Thanks to a great twitter chat all about plant based eating hosted by RDUK on Monday, I really got thinking about Veganuary.
This is the fifth year that Veganuary has been a thing to start the off the new year. This year has seen well over 300,000 people taking part. Vegan has certainly become a trendy thing. Vegan eating was once the preserve of only the extremely dedicated, prepared to have very little choice in food unless they made it themselves. Shops, manufacturers and restaurants are really embracing plant based, recognising this choice of eating style as an option that many people want more of and not just vegans. That people are looking to eat more plant based foods within a non-veggie diet as well as the real exponential increase in the number of people identifying themselves as vegan.
Even with the increase in plant based products and better choices on menus, vegan is still pretty tough, it still needs a bit of planning to be sure that you are getting all the nutrients you need. I have to say, I haven’t attempted Veganuary – I don’t like cutting out of food groups completely so it is not something for me. I live with a veggie so flexitarian is probably describes me best. I find it interesting why the sudden boom in recent years?
There are several things going on here. I think the biggest thing is the increased awareness that food production is a massive contribution to environmental issues. More and more of us are taking this into account when shopping for food. Animal products require more resources to produce than plant based foods in general so those wanting to have a more ecological footprint are moving towards a more plant based diet. You don’t have to be vegan or even vegetarian to have a plant based diet. However, vegan does tout itself as the ultimate plant based diet.
There is also a bit of a health halo around a vegan diet – a diet that is totally fruit, vegetables, pulses, seeds and grains must be uber healthy? It is important to be aware that simply cutting meat and dairy out of what you eat doesn’t automatically make you healthier. Vegan products do seem to ooze healthy from their labels. There have been some documentaries and information encouraging veganism that labels all animal products as unhealthy, generating a bit of ‘food fear’ which may encourage a switch to vegan eating. Unfortunately, it seems, certainly in the realms of social media and the internet, better health seems to be achieved by cutting things out of the diet, rather than increasing variety (which has always been my mantra).
Many of us could really benefit from eating more plant based foods which can add fibre and micronutrients, help us to feel fuller for longer and may improve heart health, reduce the risk of T2 diabetes and the risk of some cancers. But going vegan reduces your food choices by two whole food groups and there are some nutrients that are pretty hard to get from plants like B12, iodine, calcium and iron. If you want to go vegan then it is really important that you eat the biggest variety of plant based foods as possible and to look for fortified dairy alternatives and breakfast cereals. A multivitamin supplement may be important from some people too.
Becoming vegan has become much easier. Indeed anyone that needs or chooses to cut out foods for any reason now has a much easier time in shops and restaurants. The free-from market has boomed in the last few years meeting the demand for special diets – finally those with allergies and intolerances can find foods in supermarkets free from what ever they can’t eat. And producers have been making big strides in the acceptability of these foods – there used to be a bit of a trade off in terms of taste or texture but this is definitely changing. The benefit of this has been enormous to those folk who really do need to cut out certain foods like coeliacs and those with allergies! The dairy free and egg free foods have really helped to make vegan life easier too.
In addition to the increase in free-from foods, there is also a recognition that more and more people want to eat more plant based foods, regardless of whether they choose to become vegetarian or vegan. More and more people are happy to choose food that just is tasty and is interesting and not shun a meal or dish simply because it has no meat in it. This makes it more viable to invest in making more plant based options. If people have wanted to be vegan but found it too hard then suddenly they can make that choice for a month or longer.
I see some real upsides in the increase in vegan eating. It is a good thing that more people are taking an interest in the environment and seeing that the food we buy has a big environmental impact – I don’t think it is necessary to become vegan to engage with the cause but the increase in interest in vegan or plant based foods is probably going to have a positive effect on the planet. More people eating sustainable, plant based foods regardless of being vegan or veggie because there are more plant based tasty options for everyone. Most of us could do with eating more plant based foods, with better choice of attractive tasty options there is more choice for everyone – not just the vegans and veggies. I also see that the choices for those who need to avoid milk and eggs continues to improve.
There is also a downside to vegan eating becoming more popular and easier. I think there is no doubt that to be vegan needs a bit of planning to ensure that those nutrients that are not so easy to get from plants are included. People who make a careful choice to be vegan and do their research can certainly be healthy. As being vegan becomes easier and therefore makes it easier to not plan and cook, it can be much easier to miss out on important things. It becomes easier to just cut the animal products but not necessarily easier to be sure you are including all the things you need to be healthy.
Will vegan diets continue to rise? I think there is every chance they will and with that maybe a greater consumption of healthy plant based foods by other sections of the population, an increase in ‘flexitarian’ eating. What will be the long term health effects? Will we see lower type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers? That would be great. But will there be other problems becoming more common as a result of poorly planned vegan diets. We do need to ensure that information is out there and easily accessible, that vegan products are well labelled with regards to fortification etc, support is there for parents raising vegan children or for those parents whose children want to be vegan in a non-veggie household.
Not all of us can or want to be vegan. If you can’t tolerate pulses for any reason then it would be pretty hard to be vegan and obtain all the nutrients needed for health. I know people who have tried the vegan thing and have struggled with tiredness and anaemia, others who have felt really down whilst on a vegan diet. On the other side of the coin I know vegans who feel so much healthier since going vegan. I think it is important to remember that there is no one diet that suits everyone and not to judge people for their choices.
Most of us can do with a bit more veg, a bit more fibre, be a bit more plant based. Adding a couple of vegan meals into the week is one way of doing that. Having more plant based meals can reduce your food bills and help the planet. As well as eating a bit less animal products, we can choose food with less packaging and try to reduce our food waste if environmental issues are important to us. Supporting a food brand or retailer that is doing good things environmentally is another thing we can do – we can help push bigger organisations and companies, that have a bit more influence, to do better by creating demand for more sustainable food.
I live with a vegetarian and we have quite a plant based diet but I certainly would struggle to go vegan – life without cheese, or the occasional steak, I have to be honest and say that I haven’t tried milk alternatives – to deny myself completely of some of the things I really enjoy would just be too hard. So I shall stick with my mantra of eat more plants, maintain lots of variety, not to cut out whole food groups and to enjoy food.
If you are giving Veganuary a go, I hope you discover some amazing plant based recipes that you will want to eat long into the New Year, that you discover (if you hadn’t already) the versatility and yumminess of pulses, tried some new vegetables or cooked vegetables in some new ways – do share your experience. How did you find it? After the month would you stick with it for longer?
For more info on sustainable and healthy eating check out the BDA One Blue Dot resources. For more info on being Vegan then check out the Vegan Society website. They do have lots of information on staying healthy and making sure that you are not missing out on important nutrients.