Ten years ago, if you’d told me I’d go vegan, I’d have laughed while wiping the juice from a medium-rare steak off my chin. I was always an animal lover but, like a lot of people, I’d managed to dissociate the packaged-up chicken breasts in my local supermarket from, well, actual chickens. But over the past few years, veganism has become difficult to ignore. Between 2014 and 2018, the number of UK vegans quadrupled, according to The Vegan Society. And I kept seeing things (from the 2014 film Cowspiracy to numerous newspaper articles) that made me question my habits – especially once I discovered that cutting out meat and dairy could be one of the best ways to help the planet. Plus, the more vegans I met, the more I realised that while it once seemed a major hassle (who has the time to make their own nut milk?), there are now so many vegan-friendly options available, it’s easier than you might expect. So in summer 2017, I decided to go for it, and I now eat only plant-based foods, avoiding all animal products, including eggs and dairy. And I feel great!
But veganism is more than just a trend – there are also potential health benefits. A weight-loss study showed that participants on a vegan diet lost more than those on vegetarian or omnivorous regimes. And research suggests that vegans may be at lower risk of heart disease and high blood pressure, because their diet tends to be low in saturated fat and high in fibre. Plus, give it a go and you’re more likely to reach your five-a-day target (and then some!), reducing your risk of certain cancers, heart disease and stroke. But there are watch-outs. ‘You can’t just switch to plant foods and expect to be healthy,’ says dietitian Dr Carrie Ruxton. ‘If you don’t research and plan, it’s easy to become deficient in some nutrients.’ For me, it’s definitely been worth the extra effort. So, whether you’re interested in being a part-time plant-eater or you fancy giving full-time vegan life a try, here’s what I’ve learned over the past 18 months, to help you sort the meat from the, erm, tofu.
Like any healthy-eating plan, a vegan diet should be a combination of mainly starchy carbs and fruit and veg, with smaller amounts of protein or dairy alternatives, a little oil and occasional fatty, sugary foods. When I started out, I found The Vegan Society’s VNutrition app (free for iPhone and Android) invaluable – it’s designed by a dietitian, with a special focus on nutrients you’re likely to miss. For starters, you’ll need to get your vitamin B12 (which is involved in keeping the nervous system healthy and releasing energy from food) from a yeast extract such as Marmite and fortified breakfast cereals. I get some of the omega-3 fats found in oily fish by eating flaxseed and walnuts instead, but as research suggests our bodies don’t use these as well as fish oils, I top up with a vegan DHA supplement made from algae. For iron, I eat plenty of pulses, dried fruit and fortified cereals. Calcium-wise, I opt for fortified milk alternatives such as almond milk (check the label, as not all are fortified), calcium-set tofu and sesame seeds. And don’t forget a vitamin D supplement, to help keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy.
Full transparency: veganism does require some home-cooking. ‘Look at making vegan meals as a way to experiment and introduce more nutrient-packed fruit, vegetables, pulses and whole grains,’ urges dietitian Helen Bond. My cooking bible? Keep It Veganby Aine Carlin (Kyle Books). Indian and Thai food can often be dairy-free (I swap ghee for coconut or rapeseed oil). And I’m now used to stocking up on kitchen-cupboard basics such as lentils, chickpeas, coconut milk, nut butters (a fave is Pip & Nut Coconut Almond Butter (225g), and dairy alternatives such as Plenish Organic Almond M*lk (1 litre). If I’m short on time, tofu and veggie stir-fries are a mainstay, or I chuck some root veg in the oven with oil and smoked paprika, then eat them with houmous and a salad. I always check items for saturated fat, salt and sugar levels, though – just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s a healthy choice.
If you don’t have time to make lunch, there are now some fantastic grab-and-go options (such as the new, limited-edition Vegan lunch range at Boots, including the All Day Breakfast Sandwich†. Just keep on eye on the fat/sugar/salt content of pre-prepared items, too.
Eating out is getting easier all the time – happycow is my go-to for finding a vegan restaurant. I also try not to sweat the small stuff if I’m at a friend’s place or abroad in a not-so-vegan-friendly country. For me, avoiding meat and dairy is non-negotiable, but I don’t beat myself up if I suspect I’ve had some accidental egg. To make friends feel less worried about what to cook for dinner, I offer to bring a vegan dish, usually dessert – blending an avocado with oat milk, a banana, raw cacao and a smidgen of date syrup creates a fantastic alternative to chocolate mousse.
If you plunge into full-time veganism, be aware that unexpected ingredients or preparation processes can catch out even the most experienced plant-eaters – so don’t be too hard on yourself. For example, ‘Vegetarian sandwiches could easily contain butter or milk in a spread,’ says Carrie. Booze is another common blind spot. There are plenty of readily available vegan-friendly options, but real ale and white, rosé and sparkling wine may be filtered through fish swim bladders, while egg white and milk protein can be used to remove bitterness in red wine (a vegan friend didn’t realise this for ages). ‘Also, check supplements – read every label to see things are clearly marked as vegan-friendly,’ says Boots nutritionist Vicky Pennington. Sure, there’s a lot to get your head around, but if you give it a go (even part-time), you might find unexpected benefits. It’s different for everyone, but my digestive issues have vanished (goodbye, lactose intolerance!), I have more energy, and my skin looks clearer. Plus, I’ve improved my knowledge of food and renewed a love of cooking. Talk about a serious list of wins…