recipes even now the challenge is over.

To celebrate the end of my Da’s vegan month I invited the family over for a vegan feast (not an oxymoron 🙂 ).  The menu was as follows:


Curried Squash and Lentil Soup from the ever-reliable BBC Good Food (I used full-fat coconut milk and doubled the quantity of lentils)

Home-made No Knead Bread with Hummus and Antipasti (grilled peppers, olives, artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes) (I cheated and bought the hummus and antipasti)

Main Course

Black Bean Burger in a crusty bun with home-grown cos lettuce, tomato, pickles, ketchup and French’s Mustard with oven-baked Maris Piper chips


Vegan plain yogurt over Thug Kitchen Blueberry Sauce with granola served layered in a glass (again I cheated and bought the yogurt and granola)

Peanut Butter Rice Krispies Bars (to be honest, though I’m a sucker for anything with peanut butter, I wasn’t mad about these. I prefer a crunchier krispie treat and the coconut oil meant the chocolate melted very easily in your hands)

His prize for completing the bet?  A steak!


Too Much of A Good Thing

Advice from Miss Piggy (pic via

Advice from Miss Piggy (pic via

Ahoy there, patient readers!  I have been missing in action for some time, my sincerest apologies for deserting you (or should that be desserting you?).  The thing about loving good grub is that over-indulgence is an occupational hazard.

I have finally had to admit that it is unlikely that all my clothes have simultaneously shrunk in the wash.  Nope, the weekend treats that have spilled well into mid-week (“It’s Tuesday evening, sure we’ve broken the back of the week. Don’t we deserve a treat?”) have taken their toll and it became time for a bit of dietary discipline.

Not A Diet

I won’t call it a diet because there’s a cargo-hold worth of baggage associated with that word.  I’ll go with ‘go slow’.  For a little while I’m curtailing the treats and keeping an eye on the calories in and calories out.  I’ve set myself the goal of keeping up the discipline for 6 weeks – I’m in my 4th week and have managed to shed a few pounds. The aim is to magically ‘unshrink’ my ‘shrunk’ clothes.

Motivation By Numbers

One motivator for doing this was a quick bit of arithmetic. In the first half of this year I put on quite a few pounds.  At the end of this year I will be celebrating my 40th birthday.  I calculated that if my weight-gain trend continued unabated I would be more than 29 stone (400 pounds) by my 50th birthday!  That’s 3 times my current weight!  That thought was motivator enough to start to shed the little ‘padding’ I’d gained.

So for these past few ‘disciplinary’ weeks I’ve been using a couple of handy tools that might help anyone else trying to shed some excess pounds.

I found this tool when searching for an easy way to keep a food diary. allows you to record your food and exercise diary day by day.  There’s a mobile app so you can use it on the go but I prefer using it on my laptop.  I’ve been amazed at the range and specificity of the foods in their database (yes, they do have the nutritional information for Lidl’s own brand crunchy linseed!)   There’s lots of tools to analyse your progress but to be honest I’ve just been using the food and exercise diaries.  Even the act of recording what I’m eating has made me more mindful of my consumption.  You also get to see the calorie difference small snacks and short exercises can make.   If, like me, you tend to eat from a reasonably small range of things for breakfast and lunch, or indeed if you do the similar exercises each day, there’s a handy feature for copying your meals and exercise from previous dates.  This means you don’t have to repeatedly enter the same food or exercise day after day.

You Tube

What?  You Tube?  Yup, its a great source of short work-outs to help get you moving and stay focused.  You’ll probably have to try a few to find the style and level of work-outs that suit you but once you’ve found a suitable work-out its great to use them to ensure you maintain pace and form.  Let’s face it, work-outs can become very boring very quickly and without prompting its easy to end up phoning it in with a half-assed workout.    Here are the workouts I’ve been doing over the past few weeks.  I mix them up a bit but include a warm-up, glutes, arms and abs every day – about 30 mins total, 15 minutes in the morning and another 15 minutes in the evening which is pretty do-able:

Fat-Burning Warm Up

Cardio Warm Up

Abs and Back

Pilates for Arms

Below the Belt Glutes

Butt Workout

These are great for boosting exercise levels but I still maintain that the most sustainable way to exercise is not work-outs (unless you are seriously self-disciplined) but to build exercise into your daily routine.  Walk or cycle to work, the shops or meet friends. Use the stairs instead of the lift (at least for a couple of flights – have a listen to this interesting podcast on the positive impact of using the stairs).  You know you already know this…

What About Food?

Of course, I have to eat too!  Over my next few posts I’ll share the healthy recipes I’ve been trying out over the past few weeks.

Do you have healthy tips and tricks for weight loss?  Do you have a favourite healthy recipe?  Please do share!

Fatty Facts

Fat Cat

Fat Cat via @gaiphankai

Give a dog (or fat cat) a bad name… so it is with fats.  The nutrient that needs better PR.   The tide of nutritional opinion does finally seem to be turning.  If not exactly in fat’s favour, there’s a new bad boy in town, sugar, deflecting some of the nutritional animosity away from fat.

Not that that animosity is entirely undeserved.  Where calories are so plentiful that most of us carry around our surplus on our bums and bellies we’re right to be wary of the most calorie-dense of all the nutrients.   At 9 kcal per g, fat packs a calorific punch.

But we need fats.  We need them for energy (and they’re plenty energy dense – see above), protection (padding!) and insulation (more padding!).  Fats also contain fat-soluble vitamins A (for good eye-sight), D (for strong bones and, if recent research is to be believed, much more besides) and E (an anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory).

Not all fats are equal.  They fall into three main classes:

  • Saturated fats – these are primarily animal-derived e.g. butter. They’re usually solid at room temperature and they contribute to the mouth-feel and shelf life of foods.
  • Unsaturated fats – these are generally liquid at room temperature e.g. olive oil.  These fall into two sub-categories:
    • Monounsaturated fats
    • Polyunsaturated fats – these include the omega-3 and omega 6 fats.   The omega refers to the position of the carbon double-bond – there’s also omega-7 and omega-9 fats ….
  • Trans-fats – Also known as hydrogenated fats or partially hydrogenated fats, these are Franken-fats.  They rarely occur in nature.   They’re essentially unsaturated fats that are made artificially saturated to give them some of the useful characteristics of naturally saturated fats (like mouth-feel and shelf-life), without the relatively high costs.   Except that these turn out to the be the real bad-boys of the fat world.  They have been shown to raise levels of LDL (low-density lipo-protein aka ‘bad’ cholesterol) and triglycerides while reducing levels of HDL (high-density lipo-protein aka ‘good’ cholesterol).  All of this has been shown to increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.  This damaging effect is so widely acknowledged that many countries have introduced legislation to ban trans fats from food.

Cooking For Engineers ( – yeah, it really exists!) wrote an excellent and thought-provoking article on the structure of fats and their role in health which you can read here (and I recommend you do)

Store Cupboard Secrets: Carb-Loading

Super Squirrel

Super Squirrel via @TelegraphPics

No, not the Mrs. Robinson variety!  But a well-stocked store cupboard is every self-respecting cook’s must-have accessory.  This stash of non-perishable food is the secret behind being able to rustle up a meal at short notice or on those nights when you didn’t have enough time to get to the shops after work.

Today I’m talkin’ store-cupboard carbs.  No, don’t go there with your low-carb/no-carb diets!  I’m *all* about the carbs!  These can form the foundation of a substantial meal.   So here are my must-have non-perishable store-cupboard carbs:

Pasta:  Of every shape and hue.  A store cupboard wouldn’t be worthy of the name if it didn’t contain pasta.  Now if you’re feeling virtuous you can opt for wholemeal varieties but I’ve recently become a De Cecco devotee.  It has a wonderful bite that really makes you appreciate al dente pasta, a lovely quality pasta.

Rice: Risotto rice and Basmati Rice both deserve a place in a well-stocked kitchen. And for quick and reliable rice with a hint of virtue I like wholegrain easy-cook rice.

Noodles:   I like egg noodles but you can also choose rice noodles.   The ultimate fast food.

Naan bread:  Ok, strictly speaking not a non-perishable item but I am a fan of the Lidl naan breads that are sold in sealed packs and have a shelf life of several weeks so I’m including them here.   They make a bowl of soup into a meal and are a satisfying accompaniment to a veg curry like this one.

Popcorn:    Ok, I won’t try to argue that popcorn can form the basis of a substantial meal but it does make a tasty snack for an evening in front of the TV and we all deserve a treat once in a while… I also have a spectacularly indulgent recipe for toffee popcorn … remind me to share it another time…

I haven’t included potatoes here.   With no disrespect to this wonderful tuber, they are excluded from this list solely because I find they don’t last a very long time in my kitchen before sprouting so I buy them in on an as-needed basis.(Crisps don’t count!)

What are your favorite store-cupboard carbs?


“Free From” Are Just Other Words For Nothing Much To Give

Fakin' Bacon


Food can be a lightening rod for neuroses.  It is something, sometimes one of few things in life, over which we can exert control.  Thus is can become the medium of expression of all sorts of foibles, compulsions and fixations.  This has spawned a whole industry of foods sold to us on the basis of what they are not. What I less-than-affectionately refer to as ‘fakin’ bacon’ (which is an actual product!)

Now, before I go any further let me acknowledge that there are rational reasons that you would want to choose foods that are “free from”.   Certainly free from cruelty is an admirable, ethical ‘free from’.  And if you have a medically-diagnosed condition such as Coeliac Disease or another true allergy of course it is imperative that you avoid certain allergens.

My bug bear is with foods marketed to the general population based on what they do not contain.   Unless, as mentioned above, you have a medically-diagnosed reason for doing so, what possible good can come of choosing your food based on what it is not?   In fact I believe there is a distinct danger that when we focus on the absence of certain substances from foods we get distracted from what is in that food or other potential nutritional shortcomings of such foods.

This is particularly relevant to foods where an essential component of their natural form is removed.   Take gluten-free bread.   Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.  It gives breads its elasticity and form.  The purposed of kneading when we bake bread is to activate the gluten to allow the dough to become elastic so that it can rise as the yeast produces carbon dioxide.   This given bread its spongy texture and its delicious, chewy bite.

Gluten-free bread is made from non-wheat flours such as almond, rice or corn flours.  As these flours do not contain gluten additives have to be added to such breads to approximate the characteristics that gluten imparts.   Such additives include xanthum gum, guar gum and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose(HPMC).   These approximations of bread are poor substitutes for real bread, lacking the flavour and texture of a good quality ‘real’ bread and their additives offer no nutritional benefit.

Another bug bear is ‘fat free’.  As you are aware, I’m sure, dear Reader, this fails to point out that the removal of fat has impaired the flavour necessitating the addition of sugar and possibly salt or other flavourings.  Fat also contributes to mouth-feel so other ingredients are added to approximate the correct mouth-feel.   None of these ingredients are required in the fat-containing versions and the substitute and compensatory ingredients, once again, offer no nutritional benefits.   (Often the calorie difference between the fat and non-fat versions of foods is often surprisingly small and a price I’m willing to pay for a more authentic, better quality food)

I could go on (and on and on and on!) on this particular hobby horse.  We need to focus on what our foods are, not what they are not.  Focus on what they do contain (what we are putting into our bodies), not on what they do not contain.  Choose foods with integrity.  If you need to avoid certain allergens of course do so but choose foods that are authentically free of that allergen rather than poor imitations. Ditch the fakin’ bacon. Choose the naturally gluten free or inherently fat free.

I suspect that I’m preaching to the foodie choir here.  And I suspect there’s probably no convincing the fakin’ bacon brigade.  So I shall get down off my soap box, dust myself off and bid you adieu and bon appetite until next time.

Quick Fix: Don’t Drink Your Calories


Water picture via @Foodimentary

I am a big fan of Michael Pollan’s ‘Food Rules’.   The idea of distilling dense and often confusing healthy eating advice into bite-size, easy-to-digest (so to speak) guidelines is very appealing.   So I’d like to offer my own quick-fix, easy-to-follow tips for day-to-day healthy eating.

Don’t Drink Your Calories

Here’s today’s tip: don’t drink your calories.   I believe we gain far more satiety from the food we eat rather than the drinks we drink.   So I prefer to save my calories for my grub!  I want my calories to come with crunch or munch or other satisfying textures and flavours rather than being gulped down quickly.

Not-so-smooth Smooties

So ditch sweetened drinks (needless to say surely!) and cut back on juices and smoothies.   Eat the fruit and veg in their natural form instead as you’ll feel more sated and gain the benefits of fibre and bulk that are lost in juicing and blending…   Ever read the ingredients on the side of a smoothie pack?   How long would it take you to eat all those fruit and veg in their natural state?   How full would you feel?  Now how quickly would you knock back that smoothie?   And how sated would you be?

The Good Stuff

But we’re not camels (unless I have come camel readers, if so please accept my apologies and my admiration for your thirst-lessness!)  We do need to drink.   So what to drink?   Well, water, as nature intended, is the obvious choice.  But I accept that that can get very dull.   Add a squeeze of lemon or lime and a sprig of mint or lemon balm to cheer up water.  Try sparkling water for a change of texture.   Definitely experiment unsweetened herbal, black and green teas and coffee (though not too much of the caffeinated varieties or you’ll end up with the shakes!)

Cheers, Big Ears!

Of course sometimes we do want to drink for pleasure.   And of course we should indulge ourselves from time to time – its one of life’s pleasures.   I do enjoy a glass of good wine and am quite happy to accept the hefty calorific price of alcohol.   And it is hefty!

Sugar contains 4 calories per gram, as does protein.   Alcohol contains a whopping 7 calories per gram (putting it closer to pure fat which contains 9 calories per gram).   One of many reasons to enjoy alcohol in moderation.

So, armed with a little knowledge, ‘spend’ your daily calorie allowance wisely.


Comfort Food


Chocolate, via @onlineclinic_uk

Well, I have surely needed serious porridge-power over the past day or so.   I woke up in the wee small hours of St Patrick’s Day to find our beloved car  gone from our driveway (I know its not right to love a thing so much but I just to).  Scrambled out of bed and down to the kitchen to find that some thieving so-and-sos (may they die roaring!) had broken into the house, stolen the keys and made away with our car.

Frantic calls to the cops and crime scene investigators dusting for prints ensued.  I made a desperate improvised civilian ‘APB’ call-out via facebook, Twitter and the rest of the interweb to keep an eye out for our beloved car.   Lovely, sympathetic responses from far and wide but alas no sign of our car.

Forty-eight hours on there is still no sign.   I did, however, make a sinister discovery when I went to prepare dinner this evening:  the thieves had also stolen my biggest meat cleaver.   Maybe just as well I didn’t meet our uninvited visitors face to face *shudder!*

All this has left me horribly discombobulated.   And food can be a wonderfully comforting thing to ease such discombobulation.

Our appetites for food are also often tell-tale signs of our sense of well-being.   Some people are stress eaters.  I tend to be the opposite, losing my appetite completely under stress.

The sympathetic nervous system that kicks in our ‘fight or flight’ response when we’re stressed tends to slow digestion.   I guess Nature figured that facing down a sabre-toothed tiger is not the time to crave a snack!

So, with my nerves a-jangling I did some research on comfort food, specifically on foods that calm jangled nerves.  I’m making the distinction here from foods that you might find particularly comforting because of their positive personal associations for you (your Mammy’s apple pie for instance).   And there’s a place for Mammy’s apple pie.   But here I’m taking a look at foods that have a physical impact on our stress levels.   So here it goes.


Here I’m talking about the high-cocoa (70% plus) dark chocolate.   Despite the sugar and caffeine content, chocolate also contains anandamide and tryptophan both of which can relieve the symptoms of stress and anxiety.

Anandamide (known to its friends as N-arachidonoylethanolamine), is a cannabinoid neurotransmitter whose name, if Wikipedia is to be believed, derives from the Sanskrit for ‘bliss’.  Who am I to argue?  Anandamide can help relieve anxiety and depression.

Tryptophan is an essential amino acid and a precursor to the neurotransmitter seratonin which is believed to produce a sense of well-being and happiness.   Seratonin is also used in the production of melatonin, a neurohormone which aids calmness and healthy sleep.


Wholegrains are another source of our happy-hormone-maker, tryptophan.   Wholegrains are also a good source of magnesium, a nutrient that can be depleted by stress.   They contain B-vitamins, the lack of which can produces symptoms of anxiety and depression.    Wholegrains also displace simple carbs (sugars and refined flour products) which avoids the sugar-highs and lows associated with simple carbs.   And such energy surges and crashes are to be avoided when coping with jangled nerves.


Another source of our friend tryptophan, bananas are a source of B6 a useful stress-busting vitamin.


Probiotic yogurt may help nurture healthy gut bacteria which recent research shows have a significant impact on mental health and well-being (indeed our internal ecosystem is a whole other topic).  Yoghurt is also a source of comforting carbs and stress-busting B vitamins.

Chamomile Tea

Well, any warm drink is soothing (except coffee!)  Chamomile is also associated with relaxation.   I’m currently enjoying a cup of chamomile and vanilla tea which is indeed very pleasant.

Right, so, I’m off to get myself a stress-busting snack and to try not to be too sad about the disappearance of our car.