Veganism and the plant based revolution (part I)

Q: How do you know if someone’s a vegan?

A: Don’t worry – they’ll tell you

There’s something about vegans that really gets under other people’s skin. They find themselves the butt of jokes for being smug / puny / dull / joyless / awkward / sanctimonious etc etc…and to be perfectly honest, I’ve had times when I’ve thought the same. I used to be more than a little sceptical of veganism (and vegans), thinking it an unnecessarily restrictive lifestyle, and the preserve of preachy individuals who wear shoes made from hemp.

No-one likes being told what to eat (or what not to eat), and we fear change, especially when it comes to something as important as food. Nor do we enjoy having our opinions challenged by uncomfortable truths, so add all of this together, and you get a little hostility.

But vegans have a delicate balancing act to manage. On the one hand, they don’t want to be the stereotype from my punchline at the top (that talks about nothing else), but on the other, they believe in this passionately enough to have made significant sacrifices, so why shouldn’t they share their views, and dispel some myths when, no doubt, challenged? After all, they are just making an ethical choice and a positive difference to animals, the environment, or both.

And like it or not, it’s not going to disappear any time soon. There might be plenty of ‘Veganuarians’ who’ve had their fill of tofu and quietly returned to juicy burgers and bacon butties, but in general, veganism and plant based eating is going to continue to flourish. And rightly so.

Veganism is still too extreme for me, but my own diet has become increasingly plant based over the past year or two, so I’d rule nothing out in the future. My shift started with an enforced meat-free month of volunteering on an eco-construction project in Uruguay (oh god, I’m starting to sound like I wear shoes made from hemp too). I was apprehensive about the prospect, but meals were easy, varied, and delicious, thanks in no small part to a French vegan couple who were resourceful and imaginative cooks. I felt fantastic that month, although of course, my circumstances probably played a huge part too (manual outdoor work in the sun all morning, swimming in the sea every afternoon…), so I won’t fall into the lazy trap of assuming causation.

I returned home to a girlfriend (now my fiancee) who had independently become more impassioned in her vegetarian views and who now is 99.9% vegan (if there is such a thing). I’m not even close to this level – in fact I’m not even a vegetarian as I still eat fish occasionally – but I’m proud to be taking steps in what I feel is the right direction. I am a huge animal lover, and I love the fact that a plant based diet is cheap and (if done well) very nutritious. These are all pretty good reasons to make the change, but for me, sustainability is by far the biggest consideration, and particularly the vast differences in greenhouse gas production and water consumption between animal and plant based diets. In my head, it is a very simple message: if you care about the planet, or are in any way environmentally minded, you should be eating less animal produce and more plants…no matter how uncomfortable that makes you feel.

Whether you go full vegan or just start cutting out meat a couple of days a week, it requires extra thought and creativity in the kitchen to prevent meals becoming repetitive…but this is surely a good thing. I must admit it also helps being a dietitian, as I am aware of and can avoid common nutritional deficiencies and pitfalls of plant based diets. Indeed, as a dietitian, more and more people want to ask me about veganism and plant based diets, so I’ve started to think of the five questions I get asked most frequently (by patients, friends and family), and some useful responses. I’ve just started with question one, below, and will follow up with the other four in a few days.

1. Is a vegan diet good for you?

The easy (and probably quite disappointing) answer here would be to say ‘it depends’, which of course it does. It depends on what sort of vegan diet you have; it depends on what you mean by ‘good for you’; and it depends on any other personal considerations that might affect your requirements.

Most important of these is which type of vegan diet you eat, or plan to eat. I know a fair few vegans who are overweight, and by no means a picture of health. Equally, there are probably a billion or so healthy non-vegans around the world who have a wonderful, balanced diet, so one is not necessarily healthier than the other. ‘Vegan’ does not always equate to ‘healthy’, whether talking about the overall diet or individual foods – you could eat as much sugar, or glug down as much vegetable oil or coconut milk as you want on a vegan diet, but of course that would be a long way from ‘good for you’.

Also important is what is meant by ‘good for you’. Some people might mean ‘help me to lose weight’, others ‘nutritionally complete’, others ‘help prevent cancer’ etc. So when a dietitian is asked if a diet, or even a specific food, is good for you, it can often be a surprisingly difficult question to answer, especially when considering the final mini-point here – individual factors and requirements.

Gender, age, physical activity, health conditions and health goals are just a few of the huge number of factors that might influence someone’s nutrient requirements, and therefore whether a vegan diet might be ‘good’ for them, so it can be really hard to generalise to a population. A very simple example would be a female of menstruating age. She would have iron requirements about 70% higher than a male of the same age, and so might be at greater risk of iron deficiency with a vegan diet, since the restrictions of the diet instantly eliminate some of the richest sources of iron. Add existing anaemia into the mix, for example, and situation is exacerbated.

Having said all of this, I think the short answer is that, yes, in general, a vegan (and certainly a vegetarian) diet would be a healthier option for most people in the UK. A vegan diet is certainly not a magic wand for health, and I’d suggest choosing to adopt it for stronger, ethical reasons rather than, for example, weight loss, but it is likely to be far high in fruit, veg and pulses (and therefore fibre and many micronutrients) and obviously low in processed meat (and therefore saturated fat and salt), all of which are problem areas in the UK diets. An added bonus is the fact it encourages you to be inventive and think more carefully about food and meals – undoubtedly a key factor in the success of any diet.

So please pay me another visit in a few days, when I’ll have written up the reponses to the other four most common questions on veganism and plant based diets. See you then.

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