Year of the Vegan? By Sara Niven
1st Nov 2019
Thinking of joining the increasing number of Brits going vegan? Sara Niven takes a look at a few of the things to consider when opting for a plant-based diet.
The Vegan Society marked their 75th anniversary this year and with World Vegan month taking place this November, it seems they have many reasons to be celebrating.
A survey last year reported that the number of vegans in the UK has doubled from 300,000 to 600,000 since 2016. Back in 2008, The Vegan Society estimated the figure as being around 15,000, showing a vast shift in the last decade.
The shift isn’t just restricted to the UK either, with correspondents from the Economist and Forbes magazine dubbing 2019 the “Year of the Vegan.”
“The image of veganism is undergoing the most radical change in its history, while shedding some tired, old stereotypes,” says Dominika Piasecka, spokeswoman for The Vegan Society. “It’s no longer portrayed as an unusual lifestyle, rather it is associated with health, fitness and wellbeing. When we were originally founded, a handful of people ran the charity and it had just over 20 members. Today, we are going from strength to strength.”
As numbers have grown and attitudes have changed, so too have everyone’s options.
A veggie (not vegan) relative of mine, tells the story of being invited to a party back in the 80’s. While the other guests tucked into the birthday buffet, she was given a plate of plain boiled pasta and handed a bottle of ketchup. The host had no idea how to cater for her “special diet” as they put it. It is impossible to imagine this now being the case for vegans, let alone vegetarians.
“In the past, vegans could only buy alternatives to animal products in special health food shops and even soya milk was a rare sight,” adds Dominika. “Now supermarkets fight one another to the latest vegan product launch and restaurant menus are full of delicious, nutritious vegan options.”
That’s great news on lots of levels but as Maria Paula Goncalves (MSc, PhD), a food scientist and certified nutritionist points out, when it comes to ensuring a healthy diet there’s far more to it than simply cutting certain food groups out.
Nutritional considerations for an animal free diet
“Not every food that is vegan or vegetarian is healthy and some people who cut out meat or other animals products aren’t necessarily eating the right amount of fruit and vegetables; some may simply increase their intake of refined carbohydrates, such as pasta, pizza, bread or potatoes,” says Maria, who is based at the Synthesis Clinic in Hampshire.
“Protein is a very important nutrient and how much we need varies according to a range of factors including life stage and medical conditions, ongoing treatment or surgery. If you decide to go vegan, you must ensure you are getting enough and account for the fact that plant protein is less bioavailable, as our digestive systems absorb some proteins better than others.”
Other pointers for vegans include:
“This is an essential nutrient, found naturally only in animal products, so for vegans, supplementation is necessary,” says Maria.
Dominika Piasecka agrees but does point out that it is effectively the same situation for meat eaters.
“Historically B12 is a vitamin produced by bacteria in the soil - people were getting it from stream waters, unwashed fruit and veg and animals got it through eating grass and thus soil. Now animals are fed with grain not grass, neither we or animals get enough B12 in a natural way and animal feed is supplemented with B12 so meat-eaters also eat a supplement - just indirectly.”
Up the iron
Iron is more easily absorbed from animal sources than plant sources, so it is important to ensure you are getting enough. Good plant sources of iron include lentils, beans, tofu, chia seeds, cashew nuts, kale and fortified breakfast cereal to name a few. Including vitamin C rich foods with meals also helps with iron absorption.
Keep up calcium
“If you are cutting out dairy, calcium should come from a significant consumption of cruciferous vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes and may need to be supplemented as well,” says Maria. “Vegans also need to have extra care with omega-3 by adding chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts to their diet and potentially supplementing with algae-derived omega-3 sources.”
The Vegan Society recommend fortified plant milk and yoghurt or calcium set tofu as the richest sources of vegan friendly calcium.
Keep meals interesting
As Maria points out you can be a vegan and still eat an unhealthy, restrictive diet that doesn’t include enough fruit and veg. (She recommends an intake of seven plus portions as oppose the standard five additionally).
If you haven’t got much time to cook, it can be tempting to rely on pre-packed vegan standbys and ready meals of which there are now many, but try to experiment with different recipes additionally. You’ll find many online and umpteen vegan cookbooks and magazines for inspiration. In time it also becomes easier to learn how to adapt non-vegan recipes.
Consider vegan alternatives
There’s now a vegan alternative for virtually every food you can think of as PETA’s Director of Vegan Corporate Projects, Dawn Carr explains.
“From indulgent vegan doughnuts and dairy-free Magnums to plant-based chicken and bacon, you really can have an animal-free version of any food nowadays.”
Vegans who previously enjoyed the taste of meat may appreciate versions of burgers and sausages etc that replicate the real thing while others actively prefer to avoid them and don’t like the texture or see the point. Ultimately at least the choice is available.
Support for a change in diet
Organisations including The Vegan Society and PETA provide plenty of support and advice for anyone keen on converting to plant-based eating, either on a temporary basis or a longer-term commitment.
“Every year, thousands of people take our vegan pledge – over 3,000 have signed up this month already – and with World Vegan Month is the perfect opportunity for anyone to dip into the world of vegan eating for 30 days,” comments PETA’s Dawn Carr.
The Vegan Society’s VeGuide app meanwhile is a downloadable tool providing a series of short daily informational videos aimed at those keen on changing their way of eating.
Robert Gee, 66, from North Wales is among those to have used the app recently when switching from a pescatarian to vegan diet. He explains this was primarily for health reasons although he also feels he is doing his bit in terms of climate change and animal welfare issues.
“I discovered I was dairy intolerant and quickly found replacements for yoghurt and milk but cheese remains my biggest challenge – I am interested in trying to make vegan cheese from cashews and have some recipes,” he explains. My son has been vegan for 10 years so I thought I knew a lot but found the app a useful introduction; the presentation was well done and the drip feed each day made it easier to take in the information.
“I plan to continue this way of eating – it’s getting easier all the time now to find suitable products in supermarkets and there are several local restaurants that serve vegan food even in my rural area of Wales. I can now go out and really enjoy a meal without having to worry I will have a tummy upset.”
Giving up all animal products, even just for 30 days may not be on everyone’s agenda but regularly incorporating plant-based meals can be a great way of upping your intake of vegetables as well as getting us thinking about what goes into a healthy meal and what doesn’t necessarily need to.
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