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Going vegan? Here's everything you need to know

Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Last year, Netflix was awash with documentaries on veganism, the meat industry and what our meat consumption is doing to the climate. And, with more and more people choosing to adopt a plant-based lifestyle, it's little wonder that more and more people are intrigued by the idea of Veganuary, a month-long ‘challenge’ to go, you guessed it, vegan. According to The Vegan Society, ten years ago, there were 150,000 vegans in the UK. Today, that number has risen by 360%, with 42% of vegans aged 15-34. Research by BBC Good Food also found that 8% of children in the UK aged 5-16 were following a vegan diet and a further 15% said they would like to

Plus, and this is really key, The Vegan Society also suggest that if the entire world went vegan, it could save 8 million human lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by two-thirds and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion. Those are some pretty hard-hitting stats.

The choice of many A-list and millennials alike, and - according to a recent survey - one in eight Brits who chose to opt for vegan-based Christmas lunch in 2021, veganism is taking to the culinary spotlight, as the world celebrates opting for a plant-based diet.

The meat-free market is booming, with most supermarkets now offering animal-free options, and more stocking solely vegan food, including London’s Vx and GreenBay. We all heard about the Greggs' vegan sausage roll that went viral and Pret's much-loved vegan menu goes against all the outdated beliefs that to be vegan you must only eat salads and legumes. In fact, lots of meat eaters are now opting to add a few vegan products into their weekly shopping list or swap a few cheese-based meals for vegan alternatives.

In short, the divide between vegans and non-vegans is closing somewhat, and more and more of us are choosing to eat more consciously or cut down on meat (red meat especially).

So what’s driving the trend? “Originally, it was animal welfare and environmental concerns,” says nutritional therapist Alison Cullen. “Lately, though, it’s the health benefits that are causing more people to make the switch." Short-term campaigns such as #meatfreemondays and #veganuary (where people ‘go vegan’ for 31 days for a New Year health kick) are gaining thousands of followers. And when A-listers such as Beyoncé and J.Lo rave about their vegan diets, you can’t blame us for being curious. But with the boom comes confusing headlines and claims that offer more questions than answers. That’s why we’ve quizzed the experts on all things vegan. Here’s what you need to know…

OK, so what is a vegan, exactly?

If you scroll through social media, you’d be forgiven for confusing it with paleo diets, raw food, clean eating and other cross-over trends. But put simply, being vegan means not eating or using animal products. No meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, honey or other bee products. Vegans don’t wear leather, wool, silk or any products that contain animal-derived ingredients or are tested on animals. Even certain beers or wines are off limits because of fish scales used in production. One of the biggest misconceptions is that vegans can’t eat processed foods, gluten or sugar, says nutritionist Ian Marber. “Some choose not to – but that’s nothing to do with the ethos of veganism.”

What is the difference between being vegan and being plant-based?

Though being vegan and being plant-based both refer to a lifestyle where animal products are not consumed, there are some key differences.

Vegan diets eliminate all animal products, including clothing and beauty products that include any form of animal produce or have undergone animal testing, while plant-based diets do not necessarily eliminate animal products, but focus on eating mostly plants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

Plant-based diets also emphasize eating whole foods, meaning the food has undergone little – if any – processing and is as close to its natural state as possible.

What are the risks of going vegan?

It’s true that vegans risk losing out on certain nutrients. “Because vegans don’t eat meat, fish or dairy, they risk becoming deficient in the vitamins and minerals these provide, including protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, omega-3 fats and selenium,” says Dr Phillips. “A lack of iron can cause anaemia, which can make you feel tired and weak. Similarly, our energy and mood is affected if we don’t get enough protein, B12, omega-3 fats and zinc. Low selenium levels can even cause hair loss.”

It is possible to get much of the vitamins and minerals we need from plant-based foods. “Nuts and seeds are packed with selenium and omega-3 fats, while beans, pulses and tofu are great sources of protein and zinc,” says Dr Phillips. “For iron, look to green leafy vegetables, dried fruits and wholegrains.” As for B12, the only reliable vegan sources are “fortified foods: those with added vitamin B12,” says Cullen. “This includes some milk alternatives, but I’d suggest a daily B-complex supplement, too.”

Anyone considering going vegan needs to be seriously aware of a B12 deficiency - a nutrient found in meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, but not in fruits, vegetables or grains - so those eating a vegan diet are advised to eat fortified foods, like cereals, or take supplements. Experts advise that adults need around 1.5 micrograms of B12 a day.

Tom Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition and dietetics at King's College London, said: "Of all the micronutrients, B12 is the one we're most concerned about. I'm concerned many people think B12 deficiency is a myth."

"It's something that can be easily avoided, and what concerns me is that many new people becoming vegan are unaware of the need to combine sources of plant proteins. And they're not aware of the need to ensure they have adequate levels of B12."

B12 deficiency, which can lead to nerve damage, tends to take three or four years to cause symptoms - usually first appearing as pins and needles in the hands or feet.

Are vegans really healthier?

That’s why everyone’s doing it, right? Because of the crazy-good health claims? Well, studies do show vegans have low blood pressure and cholesterol, are less likely to be obese, and at less risk of dying from cancer and heart disease. Overall, consuming fewer rich, hard-to-process foods, like meat, is easier on our digestive system. “A plant-based diet nourishes your gut, and a healthy gut means greater immunity against illness, fewer inflammatory skin conditions, such as acne, eczema and psoriasis, and more energy,” says Cullen.

According to member coach nurse Jacqui Smith from Bupa UK says "A vegan diet can be really healthy, providing you plan your meals so they’re balanced and include all the vitamins and minerals you need – taking supplements, if necessary. As vegan diets tend to be full of fruits and vegetables, this lends itself nicely to easily achieving your five-a-day." However, it's not all plain sailing, and you will need to think about it. Smith rightly notes that

"some nutrients are more difficult to get from vegan foods, compared to the volume of nutrients you’d get from some animal products." As well as this, she flagged that plenty of our favourite indulgent items, i.e. chips, biscuits and alcohol, can be vegan but not nutritionally balanced or healthy.

Angela Liddon, author of The Oh She Glows Cookbook, says her “energy levels soared” and her “irritable bowel syndrome [IBS] symptoms lessened in severity” after going vegan. Ella Mills, aka Deliciously Ella, adopted a plant-based diet after suffering with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition that affects your heart rate, and her website says since going vegan she has come off medication.

That said, Marber cautions that, “Veganism is not a cure-all diet and shouldn’t be viewed as an antidote to illnesses. You might feel better, but health benefits come with time. You won’t get better skin or cure IBS if you don’t prioritise your nutrition - those who don’t often end up giving up.” This was the case for Kelly Marks, 22. “By my fourth week of going vegan, I had no energy, was hungry 24/7 and my complexion was almost grey,” she says. “I started eating eggs and fish again, and then I stopped trying to be vegan altogether. In hindsight, it didn’t work for my lifestyle and was too much of a commitment.”

Plus, other factors need to be taken into account, including portion-size and how processed an item is. Portion-size plays a big role in maintaining a weight that feels healthy for you and just because a product is vegan that doesn't mean it doesn't include additives, or other manufactured ingredients that are not necessarily healthy to consume in bulk.

On the flipside, Amelia, 24, a writer from Galway, decided to go vegan four years ago after suffering with chronic fatigue syndrome for most of her life. “I couldn’t get out of bed, I had constant headaches and suffered with IBS. But after a friend took me to a vegan restaurant, the food seemed easier to digest,” she recalls. “I switched my diet to vegan – eating tons of veg, beans and pulses – and after two weeks I felt more energised than I had in years. It’s taken a while to adjust – meal planning takes effort – but it’s changed my life.” The key thing to remember is that you won’t feel healthier if you go vegan and still eat junk. “I’ve known vegans who live on chips and chocolate,” says Dr Frankie Phillips, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “But I’ve seen lots of healthy vegans, too. Since it requires more meal planning, I think in general vegans are more likely to be mindful eaters, aware of what they’re putting into their bodies.”

If I decide to go vegan, what are my first steps?

Of course, the choice to go vegan or not is yours. If you do – for the animals, the planet, your health or sustainable food production – it’s still worth having a consultation with a dietitian, especially if you have any existing health issues. They’ll make sure you have all nutrition bases covered. Your GP can recommend a dietitian in your area, or you can check out freelancedietitians.org. Then, stock up on vegan cookbooks. Try Forks Over Knives: The Cookbook by Del Sroufe, The Vegan Cookbook by Adele McConnell and The New Vegan by Áine Carlin. The key is to really think about and plan your meals, advises Marber. “Make sure they’re nutritionally balanced, and remember, healthy vegans love their food. They’re not afraid of experimenting.”

GET INSPIRED

Download HappyCow Vegan/Vegetarian Restaurant Guide App (£2.99 at

the App Store). Locates your nearest vegan-friendly shops, cafés and restaurants.

Visit vegansociety.com. A one-stop vegan info site that covers the environment, campaigns and recipes, plus an e-shop.

Bookmark Post Punk Kitchen (theppk.com) and My New Roots (mynewroots.org) blogs for more delicious recipe inspiration.

“From meat lover to 100% vegan”

Sarah Wadmore, 26, a marketing manager from Brighton, ate meat or fish almost every day, until she watched a documentary and went vegan overnight. Here’s her diary…

Weeks 1-2: I stock up on veg and, while I have more energy, it’s hard work. Most food in my cupboards, such as honey, is now inedible. I can’t wear my silk or wool clothes. My skin breaks out, too, but I think this is a result of my body adjusting, so I don’t give up.

Weeks 3-4: I’m experimenting with food – like tofu – and while I’m not missing meat, I do miss cheese. Luckily, some restaurants in my home town, like Purezza, do vegan pizzas. My skin is clearing up and even looks brighter. But I’m still struggling with organisation. Because I can’t just reach for a sandwich or a ready meal, I’m planning the week’s meals on a Sunday, prepping as many packed lunches – chickpea salads and lentil-stuffed peppers – as I can. Sticking to this meal formula of ‘legume + veg’ is nutritious and cheap.

Weeks 5-6: The longer I stick to veganism, the easier it gets. I’m perfecting Sunday batch cooking – two trays of veg roasting while tofu marinates. I’ve noticed I don’t have that 4pm slump at work – but I’ve been diligent with supplements.

Now: I don’t think twice before using rice milk in my porridge. I rarely feel bloated or tired. Ethically, I’m thrilled that I don’t use any animal products. It’s not for everyone, but I’ll never go back.

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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