Veganuary has turned from a month-long challenge into a lifestyle. According to The Vegan Society, ten years ago, there were 150,000 vegans in the UK. Today, that number has risen by 360%, with 42% of vegans aged 15-34.
The choice of many A-list and millennials alike, veganism is taking to the culinary spotlight, as the world celebrates opting for a plant-based diet.
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The meat-free market is booming, with most supermarkets now offering animal-free options, and more stocking solely vegan food, including London’s Vx and GreenBay. lists over 50 vegan fairs and festivals taking place this year, and mainstream restaurants are adapting. Zizzi recently introduced a mozzarella alternative for pizzas, while Pret’s menu options span from avocado and chickpea wraps to vegetable tagine soup.
So what’s driving the trend? “Originally, it was animal welfare and environmental concerns,” says nutritional therapist Alison Cullen. “Lately, though, it’s the health benefits that are causing more people to make the switch." Short-term campaigns such as #meatfreemondays and #veganuary (where people ‘go vegan’ for 31 days for a New Year health kick) are gaining thousands of followers. And when A-listers such as Beyoncé and J.Lo rave about their vegan diets, you can’t blame us for being curious. But with the boom comes confusing headlines and claims that offer more questions than answers. That’s why we’ve quizzed the experts on all things vegan. Here’s what you need to know…
OK, so what is a vegan, exactly?
If you scroll through social media, you’d be forgiven for confusing it with paleo diets, raw food, clean eating and other cross-over trends. But put simply, being vegan means not eating or using animal products. No meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, honey or other bee products. Vegans don’t wear leather, wool, silk or any products that contain animal-derived ingredients or are tested on animals. Even certain beers or wines are off limits because of fish scales used in production. One of the biggest misconceptions is that vegans can’t eat processed foods, gluten or sugar, says nutritionist Ian Marber. “Some choose not to – but that’s nothing to do with the ethos of veganism.”
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There are lots of tasty substitutes for animal produce, including these…
- For a cuppa: Plenish’s new hazelnut milk (£3.49, plenishcleanse.com)
- For a beer: CELIA organic vegan lager (£2.49 for 330ml, ocado.com)
- For breakfast: Co Yo’s Coconut Milk Yoghurt Alternative (£2, waitrose.com)
- For sandwiches: Plamil Egg Free Mayo (£2.29, hollandandbarrett.com)
- For when nothing but ice cream will do Alpro plant-based ice cream (£3.50, tesco.com)
Are vegans really healthier?
That’s why everyone’s doing it, right? Because of the crazy-good health claims? Well, studies do show vegans have low blood pressure and cholesterol, are less likely to be obese, and at less risk of dying from cancer and heart disease. Overall, consuming fewer rich, hard-to-process foods, like meat, is easier on our digestive system. “A plant-based diet nourishes your gut, and a healthy gut means greater immunity against illness, fewer inflammatory skin conditions, such as acne, eczema and psoriasis, and more energy,” says Cullen.
Angela Liddon, author of The Oh She Glows Cookbook, says her “energy levels soared” and her “irritable bowel syndrome [IBS] symptoms lessened in severity” after going vegan. Ella Mills, aka Deliciously Ella, adopted a plant-based diet after suffering with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition that affects your heart rate, and her website says since going vegan she has come off medication.
That said, Marber cautions that, “Veganism is not a cure-all diet and shouldn’t be viewed as an antidote to illnesses. You might feel better, but health benefits come with time. You won’t get better skin or cure IBS if you don’t prioritise your nutrition - those who don’t often end up giving up.” This was the case for Kelly Marks, 22. “By my fourth week of going vegan, I had no energy, was hungry 24/7 and my complexion was almost grey,” she says. “I started eating eggs and fish again, and then I stopped trying to be vegan altogether. In hindsight, it didn’t work for my lifestyle and was too much of a commitment.”
On the flipside, Amelia, 24, a writer from Galway, decided to go vegan four years ago after suffering with chronic fatigue syndrome for most of her life. “I couldn’t get out of bed, I had constant headaches and suffered with IBS. But after a friend took me to a vegan restaurant, the food seemed easier to digest,” she recalls. “I switched my diet to vegan – eating tons of veg, beans and pulses – and after two weeks I felt more energised than I had in years. It’s taken a while to adjust – meal planning takes effort – but it’s changed my life.” The key thing to remember is that you won’t feel healthier if you go vegan and still eat junk. “I’ve known vegans who live on chips and chocolate,” says Dr Frankie Phillips, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. “But I’ve seen lots of healthy vegans, too. Since it requires more meal planning, I think in general vegans are more likely to be mindful eaters, aware of what they’re putting into their bodies.”
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Instagram accounts such as , and are full of vegan inspiration. Warning: will cause hunger.
But will I get scurvy?
It’s true that vegans risk losing out on certain nutrients. “Because vegans don’t eat meat, fish or dairy, they risk becoming deficient in the vitamins and minerals these provide, including protein, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, omega-3 fats and selenium,” says Dr Phillips. “A lack of iron can cause anaemia, which can make you feel tired and weak. Similarly, our energy and mood is affected if we don’t get enough protein, B12, omega-3 fats and zinc. Low selenium levels can even cause hair loss.”
But while some of us assume animal produce is the main source of these
– particularly protein – it is possible to get nearly all we need from plant foods. “Nuts and seeds are packed with selenium and omega-3 fats, while beans, pulses and tofu are great sources of protein and zinc,” says Dr Phillips. “For iron, look to green leafy vegetables, dried fruits and wholegrains.” As for B12, the only reliable vegan sources are “fortified foods: those with added vitamin B12,” says Cullen. “This includes some milk alternatives, but I’d suggest a daily B-complex supplement, too.”
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The labels of milk alternatives will tell you if they have added B12,
but you could try the Rice Dream range (in supermarkets nationwide). For supplements, try Holland & Barrett B-Complex & B12 Tablets (from £3.99, hollandandbarrett.com) and Healthspan Vitamin B12 1,000mcg (£13.95, healthspan.co.uk). And whether you love or hate it, just 5g of Marmite gives us 25% of our recommended daily B12 intake.
If I decide to go vegan, what are my first steps?
Of course, the choice to go vegan or not is yours. If you do – for the animals, the planet, your health or sustainable food production – it’s still worth having a consultation with a dietitian, especially if you have any existing health issues. They’ll make sure you have all nutrition bases covered. Your GP can recommend a dietitian in your area, or you can check out . Then, stock up on vegan cookbooks. Try Forks Over Knives: The Cookbook by Del Sroufe, The Vegan Cookbook by Adele McConnell and The New Vegan by Áine Carlin. The key is to really think about and plan your meals, advises Marber. “Make sure they’re nutritionally balanced, and remember, healthy vegans love their food. They’re not afraid of experimenting.”
- Download HappyCow Vegan/Vegetarian Restaurant Guide App (£2.99 at
the App Store). Locates your nearest vegan-friendly shops, cafés and restaurants.
- Visit vegansociety.com. A one-stop vegan info site that covers the environment, campaigns and recipes, plus an e-shop.
- Bookmark Post Punk Kitchen (theppk.com) and My New Roots (mynewroots.org) blogs for more delicious recipe inspiration.
“From meat lover to 100% vegan”
Sarah Wadmore, 26, a marketing manager from Brighton, ate meat or fish almost every day until October 2015, when she watched a documentary and went vegan overnight. Here’s her diary…
Weeks 1-2: I stock up on veg and, while I have more energy, it’s hard work. Most food in my cupboards, such as honey, is now inedible. I can’t wear my silk or wool clothes. My skin breaks out, too, but I think this is a result of my body adjusting, so I don’t give up.
Weeks 3-4: I’m experimenting with food – like tofu – and while I’m not missing meat, I do miss cheese. Luckily, some restaurants in my home town, like Purezza, do vegan pizzas. My skin is clearing up and even looks brighter. But I’m still struggling with organisation. Because I can’t just reach for a sandwich or a ready meal, I’m planning the week’s meals on a Sunday, prepping as many packed lunches – chickpea salads and lentil-stuffed peppers – as I can. Sticking to this meal formula of ‘legume + veg’ is nutritious and cheap.
Weeks 5-6: The longer I stick to veganism, the easier it gets. I’m perfecting Sunday batch cooking – two trays of veg roasting while tofu marinates. I’ve noticed I don’t have that 4pm slump at work – but I’ve been diligent with supplements.
Now: I don’t think twice before using rice milk in my porridge. I rarely feel bloated or tired. Ethically, I’m thrilled that I don’t use any animal products. It’s not for everyone, but I’ll never go back.
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Next read our guide to the best vegan beauty products.