The nation's switch-up from the previously prevailing orthodoxy ('meat + two veg = the only acceptable sustenance') to something far more flexible has been swift. According to research commissioned by The Vegan Society, the volume of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2019. So, what does that look like in real terms? By 2019, those shunning all animal-derived products made up 1.16 per cent of the population. (In 2014, it was 0.25 per cent). And by now, according to YouGov polling on behalf of Veganuary, almost 10 per cent of people in the UK have tried a vegan diet over the last decade.
Part of this could be to do with new ease in eating well, while plant-based. In 2018, the UK launched more vegan products than any nation. If you were one of the 629k people who signed up for 2022's Veganuary challenge – going without all meat and dairy produce for 31 days, in the first month of the year – you'll know that there are myriad reasons for doing so: for the animals, for the planet, or to simply shake up your routine.
But, before you overhaul the way that you eat, it's vital to understand how this change could play out in your body.
5 things to know before you become vegan
Before you quit all animal products, let us explain exactly what happens when you make the switch to a vegan diet.
1. Hunger games
Come 3pm, that meat-eating mate may be trolling you, but you’ll have already started reaping the rewards. Vegans tend to have lower blood- sugar levels and a lower risk of type-2 diabetes. Plus, plant protein is linked with improved insulin regulation, meaning you’re less likely to reach for the biscuit tin for a mid-afternoon boost.
2. B wise
"But where do you get your protein?" – ever heard of chickpeas? That said, be aware that some nutrients are harder to come by on a vegan diet, such as vitamin B12. It isn’t produced by plants, so the Vegan Society recommends taking a 10mcg supplement daily. Alternatively, get it via fortified cereals and alt-milk products, including soy, oat and almond.
3. Gut feeling
Without meat, you’ll probably be consuming much more fibre than the average omnivore – and your stomach will thank you for it. "Your gut microbes’ favourite nutrient is dietary fibre, which plant-based foods are packed with," says Dr Megan Rossi (@theguthealthdoctor). "A diet rich in these has been shown to keep weight in check and boost your mood, too."
4. Shelf life
Loading up on fruit and vegetables will sustain you in the (really) long term, cutting your risk of heart disease by up to 42 per cent. Multiple studies show that vegan diets are also more effective than typical Western ones (think: beige) at lowering cholesterol levels. There’s even evidence to suggest a plant-based diet could help ease arthritis.
5. Grain gains
Building muscle? Listen up. "Vitamin D helps to regulate calcium in the body – a lack of both can lead to issues with bone density and muscle weakness," says PT Abigail Dewberry. This can be a risk if you’re cutting out dairy. "Regardless of your training goals, make sure you’re getting enough of these nutrients – from pulses, dried fruit and fortified alt-milks."
But a vegan diet isn’t the only part of being a vegan. Clothing materials, beauty products and health supplements are just as important.
If you’re keen to venture into the world of veganism, here’s the complete beginners' guide to a vegan diet and lifestyle to help you on your way.
What is the difference between a vegan and vegetarian diet?
A vegan is identified as someone who chooses to live their life free of animal products, in terms of both their diet and general lifestyle. As well as refraining from eating meat and fish, vegans opt-out of all dairy products, or any other product that originates from an animal – even honey is out.
According to The Vegan Society, a vegan lifestyle is defined as "a way of living that attempts to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, be it for food, clothing or any other purpose". In reality, this means the exclusion of leather and cashmere, as well as any beauty, hygiene and household products that contain animal products.
While vegetarians also don’t include meat or fish in their diet, they will usually eat dairy and honey, and they may not necessarily opt for natural skincare.
But is a vegan diet healthy?
There have been conflicting reports about whether or a vegan diet is the panacea for good health. A study from the University of Florence in Italy found that individuals who follow a vegan diet significantly lower rates of ischemic heart disease and cancer, and they also tend to have healthier guts, reduced menopause symptoms and less stress.
But some experts have suggested that it isn’t as straightforward as that. One study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition claims that "eliminating all animal products from the diet increases the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies. Micronutrients of special concern for the vegan include vitamins B-12 and D, calcium, and long-chain n–3 (omega-3) fatty acids."
Professor of Health and Human Sciences at Colorado State University, Loren Cordain, supports the claim, saying: "Compared to the average diet, a vegan diet looks very healthy, especially in the short term.
"But in the long-term, there aren’t any clear mortality benefits, and in fact [vegan diets] may be less healthy than diets that include meat."
However, those wishing to switch to a vegan diet should not be deterred. Push Doctor Medical Officer and GP Dr Dan Robertson insists that as long as you’re getting the nutrients your body needs there is no reason to be worried about going vegan.
He advises: "Like any diet, veganism needs to be well-balanced and you need to make sure you’re getting the vitamins and minerals you need."
What are the side effects of going vegan?
"Any diet where you limit entire food groups risks upsetting your nutritional balance," warns Dr Robertson.
"Vegans might find it hard to get enough of the following in their diet, which puts them at an increased risk of conditions such as anaemia and osteoporosis."
"However, a vegan diet is typically lower in saturated fat. That means you’re less likely to be obese or suffer from high blood pressure or high cholesterol, so your risk of heart disease is greatly reduced."
And, what about a pre-existing digestive medical condition?
Dr Robertson believes you can go vegan, but it may require a little more effort. He explains: "If you have a condition such as Crohn’s disease or IBS, you can still eat a vegan diet. However, everyone’s symptoms and triggers are different, so it hard to provide one rule for all."
Triggers vary from person to person, so check in with a medical professional rather than rely on vegan Instagrammers - who might have experience of their own symptoms but do not have the expertise to discuss yours.
Dr Robertson continues: "If you have a digestive illness, you’d still need to avoid foods that aggravate your symptoms and it’s possible that your food options could end up being quite limited."
What is a vegan diet?
Becoming vegan is not quite as simple as removing meat, fish, eggs and dairy from your diet. Although there is a range of foods you automatically think of as vegan – fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds – there are a surprising number of foods that aren’t actually free of animal products.
For example, Dr Robertson admits that some of our go-to veggie foods aren’t vegan friendly.
"Quorn is the one that surprises most people. It often has traces of egg in it, so it’s not suitable for vegans," he explains.
"This can be true for a number of meat substitutes, so make sure you always read the label.
"Crisps are another one - they often contain milk protein as part of the flavouring. Once again, check the ingredients before you tuck in."
What else should you look out for?
Red sweets, foods and drinks
Anything that has been coloured with red food dye likely isn’t vegan. Red food dye contains carmine, also known as crushed up beetles. Yes, really. Cochineal extract or natural red 4 is produced when the beetles are boiled in ammonia or sodium carbonate, which is then used to colour a variety of sweets, foods and drinks, as well beauty products and medicines.
Wine and beer
That’s right - a glass of wine is technically derived from grapes, but that doesn’t mean it’s free from animal products. Animal rights charity Peta explains: "During the winemaking process, the liquid is filtered through substances called fining agents.
"Popular animal-derived fining agents used in the production of wine include blood and bone marrow, casein (milk protein), chitin (fibre from crustacean shells), egg albumen (derived from egg whites), fish oil, gelatin (protein from boiling animal parts), and isinglass (gelatin from fish bladder membranes)."
The majority of beer is vegan, but not all of them are - some contain milk or honey, but some are clarified using isinglass.
The classic British Lea & Perrins formula actually contains anchovies, so it’s not vegan friendly. However, Biona has created an alternative for anyone who can’t live without it on their vegan cheese on toast.
Vegan recipes for beginners
Don’t panic when it comes to putting together vegan recipes. Take a look at these mouthwatering meals:
Whether you’re new to veganism and are adapting to a vegan diet, or are throwing a dinner party for plant-based pals, there are some very simple ways to turn your favourite dishes into vegan delights. These 7 vegan food hacks are the best we’ve seen and will help you whip up cakes, coffee and pancakes.
Anything else to know about a vegan lifestyle?
Being vegan is more than just eliminating animal products from your diet - it’s about removing them from your day-to-day life, too.
It doesn’t have to be difficult, just get yourself clued up on what you should be looking out for.
‘Cruelty free’ make-up doesn't necessarily mean that it's vegan. While a ‘cruelty free’ stamp signifies that the brand does not test on animals, to be classed as a vegan beauty product it must not contain animal or animal-derived ingredients such as:
As beauty brands slowly make the shift towards cruelty-free and/or vegan products, they’re much more readily available than they were a few years ago. And, don't forget your shower products. Organic hair products have come a long way in the past few years to rival the chemical-packed versions you might be used to. Here are the best cruelty-free products to give your make-up bag, skincare and haircare shelves an ethical makeover.
Moving towards a meat- and dairy-free diet doesn’t have to impact your fitness goals. There are plenty of alternative proteins on the market to make sure that you still hit your macros.
For example, here, vegan Nathalie Emmanuel reveals her favourite post-workout fuel, and you can stock up on these 7 vegan protein bars that taste really good.
And, don’t think you’ll have to sacrifice your morning sweet tooth as a vegan - here are the 8 best recipes for vegan protein pancakes.
Finally, worried that dairy doesn't agree with you? Get to grips with lactose intolerance symptoms.
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