The Vegan Society’s definition of 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’.
What all vegans practise is a plant-based diet avoiding all animal products such as meat (including fish), dairy, eggs, and honey. Most vegans also make ‘animal free’ choices in their health products, clothing, and entertainment. Veganism has been present since 1944 but it has seen rapid uptake in recent years with the most recent survey estimating that there are around 540,000 vegans in Great Britain 63% of whom are female and 37% male. The top three perceived benefits of eating less meat are improving health (32%), saving money (31%), and being better for the environment (25%).
Lets look at some of the benefits of vegansim
Physical Health – There are many health benefits associated with a plant based diet:
- Vegan diets have been linked to a 35% lower risk of prostate cancer
- In many cases vegans are said to live longer than meat eating counterparts
- There are lower rates of vegans suffering from heart disease and type two diabetes
- Body mass index, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels are lower among vegans
- The World Health Organisation in 2015 ranked processed meat as a group 1 carcinogen (the same category as cigarettes, alcohol and asbestos). Eating just 50g per day (two rashers of bacon) increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%
The environment – The impact that veganism or singular vegan choices can have on the world around us is huge. A 2018 Oxford University study found that ‘avoiding meat and dairy is the single biggest way to reduce your impact on Earth’. An extreme example of the benefit of veganism is: if the entire world went vegan, it could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2/3 and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion by 2050.
On a smaller scale, even occasional vegan/vegetarian choices can make a big difference to the environment. For example: if every family in the UK removed meat from one meal a week it would have the same environmental impact as taking 16 million cars off the road. Interestingly, 21% of meat eaters say that they would be interested in limiting/reducing their meat consumption in the future, and it is the younger generation aged 25-34 who are the most likely to have reduced their meat consumption in the last year
So, what do vegans eat?
There are obvious examples of ‘vegan’ foods and ‘non vegan’ foods that immediately come to mind but some ‘secret vegan foods’ may surprise you. Oreos, for example, are vegan as are Ritz crackers, Lindt 70%, 85%, and 90% coco chocolate bars, Red Bull, and BBQ Pringles. However, you can’t live on these snacks for every meal so for a healthy vegan diet the NHS recommends:
- Eat at least 5 portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day
- Base meals on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates (choose wholegrain where possible)
- Have some dairy alternatives, such as soya drinks and yoghurts (choose lower fat and lower sugar options)
- Eat some beans, pulses and other proteins
- Choose unsaturated oils and spreads, and eat in small amounts
With proper planning and attention it is possible to get all the necessary nutrients your body needs from a vegan diet. The main nutrients you could miss on a vegan diet is calcium, iron and vitamin B12 which are rich in diary and meat products. So where do vegans get these vital nutrients?
Calcium – for strong and healthy bones and teeth.
- Green, leafy vegetables – such as broccoli, cabbage and okra, but not spinach
- Fortified unsweetened soya, rice and oat drinks
- Calcium-set tofu
- Sesame seeds and tahini
- Brown and white bread (in the UK, calcium is added to white and brown flour by law)
- Dried fruit, such as raisins, prunes, figs and dried apricots
Iron – for the production of red blood cells
- Wholemeal bread and flour
- Breakfast cereals fortified with iron
- Dark green, leafy vegetables, such as watercress, broccoli and spring greens
- Dried fruits, such as apricots, prunes and figs
B12 – to maintain healthy blood and a healthy nervous system.
- Breakfast cereals fortified with B12
- Unsweetened soya drinks fortified with vitamin B12
- Yeast extract, such as Marmite, which is fortified with vitamin B12
Before adopting a vegan lifestyle you should consider where you will source the vitamins and nutrients you need after cutting out animal products. Consider the Vegan Society’s version of the Eatwell Plate for guidance click here
You could argue that it has never been easier to be vegan with the huge amount of vegan options now available in mainstream supermarkets and restaurants. The popularity of a plant based diet is reflected in buying trends in supermarkets, with the UK market for meat-free foods sales being expected to reach £658m by 2021. Supermarkets are now offering vegan ready meals, snack foods, and M&S have recently launched Plant Kitchen which specialises in diary and meat-free ‘dirty’ comfort food. In fact, 1/6 of food products launched in the UK in 2018 had a vegan/no animal claim. The rise of vegetarian and veganism has offered opportunities for restaurant and ‘junk’ food providers to become creative with the options they serve for example: the development of Gregg’s ‘Vegan Sausage Roll’, Ben and Jerry’s Vegan Ice Cream, or the McDonald’s Vegan Happy Meal.
Veganism beyond food – Whilst food is one of the main focuses of a vegan lifestyle, there are other areas to consider.
Alcohol – many wines and beers can be processed using animal products such as isinglass, egg whites, or gelatin which means that they are often off limits for vegans. Most spirits such as whisky, gin, vodka, and rum are completely vegan. To check the ‘vegan-status’ of your favourite tipple click here.
Clothing – the availability of vegan clothing has risen in recent years, making cruelty free clothing choices much easier. Vegans do not wear clothes or shoes made with the skin, hair or feather of animals such as fur, leather, wool, feathers and silk. They can wear plant fabrics like cotton, linen, and manmade materials such as polyester, acrylic or nylon.
Health and Beauty – cosmetic products that are vegan do not contain any animal ingredients or animal-derived ingredients. This includes, but is not limited to, honey, beeswax, lanolin, collagen, albumen, carmine, cholesterol, gelatin, and many others. Most people also consider that vegan products will be free from any form of animal testing.There was a 20% increase in searches for ‘vegan make-up’ from 2017 to 2018 and 19% people actively check if their toiletries are tested on animals.
Not many people can adopt a vegan lifestyle overnight and many come to full veganism in stages. Making small and steady changes or replacements in your diet is the best way to introduce veganism and cut down on your intake of animal products. Examples include changing the type of milk you drink in your coffee or trying a few meat free days a week.
One way to try a vegan lifestyle is to take part in Veganuary: a challenge to go vegan for the month of January. The sign ups for this campaign have risen dramatically in recent years, with only 3,300 signing up in 2014 and 250,000 people signing up in 2019. 14% of participants this year were men, a jump from the 10% in 2018.
Are you a vegan? Why did you make the decision to go plant based? What are the biggest challenges you face as a vegan? Have you got any tips to share for those considering making a change to their diet and lifestyle? Join or start the conversation below.