I am the last person you would expect to become a vegan.
I spent about six months, once, being a very reluctant vegetarian because my flatmates didn't eat meat. I used to go to my parents' several times a week so they could feed me meat.
I had no problem with eating vegan and vegetarian food a couple of times of week. But eating only vegan food? Definitely not.
About five years ago I developed stomach problems that could not be diagnosed. I had numerous tests - all of which showed my stomach in perfect working order. I was on medication to suppress the symptoms, but it only worked sometimes. I tried several natural therapies, some of which lessened the symptoms.
I almost got used to feeling sick and in pain every time I ate. My energy would plummet after eating, to the point of wanting to go to sleep. But at night I was often kept awake by stomach pain.
I began to track what I ate to find out when my symptoms were at their worst. And it quickly became apparent: milk, yoghurt, cream, cheese and meat were the biggest culprits (not butter, interestingly).
I really, really like dairy. I love milk on my cereal and yoghurt for afternoon tea and my secret recipe shortbread and my husband's homemade pizza and....
So I gave myself one month. One month to eat only plant-based foods to see if it had any impact on my health.
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A vegan is someone who chooses to eat only plant-based food, for health, animal welfare or environmental reasons - or all three. No meat, no dairy products (milk, cheese, butter, yoghurt, cream) and no eggs. Ethical vegans will also not eat honey or wear leather or wool or silk, or use any products that have been tested on animals.
For many people vegan seems like an extreme way to eat, yet it's a lifestyle change that is growing in popularity. Just how many people eat a solely plant-based diet is difficult to track, because such questions aren't included on census forms. Roy Morgan research in 2015 suggested that around 10 per cent of all New Zealanders are vegetarians, so the number of vegans in New Zealand is likely to be much lower than that.
A Facebook group for "established" vegans in Whanganui has 35 members; while another Whanganui group for those transitioning into, or interested in, veganism has 140 members.
It's easier now to eat vegan than it ever has been before, with a wide range of plant-based foods available in all supermarkets. There are dairy- and meat-free alternatives to cheese, yoghurt, butter, sausages and bacon, as well as a wide of plant milks - soy, almond, rice, oat and coconut.
As for the health benefits, a vegan diet comes with both advantages and disadvantages.
Whanganui-based former nutritionist Fiona Boyle said people who eat a solely plant-based diet need to do a lot of planning to ensure they have adequate nutrition.
She said vegans need to pay particular attention to vitamin B12, omega-3, iron and vitamin D. However, Fiona said these can be found in either fortified plant-based foods or supplements - except for vitamin D which can only be obtained through sunshine.
Fiona said eating low-fat dairy and lean meat two to three times a week is not harmful.
However, there was not enough research done on veganism to find out whether it is harmful or beneficial over an extended period of time, she said.
"Sometimes when people change to veganism they may not have been eating a balanced diet before so a diet rich in fruit vegetables and whole grains will be very beneficial in the short term," Fiona said.
A recent New Zealand study, the BROAD study, funded by Turanga Health and Eastland Community Trust, suggests that an all-you-can-eat, whole food, plant-based diet can shed weight, lower cholesterol and help fight type 2 diabetes.
The Gisborne-based study, published in the international scientific journal Nutrition and Diabetes, showed participants lost an average of 11.5kg in one year - the largest weight loss of any randomised control trial in which participants had no restriction on calories and did not have to exercise.
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Vegan pavlova, vegan sausage rolls and vegan sour cream are all in a normal day's cooking for Whanganui vegans Hannah and Ari Houshangi.
A friend describes Hannah Houshangi as a "vegan domestic goddess" - but it was her husband, Ari, who started the couple and their three young sons on their vegan path, after he developed high blood pressure.
On the advice of his doctor, Ari tried to tackle it with a healthy diet, including lean meats and vegetables, and regular and intense exercise. During this time he lost a lot of weight.
"Everyone asked me what my secret was, because I was in such good shape. But I went to the doctor and my blood pressure hadn't budged," Ari said.
After watching a documentary called Forks Over Knives, which looks at the link between diet and health, Hannah and Ari decided to try eating vegan for two weeks. They never looked back.
That was nearly a year ago - and now Ari's blood pressure is normal. Even more remarkable is the effect a plant-based diet has had on Ari's father, who had heart disease and high blood pressure. After six months of eating a strictly vegan diet, his health had improved so much that he was able to come off all medication.
"It started off being about health for us," said Ari. "But then we started learning about farming practices, how animals are treated and the impact on the environment. And it just made sense to us to keep eating a whole food, plant-based diet."
It helps that Hannah loves cooking and has enjoyed experimenting with different types of food to find the best ones for her and her family. She doesn't miss her old way of eating, which included being "petrified of carbohydrates". Now she can eat potatoes and rice and pasta to her heart's content.
"I think most things can be veganised - bar a rare steak - so I've never been left wanting. If I want spaghetti bolognaise I make it using plants and I can barely tell the difference. No heavy feeling afterwards, no guilt, and I feel fit and healthy. I don't miss the meat, hormones, cholesterol and saturated fats."
She said the only thing she misses is the freedom to order anything off a menu at a restaurant.
"I have to scan it for something suitable and my options are definitely limited. But I think this will change as more and more people learn about plant-based eating."
The reaction from their children has been mostly positive, although there were some tears at the thought of never eating pizza again. While they all eat vegan at home, the children make their own choices when they stay with friends.
"They do struggle with their thoughts on this when faced with pizza. They will accept pizza when out at friends' places. Taste wins out for them with pizza," Hannah said.
Their oldest son will often eat meat outside the home; but he is learning to cook his own plant-based meals including vegan nachos. Their youngest son has been concerned about animal welfare since before the family changed their eating habits, and both he and their middle son are happy to eat plant-based foods.
Hannah says the whole family is in good health. All five take a B12 supplement every day.
The couple are uncomfortable with the label "vegan" which they see as being about the activist and ethical side of a plant-based diet.
"I don't want to undermine the effort and commitment of those that embrace all aspects of an ethical vegan lifestyle, but I haven't quite got there myself, other than being 100 per cent plant-based with my diet," Hannah said.
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It's been a month since I began my own vegan experiment, and I feel better than I've felt in years.
It's a relief to be able to eat a delicious meal, knowing that I'll still feel good after
finishing it. I haven't craved meat at all and going without dairy, while strange at first, hasn't been much of a problem.
I've always eaten a lot of yoghurt - well, I can tell you the vegan yoghurt (made with coconut cream) is even nicer than the real thing. Milk has probably been the hardest thing for me to give up. For the first week I found it hard to drink tea with milk, but now I enjoy it black. And soy milk is delicious on cereal.
I've had a lot of fun "veganising" my baking and have made vegan chocolate cake, banana muffins, and feijoa and ginger loaf.
I think this experiment is likely to continue well into the future.
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Hannah's Vegan Sausage Rolls
1 cup walnuts
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1 cup rolled oats
1 Oxo beef-style stock cube (they're vegan)
1 teaspoon garlic powder or minced garlic
3 tablespoons soy sauce
ground pepper, to taste
3-4 frozen puff pastry sheets, thawed
Any plant milk for brushing pastry
sesame seeds/poppy seeds
Pre-heat oven to 200C fanbake.
Put walnuts in food processor and process until thoroughly chopped. Tip them into a large mixing bowl. Process the onion, then add to bowl. Process the tofu till creamy. Toss into bowl and add breadcrumbs, rolled oats, a crumbled-up stock cube, garlic powder, soy sauce and pepper). Stir everything together well until everything is combined to make "sausage meat".
Lightly grease a baking tray. Thaw out your puff pastry, and slice each sheet in half so that it makes two rectangles. Spoon the filling down the centre third of each pastry rectangle; lightly brush another third with water or milk and then roll the pastry, starting from the empty third and tucking it into the brushed third. Using a knife make small incisions where you will cut them once cooked and place them on the baking tray. Brush the top with more milk and sprinkle over some sesame or poppy seeds. Repeat with the remaining filling and pastry. Bake the rolls for about 30 minutes, until they're golden brown and flaky.