I'm writing this from one of the oldest cities on Earth that is still inhabited and functioning.
We're in Plovdiv, an 8000-year-old city in Bulgaria, Eastern Europe. And there is literally not one vegan restaurant in the whole thing.
And it's awesome.
Watching the sunset from the top of one of the five remaining hills in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.
Zero vegan options?
This place is easily the least vegan-friendly city I've ever lived in, and I find it hard to imagine a place being less vegan-friendly.
There is a grand total of zero vegan restaurants, one vegetarian restaurant, and about six notable carnistic restaurants that have at least one decent vegan option, with most having only one or two appropriate meals.
Incredibly lame, I know.
But wait, there's more.
The supermarkets have zero mock-meats, zero tempeh and zero vegan-cheeses. About the only things that are labelled vegan in the supermarkets are bags of dried dates and plant-based milks. To their credit though, our local Lidl did start stocking tofu, almost 2 months into our stay here. And there are some kebab shops that sell falafels...
Nutritional Nightmare or Vegan Wet-Dream?
The good part of living among what some vegan slow-travellers and plant-based digital-nomads would consider an ethical and nutritional nightmare is that it actually makes us eat incredibly healthily, incredibly easily.
How? Because, well, there's not really anything else for vegans to eat other than whole plant foods from supermarkets.
It seems that around every second corner in Plovdiv is a pop-up road-side fruit and veg stall. On our daily walk to a cafe to do some work, we pass about three of these, and another two proper supermarkets.
These conveniently common stalls generally have a larger range of fruit and vegetables than nearly any supermarket we've seen here, and usually much fresher produce too.
Our best local road-side fruit and veg stall after dark.
Just like the few vegans that were around 30 years ago were all undoubtedly very healthy - as there was no fake meats and vegan cheesecakes available anywhere 30 years ago, so the only foods around back then it was possible to eat were whole fruits and vegetables - the same is true for anyone living in current times in places like Plovdiv.
It sounds restricting, but in my experience, it's actually a great feeling knowing there is very minimal temptation to eat shitty processed crap. Sure, there are a couple kebab shops that sell deep fried falafels and chips, but basically, all I can eat as a vegan is whole plant foods, the healthiest stuff on earth.
Liberation Through Restraint
Some people use the excuse "there's nothing to eat" not to stay vegan, especially when travelling. (Without realising that there's actually quite a lot, there's just no processed "comfort" foods high in fat, refined sugar and salt.)
But I actually find the limitation to be liberating.
Just like in high school when the teacher says, "Okay class, write me an essay by next week, you can write it on anything you want." and it instantly becomes much harder than if she had said, "Okay class, write me an essay on the social influence of 1960's soul music."
Having your options restricted like that actually eases your mind because it dramatically reduces your own decision making and lets you get immediately down to business, regardless of what your opinion is of amazingly funky music.
And so does only being able to eat fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds and legumes.
Most vegans know that these whole foods should be the base of their diet if they want to take advantage of the range of incredible health benefits on offer once you give up meat and dairy. But, for most people, having so many delicious chocolates, ice cream's and other processed goodies readily available in most Western countries doesn't make it very easy.
These processed vegan treats (I'm including fake meats and cheeses in this definition too) are great for turning people vegan, they are necessary for most during the initial transition period. But they don't serve you as well when consumed in high quantities (daily) in the long term.
The good news is that the healthier whole food alternatives are actually way cheaper than almost anything processed, are always far more nutritious, and are available as standard issue supermarket products worldwide, regardless of that countries current economy.
The Healthiest Foods are also the Cheapest
Eating healthy can save you money right now, and most likely in the future too - through saved medical expenses.
As for the immediate financial benefits, in Australia right now, for example, chicken breast goes for somewhere from 12 to 15 AUD per kilogram. Beans go for about 3.5 AUD per kilo.
So, even considering that you need 48% more beans (by weight) than chicken to get the same amount of calories, red kidney beans are still about 50% of the price that chicken breast is.
And when you also consider that wholemeal pasta is about 4 AUD per kilo and one packet of 500g can keep you going for three or four meals, plus some frozen veggies at about 3 AUD per kilo, no one can say eating healthy can't be cheap and easy.
Below is a great example of a working-weeks worth of very healthy vegan food for very little money.
As for the future cost of eating healthy today, consider the following statistics from the Heart Foundation of Australia.
Heart disease affects one in six Australians, killing one every 12 minutes. One in four people, or almost five million Australians are currently obese, putting them at high risk for heart disease. Which is not surprising considering 12 million Australians aged 15 and over are either sedentary or perform only low levels of exercise (which is actually slightly less than it was more than 10 years ago) and that last year, only 5% of Australian adults had an "adequate" daily intake of fruits and vegetables.
If you haven't heard, if you live in the western world, you are more likely to die of heart disease than by any other means. Which is quite sad when you realise that you will likely waste somewhere from $121,000 to $4.8 million USD in a lifetime on only temporarily useful major surgery and medications.
It's even sadder when you realise that heart disease is 100% preventable and reversible. And basically, all you have to do is eat the way we are currently being forced to by choosing to live in Bulgaria: unprocessed, whole plant foods.
- Don't use the perceived lack of vegan options as an excuse not to experience different cultures and still stay true to your ethics.
- If your chosen destination doesn't have many vegan restaurants, then get a hostel with a kitchen, an Air-BnB, or an apartment if you're staying longer term, and prepare your own meals. The extra 30 minutes it takes won't ruin your trip, I promise. It will actually give you greater insight into how the locals live.
- All the "limitations" really just makes you eat healthy by default, and forces you to experiment with preparing these whole-food ingredients into different meals yourself. Two things that your future self will probably thank you for.
PS. I have nothing to do with that awesome meal preparation video up there, but I took both the photos on this page. If, for whatever reason, you want to use them, just link back to this site. All food prices were taken from the Woolworths website at the time of writing this. Calorie information was taken from Cronometer.