Liz Goodchild gives you some realistic advice on how you can gradually cut out cheese from your diet
Here’s the thing: the first few months of transitioning to being vegan can be hard work. You probably know what I’m talking about: The scanning of the ingredients list on the back of every single food product you put in your shopping trolley, the horror of discovering that milk and eggs are in everything. The repetitive questions from concerned family and friends, “But where do you get your protein?” and my favourite, “If you were on a desert island and the only thing to eat was meat, would you eat it?” No, no I wouldn’t, people. Please just stop with the silly moral questions that have no purpose other than to project the discomfort you feel about my lifestyle decision.
And then there’s the cheese thing. Eggs? No problem? Milk and cream? Easy. Cheese? Oh, cheese. You’re so difficult to kick.
When I decided to move from vegetarianism to being fully vegan, cheese was my downfall. And I know I’m not the only one. I’d be happily walking along in my lovely vegan world and then bam, I’d fall headfirst into a pizza. I’d console myself with, “It’s OK, it’s only a bit of cheese”, but the thing is, it wasn’t OK for me. Having been vegetarian since the age of ten, my decision to go vegan was an ethical one. I’d watched the documentaries on the dairy and egg industries, and could no longer draw a line between eating a big hunk of steak and downing a glass of milk or dunking French bread into an oven-baked Camembert. I knew how the animals that are used to bring dairy foods to our plates suffer, and I wanted no part of it. Each time I ate cheese, no matter how rarely this happened, I felt a pang of guilt and frustration and it wouldn’t go away. I’d decide to give it up once and for all – and then suddenly I’d be tucking into a cheese-fest pizza, and the self-justification merry-go-round would start again.
Why couldn’t I just stop eating cheese? It was something I asked myself constantly.
Making a change in your life doesn’t need to look like a wild overhaul of everything you know and do. It can look like small, deliberate actions towards the thing you want to change. And this is where I had become unstuck with the whole cheese thing. I couldn’t stop myself fully from eating cheese because my process of doing so was too big, too overwhelming. Telling myself that I couldn’t eat cheese ever again felt incredibly restrictive and the rule-breaker in me wanted to rebel. I realised that I needed to take things more slowly, quietly creating the habit of not eating cheese, without freaking myself out in the process. And so, I decided to go completely vegan for one month. Nothing more, nothing less. Just one month.
Instead of declaring, as I had before, “I am now vegan and because of this, I will never ever eat cheese ever again!” I said instead, “I am making the decision to be completely vegan for the month of June”. On the large blackboard in my kitchen, I wrote in capital letters, ‘VEGAN. ONE MONTH’. Each morning of that month, I would wake up, potter into my kitchen and see the words – they served as a daily reminder of what I had committed to. One evening, in a restaurant with my friend, my eyes drifted towards the pizza section, but instead of the usual internal dialogue about why it would be OK (just this once!) to order the pizza, my thoughts quickly returned to my commitment. I ordered pasta instead. It was so easy! How had I not figured this out before?
I think it’s because culturally, we’re drip-fed the overnight success story. You know the sort of thing: The Street Busker Who Became A Pop Star! The Guy Who Went From 25 Stone to Marathon Runner! We’re not told about the many small steps it took for a really overweight guy not only to shed the pounds, but also to cross the finish line of a marathon. No one wants to know about the tears and the aching legs and the eating of carrots and hummus. We just want the magical story wrapped up in a box with a ribbon on the top… and then we get frustrated and lose motivation when we can’t do what he appears to have done. We’re constantly setting ourselves mountainous challenges that we’ll ultimately fail. Hands up who has solemnly declared to lose 10 pounds, or stop smoking, or only drink on the weekends? Most of you, right? Me too. I bet there are very few of you who have actually achieved the thing you set out to do, first time round, without any setbacks. This is because we are creatures of habit. The wrong habit.
The reason your gym shoes are dumped in the back of the cupboard gathering dust after their first or, if you’re lucky, third outing, is because you started out too big and in doing so, freaked your poor brain out. As you know, our brains are very clever. They’re wired to constantly scan for any sign of discomfort or danger, and to find a way to make it stop. So when you’re huffing and puffing your way through an exercise class, your brain picks up on the fact that your body is uncomfortable (what with all the heart racing and sweating and wobbly legs), and it starts to loudly yell ‘Stop!’ Your body, of course, obeys and before you know it, you’re back on the sofa watching EastEnders while your gym membership racks up in your bank account on a monthly basis.
Habit change needs to be done quietly, you see, like you’re creeping around a sleeping tiger, step by step. It was the same for me whn I set out to stop eating cheese. My brain was all, “But cheese tastes so good, why would you not eat it? Ugh, this is so uncomfortable” and I had to constantly remind myself that eating cheese was just a habit and that tomato and chilli pasta is also really delicious.
And that’s the key here in habit change, it’s the step-by-step process. Day to day, week to week. Month to month. My decision to kick cheese was massively helped by marking each day I didn’t eat it on the blackboard in my kitchen. As the days passed and the marks grew and grew, I felt my tight grip on Gruyere start to ease. After the month of June was up, I looked back on all the marks and I couldn’t believe it. 30 days cheese-free! I’d done it.
Feeling confident, I decided to continue into July and see what would happen. 31 more marks were carefully notched up and then August and September arrived and what do you know? I’ve been pleasantly cheese free since, without a single slip-up.
I teach women how to run (lizgoodchild.co.uk). Running, no matter what distance, can be hard going and you really have to break through your own walls to get where you want to go. You have to start believing in yourself, one step at a time. Starting to run (and creating a new habit) is more like giving up cheese (and ditching an old habit) than you might think.
So here’s my advice to you: Start small. Be gentle with yourself. Mark your progress somewhere you can see it every day. If a month feels too overwhelming, break it down. Commit to three days, or seven, or just one day at a time. It doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you do.