It’s the biggest food fad to capture the zeitgeist since the 5:2 Diet a decade ago but this is more than just a weight loss plan.
There are around 600,000 vegans in the UK, a four-fold increase since five years ago and the vegan food market is expected to be worth $23.4bn by 2026. It is becoming easier to be vegan, with seemingly every fast-food brand delivering an option to steal a share of that pound, and plant-based products readily available in supermarkets. Innovation in vegan products is improving and changing the offering, including (what I consider very peculiar) ‘bleeding meat’ from the likes of Impossible Foods and not-chicken from The Vegetarian Butcher. But it’s not quite as simple as that.
A couple I know have decided to go vegan as their New Year’s resolution, but one was lusting after honey for her toast and I pointed out that it would be off-limits, as it is an animal product. There are the obvious items like meat and dairy that one can’t indulge in but other less obvious products such as mayo or pancakes! And it seems every other person I meet is proudly wearing the vegan badge of honour. The environmental benefits of going meat-free are well-documented, but there are some health considerations to take into account – both good and bad – before taking the plunge.
My ex-boyfriend, a big burly, burger-chomping bloke, decided to go vegan a couple of years ago. His mother was sadly diagnosed with and subsequently died from vascular dementia and he found the links to red meat and processed foods to be part of the triggers. As I mentioned, he has a rugby player-type physique which he found hard to manage. Since going vegan he says: “The big plus for me has been an equalisation of my body weight. I’ve always been a yo-yo dieter putting myself through weeks of self-imposed penance after Christmas and holiday binges. But having these new rules in place have changed that.”. Veganism can help protect against cardiovascular diseases, by reducing obesity and lowering cholesterol. These chronic illnesses cost the UK around £9bn a year according to Public Health England.
There is also a benefit to your gut. Vegans tend to have a higher level of microbiome, the collection of good bacteria which live in the digestive tract. This is partly down to the higher levels of fibre from plants and seeds that they eat but additionally, there is evidence of slightly different types of bacteria being cultivated that can help reduce inflammation in the gut. Steve himself says that his digestive system is now “more serene and predictable” than it used to be. And of course, by taking out processed meat from your diet, you will reduce the risk of colorectal, stomach and kidney cancers. According to the Cleveland Clinic, colon cancer risk could be reduced by up to 16%.
In 2015, the Northern Arizona Clinic also found that a vegan diet can reduce symptoms of certain autoimmune disorders by reducing inflammation and easing the side effects. The tennis star Venus Williams suffers from a rare autoimmune condition called Sjögren's syndrome. She has gone on record that a raw and vegan diet has mitigated the extreme fatigue that it causes.
But there are other problems that need to be managed.
By removing all animal products from your diet you are also removing several key nutrients that are incredibly difficult to replace in quantity with just fruit, nuts and grains. The one that is impossible to replace is vitamin B12. B12 is an essential vitamin; it is vital for normal function of the brain and nervous system. It is also key to helping the body produce red blood cells, of which millions are made every minute. These cells cannot multiply properly without vitamin B12 and if their level drops too low, one is at risk of anaemia. “Low B12 levels can lead to raised blood levels of homocysteine, which may be linked to higher risk of stroke.” says Tammy Tong, a researcher in the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Population Health. So a supplement is essential.
Vegans can also miss out on iron. Iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme. Approximately 40% of the iron in meat is heme and easily absorbed by the body. Vegan diets contain only non-heme iron, which is much harder to absorb and so you need more of it to derive the same benefit. Lack of iron can cause fatigue, dizziness and again, anaemia, so a supplement should be considered.
Calcium is another key nutrient that can be tough to get enough of. The EPIC-Oxford study found that while consuming vegetables rich in calcium, such as broccoli, can protect bones, in reality many vegans don’t actually meet their calcium requirements. As a result, they have found a 30% increased risk of fracture in vegans compared to vegetarians and meat eaters. As someone who has lived with a life-long dairy allergy I have taken a comprehensive calcium supplement for bone health since I was 20. To absorb calcium properly, you need vitamin D. To absorb vitamin D, you need magnesium. So find one that will deliver all three. I personally take Citracal, a food-based supplement that delivers higher levels than others on the market.
There isn’t enough documented evidence yet of the long-term effects of a vegan diet, whether good or bad. There is anecdotal evidence that vegans tend to consider their lifestyle choices more carefully, take more exercise and generally look after themselves, so do tend to be ‘healthier’ than the general population. However, the minefield of deficiencies are yet to make themselves known.
There does seem to be a militancy that goes with veganism, but Steve has a more sensible approach: “You should be able to take a break from your vegan diet without feeling like you’ve ruined the whole thing. This is health not religion! On special occasions, like birthdays, for instance, if someone has made a cake don’t be a killjoy. Have a small slice, enjoy it, then get back on the horse. Life is too short. Work out your own vegan ‘holidays’ and use them wisely.”.
Or maybe just do it for Veganuary.
Here are some great recipe sources: