How to go vegan: what do vegans eat and what are the benefits?

A plant-based existence is on the upswing as more and more of us turn to a diet and lifestyle free of animal products. So why is veganism becoming more popular?

According to 2016 figures there are now more than 540,000 dietary vegans in the UK – up from 150,000 in 2006 – and a further 360,000 lifestyle vegans (people who only buy cruelty-free clothes and make-up).

Famous vegans include Ellen DeGeneres, Olivia Wilde and Will.i.am, while Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, disclosed she was a flexible, or part-time, vegan. And it’s not a modern fad either; visionaries Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci both questioned the validity of eating meat.

Debra Waters spoke to Dominika Piasecka of The Vegan Society; Dr. Justine Butler, a senior researcher at Europe’s largest vegan campaigning charity, Viva!; and vegan chef Day Radley about all things vegan, including how parents can help if their  child wants to move to a plant-based diet.

Actress Olivia Wilde is vegan (credit: AFF-USA/REX/Shutterstock)

Why we’re seeing a rise in veganism

Once regarded as a hippy conceit, veganism is fast becoming a regular lifestyle and diet choice, especially amongst women – there are twice as many vegan females than males. Younger women in particular are leading the way, in part because of social media – there are currently 68 million #vegan posts on Instagram – while celebrity influencers such as Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus regularly champion the benefits of following a vegan lifestyle. High-profile campaigns such as World Vegan Month and Veganuary are changing people’s preconceptions and this year even the Great British Bake Off had its first vegan week to show how inventive vegan baking can be.

There’s also a growing concern for managing our health and weight, and for animal welfare and the environment. Supermarkets have responded to the burgeoning trend by offering more meat- and dairy-free options, which in turn makes it easier for consumers to eat vegan.

‘The positive portrayal in the media has also contributed to veganism’s changing image,’ says Dominika Piasecka. ‘Delicious vegan recipes have multiplied online and top vegan athletes keep proving that you can be fit and healthy on a plant-based diet.’

Veganism isn’t just about food

For many ‘veganism is a lifestyle choice that avoids using animals in all aspects of life, including eating animals and their products, as well as wearing animal-derived materials such as leather, wool, silk and fur. Vegans also avoid products [such as make-up or household items] that have been tested on animals and places that exploit animals such as zoos, circuses and aquaria,’ explains Piasecka.

Vegans do not regard animals as commodities. We’re not their guardians or owners,’ says Dr. Justine Butler. To put it succinctly, she adds, vegans don’t eat or wear anything ‘that had a face or came out of something with a face.’

The benefits of going vegan

‘Vegans tend to eat more fruit and vegetables, which are among the healthiest foods out there, contributing to great health,’ says Piasecka, while Butler adds that being vegan considerably ‘reduces our risk of disease including some cancers.’

But going vegan isn’t just about following a better diet. There are numerous other advantages: ‘If all the world went vegan tomorrow we’d save over 56 billion land animals (1.1 billion in the UK alone) and as animal agriculture is also the largest producer of greenhouse gases (around 16 per cent) switching to a plant-based diet would help protect the environment by cutting carbon emissions,’ says Butler.

The downsides of going vegan

The change can be overwhelming at first. Butler admits it’s ‘a learning process and most people don’t just wake up vegan one morning,’ adding that people tend to ‘learn as they go, gradually,’ and that this is perfectly acceptable.

‘It can be a very healthy way to eat, but it really depends on how you do it,’ says vegan chef Day Radley. ‘Omitting non-vegan foods is not unhealthy and many long-term vegans, like me, are a great example of this but there are lots of processed vegan foods available now that, as with any processed food, should not make up the bulk of your diet.’ In a nutshell, don’t presume that going vegan automatically makes you healthier and educate yourself so you know your plant protein sources and what constitutes a balanced diet.

Do vegans lose weight?

‘Again, that depends on what type of vegan diet you follow,’ advises Radley. ‘If you eat a wholefoods vegan diet, cooking food from scratch, you will be very healthy,’ and this can lead to losing weight naturally.

Healthy doesn’t mean boring (credit: The Picture Pantry/Getty Images)

Why it’s healthy to be vegan

‘Vegans tend to have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, less obesity, less heart disease and lower rates of certain cancers,’ says Butler. ‘This is because diets rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain foods (wholemeal bread, brown rice and wholewheat pasta), pulses (peas, beans and lentils), nuts and seeds are packed with all the good things we need without exposing us to unhealthy saturated fats, hormones and animal protein, which are all linked to disease.’

‘Let’s not forget that the World Health Organization has categorised processed meat as carcinogenic and a cause of cancer in the same band as tobacco,’ adds Piasecka.

What vegans may think they can eat but can’t

Vegans can eat any plant-based foods, as well as grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, but no animal-based foods such as meat, dairy, eggs and honey. There are many vegan alternatives but be mindful that some of those products are highly processed and bad for us in different ways.

Then there are the stealth ingredients that seem vegan but aren’t. ‘Colours, preservatives and fillers using animals ingredients are, unfortunately, ubiquitous in our food system,’ says Radley. ‘One to highlight is wine, though fortunately many supermarkets now label wine as vegan, a trend that has spread to all the major food retailers that self-label bottles.’

‘Beer and wines are sometimes filtered through animal products like bone marrow and fish bladder, making them unsuitable for vegans,’ adds Piasecka, while other foods you need to avoid are ‘Worcestershire sauce (anchovies), chewy sweets (gelatine) and some margarine brands (whey).’

The good news is that there are many foods that you may not think are vegan but are, such as Bisto Gravy, Marmite, Original Oreos and lots of crisp flavours, including Pringles Smokey Bacon!

Family favourites you didn’t know were vegan

If you’re feeling under the weather, Butler recommends maple, date or agave syrups as substitutes to honey as ‘research shows that as a cold remedy, honey offers no advantage over other sweet syrups.’

Why not all vegan food is healthy food

Vegan food isn’t necessarily beneficial and wholesome; there are a lot of highly processed products on the market that are essentially junk foods. Vegan chef Day Radley jokes that ‘when we are at our weakest is when the Junk Food Gremlin comes out. We’re biologically programmed to seek out quick sources of sugar, fat and salt, so to keep the gremlin at bay have a stash of healthy snacks with you. Nuts are perfect.’

‘Vegan junk food is still better for you than its meaty equivalent,’ argues Butler, ‘which is packed with saturated animal fat, animal protein and so on.’

How to eat vegan on a budget

‘If you cook from scratch using lentils, beans and legumes as well as vegetables your food bill will be very low,’ recommends Radley. ‘Use spices and herbs to liven up these dishes. My favourite budget dishes are red cabbage one pot chilli and sweet potato dhal. Both of these dishes are ideal for batch cooking, so make more than you need and freeze the rest.

It’s not difficult for children to eat a vegan diet (credit: Anjelika Gretskaia/Getty Images)

How parents can help if their kids want to go vegan

‘There’s a lot of choice out there now and parents can easily accommodate a vegan in the family,’ says Butler. ‘Viva’s free 30 Day Vegan plan has helped a huge number of people. You’re sent a daily email for 30 days with recipes, health tips, information, meal plans and recipes that include all the nutrients a child or teenager needs. Some examples include veggie chilli with avocado dip, lentil shepherd’s pie, pizza, tofu quiche, falafel wrap, vegan sausage and mash, tofish and chips, colourful stir-fries and vibrant salads.

Piasecka recommends checking out The Vegan Society website for tips about vegan diets for kids, which vegan chef Day Radley also endorses.

If you’re still unsure you might be encouraged to know that in 2017 the British Dietetic Association, which is the UK’s leading authority on nutrition, released this statement saying that ‘a balanced vegan diet can be enjoyed by children and adults, including during pregnancy and breastfeeding, if the nutritional intake is well-planned.’

Useful resources

The Vegan Society is launching an app on 1st November to celebrate World Vegan Month. Called VeGuide, it’s free to download and offers advice and inspiration on how to go vegan.