What does ‘going vegan’ really mean?

If you’d like to go vegan but have ever wondered what a vegan is, what do vegans eat, or even what veganism means – we’ve got all the answers There can’t be a person left in the country who hasn’t heard of veganism, especially when vegans are the butt of so many terrible jokes: How can you tell if someone’s vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you… But veganism is currently exploding in popularity; the number of vegans in the UK is said to have risen by 400% since 2014.1 This growing appetite for a vegan diet – which ditches animal foods like meat, eggs and milk for plant alternatives – is driven by concern for animal welfare and the environment, plus the desire to eat more healthily.2

Research shows that a plant-based diet is good for your wellbeing in more ways than one, but without proper planning you could miss out on key vitamins and nutrients. So, get the low-down on going vegan with our guide, and you can make the switch without missing out.

What is veganism?

By its true definition, veganism is a lifestyle that cuts out all products and services (where possible) that harm, exploit or use animals.3

This doesn’t just mean eating a plant-based diet, but quitting clothes, make-up, and personal products like shower gel that are tested on animals or contain anything that comes from animals.

What does a vegan diet look like?

Vegans don’t eat or drink anything that comes from, or exploits, an animal. This means they cut out:

  • meat
  • fish, including shellfish
  • eggs
  • all dairy including milk, butter and cheese
  • honey
  • gelatine, often found in jelly

Instead, vegans eat a plant-based diet, which is rich in:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • beans
  • legumes, like chickpeas
  • pulses, such as lentils
  • grains
  • soy protein, including tofu
  • plant-based milks – soy, almond, rice, hemp, hazelnut, cashew or oat milks
Don’t panic if you enjoy meals out – eating out as a vegan really isn’t that difficult. Many cuisines have a huge selection of plant-based choices – Indian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, even Italian (think of all that pasta)4 – so you can choose one of these restaurants next time you go out for dinner. A lot of chain restaurants now have vegan options on the menu, too. Leon, Yo! Sushi, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and even Toby Carvery5 all cater for vegans.

Why go vegan?

There are several reasons why people become vegan, including their health, the environment, and animal ethics.

Animal welfare

For most vegans, animal welfare is the biggest reason for changing their lifestyle.6 Statistics show that more than one billion mammals in the UK alone are killed every year for human consumption,7 while many sheep, pigs, chickens and cows reared for their meat will have spent their lives in cramped and dirty conditions. Egg-laying chickens and dairy cows may be kept in similar conditions and are often killed well before the end of their natural life expectancy.8,9 Going vegan can help put an end to the lifetime of suffering that animals endure just to end up on our plates.

Health and weight loss

An increasing amount of evidence shows that a vegan diet, rich in wholefoods, has many health benefits, including protecting you against certain illnesses and helping with weight loss.

Animal food products are usually high in calories – a 100-gram beef burger, for example, contains around 250 calories while a 100-gram soya burger contains only around 130 calories.10 So swapping high-fat, calorie-dense foods for high-fibre low-carb plant alternatives can help you lose weight.11 A plant-based diet is also linked to reducing the risk of some cancers, especially colorectal cancer,12 as it cuts out red and processed meats – the NHS says eating these can increase your risk of developing the condition.13 Studies have also linked a vegan diet to a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.14

Better nutrition

A healthy vegan diet involves eating lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, plant proteins and nuts, which gives your vitamins and mineral intake a serious boost.

These foods contain large amounts of:

  • antioxidants – to help protect your cells from free-radical damage15
  • fibre – found in fruits and vegetables, helps with digestion16
  • folic acid – vital for making red blood cells17
  • phytochemicals – associated with protecting you from disease18

A well-balanced vegan diet also tends to be lower in sugar and saturated fats than a meat-eater’s diet.

There is a risk that vegans may be lacking in vitamin B12, as this vitamin is found naturally in animal products.19 But a properly balanced vegan can provide all the vitamins and minerals your body needs.

The environment

A 2010 United Nations report found that meat and dairy agriculture accounts for 70% of global fresh water consumption, 38% of total land use and 14% of greenhouse gas emissions,20 which all adds up to a huge strain on our natural resources. But going vegan has been described as the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact on the planet.21 In fact, switching to a plant-based diet could reduce farmland use by 75% and still feed everyone in the world!22

Handpicked article: Why going vegan won’t break the bank

Shop Vegan Food Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP before trying any remedies. Written by Jack Feeney on November 15, 2018 Reviewed by vegan chef Day Radley on November 25, 2018

1. The Vegan Society. The Food & You surveys. Available from: www.vegansociety.com/news/media/statistics
2. As above
3. The Vegan Society. Definition of veganism. Available from: www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/definition-veganism
4. The Vegan Society. Food and drink. Available from: www.vegansociety.com/lifestyle/food-and-drink
5. Veganuary. Eating out. Available from: www.veganuary.com/eating-out/
6. The Vegan Society. Why go vegan? Available from: www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/why-go-vegan
7. Humane Slaughter Association. Frequently Asked Questions. Available from: www.hsa.org.uk/faqs/general#n1
8. Compassion in World Farming. The life of: dairy cows. Available from: www.ciwf.org.uk/media/5235185/the-life-of-dairy-cows.pdf
9. Compassion in World Farming. The life of: broiler chickens. Available from: ciwf.org.uk/media/5235306/The-life-of-Broiler-chickens.pdf
10. Eat This Much. Food and Recipe Browser. Available from: www.eatthismuch.com
11. Science Daily. To shed weight, go vegan. Available from: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150630121807.htm
12. Ling WH, Hänninen O. Shifting from a conventional diet to an uncooked vegan diet reversibly alters fecal hydrolytic activities in humans. Available from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1552366
13. NHS. Red meat and the risk of bowel cancer. Available from: www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/red-meat-and-the-risk-of-bowel-cancer/
14. The Vegan Society. Health. Available from: www.vegansociety.com/go-vegan/health
15. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Antioxidants: In Depth. Available from: www.nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants/introduction.htm
16. Eastwood M, Kritchevsky D. Dietary Fibre: How did we get where we are? Available from: www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev.nutr.25.121304.131658
17. Health Supplements Information Service. Folic Acid. Available from: www.hsis.org/a-z-food-supplements/folic-acid/
18. Senguttuvan J, Paulsamy S, Karthika K. Phytochemical analysis and evaluation. Available from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4025295
19. NHS. Vegetarian and vegan diets Q&A. Available from: www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/vegetarian-and-vegan-diets-q-and-a/#do-vegetarians-and-vegans-need-vitamin-supplements
20. Hertwich E G, van der Voet E, Tukker A. Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production. Available from: www.unep.fr/shared/publications/pdf/dtix1262xpa-priorityproductsandmaterials_report.pdf
21. Damian Carrington. The Guardian. Avoiding meat and dairy is ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth. Available from: www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth

22. As above