Veganuary is here!!

I would like to present to you the ‘Vegan Conundrum’. Vegan eating has become both easier and harder at the same time.

I was involved in a bit of discussion within a food writers group on Facebook last year about the rise in acceptability of veganism as outlined in an Observer article and read a mix of views on both sides. One thing stood out for me, which is a big part of the Veganuary message by advocates, is how easy it has become to be vegan and eat a completely plant based diet.

Vegan means to eat a totally plant based diet containing no meat, fish, eggs, milk or other dairy products, honey or any food containing any ingredient from an animal by-product. This means cutting out a huge number of very nutritious foods so that balanced vegan eating does require some planning to avoid missing out on nutrients like B12.

Year upon year the popularity and awareness of Veganuary grows. Starting in the UK is 2014, with just 3,300 people signing up to the 31 day vegan challenge, last year 620,000 people registered and is expected that this number will grow this year.

The switch to vegan eating as a life style choice has increased too and Veganuary has been a part of this rise. Removing all animal products including eggs, dairy and honey from your menu is a daunting thing to do and giving people a structured means of testing out veganism for a month has certainly allowed people who considered going vegan but thought it too hard a way in. According the Vegan Society, the number of people reporting to be vegan quadrupled between 2014 and 2019.

The motivation for the Veganuary Campaign is ultimately centred upon animal rights – that we shouldn’t kill or harm any animals in order to feed ourselves. But the rise in vegan eating is more complex. The understanding that, in general, plant food production is kinder to the environment compared with animal production is more widespread. As a result, many vegans cite sustainability as their main reason to switch. Add the documentaries aired on Netflix that outline health benefits of plant based eating and the rather imposing health reasons to shun animal products, not always argued from a purely evidence based perspective but rather one with a clear bias, you have a cocktail of reasons feeding the rise in popularity of vegan eating.

Vegan eating in 2014 was a much different challenge that it is in 2022. It was hard to eat out, it was hard to grab something on the go and in reality meant cooking from scratch most of the time. It required a great deal more commitment.

The food industry has risen to the challenge of making vegan eating a lot easier. There has been a race to fill the huge gap in products for this market and attract their food spend. No more packing all lunch and snacks because the chances of finding something vegan as remote as the finding a needle in haystack.

Milk and dairy alternatives abound along with ready meals and impossible burgers, vegan ready meals and snacks. Cakes and puddings, normally containing cream or eggs, can easily be found to go with a soya latte.

And with this availability of vegan products and plant based labelling, it is no longer considered quite so extreme or weird. It is more mainstream and a vegan is much less likely to get a puzzled look or an eye roll. People are more likely now to see it as something quite admirable or at least acceptable.

But….and there is a big but……a product that ‘replaces’ an animal product may appear similar in many ways but may be very far from an equivalent nutritionally. There is often a health halo around these products which may be misplaced – is an ultra processed vegan ready meal healthier than a meat meal by the virtue of being vegan? Is a vegan cheese alternative better or worse on than a lump of your finest cheddar? It is hardly a simple yes or no answer even though it is often communicated as such.

Here lies an interesting and quite serious conundrum. Vegan eating has become at once easier and harder. If buying plant based is easier, then it also requires less thought and there is an unconscious expectation that someone has done some of this thinking when producing these ‘alternatives’.

There is no doubt that to ensure good nutrition when cutting out such a range of nutritious foods is more difficult. Eating well as a vegan requires some planning but if grabbing something plant based is easier then planning becomes a bit more optional.

If you are planning to embark on the Veganuary challenge then do check out the nutrition advice on the Vegan Society website. For tips and recipes written by a Dietitian you can trust then check out Vegan Savvy by Azmina Govinji.

A great food to add to your menu if you are cutting animal products is soya and products made from it. Check out Soya & Phytoestrogens for more information on the nutrition of soya along with recipes to try out. A freebie download with tips on portions of soya, types of soya products and how to use them, visit Let’s Talk Food.

Plant based does not have to be completely vegan or even vegetarian – you can have a heavily plant based diet and still eat animal products, meat and fish, they are not centre stage and are eaten in moderation or in small quantities. Another term might be ‘flexitarian’.

Another interesting article outlines how you may want to be vegan but your body may disagree – in any battle of ideas your health should win. If you make the choice to go vegan and decide it is not for you it is ok to reverse that decision. It also outlines how many who make the vegan choice can become very passionate which at times can have a darker side too.

A reminder that the choices we make about how we eat are personal, your ability to make that choice is a privilege that not everyone has. However passionate you are about your choices, be kind about the choices others make. And it is always ok to adjust your choices if your circumstances change or your health requires another path.

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