The Economical Vegan

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Curry in a Hurry

I paused in the midst of a working day to welcome my son home from school. I have been working at home today due to the need to go to an appointment. As my brain emerged from the concentrated focus of marking assignments, I remembered that I had planned to make curry today. I’ve had a cold for a few days and my taste buds still aren’t right, so it was chilli yesterday, and curry today to cut through the fug of my senses.
While I made a quick pasta dish for the fourteen year old who doesn’t like vegetables, I first made Tarka Dahl, by frying onions and lots of garlic with garam masala and curry powder, then adding yellow lentils, vegetable stock and water and leaving to simmer. I chopped up some potatoes into large chunks, skin on, and put them to boil for sag aloo. I then sautee’d onions in a larger pan for a vegetable curry. I knew we were low on fresh veg because I am trying to avoid shopping until absolutely necessary, so this was the last of the onions, and I added a goodly pile of chopped mushrooms, then raided the freezer for green beans and peas, and last, some fresh broccoli. I added garlic and a lot of crushed ginger, then some hot water and some chilli powder. I left this to come to the boil.
The dahl was cooking well so I turned it down and stirred it regularly. Once the potatoes were half-boiled, I drained off some of the water into the vegetable curry pan, and added four large blocks of frozen spinach, and a sliced half onion to the potatoes, leaving them to simmer for another ten minutes. Then I added half a vegetable stock cube and a tablespoon of rogan josh curry paste, leaving this to simmer for another fifteen minutes, stirring from time to time. At the end I dashed in some lemon juice. So that was the sag aloo made.
I tasted the dahl and added a little more curry powder, then turned it off, then cheated with the veg curry, adding a curry sauce mix we bought the other day (powder version, thickens in two minutes) along with some extra hot curry powder and creamed coconut. I left that to simmer. I put some rice in another pan and put it on, 1:3 as normal which usually results in nice, fluffy rice. I was going to make some flatbreads but couldn’t find a recipe in time, and so defrosted some from the freezer. Dinner made – it took about 40 minutes in total. I had time in between checking the pans to sort some washing, chat to my son, wash some dishes, and answer the phone several times, pausing to wonder why it is that the phone stays silent all day then starts ringing as soon as I start to cook.
The house smells lush, and there is a feast of delicious curry waiting for later. All I have to do is quickly fry some more garlic for on top of the dahl, get everything hot, and toast the flatbreads. Mmmmmmmmmmm!


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Diet Diet Diet

Diet, Diet, Diet
I had a call from my sister last night, and yet again she was struggling with a family legacy of obsession with weight, body size, and diet. As a health care professional, and someone who teaches human biology (one of my multiple work roles), I am still amazed at the overbearing ignorance of many people in relation to diet and its effects on health.
So, let me first make my position clear. I am that rare thing, a fat vegan. I have always been overweight, from childhood onwards, and have variously struggled with and ignored my weight. Teenage years saw me develop an eating disorder as a direct result of family obsessions with weight and years of being denied foods others were allowed to enjoy. Prior to teenage years, I ate no more than my other siblings – and often a lot less, being refused food they enjoyed because I was ‘fat’. Looking at the pictures of my childhood, I was a slightly plump child, by no means obese. Obesity only came in late adolescence after years of dieting.
As an adult, my body size varied depending on my lifestyle. Whilst working a very physically active job and cycling 13 miles a day to and from work, I became much slimmer and very fit, despite eating the worst diet and the highest amount of calories ever (a typical ‘snack’ was a baguette spread thickly with garlic butter and filled with chips fresh from the fryer at work). On starting nurse training, I was ‘put’ on a diet by occupational health because my BMI was unhealthy (I was size 14 and incredibly fit, could run up a flight of stairs carrying a sack of potatoes on my shoulder, and was cycling 13 mile a day and swimming four times a week. I was also lighter than I had been since childhood). I then proceeded to gain weight throughout my training because I was no longer physically active, spending 6-8 hours a day in a classroom or standing in a ward area, and cycling only 4 miles a day, and eventually not cycling at all as I had to drive to placements, despite the fact that I was constantly restricting my calorie intake! I learned that food was an issue with psychological sequelae for me, and decided to ignore weight and size and focus on being emotionally healthy.
Over the years since I have learned some key facts about diet and body size. One is that body size is not simply determined by calories in and calories out. I could starve myself for years but my body is stocky in shape, with broad shoulders, and large breasts, and even at my thinnest my chest was still disproportionately large. I have learned that BMI is fundamentally flawed yet crucial healthcare decisions are consistently based upon it. And I have learned the key fact, that it’s not fat that makes you fat. It’s sugar. It’s a very simple relationship. The laying down of body fat is ruled by insulin. If you take in sugar, in any form (any kind of carbohydrate), your body releases insulin. Insulin causes the uptake of sugar and its conversion to body fat. In the absence of insulin, your body does not lay down fat. This is the basis of the high protein diet which is so often misrepresented in the media (including the Atkins diet). It makes perfect sense. But no one can just live on fat and protein in our society, and a varied diet is vital.
So this leads me to the persistent ignorance of my family, and of many others, including the government, health professionals, and even fellow vegans and friends. One person who I no longer call friend, some years ago, said to me, “good god, you must really put it away to be so fat.” And I was shocked, because it was clear that she judged me negatively. My sister has been struggling with the same issue with family who care nothing for how successful either of us are, emotionally, professionally, socially, or as parents, and only care whether or not we are ‘thin.’ And for some years I endured utter disbelief from people who couldn’t believe that I was a black belt in karate/kickboxing because obviously someone my size couldn’t be!
I have a few theories about why it is that after two years as a strict vegan, I have not magically turned into the willowy, waif-like stereotype of the vegan, as anticipated by colleagues and friends. One theory is that I focus on ensuring a healthy diet, and that means eating plenty of protein, vegetables, grains, fruits and the like. I am eating quite a lot of carbohydrates, and that means my body is not going to be eating up its own fat stores. Another issue is that I eat out a lot more than I used to, because my partner loves us to go out for meals. However, most places where we eat, my only option for food is chips and salad, which is a high carbohydrate meal. I like chips and salad, especially if there are peas too, but it’s not ideal. Also, my lifestyle is not active enough, as I work in a job which is predominantly sedentary and I commute two hours a day in a car. Options for alternative transport are not possible, and so I have to try to fill more of my leisure time with physical activity.
I just find it ironic now that people look at me negatively, and assume I must have a horribly unhealthy diet and that I overeat. My biggest issue is the need to get more physically active. My diet is amazing, because I pay attention to it, much more than many people who are ‘thin’ do. I want to feel physically strong, and that means not restricting calorie intake. I still believe that much of the modern day focus on making women skinny is so that they are too weak to run away or fight back. Strong, big women who take up plenty of space and can’t be knocked down or intimidated are not wanted, and a false association with ‘health’ legitimises this negative discourse. I am not stating that people are not unhealthy when they are fat – I know that many, many people are. But I know that you can never find a one size fits all approach to understanding people’s health and wellbeing. Most people don’t understand that the diet industry is just that, a multi-billion dollar industry which is based on failure. Diets make you fat. Restricting calories severely cannot be sustained, and once the body has been starved, it is more inclined to lay down fat again against future starvation. Low fat diets cause cholecystitis (gall stones). Doctors have known these facts for decades. Fashion is designed to only look good on women with no lumps and bumps, women without a female body shape. It is the greatest irony that surrounded by all this plenty, we in the Western world are told to starve our bodies, whilst millions of women and children in other countries starve for the lack of decent food.
So my conclusion is this. I love my life, and I honour nature, and all my animal brothers and sisters, and the trees and the plants that give me life. I honour the body that grew from nature, and I feed it lovingly and take pleasure in nature’s largesse. I enjoy the pleasures of preparing food and feeding my family. And I reject thoroughly the social norm of defining people by their physical appearance. It makes no sense to me that as a vegan I should still be fat, if it were indeed the case that diet defines my body size. So perhaps people should start looking around them and thinking that there are many other reasons for body shape and size. If I wanted to be thin, I could spend three hours a day in the gym, but I would still be a stocky, five feet tall woman with big boobs and large arms, and I wouldn’t want myself any other way!
Oh, and I just had the most amazing fresh strawberry and hemp powder smoothie made with freshly juiced oranges, grapefruit and lemons! Mmmmm! I feel like I could conquer the world!