Everything you need to know about veganism
More mainstream than ever, veganism is the hottest food topic on the block with everyone from A-lister Natalie Portman to tennis champ Serena Williams and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton jumping on the bandwagon, but is it just the latest food fad, or do claims that it’s better for your health and that of the planet stack up? We asked The Vegan Society to fill us in on what veganism means and what the real benefits of a plant-based diet are. Words by THE VEGAN SOCIETY
History of veganism
Although the vegan diet was defined early on in The Vegan Society’s beginnings in 1944, it was as late as 1949 before staunch vegan, Leslie J. Cross, pointed out that the society lacked a definition of veganism. He suggested the following: “the principle of the emancipation of animals from exploitation by man,” which was later clarified as: “to seek an end to the use of animals by man for food, commodities, work, hunting, vivisection, and by all other uses involving exploitation of animal life by man.”
When The Vegan Society became a registered charity in 1979, the Memorandum and Articles of Association updated the definition of veganism as: “A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
Essentially, veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. There are many ways to embrace vegan living, yet one thing all vegans have in common is a plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs and honey – as well as products like leather and any tested on animals.
Why go vegan?
For the animals
Preventing the exploitation of animals is not the only reason for becoming vegan, but for many it remains the key factor in their decision to go vegan and stay vegan. Having emotional attachments with animals may form part of that reason, while many believe that all sentient creatures have a right to life and freedom. Specifics aside, avoiding animal products is one of the most obvious ways you can take a stand against animal cruelty and animal exploitation everywhere.
For your health
More and more people are turning to a vegan diet for the health benefits: increased energy, younger looking skin and eternal youth are just some of the claims from enthusiastic plant eaters. Well, eternal youth might be a bit optimistic, but there are certainly many scientifically proven benefits to vegan living when compared to the average western diet.
Well planned plant-based diets are rich in protein, iron, calcium and other essential vitamins and minerals. The plant-based sources of these nutrients tend to be low in saturated fat, high in fibre and packed with antioxidants, helping mitigate some of the modern world’s biggest health issues like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
For the environment
The production of meat and other animal products places a heavy burden on the environment – from crops and water required to feed the animals, to the transport and other processes involved from farm to fork. The vast amount of grain feed required for meat production is a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction. In Brazil alone, the equivalent of 5.6 million acres of land is used to grow soya beans for animals in Europe. This land contributes to developing world malnutrition by driving impoverished populations to grow cash crops for animal feed, rather than food for themselves. On the other hand, considerably lower quantities of crops and water are required to sustain a vegan diet, making the switch to veganism one of the easiest, most enjoyable and most effective ways to reduce our impact on the environment.
Just like veganism is the sustainable option when it comes to looking after our planet, plant-based living is also a more sustainable way of feeding the human family. A plant-based diet requires only one third of the land needed to support a meat and dairy diet. With rising global food and water insecurity due to a myriad of environmental and socio-economic problems, there’s never been a better time to adopt a more sustainable way of living. Avoiding animal products is not just one of the simplest ways an individual can reduce the strain on food as well as other resources, it’s the simplest way to take a stand against inefficient food systems which disproportionately affects the poorest people all over the world.
Why vegetarian isn’t enough
The suffering caused by the dairy and egg industry is possibly less well publicised than the plight of factory farmed animals. The production of dairy products necessitates the death of countless male calves that are of no use to the dairy farmer, as well as the premature death of cows slaughtered when their milk production decreases. Similarly, in the egg industry, even ‘ethical’ or ‘free range’ eggs involve the killing of the ‘unnecessary’ male chicks when just a day old.
It’s tempting to want to believe that the meat we eat is ethical, that our ‘food animals’ have lived full, happy lives and that they have experienced no pain or fear at the slaughterhouse. Yet the sad truth is that all living creatures (even those labelled ‘free range’ or ‘organic’) fear death, just as we do. No matter how they are treated when alive, they all experience the same fear when it comes to slaughter.
The good news
The good news is there IS something we can do about it. Every time we shop or order food in a restaurant – every time we eat – we can choose to help these animals. Every time we make the switch from an animal product to a vegan one we are standing up for farmed animals everywhere. Going vegan is easier than ever before with veganism becoming increasingly mainstream as more and more people from all walks of life discover the benefits of living this way.
How to go vegan
Take it slow
Keep your end goal in mind, but go at your own pace. Some people manage to go vegan overnight and if that’s the right approach for you, fantastic. But don’t be concerned if you feel you need more time. Like any other lifestyle change, going vegan not only takes getting used to, but it takes time to determine what will work best for you. It’s not a one size fits all experience and there are numerous approaches you can take.
Making small changes to your everyday meals is one of the easiest ways to increase the amount of plant-based foods in your diet. You could start by removing meat or dairy one day a week and go from there. Or you could try changing one meal at a time, having vegan breakfasts during your first week, adding a vegan lunch during week two and so on. You could even try changing one product at a time by swapping cow’s milk for almond or soya milk or butter for coconut oil or margarine. There’s a plant-based alternative for almost every type of food you can think of, so you don’t have to miss out on any of your favourite foods.
Do it right
Make sure you don’t miss out on essential nutrients. Just because you’re vegan, it doesn’t mean you’re 100 per cent healthy, as there are vegan versions of almost every type of junk food you can think of. As long as you eat a wide variety of tasty plant foods, planning a healthy diet that incorporates all the vitamins and nutrients you need will be a breeze.
Try new things
Treat your taste buds to new foods and new flavours. Leaving your food comfort zone will take you on a voyage of discovery of new cuisines. There are thousands of vegan recipes out there from every corner of the globe. Whatever your culinary preference, you’ll encounter amazing new dishes and interesting variations on your old favourites, but you don’t have to be an award-winning chef to achieve this. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the number of meals you can easily prepare from things already in your kitchen or local supermarket ingredients. Check out www.vegansociety.com/lifestyle/shopping for more information, including a list of specialist online vegan stores.
Remember that going vegan is a learning curve. To live as a vegan in a non-vegan world takes both courage and curiosity. Veganism has been around since 1944, but it’s still a relatively new concept to many people. It’s important you allow yourself time to learn about the various strands of veganism – and remember to pat yourself on the back along the way for the progress you’ve made.
Keep reminding yourself of the reasons you’ve chosen a vegan lifestyle and the benefits you’ve felt since going vegan. You’ll probably find going vegan a lot easier than expected, but if you do have a bad day or feel this whole vegan thing is too much like hard work, take a deep breath and briefly reflect on your choices. Reading books or regularly watching informative and uplifting videos about veganism can help, as does keeping motivating visual reminders like photos of your favourite animals. Or, how about locating your nearest animal sanctuary? Spending time with animals who are traditionally farmed and getting to know their wonderful personalities is a great way to reaffirm your commitment to veganism.
Don’t give up!
If you believe in yourself, vegan living will soon become second nature. There is always a better reason to stick with your decision than to go against it. If you’re having issues with friends or family, don’t give up. Remember, there are lots of vegan groups online and off that you can join. Make sure that you do things along the way that remind you of the joy of vegan living, and take it one day at a time. You’ve chosen an amazing, exciting and profound way to live your life – be sure to enjoy it.
Ask for help
There’s oodles of information on The Vegan Society’s wonderful website – for everything from recipes and nutrition advice for all ages, to positive videos and links to helpful support sites and networks, just head to www.vegansociety.com – good luck!
The Vegan Society