Eating with Body and Soul in Mind

9th February 2018

There was a time when being vegetarian was enough to net you a funny look from your fellow diners or a heavy sigh from the waiter. But these days, merely eliminating meat and fish from your diet is nothing, as rising numbers are going a step further and cutting out eggs and dairy too. Jennifer Lipman investigates the growing popularity of veganism.

An estimated 542,000 Britons are vegan: one in every 100 people, up from 150,000 a decade earlier. What was once a fringe lifestyle choice associated with hippies and animal rights activists is now the preferred diet of celebrities, athletes, Instagram foodies and other cool kids. From Bill Clinton to Russell Brand and Serena Williams, veganism has never been more on trend.

“Veganism is certainly here to stay,” says Dominika Piasecka, spokesperson for The Vegan Society. “It’s a lifestyle choice people make for very important ethical reasons.”

The Vegan Society was set up 73 years ago, although the diet goes back much further, with many populations and cultures eschewing animal products. But modern veganism, in the UK anyway, owes more to our feelings about animals. According to Piasecka, “it is no secret that animals are treated cruelly in the meat, dairy and egg industries”. She talks about dairy cows having their babies taken away, or day-old male chicks being shredded because they lack value to the egg industry. It should be noted that the agricultural sector strenuously challenges claims that farming is cruel, while many farmers are committed to ethical approaches.

Pet-owner Naomi Jardine, 30, became vegan 18 months ago after a year of vegetarianism, despite having previously enjoyed meat. A series of documentaries about the food industry left her profoundly shocked. “I felt I couldn’t call myself an animal lover, yet continue to eat meat and contribute to such an obvious suffering,” she says.

Karen Attwood, Eating Out editor for Vegan Living magazine, was similarly motivated; she went vegetarian at 14 and has never looked back. But she also points to vegan diets being better for the environment because they require less land and water. “Animal agriculture is one of the biggest destroyers of the rainforest.”

Another reason proponents give is that veganism is healthier – though evidence on this is mixed. Certainly, myriad studies point to the dangers of eating red meat, but equally, relying on mock meats and highly-processed vegan ‘junk’ food is bad news too, says Rickmansworth-based nutritional therapist Andrea Loftus, and may leave you at higher risk of nutrient deficiencies.

But Loftus stresses that vegans can counteract this by consuming nutrient-rich diets and eating whole and fortified foods including lentils, nuts and seeds, along with products like hemp and chia. “Vegans should also ensure they increase their intake of iron and calcium-rich fruit and vegetables.”

Piasecka points to the fact that the British Dietetic Association says a ‘well-planned’ vegan diet is suitable at any age, adding that vegans tend to eat much more fruit and vegetables than the rest of the population. She cites research showing vegans “have lower blood pressure, lower rates of heart disease [and] type 2 diabetes”.

Of course, that could say more about the health profile of those choosing to go vegan in the first place. Equally, some critics have linked veganism with the recent ‘clean eating’ craze, suggesting it represents an eating disorder by another name. Loftus rejects this, saying that going vegan is more often a deep-rooted ethical and environmental stance first and a health position second. “From my experience there is no obvious link with eating disorders.”

Certainly, vegans learn to field endless questions about the health impacts. “People always ask about where I get my protein from,” Jardine observes. “There are still so many misconceptions.”

That said, it’s becoming much, much easier. According to The Vegan Society, last year saw an increase of 185% in the number of vegan products launched here. Restaurants – in major cities anyway – now go out of their way to offer vegan options, just as gluten-free has become ordinary. Veganism is now seen as a right-on choice, associated with wellbeing and fitness.

Attwood recalls cutting out meat in the 1980s, “when there was nothing around and people thought you just wanted to eat salad. I lived on tinned chickpea dahl and a dried veggie burger mix,” she says. Comparably, being a 21st century vegan is undemanding. “There is a boom in vegan cooking, millions of blogs with ideas, and every supermarket is launching a vegan range. The only difficulty is in the other people who think we have to eat meat.”

Online, recipes proliferate for delicious-looking dishes that require purely plant-based ingredients; chocolate mousses made with aubergine, cakes that use beetroot instead of butter, soya shepherds pies and the like. Many seem tasty, and although they often use things you’re unlikely to have in your store cupboard, it’s no more complicated than your average Ottolenghi recipe.

“Being vegan is easy once you learn the basics,” says Jardine, whose husband has also gone vegan and now takes great delight in ‘veganising’ all his former favourite meat-based meals, including roast dinners and curries. “There’s a huge sense of achievement and joy when you eat meals that don’t contain any animal products and realise that it’s still just as enjoyable, if not more so.”

Nor, she stresses, does it have to cost more. “Most vegan ingredients are cheap, if you avoid buying lots of vegan alternative cheeses or ice creams,” she says. “Plant-based whole foods are affordable and the cost of our weekly food shop has gone down, even with a toddler.”

As Paiasecka says, much of the world has plentiful access to vegan staples like rice and beans. “Of course, processed and ready foods will be more expensive but that is regardless of them being vegan.”

Yet it’s a big jump, even if the starting point is as a vegetarian. Making a vegan tea party for a friend recently, I was proud of what I came up with: miniature fruit crumbles made with margarine, dark chocolate biscuit cake, home-made peanut butter cups. If only I hadn’t forgotten the soya milk for the tea. At times, I’ll just happen to make a fully vegan meal – tofu stir-fry, for example – simply because I want to.

But could I do it nightly? Could I forfeit the milk in my coffee, the cheese in my lunchtime sandwich, the eggs in my brunch or the ice cream on holiday? Not enthusiastically, anyway. And since I’m already vegetarian, the arguments around animal rights or sustainability are less compelling.

For those who are considering taking the plunge, there are plenty of schemes offering support and encouragement, and regularly attracting greater numbers of participants. Veganuary, a campaign to make going vegan a New Year’s resolution, launched in 2014 with around 1,500 people making the commitment: last year 23,000 people signed up (the organisers claim 81% expressed interested in carrying on); this year it was 52,000. Others prefer initiatives like ‘meat-free Mondays’ to ease their path, while the Vegan Society runs a 30 Day Vegan Pledge. “Vegans are a very helpful and supportive bunch, so there a lot of Facebook groups and forums,” says Piasecka.

Attwood’s advice is to make it a positive choice rather than a burden. “People shouldn’t beat themselves up if they make a slip or occasionally eat a bit of fish or egg,” she says. “Just do what you can to cut down meat and keep trying.”

What’s clear is that this is a growing movement, and one that isn’t going anywhere any time soon, but spilling over into vegan cosmetics or giving up leather. Jardine, only at the start of her journey, is as passionate as ever. She is bringing up her daughter as vegan at home and vegetarian outside of it, but will encourage her to make up her own mind when she is old enough. “It’s not something I feel I need to ‘stick to’, as it’s just the way I live my life.”

And for those that think this is a flash-in-the-pan, Karen observes that vegetarianism was once similarly dismissed. She suggests there will come a day when the question will be not ‘why are you vegan?’ but ‘why do you eat meat?’.

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