With more than 500,000 people in Britain now following a vegan diet, it’s clear 2017 seemed to be the year of change. Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian or eat a bit of everything, it’s likely you’ve seen the articles, heard of the documentaries and maybe even tried some of the plant-based alternatives now gracing our everyday supermarkets. But what is it?
According to The Vegan Society, “veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
The term ‘vegan’ was first coined in 1944. Since then, the interest in veganism continued to grow. So much so, that in 2016 there were an estimated half a million vegans, a massive increase on the 150,000 in 2006.
Why go vegan?
There are many reasons why people choose to follow a vegan lifestyle, and these may differ from person to person, all at varying levels. There are, however, three common reasons why people make the change.
For the animals
This is the reason you’re probably familiar with. While animal welfare isn’t the only reason people choose vegan, for many, it is a key factor in their decision. Some people have an emotional attachment to animals, others believe that all sentient creatures have a right to life and freedom. Avoiding all animal products (food, clothing etc.) is one of the more obvious ways you can take a stand against animal cruelty and exploitation.
You may have seen people opting for the vegan lifestyle for health benefits. Younger looking skin, increased energy and weight-loss are some of the claims, and while there are a number of health benefits to plant-based diets, at the end of the day, nutrition really is unique to the individual.
Well-planned vegan diets can provide you with many of the nutrients your body needs, though, without knowledge and guidance, deficiencies can occur.
If you’re looking to adopt a vegan diet, please consult your doctor and/or a nutrition professional to ensure you are getting the nutrients your body needs.
For the environment
Making small changes in order to protect the environment is nothing new. From recycling household waste to driving less, we’re all aware of the ways to reduce our carbon footprint. Though, not everyone is aware of the impact animal products have on the environment.
For many, eating meat is the norm and it always has been. But the production of meat and other animal products has a massive impact on the environment, from the crops and water needed to feed the animals, to transport and any other processes involved.
We may be aware of the damage of plastic in the ocean and pollution in the air, but the environmental impacts of animal products are still relatively unknown.
Farmers raise concerns
While the environmental benefits of plant-based lifestyles are becoming more known, there are still people with concerns. In a BBC article, Wales Dairy Show chairman, Colin Evans, voiced concerns that the growing vegan movement was worrying for the farming industry.
“It must be of concern to us. Celebrities are now getting behind promotional drives for veganism or vegetarianism,” he said. “We must have the answers ready for these people and to prove that we do look after our animals and we do produce food in a healthy manner.”
NFU Cymru Milk Board member and dairy farmer, Gareth Richards added, “The vegan activism we’ve seen on a UK level in recent months represents an extremist view of dairy farming which portrays a completely inaccurate image of the UK dairy industry.”
In response to this, The Vegan Society’s Samantha Calvert said that it is “not possible to take animal products without suffering.” She argued, “male calves get slaughtered because they have no purpose within the dairy industry.”
What’s stopping people from making the change?
It may seem like ‘being vegan’ was everywhere in 2017, but despite constant growth, the number of people in the UK living a vegan lifestyle is only around half a million. What’s stopping people from making the change?
We took to Twitter to ask our followers the following:
- Would you consider going vegan?
- Would you consider going vegetarian?
The results for vegetarianism were more evenly split, with around 30% across all three answers. The yes votes were highest with 36%.
Even speaking to colleagues in our own office, of those that were on the fence, it’s not knowing where to start that’s holding them back. How can you change a diet that is so full of animal products, a diet which we’ve been living on for most of our lives? Understandably, it can seem a little overwhelming.
For the ‘no’ team, it appeared to be mainly due to a liking of meat and dairy products.
Looking over social media, it seems that many people can be put off making the change out of rebellion. Why should they change the way they live because of something another person has said? Should you make someone feel guilty for their choices? Humans don’t deal well with being shamed or pressured, in fact, it’s likely we’ll do the opposite.
Are you ready?
For those of us who are interested in making the change or are currently unsure, know that it doesn’t have to be overnight. There are many ways to embrace vegan living and like any lifestyle change, it not only takes some getting used to, it takes time to learn what works best for you.
While you can make a change at any point, Veganuary is a great time to try out vegan living. Not only are you doing it for a good cause, you have thousands of people doing it with you.
Learn more about Veganuary and take the pledge.
Is it as beneficial as people think?
Of course, much of this information has derived from the media and word of mouth. We hear rumours, we watch videos, we see it in our supermarket aisles. But what do the experts say?
We speak to nutritionist and vegetarian-turned-vegan Sonal Shah, who sheds a little light on an often misconstrued subject.
What is your opinion on the vegan lifestyle?
I think a vegan lifestyle is great. There’s more to being a vegan than just an individual who has decided to opt for a meat, fish, egg and dairy-free diet. All the vegans I have met, from my personal experience, are also benevolent and compassionate in nature.
I have been a vegetarian all my life and in 2007, cut out cow’s milk from my diet, later omitting eggs. In 2014 I decided to go vegan by taking out cheese and managed this for over a year. I currently follow a vegan diet as best as I can, and allow myself some flexibility if there are circumstances where vegan foods are not available.
I would advocate this diet to everyone based on the numerous health benefits (a plant-based diet contains more antioxidants, nutrients, fibre and less saturated fats). My clients who I have helped with moving onto a plant-based diet report having more energy, feeling lighter and more focused. Also, clients who have a sluggish bowel have found that their digestion becomes more regular as a result.
For many vegans, nutritional choices centre around taking better care of the earth’s resources and the environment, and ethical issues about animal care. However, I was astounded to see the literature to counter this argument. There appears to be an environmental cost of wasted food and the carbon footprint of actually going vegan.
A 2013 paper published by French researchers in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that some diets containing large amounts of plant-based foods had the highest levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Lots of common vegetables require more resources per calorie than one would think. Aubergine, celery and cucumbers moreso, compared to pork or chicken.
The global issue of food waste, especially in western countries also raises the environmental costs of fruit and vegetables, because these are more likely to be wasted. An article published in the Journal of Environment Systems and Decisions in 2016 found that approximately 40% or more fruit goes to waste, and 33% of meat.
Nonetheless, there are numerous advantages and reasons for choosing a plant-based diet; the use of antibiotics and growth stimulants for the production of animals, the threat of animal-borne diseases and the health benefits I mention above.
Do you have any advice for people who are looking to try going vegan?
Making small changes to your everyday meals is one of the easiest ways to increase the amount of plant-based foods in your diet. If you can’t follow a vegan diet 100% then follow what suits you. The positive is that there is a plant-based alternative for almost every type of food, so you don’t have to miss out on any of your favourites, and vegan menus in restaurants are now more common due to the rise in demand.
My tips for someone looking to follow a vegan diet include:
- It is possible to be a vegan and eat unhealthy foods, so seeking the advice of a nutrition professional who can ensure your plate is balanced is a must. They can also check for potential nutrient deficiencies and address underlying health issues. Chronic health complaints take longer to address, so the earlier the better.
- Ensure you have regular tests. You may need supplements to replace any of the nutrients you are lacking, so do consult your doctor and seek advice from a nutrition professional. Iron, B12, zinc, calcium, vitamin D and omega-3 essential fatty acids are common supplements recommended for those living a vegan lifestyle.
- Start reading ingredients lists and familiarise yourself with the less obvious animal-derived ingredients that show up in unsuspecting products.
- Start collecting and experimenting with vegan recipes. I have a recipe folder saved on my desktop for online recipes, and a folder at home where I can save any recipes from magazines or newspapers.
- Finally, listen to what your body craves – it’s good for your health. The key is not to punish yourself, it’s about nourishing your body with food and nutrients that energise you and keep your body working well.
So, what next?
There are many reasons why people choose vegan living and whether it’s down to an emotional connection to animals, or concern over the environment, the benefits of avoiding animal products are astounding. But there are also concerns over the efficiency of the lifestyle – it sounds like the better option when looking at the cost and production of animal products, but the rising demand for certain crops also requires land and water.
For example, the avocado is one fruit that has shot to fame over recent years. Yet, as healthy as they are, it seems they’re not the most sustainable. The popularity and rising price of the avocado is actually fuelling deforestation in Mexico, where farmers are able to make a bigger profit from the fruit, so are thinning out pine forests to plant young avocado trees.
I suppose the argument could be that at least trees are still being planted in their place, rather than the land being used to rear cattle.
If you’re interested in going vegan, for whatever reason, it can help to do your research. It is a big change and it can seem daunting, but there is so much choice available now, in supermarkets and restaurants, not to mention the endless number of vegan recipes you will find online. And remember, nutrition professionals are available to support you on the journey.
So, try planning a couple of vegan meals for the week, or even a day, and see how you feel. Planning ahead can help you feel prepared and take the pressure off what seems like a big life change.
Be sure to speak to people, friends and family, ask them to support you. If you know people who are also vegan or vegetarian, ask them for any tips, advice, or their favourite recipes. Having a little support is not only a relief, it can be a great motivator as you’re held accountable!
And if jumping straight in still seems a little intense, that’s OK. Why not try going veggie in the interim? If you’re a regular meat eater, working things in and out slowly can help.
If you’re not one for the vegan or vegetarian diet, that’s up to you too. Everyone has a choice. Here at NR HQ, we’re a mixed bag. We have vegans, vegetarians, meat lovers, and those of us who are a bit more flexible. We’re not intending to sway you one side or the other, we simply wanted to make an often confusing topic more clear.
It may take some time for society to get used to veganism, but maybe we all need to start being a little more open-minded. Vegan is here to stay and whether you take the pledge or not, that’s down to you.