The number of vegans in the UK has increased a staggering 350% in the last decade, news research shows. Healthista editor Anna Magee went vegan as an experiment – with surprisingly positive results
Ten years ago, the word ‘vegan’ came with images of anaemic-looking, sandal-wearing hippies going on about animal rights at dinner parties while the rest of us chowed down our beef carpaccio.
But today, thanks to a new army of celebrity vegans and super-bloggers, veganism suddenly has the glam factor. New research released today from The Vegan Society has revealed the number of vegans in Britain has increased by 350 per cent in the last decade.
Beyonce and her husband Jay-Z took to social media in 2013 to announce they would start a 22-day vegan challenge and have become partners in a vegan food company founded by their trainer Marco Broges. Bill Clinton credits a vegan diet with bringing him back to health after major heart surgery and celebrity heavyweights such as Jared Leto, Joaquin Phoenix, Ellen DeGeneres, Venus Williams, hell, even Mike Tyson and Bill Gates all wax lyrical about the benefits of their vegan diets. And while trendy meat-free eateries abound in LA such as Crossroads and Native Foods Cafe, London has seen an explosion in posh vegan nosh spots opening in the last year including the unfathomably chic RAW at La Suite West which offers the full fine-dining experience with an all raw and all vegan menu (and no alcohol, thanks very much).
Bill Clinton credits a vegan diet with bringing him back to health after major heart surgery
Take a cursory look at the blogosphere and you might be forgiven for thinking a vegan diet can make you walk on water, so hyped are its powers for healing everything from chronic fatigue to cancer. One of its pioneers, Kris Carr, a former model and actress turned blogger and author of the wildly successful Crazy Sexy Kitchen (Hay House £10.99) cookbook is one of the pioneers of the new vegan lifestyle trend. Carr adopted a vegan diet after being diagnosed with a rare and incurable stage four sarcoma cancer in 2003. She’s since been living with stage four cancer for the last 12 years and is now the picture of health. Meanwhile, vegan super-blogger Angela Liddon struggled with an eating disorder for a decade. Self starvation followed by binge eating resulted in her developing Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS). Five years ago, she started eating a vegan wholesome diet, her IBS disappeared and her skin started to glow. Liddon’s the author of the book Oh She Glows (Michael Joseph £8.49) and her blog, ohsheglows.com attracts millions of visitors a month and has over 600K followers.
A growing body of evidence suggests veganism could lead to specific health benefits including improved blood pressure, lower risk of Type-2 diabetes and serious weight loss.
Nutritional superstar Ella Woodward (above) of deliciouslyella.com fame lived off sweet processed foods all through her childhood and time at university. In summer 2011 she was diagnosed with a rare illness called Postural Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) which breaks down your automatic nervous system. Ella had blackouts, slept six-teen hours a day, had chronic pains and unbearable stomach issues. But inspired by Kris Carr, Woodward adopted a gluten-free vegan diet and her symptoms disappeared completely.
It’s not all anecdotal either. A growing body of evidence suggests veganism could lead to specific health benefits including improved blood pressure, lower risk of Type-2 diabetes and serious weight loss. A Taiwanese study published this month [July 1st] in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reviewed the results of 12 different diet trials and found that of all of them, people lost the most weight on veganism, losing around five pounds more (over a nine to 74 week period) than their meat-eating dieting peers.
There’s lots of well-controlled research to show that a plant-based diet has the biggest impact on people’s health
‘There’s lots of well-controlled science and research to show that adopting a plant-based diet predominantly based on fruit and vegetables probably has the biggest impact on people’s health for all the chronic diseases,’ says Rick Miller, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.
‘Eating more plants and fibre and reducing our consumption of meat not only leads to weight loss but also to a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism, high blood pressure and certain cancers, especially prostate, breast and bowel.’
There are medics too on a mission to get us meat-free. The 2011 documentary Forks Over Knives looked at the work of Dr T. Colin Campbell, author of the bestselling book The China Study and Professor Emeritus of Nutritional Biochemistry at Cornell University in the US. It claimed virtually all the world’s lifestyle diseases – cancer, heart disease, diabetes – could be eliminated with a plant-based diet.
For London-based heart surgeon turned lifestyle doctor Dr Chidi Ngwaba, a healthy vegan diet helps his patients get off their medication for everything from diabetes to autoimmune diseases
For London-based heart surgeon turned lifestyle doctor Dr Chidi Ngwaba, a healthy vegan diet high in vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, healthy fats, whole grains and fruit (see box) can not only help prevent such lifestyle diseases, but also helps his patients get off their medication for everything from diabetes to autoimmune diseases. He put his own wife, the high-profile London dentist, Uchenna Okoye, of Channel 4’s Ten Years Younger fame, on a strict vegan diet after she was diagnosed with a thyroid condition. 12 months later she was off her medication and her thyroid readings were normal. ‘Probably the most powerful thing you can do for your health is getting on a healthy, plant-based vegan diet,’ says Dr Ngwaba.
So, are we buying it? Are we, what. According to The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in the UK has doubled in the last nine years from 150,000 to around 300,000. Thanks to more and more of us becoming ‘plant-curious’ market research company Mintel reports the non-dairy milk market jumped from 36 million litres in 2011 to a staggering 92 million in 2013, making it worth some £150.6 million. Veganuary, a campaign to get people eating vegan for January was launched in 2014 with 3,300 taking part. In 2015, 12,800 participants registered and a whopping 51 percent said they planned to stay vegan, the founders report.
I was getting tired in the evenings to the point where I rarely could fathom the energy to go out more than once a week.
It was against this wall of hype that I set out to conduct a one-woman trial of veganism benefits on my
own mental and physical health.I ate a diet closest to that our ancestors ate, es-chewin all grains and dairy which occurred with the advent of farming in favour of lean proteins such as meat, fish, eggs and chicken along with plenty of fruit and vegetables. It had worked for me for about three years.I had lost some weight and managed to stop getting the sugar cravings that plagued me before. But there were signs it wasn’t working any-more. My weight was creeping up again. I liked to workout but was constantly plagued by muscle pain, even after the lightest weights session.
I was getting tired in the evenings to the point where I rarely could fathom the energy to go out more than once a week. I was also a little haunted by a nagging voice in my head wondering what all that meat consumption was doing to the planet. ’Plant matter can feed far more people per hectare or per metric tonne than one cow can,’ says Rick Miller. ‘Then there are all the issues of climate change – cows give off methane gas which could be affecting the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere , contributing to global warming.’
‘I hate vegans,’ said my friend Simon
For the trial, I would have a series of blood tests looking at my cholesterol – which at six, was high – and key vitamin levels. I would also use a newfangled scale, the Tanita RD-901, which measured body fat, muscle mass, fat around the middle (or visceral fat) and body water. For 60 days. I was certain my meat-free life would turn me into an anemic and hungry mess and throw a reality-check into all this veganism hoo-ha.
(his favourite joke: ‘How do you know if someone is a vegan?’ ‘Speak to them for 12 seconds’).
‘I hate vegans,’ said my friend Simon, at Sunday lunch, on the first weekend. ‘I don’t mind vegetarians but I just don’t like vegans. What’s wrong with milk anyway?’ His response wasn’t uncommon. Indeed, the most startling effect of my diet during the entire 60 days was just how bored and upset meat eaters were by my very vegan existence – and how vocal they were about it. Simon didn’t hold back, nor did my eye-rolling friends or even my husband, Kevin who called me a Vegan Bore and was so frustrated by our tofu dinners he pledged to a diet of Pizza-ism when he wasn’t with me so he could catch up on food groups (his favourite joke: ‘How do you know if someone is a vegan?’ ‘Speak to them for 12 seconds’).
‘People get defensive about their meat-eating,’ says Yasmin de Boo, CEO of The vegan Society. ‘They’ll tell you not eating meat isn’t natural and forget that talking on mobile phones and driving cars isn’t natural either. I think part of it is guilt at their own meat-eating’, she says. Hmmm, not sure I agree but I did feel compelled to constantly defend my decision to go vegan for 60 days, which turned me into even more of the Vegan Bore Kevin accused me of being.
Even at London’s trendy Shoreditch House restaurant, there were no vegan options on the menu
That Sunday, my friends chowed through a series of sausages, mash and various other bits of cooked beast while I had pea soup with vegetables. They were the only vegan things on the menu – something I found over and over again. Going out to restaurants became boring and monotonous because I would be lucky to have one vegan choice. Even at London’s trendy Shoreditch House restaurant, there were no vegan options on the menu – despite veganism becoming increasingly trendy amongst its fashiony/media-y members. Nothing. In the end, I took advice from a long-time vegan friend who has resorted to ordering a series of side dishes – vegetables, olives, a legume or two, if you’re lucky – while everyone else has their mains. ‘One of the hardest things for vegans is eating out,’ says de Boo, who is campaigning for more vegan options in supermarkets, high street restaurants (even Pret has few vegan options) and cafes.
Two weeks in, despite eating so many vegetable fats such as nuts, seeds, coconut oil on my toast, avocados every which way and truckloads of nut butters I was surprised to find I had not only lost two kilograms but my visceral fat – that’s the fat around my middle – had dropped by half a point (from 3 to 2.5). ‘Obviously a vegan diet is very low in saturated fat which mostly comes from animal products,’ says Rick Miller. ‘But research has also shown the unsaturated fats found in plant-based foods don’t seem to accumulate in visceral fat, which is the fat that’s sitting around your organs. That has huge implications for people’s health because it’s this visceral fat that leads to things such as diabetes and heart disease’.
During the first month, I lusted after the food on other people’s plates, living vicariously through the smells and the looks of their meals and looking on in a kind of sheer desperation as my family ate BBQ chicken one Saturday afternoon and wanting that greasy sensual pleasure so badly it made my head hurt. What I missed most was butter, my favourite of the greasy sensual pleasures and I even wondered if I could be a vegan who eats butter in the same way that some people who claim to be vegetarians still eat fish.
But six weeks in, there was also something else I couldn’t ignore. Despite the social stigma, the boredom and psychological deprivation of watching a meat-eating world wave their fat-soaked jowls in my face, physically, I felt goddamn fantas-tic. Excitingly, all my muscle pain had gone. ‘You were eating a lot of meat protein before,’ says Dr Ngwaba. ‘That can lead to a buildup of waste products such as uric acid and lactic acid in the muscles which can lead to soreness and slower recovery.’ He explains that the healthy carbohydrates I had introduced into my diet – after years of carb-free cave-man eating – such as yeast-free stoneground sourdough bread, quinoa and whole unprocessed oats – were fuelling my muscles which explained why I found myself with enough energy to not only go to the gym most days and do either a boxing or weights class but also to go out in the evenings without getting tired. ‘The whole idea of getting tired because you have become a vegan is a myth, says Ngwaba. ‘If you’re only having a lettuce leaf and tomato a day you’ll get tired because you will get anaemic but if you eat like you did – plenty of varied legumes, grains, vegetables, fruit and fats – your energy levels should be fine’.
By the end of the eight weeks, I had lost a staggering six kilos, a whole point of visceral fat and maintained almost all my muscle mass, according to the scales. I felt lighter, more agile and people told me how great my skin looked. Miraculously I was amazed by how my skin looked.I didn’t even know my period was coming. ‘When you become a vegan, you take out all the external oestrogens you’re getting in dairy products and that can have a profound effect on reducing PMS,’ says Ngwaba. Plus, you have added plenty of healthy greens such as kale, spinach and collard greens and that helps cleanse the liver of excess oestrogens that hang around and contribute to PMS symptoms.’
When my blood tests came back after the trial was over, my cholesterol had dropped from 6 to 4.9 (my LDL or bad cholesterol went from 3.20 to 2.30 while HDL or good cholesterol went from 2.40 to 2.09) and the triglycerides in my blood dropped from .90 to .77. ‘This means blood lipids went down generally and it’s a good result to have achieved in only 60 days,’ says Jonathan Cohen, a nutritional therapist interpreting my blood test results. He also noted that my folate levels were above average as were my zinc levels. Zinc, he says is essential for detoxification and skin which could be why people commented on how well I looked. Still, my iron, vitamin B6 and B12 levels went slightly down; a typical result, he explained, and something that could over time, cause problems for me as these nutrients were essential to making energy. Still, Cohen isn’t convinced that veganism is the right diet for me. ‘Come back and see me in four months and I think we will be seeing deficiencies in nutrients such as iron, vitamin B6 and possibly protein because of all the exercise you are doing,’ Cohen said. ‘Veganism works for some people but only few do well on it long-term’.
Cohen’s sentiments are echoed in new book Kale and Coffee (Hay House £10.99 out July 21st) by superstar health YouTuber Kevin Gianni. After being a textbook raw vegan for six years, he became exhausted, irritable, barely able to get out of bed and with zero sex drive. After having blood tests done it was discovered he was dangerously low in hormones such as testosterone and pregnenolone, essential for both sex drive and energy and his doctor told him to eat some animal protein fast. Gianni now believes that despite the initial high most people get when they start veganism, long-term – that is after a year or more – many will experience deficiencies. ‘People who go vegan will initially get a high because of what they take out of the diet, saturated fat, processed or fried foods and the great surge in vitamins and minerals they’re getting from the increased vegetables and fruit they’re eating,’ says Gianni. ‘But certain people will get defi-cient in certain nutrients like I did. So by all means try veganism – it works for a lot of people – just make sure that each year, you have blood tests done and keep an eye out for deficiencies, then work with a nutritionist to correct them.’
Moreover, 60 days in, I feel so good I don’t even care who hates me at dinner parties.
Now that my trial is over and I can eat meat, I am flummoxed by the fact that I simply don’t want to. I expected at the start to want nothing more than a rare steak or piece of lusciously grilled octopus; something that screamed ‘cooked animal’ once the end came. But no. I have told myself I can eat meat if I wish, but I keep being drawn to vegan cooking and vegan choices. Moreover, 60 days in, I feel so good I don’t even care who hates me at dinner parties. Oh and yes, I will tell everyone who listens that I am a vegan and loving it – usually within the first 12 seconds of the conversation.
Postscript from Anna Magee:
That experiment began in April (the piece originally appeared in Stella Magazine in the Sunday Telegraph on August 2nd) and it’s now almost the following March and I am still vegan and feeling amazing. I still weigh the same as I did after the experiment and my muscle mass has increased since I now have the energy to go to the gym six days a week. I will be getting my bio-markers done again in April, a year after my veganism began to see where I am at nutrition-wise. So watch this space.
HOW TO BE A HEALTHY VEGAN
Experts are agreed on one thing, even vegan diets can be unhealthy. Here’s how to get maximum nutritional value for your body if you’re thinking of making the choice
Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, every which way.
Get some good vegan cookbooks and cook from scratch wherever you can. Our favourites include: The Great Vegan Protein Book by Celine Sheen and Jamesh Noyes (£13.48 Fair winds Press), The Earth Diet by Liana Werner-Gray (£13.48 Hay House) and The Unbakery by Megan May (£16.59 Murdoch Books).
Be prepared. You’ll need to replace your milk with options such as almond or soya milk and fill your cupboards with plenty of healthy fats such as seeds, nuts, avocados, coconut oil as well as legumes such as beans, chickpeas and lentils (canned are fine). You’ll be surprised what’s available in supermarkets but by far, the widest vegan range is stocked by Waitrose.
Use natural sugars from maple syrup and dates for cooking (honey isn’t vegan).
Add protein – lots. Tofu, tempeh, benas, pulses and legumes are great protein sources for meals but also look for a good vegan protein powder supplement to add to smoothies in the mornings for an extra fix. Our favourites are anything from That Protein (thatprotein.com), Naturya Hemp Protein Powder (naturya.com) and SunWarrior Warrior Blend Vegan (sunwarrior.com)
Try and replace the meat in your diet with artificial versions made from soy or other processed ingredients. These are high in salt and fat and won’t make you healthier.
Binge on sugar. Keep your sugar to a minimum to avoid weight gain and energy swings.
Forget to eat enough. Vegan food is by nature less calorific than non-vegan food so expect to be hungry and want to eat more. Do it.
Eat junk carbs. Instead of white breads, rices and pastas stick to high quality starches such as stoneground sourdough bread made from rye, wholegrain oats for porridge, ramen noodles, quinoa, brown rice and buckwheat.
Weight 56.2 kg
Body fat 24.6 %
Muscle Mass 40.2kg
Body Mass Index 21.2
Visceral Fat 3.5
Bone Mass 2.2 kg
Body water 53.7
AFTER 60 DAYS
Weight 50.2 kg
Body fat 17.8 %
Muscle mass 39.15kg
Body Mass Index 18.9
Visceral Fat 2
Bone Mass 2.1kg
Body Water 54.9 %
To measure the above, Anna used the Tanita RD-901 £159.99 from John Lewis or tanita.edu Anna’s blood tests were done by nutritional therapist Jonathan Cohen (canhealth.co.uk) and Regenerus labs (regeneruslabs.com)
Pictures of Anna by Sophia Spring