Thinking about going vegan? Here is everything you need to know to make a start: from nutrition to beginner’s recipes and everything in between.
What is veganism?
What is veganism to you? At the very least, it’s excluding animal products from your diet, right? I think most people would agree. Many people go further than that: avoiding animal products in their clothes or furniture and rejecting anything that involves the exploitation of animals.
“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.” – The Vegan Society
Why go vegan?
There are lots of reasons to go vegan. The most important thing is that you do it for a reason that resonates with you.
For the animals.
The most common reason I see for going vegan is animal welfare. You’ll be hard pushed to find someone who doesn’t realise that killing animals is bad for them, but many people think eggs and dairy are ok, especially if they buy “free range”.
Around 60 billion land animals are killed for their meat every year: that’s 8 times the world’s population! The Vegan Society has some damning information on the dairy industry and the egg industry. It’s shocking to think that these animals suffer so much.
For our planet.
As I’ve said above, 60 billion land animals a year are killed for their meat. Those animals don’t appear out of nowhere – they need land, food and water too. Often they are fed with food we could eat ourselves, and the food they eat has more calories than we would gain from their bodies. The meat and dairy industry also require an incredible amount of water, with some organisations saying as much as 70% of the planet’s freshwater being used for farming.
For your health.
According to The Vegan Society, research has linked vegan diets to reduced rates of certain kinds of cancer, heart disease and Type-2 diabetes. Not only that, but it has been confirmed that you can follow a healthy, balanced diet that promotes good health by being vegan, rather than the common belief that following a vegan diet will be bad for you. More on this below.
“After all the information I gathered about the mistreatment of animals, I couldn’t continue to eat meat. The more I was aware of, the harder and harder it was to do” – Liam Hemsworth
Why I’m going vegan.
I started phasing out meat and dairy for my son, who had spent months suffering with chronic constipation and fecal impaction. He needed more fibre and liquids in his diet. After some research I found that meat and dairy foods only contain a negligible amount of fibre. It wasn’t enough!
First we found a plant-based milk alternative we enjoyed. Then we found some yummy vegan sausages. We talked and talked about how we need to get plenty of fibre into our bodies to help them work properly. Eventually he was able to move again. After seeing my son suffer so much on an omni diet, I knew there was no way I could go back to it. As parents, we do whatever we must to keep our children safe, warm and healthy. Adopting a plant-based diet was that must.
We’re still on that journey. We’re still phasing out old things we enjoyed and finding new and interesting foods to try. We’ve caved in to the children, to our relatives and friends. My ex partner refuses to participate, feeding our sons up with meat and junk food whenever he can (the joys of co-parenting!). Adopting a few rules has helped: I refuse to cook meat in the house for anyone, and visitors bring their own dairy milk. If we go out to eat, the children are allowed to choose whatever they like. I’ve explained where meat and dairy come from and will always answer any questions honestly and appropriately.
There have been some concerns about how a vegan diet can impact on someone’s health. We covered this briefly above. Now, we’ll go into a little more depth. Read on to find out more about the most common areas of concern for a vegan diet.
Our bodies use vitamin B12 to make red blood cells, release energy from food and use folic acid. It comes primarily from animal sources and is the main dietary concern for vegans. Not having enough vitamin B12 can cause extreme tiredness, memory problems and can lead to B12 or folate deficiency anaemia.
You can get vitamin B12 from fortified milks, cereals, yeast spread or flakes, or supplements. There is some debate about whether or not algae such as spirulina or chlorella contain B12, but as of yet there is no conclusive information from any leading body. You can read more about vegan sources of B12 on The Vegan Society’s website.
Iron also helps to make red blood cells. Iron deficiency can cause tiredness, palpitations and shortness of breath. Menstruating women need about twice as much as non-menstruating women or men. Coffee and tea can block the absorption of iron, while food and drink containing lots of vitamin C helps your body to absorb more iron.
Vegan sources of iron include dark chocolate (yes!!!), dark leafy greens, tofu, spirulina, beans, nuts and seeds. Vegan sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, leafy greens, strawberries and peppers.
Our bodies use iodine to create thyroid hormones. The iodine content of plant foods can vary depending on the iodine content of the soil it is grown in.
Vegan sources of iodine include seaweed and iodised salt, although both have their downsides. The iodine content in seaweed varies and current advice is still to cut down on salt. However, I can’t see much harm in replacing the salt you already use with iodised salt. The Vegan Society recommend their VEG 1 supplement.
Pregnancy, breastfeeding and childhood.
The Vegan Society and the BDA have jointly confirmed that a well-planned vegan diet is safe for all stages of life, including pregnancy, breastfeeding and childhood. Again, The Vegan Society recommends their supplement for this.
“In the UK, it is estimated that well-planned completely plant-based, or vegan, diets need just one third of the fertile land, fresh water and energy of the typical British ‘meat-and-dairy’ based diet. With meat and dairy being the leading contributor to greenhouse (GHG) emissions, reducing animal based foods and choosing a wide range of plant foods can be beneficial to the planet and our health.” -British Dietetic Association
Will going vegan break the bank?
The short answer is, not necessarily. There are a lot of vegan substitutes that are way more expensive than their omni counterparts. You don’t necessarily have to use them. Our grocery shop rarely comes above £70, and that’s for five of us. Our weekly shop could be cheaper, or it could be much more expensive. In general, cooking from scratch in bulk is cheap. Having a lot of convenience or trendy food is not cheap. Much the same as being an omnivore.
Top tips for going vegan.
Going vegan doesn’t have to be painful. You won’t have to eat foods you don’t like or miss out on cake and ice cream. Heck, there’s even a vegan Baileys on the way! Here are some tips to help you get on the way.
- Take it one step at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Focus on diet first, and when you have that down, move onto other things. You could try swapping out one product at a time, or making one more meal a week vegan. We did a mixture of both, starting with cow’s milk and red meats. My body found this easier than giving up suddenly.
- Embrace “accidentally vegan” food. It made my life so much easier when I found out that a lot of the food I already ate was vegan. The game changer? Red Bisto gravy. I’d always assumed it was beef gravy and had avoided it for months, opting for a less tasty vegetable gravy. Oh, and BBQ rib Doritos, which are a regular feature in our lunchboxes now.
- Be realistic. If you don’t already cook from scratch often, chances are you won’t be able to maintain cooking from scratch every day. Big lifestyle changes don’t often happen overnight – it takes time to develop new skills and learn new habits. It will come. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t get it straight away.
- Move on after setbacks. So you’ve caved. Maybe you felt awkward at a party, or you were ill and you were craving an old favourite. These things happen. Of course, we should always try not to give in. When it does happen, it’s important not to throw in the towel. I quit smoking six years ago. For the first few weeks after quitting, I still had one cigarette before going to bed. I didn’t let it (and a couple of drunken cigarettes on nights out) stop me from trying and that’s how I eventually succeeded. Persistence is key.
- Remember why you’re doing this. If you are finding it difficult, remember why you made this choice to begin with. You may have made this choice for your own health, or because you know there are sentient beings involved that don’t have a choice. It might be because you know that this is the sustainable option for our planet. It could be all of those reasons. When you get a weak moment (and remember, we all get them), remember why you’re doing this. Take some time to reframe those thoughts, and get back on it!
Stick with the method that works for you: if you can manage cold turkey, great! If you need to take it slow and steady, that’s fine too. Do whatever it takes to get you to your end goal.
Easy vegan meals for beginners.
Vegan food needn’t be complicated or super healthy – there’s no need for green smoothies or kale unless you really want them! (As an aside, my mum finally tried kale recently and thought it was nice – it’s like a slightly peppery cabbage and yummy slathered in red Bisto)
People are unnecessarily intimidated by vegan food. It’s unfamiliar which means it’s scary and what do you mean I can’t have cheese? Who doesn’t eat cheese? But honestly, life without donner kebabs isn’t terrible. Vegan food can be as exotic or as familiar as you like. I like to stick near the familiar side, and if you’re just starting out, I recommend you do too. Here are my favourite vegan meals – if they aren’t cheap, easy and tasty, I generally don’t bother.
- Vegetable curry. My Easy Vegan Vegetable Curry has to be my favourite staple dish – I cook it every week. It’s a batch cooker’s dream and very easy to vary. I cheat and use a mild madras powder to make it even easier, despite having a book devoted to delicious (omni) curries! I must leaf through it again and find one to veganise.
- Pizza quesadillas. Pizza quesadillas was a favourite from our omni days. The kids absolutely loved them! You can just have vegan mozzarella and pizza sauce or put in a few fillings. I’ve been hankering to try vegan pepperoni and olive – I’ll let you know how it goes!
- Pasta with vegan pesto or some bolognese sauce. Check the ingredients to make sure there are no dairy products – some pasta sauces contain cream or soft cheese. This is so easy I debated even listing it, but when I started phasing out animal products this wouldn’t have come to mind.
- Vegan cottage pie. There are loads of different versions of this dish out there. My version will be up on the blog soon, but for now check out this unique version from x. The last time I made cottage pie, I accidentally made three of them! One went in our tummies, one in the fridge and one in the freezer. We ate very heartily that week.
- Sandwiches with hummus, peanut butter or vegan cheese. Sandwiches are pretty much a British staple, aren’t they? As well as the fillings listed above, you could have chickpea mayo or falafel salad.
- Tofu scramble on toast. This is another recipe that has lots of different versions! Many people are almost frightened of tofu but they needn’t be – scrambling tofu is slightly easier than scrambling eggs! I like mine with chives, turmeric (for colour), nooch and some salt & pepper. Recipe coming soon – I promise!