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Food for thought, it's cool to be vegan

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Mila Arena is a vegan and delivers vegan food. Photo/Andrew Warner.

Rock legend Bryan Adams' New Year message to fans was simple.

"Happy New Year 2018. Go vegan."

A long-time vegan, Adams is joined by a host of known figures like Ellen DeGeneres, Serena Williams and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Once sidelined, even mocked, as extremely alternative, it's never been cooler to be vegan. This January the Veganuary movement has been encouraging people around the world to give the plant-based lifestyle a go.

One New Zealander attracted to trying a vegan lifestyle for a month is Janelle Brunton-Rennie, owner of ethical PR, brand strategy and digital content consultancy Mediajam.

Almost at the end of January, she has lost 5kg, says her body feels good, and does not think she will reintroduce dairy back into her diet for health reasons.

"More and more people are being diagnosed with health issues - autoimmune diseases and cancer - and when you research both how to prevent these illnesses and how to manage them if you have them, the information is pretty consistent - low (or no) dairy, low (or no) meat, organic fruits and vegetables, good quality water (non chlorinated and fluoridated) and no alcohol."

Halfway through the month new mum Brunton-Rennie faced the challenging news that husband Kurt was diagnosed with cancer. One of the ways the couple are working together through his treatment and recovery is through their diet, with Kurt now joining his wife on her vegan diet.

Already fully vegetarian for six months, Brunton-Rennie, raised on a farm in Canterbury, said three reasons drove her decision to gradually eliminate meat from her life.

"One for my health, two for the planet and three, eating meat started to not feel right within me ethically. I feel a lot better since I gave up meat completely, and even better since giving up dairy. After seeing documentaries like Cowspiracy and more recently What the Health (both on Netflix) it confirmed that I've made the best choice for me."

She is mindful of the effect that increasingly intensive farming practices are having.

"I don't want to be a participant who fuels that as I truly believe that everything we buy is a vote for the kind of world we want to live in and we want our children to inherit. I had also reached a place where eating animals no longer sat ethically with me anymore. I had become so aware of what I was eating and where that food came from that the thought of eating another living being quite simply no longer appealed to me at all."

She had started the process by first doing a meat-free Monday, then increasing this to a couple of days a week meat-free.

"Before I knew it, my drive to eat meat had almost disappeared and I was super aware of how eating meat made me feel internally - I felt more sluggish and lethargic when I did consume meat, so it made sense to give it a miss altogether. Just like meat I also realised I felt a lot better when I didn't consume dairy products.

I have substituted yoghurt for soy yoghurt, milk for hazelnut or almond milk, cream for coconut cream and then the only dairy left to give up was halloumi cheese, blue cheese and the occasional piece of milk chocolate."

During Veganuary she discovered a great vegan cheese alternative - Angel Food Cheddar - and substituted milk chocolate for dark chocolate.

She thinks there is a need for more initiatives like Veganuary to help bring vegan more mainstream and encourages anyone to try it.

"Veganism is on the rise, and for good reason. Eating vegan is becoming easier and easier - both buying food products to cook at home and eating out and about too."

Sandra Zammit is becoming a vegan. Photo/George Novak

Tauranga nurse Sandra Zammit, 44, has been trying out vegan meals since October when she was having sleep problems.

"Two of my friends are vegan so I got talking to them about it. One is a power lifter and I was intrigued about how a vegan diet could improve strength. Plus I wanted to lose a bit of weight and I wasn't sleeping well so I was looking at my diet as a whole."

While she has not yet eliminated meat completely, she has noticed a change in her health. "I feel better, I have lost a few kilos and am sleeping really well through the night."

Like Brunton-Rennie, she is noticing an increased interest in veganism.

"Not only do I know heaps of people who are vegan or going vegan, but since I have been doing it other people are trying it. People see the food and think, oh that actually looks nice. I had a chickpea dish and then someone else at work told me they tried it too."

One obstacle to converting fully to a plant-based diet, Zammit thinks, is not knowing what to cook.

She and her husband use a new vegan meal delivery service V On Wheels, based in Tauranga, which delivers around the Bay and more recently to Auckland. It is run by 35-year-old Mila Arena. Originally from Argentina, she became vegetarian when she first came to New Zealand six years ago.

"The idea was on my mind for a while until I decided to step into it completely. I think when you start loading yourself with information about the animal industry, you get a point when your body just doesn't want to eat meat anymore.

"V On Wheels came in to life in 2016 as a vegetarian and vegan meal delivery service, and it was then when I started little by little cutting more animal products from my diet. After several months I turned the business to fully vegan as it resonated better with me, and honestly, cooking vegan, it's not harder or more expensive at all."

Mila cooks all the food in her kitchen in her leafy Avenues home, then delivers it herself, with some people ordering meals seven days a week, and some just ordering occasional meals. She, too, is noticing an increasing interest in being a vegan and demand has been so great she was able to expand to Auckland delivery not long after opening, tapping into the demand for home-delivered meals for those leading a busy lifestyle with no time.

Mila Arena is a vegan and delivers vegan food. Photo/Andrew Warner.

"I'm so lucky doing what I'm doing right now. Perfect timing. The consciousness expansion about nutrition, health, and its link to animal consumption is growing at a tremendously rapid pace everywhere."

She is also passionate about sharing her knowledge of recipe. She writes a blog and offers cooking classes so that people can try out her recipes they get delivered when they have more time, say at weekends.

"This vegan movement, it's encouraging people to make their own food. Social media, it's such a great inspirational tool for cooking. "We are permanently seeing photos of amazing, colourful, delicious meals online, and I believe that's motivating people to experiment in the kitchen."

Tauranga's Rachelle Duffy is festival creator and director of the popular Vegan Vibes - the Bay of Plenty's lifestyle and food festival which is now in its third year.

The festival features gourmet vegan cuisine from New Zealand's top food trucks, including vegan beer from local award-winning craft brewery Mount Brewing Co Brewery.

There's also vegan fashion, health and beauty products for purchase and workshop spaces with high profile guest speakers and some international guest speakers.

Duffy says the festival is popular with vegans and non-vegans, many of whom leave empowered to try the lifestyle.

"It's just a nice way of learning more about this lifestyle. No one preaches to you about how you must live your life, it's just a nice day to learn and experience the vegan lifestyle ... Some people are doing it for health reasons, environment reasons and of course for animal rights reasons."

Event Vegan Vibes, September 22, Mount Maunganui

Food V on Wheels, All dishes are ready to eat, no cooking requires. Heat straight from the freezer. Made of nothing byt plants, vegetables, grains, fruit, nuts and legumes with organic spices, herbs and seasoning. Most dishes are gluten free.

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