Full disclaimer – there will be no scary animal photos/videos here. Don’t worry.
When you mention words like ‘vegan’, ‘plant based’ or ‘meat free’, you’re often met with animosity. Images of lanky hairy hippies screaming with bullhorns, waving photos of livestock being beaten, or the other extreme, of the fad-dieting, Instagramming millennial tend to be the general public consensus on vegans. What do they eat? Do they think they can photosynthesise? Don’t they know that plants have feelings too? But… Bacon?
Yes, I’ve certainly heard them all. But I sit before you today to tell you this – vegans aren’t scary. It’s not hard, or antisocial, it’s not a fad diet and it certainly doesn’t make you a superhuman. However, it does make a difference. It’s growing in popularity in mainstream culture, with fast food outlets, fashion companies and purveyors of toiletries getting on board. For every product bought, eaten, worn, drunk, sprayed, or scrubbed, the environment benefits, both in terms of animal lives and factors such as CO2 production and water usage. Sounds good, right? Let’s find out more.
I can’t do it all at once
The thought of going cold turkey (pardon the phrasing) from an omnivorous diet (involving animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products) to a vegan diet can be a daunting one. It brings to mind questions such as:
- What about the products that are already in my fridge/freezer?
- Do I have to throw away my leather shoes?
- Can I commit to that right now?
Any products that you already own should definitely be either used by you or given to someone that you know would use them. If you decide to go vegan in one fell swoop, ask your neighbours if they want the pork chops in your freezer. If you have a pair of shoes made from suede or leather, sell them on eBay or call your sister and demand that she wears them. Personally, I used the products that I already owned with a view to replace them with vegan options when they run out/need replacing. It’s less wasteful, kinder to the planet and your bank account!
Small swaps are simple and a wonderful way to ease into veganism. Once a bottle of cow milk has been finished, try replacing it with oat (my personal favourite), soy, almond, hemp or coconut. The taste will be slightly different, but after a while, you won’t notice it! I love oat milk because of the creamy luxury that it adds to any drink, much like full fat cows milk, but with a fraction of the fat and a much higher rate of fibre. The BBC article detailing all of the milk options, including dairy and dairy free states that full fat cows milk has (per 100ml) 64kcals, 120mg calcium, 3.6g fat, 2.3g saturated fat, 4.6g sugar and 3.4g protein. Oat milk 45 kcals, 120mg calcium, 1.5g fat, 0.2g sat fat, 4g sugar and 1.0g protein, beating cow’s milk on almost every health category. If you’re not sure which one to buy for home use, check out the full list of milks from the BBC here! Even better, order a different milk type when you go out for a coffee to work out your own preference.
Another way to avoid the shock of a full lifestyle change at once is to introduce yourself slowly via Meat Free Mondays. On these days, try something new for the tastebuds, like Linda McCartney sausages, chilli using mixed beans, a veggie packed curry with naan, or a sweet treat like brownies and cookies. There is a great list of recipes here that can get you started.
What about if I don’t feel like cooking?
We’ve all been there. Maybe you were working late, on a night out, feeling generally meh or simply don’t cook. No fear, it’s all okay. There are multiple options here, from restaurants, to delivered meals and ready meals. Pizza places such as Pizza Hut and Papa Johns do multiple vegan pizzas, sides and desserts. If you fancy sushi, vegetarian platters are widely available, incorporating foods such as cucumber, avocado, aubergine, carrot, green beans and tofu alongside the traditional rice. Chinese restaurants generally have a vast amount of options with all your favourite sauces. I would definitely recommend having beancurd at some point! Similarly, Indian food is incredibly versatile with many traditional dishes like Saag Aloobeing completely plant based (check with your local restaurant to see whether they use ghee or oil though, as ghee is a form of purified butter). Many places are increasing the availability of meat substitutes such as seitan and Quorn in order to meet the demand. Did you know that the vegan food market is worth about £790m currently, with around 600,000 vegans around the UK?
If you fancy something a bit lighter, places like Subway and Greggs are now committed to offering vegan options. Subway have even created a vegan version of their Meatball Marinara sub, complete with vegan cheese. I can personally testify that it’s delicious! Similarly, Greggs’ plant based sausage roll is absolutely gorgeous. I defy anyone to tell the difference between it and the meat option! If you fancy something sweet, the dessert chains Patisserie Valerie and Creams, along with many others, offer cheesecake, waffles, cookies, crepes and more, all without the use of animal products.
Is this a healthy way to eat?
This is a common concern, and it’s natural to be worried. Many people might see transitioning to a more plant based diet to mean that stye are ‘losing’ some food groups. This isn’t the case. Through the introduction of more plant foods, we gain new nutritional possibilities. For example, a study conducted in California found that:
‘Compared to lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets, vegan diets seem to offer additional protection for obesity, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular mortality. Males experience greater health benefits than females.’ (source)
The same study, conducted on over 90,000 people, found that the vegan participants had an 8% risk reduction for cancer overall. They had 50% less risk of developing colon cancer, 23% less chance of gastrointestinal tract cancer, 35% reduced risk for prostate cancer and a significantly lower risk of respiratory cancers.
Similarly, a Harvard study discusses the dietary benefits of a vegan lifestyle. As with any form of eating, if you plan to subsist on pizza, crisps and copious amounts of fizzy drinks, you’ll probably not see a huge amount of benefits! However, following a responsible vegan diet will contribute to ‘lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower body mass index (BMI), all of which are associated with longevity and a reduced risk for many chronic diseases.’ (source)
If you’re worried about how your diet affects your current situation, the Journal of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has confirmed that a plant based lifestyle is ‘appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.’
What about getting the right nutrients?
I promise you that if you eat right, just as with an omnivorous and vegetarian diet, a vegan diet will give you everything that you need. The NHS Live Well Guide for Vegans states that:
For a healthy vegan diet:
- 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
- drink plenty of fluids (the government recommends 6 to 8 cups or glasses a day)
If you don’t plan your meals properly, as with any dietary choice, you risk losing out on important nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamin D. However, there are more sources of these minerals than just meat and dairy. Leafy greens, fortified foods, pulses and even bread can all supply these nutrients. I personally take a multivitamin every night to compliment my food, ensuring that I have the full amount of nutrients.
Is health the only reason people go vegan?
Not at all! The environmental factors and the welfare of animals are also big factors, but the reasons vary for everyone. This website shows you your environmental impact of a vegan diet by months and years. For example, following a plant based lifestyle for one month would save almost 125,000 litres of water, as well as preventing over 270kg of CO2 into the atmosphere and saving 30 animal lives. I find the CO2 amount hard to visualise, so I converted into the amount of CO2 produced by the average car. 270kg of CO2 would be produced by driving 850km, or the equivalent of driving non stop from London to Dundee and back!
A University of Oxford study found that if the whole global population went vegan, greenhouse gas emissions would be less than half of what they are now and a 76% reduction in land usage for agriculture, meaning that deforestation rates would also fall. However, I know that this isn’t feasible. I don’t think there will ever be a time that everyone is vegan or even vegetarian. There will always be animals boxed into small pens until their death, always baby calves taken from their mothers and always people remaining so distant from the truth of where their meals/products came from that there will be little concern for the creatures that suffered.
However, here’s my suggestion if you don’t think veganism is for you. The word ‘flexitarian’ was introduced into the Oxford Dictionary in 2014. It means to mostly eat plant based, but to also have some animal products (but please think sustainably and about cruelty involved in the production of these items). It is more feasible for the general population to reduce their animal product intake rather than to stop it entirely. If that means making one small change to your diet, you’ll be making a positive change to the planet and all of the beings that exist within it. Vegan isn’t a dirty word or a scary word. It’s a word for people that are trying to make Earth a better place, to not exploit the human and non-human animals around us. Try a meat-free Monday, a vegan sausage roll, an oat milk latte. They might surprise you!
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