And what a clear and compelling message this year's Veganuary poster is carrying!
Record numbers of people are expected to jump aboard the plant-powered 2020 bandwagon – in the region of 350,000 compared to 250,310 in 2019, a HUGE increase. I wonder, however, how many of them really and truly comprehend what veganism actually is and how it can support long-term health, as well as how it can destroy it in exactly the same way as an omnivorous diet can? So during VEGANUARY 2020, I will be writing about going vegan – just for January or for ever - its advantages and disadvantages, pros and cons, benefits and pitfalls, and whether it is suitable for humans generally, or only for some, or simply for none.
Have I signed up? Of course! Do I eat a vegan diet? No, not 100%, but probably 98% and I like to look at the way I eat as “plant-powered” rather than the rather dry and uninspiring "vegan". As I explained in my 2011 vegan cookery book, Vegan Cookbook The Essential Guide, the word vegan often brings to mind denial of gastronomic pleasure, pre-conceptions about deprivation and lack, an empty glass rather than one which is full, full to the brim, full to overflowing with infinite possibilities – plant cookery is truly limited only by our imaginations. Veganism has come a very long way since then and it is now easier and easier to go vegan, for one month at least, with countless restaurants, supermarkets and manufacturers offering plant-based produce, products and alternatives, and a mind-blowing cornucopia of vegan cookery books and blogs which introduce both beginners and long-term vegans to an Aladdin’s cave of plant-based recipes.
So, could you go vegan? Are you tempted to join Veganuary? Do you fancy giving a plant-powered way of living and eating a go?
Being vegan is very, very fashionable right now, and anybody in favour of this specific way of eating will maintain that it’s absolutely THE healthiest diet you can have from a nutritional perspective. Furthermore, it is cheaper, compassionate (it is reckoned that one person going vegan saves the lives of an average ten animals per month), and it offers a solution to many climate challenges. For most people, it is a bit of a stretch to go from a current carnivorous diet to a 100% vegan diet so let’s go through the actual concept of a vegan diet: what it means to be vegan, what’s great about it, what’s not so good, where one might struggle – and I will also offer some tips for getting started, whether your intention is to immerse yourself fully or if you just fancy dabbling, whichever suits you best.
WHAT IS A VEGAN DIET?
A vegan diet is a stricter version of a vegetarian diet. On top of not eating any meat, fish or seafood – i.e. dead animals of any species - a vegan diet also cuts out all food stuffs made from animal sources, including dairy products and eggs, both of which are in many ways highly nutrient-dense..... Honey is also off limits, as are certain wines, and any dishes containing gelatine.
By the way, are you surprised that not all wine is vegan? Well, young wines are a little bit cloudy thanks to tiny molecules like proteins, tartrates, tannins and phenolics. These are completely harmless, but wine-drinkers like their wines to be clear and bright. To clarify the wines, wine-makers have traditionally used some specific ingredients called ‘fining agents’ to help the process along. They include casein (milk protein) and albumin (egg whites), gelatine (an animal protein) and isinglass (fish bladder protein). These act like a magnet, resulting in far fewer – but larger – particles which are more easily removed.
There is no set macro- or micro-nutrient ratio for a vegan diet; it is simply made up of vegetables, grains, fruit, nuts, seeds and any other foods which come from plants. However, since the main vegan protein sources are pulses and grains and, with a very few exceptions, only a combination of the two provides complete proteins, ie containing all the amino acids, this can, by definition, be a diet very high in carbohydrates. This is not generally a problem so long as they are complex or complete carbohydrates, but having said that, eating large quantities of even these healthy carbohydrates may not be recommended for some health conditions.
Let's look first at the obvious advantages of going vegan. A vegan diet
· Is cruelty-free and compassionate
· Promotes the consumption of natural foods
· Is rich in Vitamin C and fibre, plus other priceless plant chemicals
· Is helpful for some health conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and other auto-immune conditions
And what might the disadvantages be?
· Natural food is not a requirement to comply with the diet
· Does not explicitly encourage healthy eating patterns
· May be nutrient-deficient (Vitamin B12, haem iron, omega-3 fats, complete protein)
· Often high in carbohydrates as mentioned above
· Can be too low in protein, especially if you’re stressed or recovering from adrenal fatigue
· Does not limit or exclude sugar
· Not suitable for the elderly, pregnant women, Type 2 diabetics, or those with high triglycerides or carbohydrate intolerance
· Not always practical, especially when travelling abroad
· May or may not be effective for weight loss
Now, how healthy is a vegan diet? Good question! A vegan diet most certainly does not mean a healthy diet! There have been various well-publicised assertions over the years (most notably the book The China Study and, more recently, the film What The Health) which claimed that eating a vegan diet was the healthiest thing you could do.
Although vegans commonly take an interest in how diet relates to health and tend to educate themselves about nutrition, the vegan diet does not explicitly prescribe healthy foods. There is a vegan alternative for every junk food out there! And you can live on white toast with margarine and jam (and see your blood sugar levels sky rocket) while still being vegan – and that is certainly not healthy by any stretch of the imagination.
However, pretty much everyone agrees that the following practices ARE healthy:-
· Eating an abundance of fresh fruit and particularly vegetables, including in their raw state
· Cutting out or at least minimising processed foods
· Cooking meals from scratch rather than relying on convenience and prepared meals, let alone take-aways
· Eating mindfully and slowly
· Choosing local, organic foods
Given that the vast majority of health complaints are linked to chronic inflammation, and that a plant-heavy, antioxidant-rich vegan diet will go a considerable way to mediating inflammation, it will certainly not hinder your attempts to be healthy! Given also that we don’t eat nearly as much fibre as we should for optimum health, committing to eating more fruit and vegetables can only be a good thing.
THINGS TO BE MINDFUL OF ON A VEGAN DIET
1. Vegan diets don’t provide the fat-soluble Vitamins A and D. You can’t get Vitamin A from carrots. What you get is beta carotene, which is the precursor to Vitamin A.
You may have heard that carotene can be converted into Vitamin A, but this conversion is usually insignificant. Firstly, it takes a huge amount of beta carotene to create a noteworthy amount of actual Vitamin A. And, if you have low thyroid function, impaired digestion or a lack of healthy fats in the diet, this conversion won’t in fact happen at all
2. Vegan diets (unless you’re eating a lot of natto which is a kind of fermented soy) don’t provide Vitamin K2 which is needed for shuttling calcium into your bones
3. Many people try to be vegan by relying on fake food! They replace milk, cheese and meat with foods manufactured to look and taste as though they are milk, cheese and meat – and since food manufacturing is not magic, non-foodstuffs such as stabilisers, gums, thickeners and highly processed protein extracts are used. Moreover, vegan cheese is often counted as a source of protein, when many vegan cheeses are actually made from simple carbohydrates
4. Vegan diets are low on Vitamin B12 and iron. The readily-absorbed forms of these nutrients are found in animal products and a number of studies (see References) suggests that up to 68% of vegans could be deficient in Vitamin B12
5. Some research has also shown that both vegetarians and vegans are prone to deficiencies in calcium, iron, zinc, and essential fats (see References below)
BUT, don’t let any of this put you off going vegan, as there are viable solutions, so if you want to get started, there are a number of healthy, reliable ways to launch yourself into Veganuary.
Some people like to make changes all in one go. If this is you, choosing a vegan recipe book from the resources I’ve listed below will be helpful.
Or you might try changing one meal at a time – possibly having a vegan breakfast during your first week, adding a vegan lunch during Week 2 and so on.
You might also try changing one product at a time; for example, swapping traditional cow’s milk for almond milk, or butter for coconut oil. There’s a plant-based alternative for pretty much everything.
One thing that you can look forward to is an infinity of exciting new recipes. Bringing the principles of being vegan into your life for even a few days a week (assuming we are talking plant-based meals rather than fake or junk foods!) will deliver a whole new taste experience. There will be foods and dishes which you love, and some which the family rejects. It’s all part of the fun of discovering a new way of living and eating!
1. GOOD VEGAN BLOGS and WEBSITES
Vegan Richa - https://www.veganricha.com/
The Colourful Kitchen - www.thecolorfulkitchen.com
Deliciously Ella - www.deliciouslyella.com
Minimalist Baker- www.minimalistbaker.com
Oh She Glows - www.ohsheglows.com
BOSH! - www.bosh.tv
A Virtual Vegan - https://avirtualvegan.com/
Colleen Patrick Goudreau - www.colleenpatrickgoudreau.com
Vegan Food & Living Magazine - Vegan Food & Living Magazine
VIVA! - The Vegan Charity
2. GOOD VEGAN COOKERY BOOKS
Isabel Hood - The Essential Vegan Cookbook
Robin Robertson - Vegan Fire and Spice
Katy Beskow - 15-minute Vegan: Fast, Modern Vegan Cooking
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall - River Cottage Much More Veg: 175 easy and delicious vegan recipes for every meal
Olivia Wollenberg - Livia's Kitchen
Vegans are deficient in B12 and folate:
Vegans are deficient in calcium: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21139125
Vegans are lower in iron: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24871479 https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/78/3/633S/4690005
Vegans are lower in zinc: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/78/3/633S/4690005
Vegans are low on essential fats: ttps://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/82/2/327/4862944