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

More and more of us are turning to a diet and lifestyle free of animal products, but why is plant-based living becoming more popular?

According to the Vegan Society, veganism has skyrocketed in the UK since 2016, with around 600,000 people identifying as vegan as of 2018. So what exactly is it about the vegan diet that’s proving so appealing?

Famous vegans include Sandra Oh, Olivia Wilde and Will.i.am. And it’s not a modern fad either; visionaries Albert Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci both questioned the validity of eating meat.

We spoke to Henry Firth and Ian Theasby, authors of BOSH! How To Live Vegan, 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 and , about all things vegan, including how parents can help if their child wants to move to a plant-based diet.

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Why we’re seeing a rise in veganism

Veganism is fast becoming a regular lifestyle and diet choice, especially among women – there are twice as many vegan females than males, according to the latest research from the Vegan Society. Social media has proved a great platform for the vegan movement; there are currently 84 million #vegan posts on Instagram, while celebrity influencers such as Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus regularly champion the benefits of following a vegan diet.

High-profile campaigns such as World Vegan Month and Veganuary are changing people’s preconceptions and last year’s run of 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 a vegan diet.

“The positive portrayal in the media has 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.”

“The internet has played a huge role too,” says Ian Theasby and Henry Firth of BOSH! TV. “People now have all this knowledge at their fingertips. Within seconds people can learn about the impact the meat and dairy can have on the environment and their health.”

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, wear or buy 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”.

The health benefits of a vegan diet aren’t always the obvious, either. “We’ve also found that our allergies are much better now. Henry used to suffer really badly with hay fever during the summer, and now it’s practically gone,” say Theasby and Firth.

But going vegan isn’t just about following a better diet. There are numerous other advantages for our world at large. “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 greatly help protect the environment by cutting carbon emissions,” says Butler.

The downsides of going vegan

The change can be overwhelming initially. 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.

“Navigating supermarkets as a vegan can be difficult at first!” Theasby and Firth told us. “When we both went vegan four years ago, a food shop could take ages. We had to constantly check labels to check if they were vegan-friendly (and sometimes we still weren’t 100% sure). Things are much better now, with free-from aisles and better labelling.”

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Why it’s healthy to eat a vegan diet

“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.

“And 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.

But while a plant-based diet is arguably healthier, don’t presume that going vegan will automatically improve your diet and educate yourself so you know your plant protein sources and what constitutes a balanced diet.

“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.”

Theasby and Firth echo this sentiment. “There’s so much vegan junk food out there. Burgers, hot dogs, steak sandwiches – anything you can imagine. As a vegan, it can be easy to fall into a trap of just eating chips and pasta, but life is all about balance. We go by the 80/20 rule. 80% healthy and 20% whatever you fancy.”

Vegan food: 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.

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).”

“One of the most surprising things we discovered was that items like apples, oranges and avocados can be coated with a glazing agent that is typically made from shellac (made from the secretions of the lac bug),” Theasby and Firth added.

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

Read more: 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”.

How to eat a vegan diet 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.”

vegan toast

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“Meat is usually the most expensive thing on a plate, whereas things like mushrooms, tinned tomatoes and chickpeas are cheap as chips,” say Theasby and Firth.

“As BOSH!, we aim to create affordable recipes, as well as the big show-stoppers for special occasions. Loads of our recipes are made with mushrooms, which are incredibly cheap but so versatile. You can create everything from chilli and shepherd’s pie, to faux gras and mini mushroom pies.”

How parents can help if their kids want to go vegan

“It’s incredible to see the younger generation taking a stand,” say Theasby and Firth. “Be as supportive as you can and get creative with vegan food! It’s a really lovely chance to get your kids in the kitchen with you and create something delicious for the family together.”

“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.”

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

Stuck for new vegan diet ideas? YouTube has endless inspiration. “As a busy parent, it can be hard to think of exciting dinner ideas, especially if you’re not vegan yourself. There are so many different platforms where you can find inspiring recipes – like BOSH.TV, Gaz Oakley’s Avant-Garde Vegan or Lauren Toyota’s Hot For Food,” say Theasby and Firth.

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’.

Vegan recipes

If you’re looking for some inspiration as to what you can cook up vegan style, then have a look at the vegan recipes on our site such as Joe Wicks’ delicious vegan chickpea curry, our many vegan breakfast ideas as well as our vegan lunch recommendations!

Useful resources

The Vegan Society launched an app last November to celebrate World Vegan Month. Called VNutrition, it’s free to download and offers advice and inspiration on how to go vegan.

BOSH! How To Live Vegan by Henry Firth and Ian Theasby is out now (HQ, HarperCollins)