After eating a plant-based diet for more than a year, Victoria Lambert slipped up. Here, she details her hallelujah moment and the impact it's had on her health.
When one of Hollywood's staunchest vegans, Anne Hathaway, recently admitted she had gone rogue with a piece of Icelandic salmon, I felt a sense of relief. As an ex-vegan myself, still caught up in the apparently all-encompassing plant-positivity movement, it was good to know I was in such smart company.
For the past four years, veganism has been a roller‑coaster of a dietary sensation, with the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupling between 2014 and 2018 to 600,000, according to the Vegan Society.
Demand for meat-free food increased by 987 per cent in 2017 - and if you weren't one of the 250,000 who tried Veganuary (giving up all animal products for a month in January), you may well be experimenting now and again, indulging in a vegan sausage roll at Greggs, an almond milk latte at your coffee shop or a plant-based burger which 'bleeds'.
The celebrity endorsements have certainly been compelling, from Serena Williams bossing the tennis circuit fuelled only by plants, to our newest Royal Meghan Markle, who has said: "I try to eat vegan during the week and then have a little bit more flexibility with what I dig into on the weekends."
So staunch plant-fan Hathaway renouncing her veganicity does seem like a moment. Is the fashion for plant-based diets beginning to wilt?
After all, Hathaway predated the current trend. She crossed to the green side in 2012, and even served a vegan menu at her wedding.
But, seven years on, in a recent interview, the actress admitted that while eating only plant-based foods: "I just didn't feel good or healthy... not strong" and that munching on that fish in Iceland, made her brain feel "like a computer rebooting".
Fish brought on my Hallelujah moment too, when I gave up veganism last autumn after a year of eschewing all animal products.
My first meal was also salmon - in a salad. Almost at once, I felt like the synapses in my brain were having a party. I felt alert and energetic. Quickly, I succumbed to cheese (Cheddar, how I missed you!) and boiled eggs.
I've not eaten meat for 30 years, so there was no temptation to order a steak. But it wasn't long before prawns snuck into the fridge and honey into my full fat Greek yoghurt.
I did feel a vague – and slightly ludicrous – sense of failure, as though I'd fallen off a holy wagon. But that passed quickly at the sheer joy of flavour surfing during meal times.
Perhaps that's why Hathaway and I are not alone. According to registered dietitian Dr Frankie Phillips, a spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA), 75 per cent of vegans give up, lasting an average nine years on a plant-pure diet.
"They miss certain aspects of foods and by necessity, there is a smaller pool of foods to choose from," says Phillips, though there can be nutritional reasons too: "It can be hard to get enough omega 3 fats, iodine and iron in a vegan diet."
Health, of course, is the main reason why many turn vegan in the first place (though weight management, animal welfare and environmental concerns are also considerations.
It was certainly my main motivating factor. I gave up fish, dairy and eggs in a moment of desperation. Having suffered merciless irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) for years, I wanted to see if being vegan could end the unpredictable but regular bouts of spasms. Having already experimented with anti-spasmodic drugs, hypnotherapy, peppermint pills and so much more, this was about the only thing I hadn't tried.
So I played around with various "milks" made of almonds, hazelnuts and cashews until I found Oatly (made from oats), which suited my taste-buds. I liked its sour cream substitute too.
My grocery basket filled up with marinated tofu and quarter-pound vegan burgers from Linda McCartney's, and sacks of kale and spinach. And I tapped into that vegan network online where you learn what treat foods you can eat: salt and vinegar Pringles, Bourbon biscuits and Fry's chocolate creams, since you ask.
My family were, for the most part, content. I swapped the mac-and-cheese, Spanish omelettes and creamy fish pies for Thai green curries with cashews, Mexican three-bean chillis and pasta with aubergines and courgettes.
Even eating out was easy. Pizza Express offers a delicious vegan pizza; our local Indian restaurant the Malabon Tandoori couldn't have been more accommodating.
At first, I lost weight. And I noticed my IBS was improving. But my skin was not happy, with regular breakouts, and my nails crumbled away. I added in a Vit B spray and ate vegan calcium tablets and kept going.
Around the time the boredom kicked in – Christmas 2017, somewhat inevitably – I realised I wasn't losing weight any more and indeed, the pounds were creeping back on. This seemed like the breaking of an unwritten contract that if you restrict your diet in such a draconian way, you can sneakily diet without having to think about it.
I looked at my overall eating habits and realised I was becoming hugely bread and peanut butter reliant. Calories, it seems, don't care if you are vegan or not.
That's a common issue, says Frankie Phillips. "You can have an unhealthy vegan diet even if you don't have animal products. There's nothing wrong with the occasional takeaway or ready meal but not all the time."
Her words are echoed by Simon Bandy of vegan food provider Veganicity, who recently warned too much processed food is seeing a rise in junk food vegans. He says it is best to keep portions small and to fill up on fresh vegetables and whole grains.
Phillips adds: "Vegan ready meals can be as full of salt, sugar and saturated fat as those with meat. If your diet is reliant on foods like vegan sausage rolls, then you are not making a healthy choice."
She advises new vegans to become careful food label readers; I certainly found myself poring over labels, not just to see if they contained animal products but also how much sugar was inside. It could be shocking.
The final straw was the boredom. It was those special times – Christmas, Easter and birthdays – which were hardest. Those ancient feasts are fairly hardwired into all of us and I found myself bitterly disappointed that foods like bread sauce, brandy butter, hot cross buns and the like were off limits.
I was also heartily sick of pretending that vegan "cheeses" were edible. Sorry, they're not. Fact.
By the time I had completed a full year of being vegan, I knew I would crumble sooner or later. And when it came, that salmon salad melted into my mouth like rainfall in an oasis.
Still, I am more vegan than I was. The family meals we enjoyed – the chillis and curries – are still on the menu. From being a five-a-day woman, I've probably upped my fruit and veg intake to seven or eight portions with ease.
Perhaps that's why, even though my weight is back to what it was at the start of the year, the one lasting benefit seems to have been my IBS, which has dramatically improved. Phillips suggests this might be down to my adopting better habits.
"A healthy plant-based diet," she points out, "can include some eggs, dairy, fish and meat – and you can get the best of both worlds."
I now think of myself as veganesque, which seems to cover pretty much any food combination one can imagine. I highly recommend it.
First, choose your meat-dodger...
Which vegan tribe are you?
• The vegangelist: The leather-shunning, honey-dodging bona fide vegan who can occasionally be a tad evangelistic about their beliefs.
• The flegan: Like a flexitarian, a flegan is a flexible or part-time vegan who has vegan beliefs, mostly shuns animal produce, but gets waylaid by the occasional roast dinner.
• The seagan: Vegans who eat seafood (sea-gan, get it?) The term appeared in the Urban Dictionary back in 2007 but was largely unheard of until recently when several books on seaganism were published. Fans point out that, ethical reasons aside, fish and seafood are full of iron, vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
• The pegan: Peganism is the lovechild of vegansim and the paleo diet. The latter involves grass-fed meat, nuts and seeds, seafood, eggs and fresh vegetables and fruit, while shunning grains and dairy. But while the meat-heavy paleo diet seems at odds with veganism, the term pegan was coined by Dr Mark Hyman, an American physician and best-selling author, who argues they overlap well. A pegan diet involves 75 per cent plants, with some meat and animal products (but no dairy), along with limited beans, legumes and gluten-free grains.