Vegans wear dreadlocks, tie-dye and stink of patchouli, right? Think again. In recent years, the word vegan has gone from hippie dippie to (dare I say it?) kinda cool, thanks in no small part to famous names like Jared Leto, Beyonce and even Arnold Schwarzenegger swapping pork for plants.
I’ve been a vegetarian for over 20 years (making me *cough* 22) and spent almost 3 years as a committed vegan. There’s been a huge shift in attitudes towards eating healthier in Ireland in the last 5 years (I could rant allll day about how many ‘rabbit food’ comments I’ve gotten over the years but I won’t bore you) so it’s thankfully much easier now to have a diet that’s not meat and potatoes but going vegan is still a big lifestyle change for most people.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s talk about the basics. What is a vegan and are the benefits of a vegan diet? Put simply, veganism means not eating any animal produce so no meat, poultry or fish but no honey, eggs and dairy produce too. Once you go vegan you can say goodbye to wearing animal by-products like leather too.
As for the health benefits of veganism, short of being the elixir of eternal youth, the vegan diet is associated with incredible health benefits from increased energy to younger looking skin. A well-balanced, varied diet tends to be low in saturated fat, high in fibre and full of antioxidants, all of which are proven to fight against obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Not to mention, you’re doing your bit for our furry friends. Anecdotally, I once spent a week at a health retreat in Spain and the owners – two English expats who had seen the vegan light – were GLOWING thanks in part to the Spanish sun but mostly ‘cos of their plant-based diet.
Here’s 5 things to know before you go vegan (or vegetarian!):
1.Read food labels
Unless packaging is explicitly labelled ‘suitable for vegans’ you need to check the ingredients and actually know what you’re looking for. Gelatine, casein, shellac and carmine are some of the innocuous sounding things you’ll find on ingredient lists and all are derived from animals. Food you might think is vegan-friendly can sometimes surprise you. Here’s a great guide to what those weird words on labels mean www.vrg.org/ingredients/.
2.Cook from scratch
The only way to guarantee you know what goes into your food is if you make it yourself. If you plan on living on substitute ‘meat’ products (WTF is ‘reconstituted soy’) forget it; these meat substitutes are just as processed as junk food. Instead, download some recipes and experiment with different flavours and ingredients you’ve never tried before. All major chefs like Jamie Oliver have vegan recipes online now (you have to try Jamie Oliver’s vegan burger) but I’ve found Instagram to be particularly inspiring for #foodporn and discovering vegan food blogs like Plant Based Jane and Beaming Baker.
3.Watch your B12
Animal produce like eggs and poultry are the best sources of B12 which makes B12 deficiency common in vegans. The good news is you can still get this important vitamin through fortified plant milks, cereals and more. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea but yeast extract is a fantastic source of B12 and is a surprisingly versatile ingredient that can be thrown into pasta sauces, baked on cashews or stews. If all else fails, try a vitamin B12 supplement or ask your GP about B12 injections. Calcium is another thing you might be worried about. Newsflash! There’s more calcium in sea kelp than a glass of milk. Green leafy vegetables like kale, rocket and broccoli are rich in calcium, as are chick peas, tahini and mixed nuts so put these on your shopping list.
4. Do it properly or don’t do it at all.
We’ve all read horror stories of ‘vegans’ who thought they could survive on bowls of mung beans and ended up in hospital. Don’t be that person. If you’re cutting so much out of your diet, you need to replace it with something so a varied, balanced diet full of fresh fruit, veg, beans and pulses is absolutely essential. You don’t need to become a dietitian but read up on nutrition (from respected, accredited sources) and educate yourself about food. If going vegan is tough, make small changes and go from there, like choosing almond milk in your flat white or doing Meat Free Monday. No one’s going to congratulate you on your new healthy lifestyle if it leaves you in hospital, are they?
5. Lastly, I would say prepare for questions. Lots of them.
Unless you’ve put up a billboard declaring ‘I AM NOW VEGAN SO PLEASE DON’T OFFER ME A BITE OF YOUR BURGER’ no one really needs to know you’re changing your lifestyle. Until there’s a birthday cake in the office and you can’t eat the cream. Trust me, I’ve been there. Even though healthy eating is hip these days, chances are you’ll be quizzed on your decision (I swear to God I’ll go Bjork at Bangkok Airport if I get “where do you get your protein from?” one more time). The tried-and-tested ‘I don’t eat anything with a face’ still works a treat as an explanation but a better, non-preachy way to talk about being a vegan is to explain the health benefits which are pretty hard to argue with. Remember – it’s better to be McCartney, not Morrissey when it comes to all things veggie. Lead by example and all that.
For everything you could possibly need to know about going vegan, go to vegansociety.com or vegsoc.org. Search this very blog for vegan recipes, check out #vegansofig on Instagram for meal inspo or follow me over there for more #foodporn.