It was a fried egg that got me in the end.
I’d been cooking and eating as a vegan for five years or so until about four months into the pandemic. I’d eaten the very occasional drunk chicken nugget but I’d never made the decision to break away from the principles of veganism. Until one of the terrible, endless days spent working from home in 2020 when I found myself craving a fried egg bagel. Nothing else would scratch the itch. And so I made one, and I ate it, and after an initial wave of guilt I really enjoyed it. But unlike a wine-fuelled nugget, this was not a blip. This bagel felt more like a shift in the way I wanted to eat. I have a pretty obsessive mind and if relaxing my veganism was going to make getting through the pandemic easier, I knew it was better to give in than resist and actively restrict my desires.
From that point I no longer avoided eating eggs. Now, I sometimes buy lactose-free cheese and last month, by the sea, I had my first fish and chips in a very long time.
Veganism, vegetarianism and flexitarianism have all surged in popularity in recent years. And while the demand for plant-based products has continued to climb, figures released by Mintel in January of this year showed that the number of Britons actively limiting or not eating meat fell during the pandemic, from 51% of all consumers to 41%. This setback is expected to be short-lived but it reflects how the pandemic has shifted people’s priorities, whether they were a strict vegan or a meat-eater beforehand.
I spoke to others who have relaxed their plant-based approach to life since the pandemic began. The reasons why people shifted varied but each one found that re-engaging with flexible eating was a net good for them, as well as for how they see the planet.
Prior to the pandemic, Mel in Newcastle had been vegetarian for two years and actively chose the vegan options where possible, mainly because, as she tells me: "I love vegetables! When I ate meat they always seemed like an afterthought and I wanted to make them the main event." But when the pandemic started and people began to clear supermarket shelves, it set something off for Mel. "I have a complex relationship with food and feeding myself thanks to some lifelong issues," she says, "and when I started to see the shelves in supermarkets emptying and people hoarding everything, it really triggered some of those neuroses." She points to the run on dairy-free milks when the shelf-stable UHT milks ran out as a key example. "It really worried me that I wasn’t going to be able to eat the foods I’d got used to and I wouldn’t have enough. So I stopped being vegetarian and went back to eating meat and dairy more often."
For Aisling in Cambridge (who uses she/they pronouns), the decision was also explicitly pandemic-motivated. In the past they’d been very strict about their vegetarianism as their family was not always accepting. "I think some felt my choice to go veg was a kind of rejection of tradition," they say. "Others just saw it as fussy or naïve." When they moved home in the pandemic and had to renegotiate mealtimes after living independently, Aisling struggled with a lack of control and decided to compromise.
"I have a history of disordered eating and the stress of the pandemic definitely exacerbated some of those feelings and tendencies," they tell me. "[At home] I didn’t really feel I could just make my own food so I agreed to eat fish once or twice a week. My sister and I also convinced my mother to relinquish the kitchen once or twice a week so we could cook for her and my dad, and I often got to make veggie dishes. Ultimately, eating fish was a compromise to improve my relationship with my family, especially around mealtimes."
Beyond practical reasons, managing the psychological impact of the pandemic has also been a major factor. Like Mel and Aisling, Eilish in London has struggled with her complex relationship to food, reckoning with a history of eating disorders. For her, becoming vegetarian and vegan was another form of control but one that could be channelled through real concerns for the planet. However, catching COVID forced her to re-evaluate that dynamic.
"I had contracted coronavirus and for a period lost my sense of taste, which was terrifying!" she tells me. "It made me really think I'd been far too restrictive with my diet and was motivated far more by disordered eating and need for control than concern for the environment than I'd like to admit. The first day I 'broke' was when it was the Saturday of what should have been a holiday, so I had a 'holiday' breakfast. Suffice to say I felt hugely guilty initially but it started to wane."
After the pandemic I feel much better about buying a cheese toastie from the cafe down the road who has lost a lot of business than hotfooting it to buy the latest mass-produced fake meat.
For everyone I spoke to, the pandemic forced them to interrogate the motivations behind their stricter eating patterns. While the more restrictive lifestyle diets like vegetarianism and veganism by no means have an inherent impact on people's mental wellbeing, eating this way can be a matter of treading a very fine line for people prone to struggles with food or obsessive behaviour. Times of crisis throw into stark relief the habits we’ve developed and which we hold onto despite their impact on our mental wellbeing.
That doesn’t mean that concern for the environment or the sustainability of our food has disappeared. But many have shifted the burden of responsibility from lying solely on the heads of individuals and their choices to looking for new ways to live sustainably. Everyone I spoke to would say they are still primarily – but not strictly – eating vegetarian or vegan (or they plan to be again in the future). For some that means reintroducing vegan cooking into their rotation, for others it means focusing on local produce and for others still it is about supporting small businesses. For me personally, it means not actively avoiding fish or eggs when food preparation is out of my control, and rediscovering the joy of an occasional cheese and mushroom omelette.
"I think at the point where it felt like I was just restricting as a principle – rather than because I really wanted to or needed to – it became easier to make the decision to eat fish," says Aisling.
"I think the pandemic made me more concerned about society on a real practical level rather than broader theoretical ways," Eilish adds, "and after the pandemic I feel much better about buying a cheese toastie from the cafe down the road who has lost a lot of business than hotfooting it to buy the latest mass-produced fake meat."
The choices we make about what we eat are bound up in a complicated web of personal tastes, political values, financial situations and external pressures. Finding a path that makes you feel like you are not harming the world or yourself is a hard one and, ultimately, a personal choice.