Not so long ago, the word “vegan” conjured up images of anaemic-looking, sandal-wearing hippies.
But today, thanks to a new army of celebrity followers and super-bloggers, veganism has suddenly become glamorous. Beyoncé and Jay Z are partners in a vegan food company founded by their personal trainer, Marco Borges, while other famous names who wax lyrical about the benefits of their vegan diets include Jared Leto, Joaquin Phoenix, Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Gates. Even athletes Venus Williams and Mike Tyson have become converts.
And it’s not just a celebrity trend. 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. The market research company Mintel reports the non-dairy milk market leapt from 36 million litres in 2011 to 92 million in 2013, making it worth over £150 million.
Last year, Veganuary, a campaign to get people eating vegan during January, was launched with 3,300 participants; this year, there were 12,800, with 51 per cent planning to stay vegan.
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 has it become. One of the key pioneers of the new vegan lifestyle is Kris Carr, a model and actress turned blogger who wrote the wildly successful cookbook Crazy Sexy Kitchen.
She adopted the diet after she was diagnosed with a rare and incurable sarcoma cancer in 2003 and given 10 years to live; she believes it has helped to boost her immune system.
Oh She Glows, believes that veganism cured her irritable bowel syndrome. And Stella’s own columnist Ella Woodward, of Deliciously Ella fame, who was diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome (an autonomic nervous system illness), suffered from chronic pain, blackouts and stomach trouble until – inspired by Kris Carr – she adopted a gluten-free, vegan diet, and her symptoms disappeared.
It’s not all anecdotal. A growing body of evidence suggests veganism could improve blood pressure and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, while a major study published in July in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reviewed 12 diet trials and found that people on a vegan diet lost the most weight.
“There’s lots of well-controlled science and research to show that adopting a predominantly plant-based diet probably has the biggest impact on health [compared to other diets] 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.”
Against this backdrop of hype, I set out to conduct a two-month, one-woman trial to see what effect veganism might have on my mental and physical health. During the trial, I would have a series of blood tests measuring any changes in my key vitamin levels and cholesterol, which was high. I would also use a newfangled scale, the Tanita RD-901, which measures body fat, muscle mass, body water and “visceral fat” (the fat around your middle, which is a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes).
To say I was sceptical would be an understatement: I was certain my meat-free life would turn me into an anaemic, hungry mess. For years I had been mostly Paleo, following a diet close to that of our ancestors, eschewing all grains and dairy in favour of lean protein, fruit and vegetables. It had worked for me for about three years: I lost some weight and my sugar cravings stopped.
But there were signs it wasn’t working any more. My weight was creeping up again, and although I like to work out, I was constantly plagued by muscle pain after even the lightest weights session, and didn’t have the energy to go out more than once a week. I also had a nagging voice in my head that wondered what all that meat consumption was doing to the planet: plants, after all, can feed far more people per hectare than cows.
“I hate vegans,” said my friend Simon over 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 unusual: the most startling effect of my diet during the entire 60 days was just how upset meat eaters were by my vegan existence – and how vocal they were about it.
Other friends didn’t hold back – and nor did my husband, who called me “a vegan bore” and was frustrated by our tofu dinners. (His favourite joke: “How do you know if someone is a vegan? Just speak to them for 12 seconds.”)
“People get defensive about their meat eating,” says Jasmijn de Boo, CEO of The Vegan Society. “They’ll tell you that 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.” I don’t know that I agree, but in the face of such opposition, I did feel compelled to continually defend my decision.
That first Sunday, my friends ate sausages, mash and various other bits of cooked beast while I had pea soup with vegetables – they were the only vegan items on the menu. Going out to restaurants became monotonous.
I would be lucky to have one choice – vegetarian options usually contain cheese, and even at London’s hipster-friendly Shoreditch House there were no vegan options on the menu (although the chefs there will adapt dishes for you).
I ended up taking advice from a long-time vegan friend who resorts to ordering a series of side dishes – vegetables, olives, a legume or two, if you’re lucky – while everyone else has their mains.
Two weeks in, despite eating lots of vegetable fats, including nuts and seeds, coconut oil on my toast, avocados every which way and truckloads of nut butters, I was surprised to find I had lost 2kg. What’s more, my visceral fat had dropped by half a point (from 3 to 2.5, on a scale of 1 to 59).
“A vegan diet is obviously 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. That has huge implications for people’s health because it’s visceral fat that leads to things such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”
During the first month, I lusted after the food on other people’s plates. I watched as my family ate barbecue chicken one Saturday, wanting that greasy sensual pleasure so badly it made my head hurt. What I missed most was butter: I began to wonder 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, despite the social stigma, the boredom and psychological deprivation of living in a meat-eating world, physically I felt fantastic: all my muscle pain had gone.
“You were eating a lot of meat protein before,” says Dr Chidi Ngwaba, who is on the advisory board of the European Society of Lifestyle Medicine. “That can lead to a build-up of waste products such as uric acid and lactic acid in the muscles, which can lead to soreness and slower recovery.”
He explained that the healthy carbohydrates I had introduced into my diet – such as sourdough bread, quinoa and whole, unprocessed oats – were fuelling my muscles, which explained why I found myself with enough energy not only to go to the gym most days but also to go out in the evenings without exhaustion setting in.
“The whole idea of getting tired because you have become a vegan is a myth,” says Dr Ngwaba. “If you have plenty of varied legumes, grains, vegetables, fruit and fats, your energy levels should be fine.”
By the eighth week, I had lost a staggering 6kg, a whole point of visceral fat and maintained almost all my muscle mass. I felt lighter, more agile and people told me how great my skin looked. Miraculously, while my previously non-existent sex drive came back with a vengeance, my once-ferocious PMS disappeared.
“When you become a vegan, you eliminate all the external oestrogens you were getting from dairy products, and that can have a profound effect on reducing PMS,” says Dr Ngwaba.
“Plus, you have added plenty of healthy greens such as kale, spinach and collard greens, which contain a substance called plant chlorophyll that helps cleanse the liver of excess oestrogens that hang around and contribute to PMS symptoms.”
On day 60, I went back for new blood tests, and took them to the nutritional therapist Jonathan Cohen. My cholesterol had dropped from 6 to a very healthy 4.9. The triglycerides in my blood, a type of fat that can indicate an increased risk of heart disease, dropped from 90 to 77.
“This means blood lipids went down generally – it’s a good result to have achieved in only 60 days,” Cohen observed. He also noted that my folate and zinc levels were above average.
Zinc, he says, is essential for detoxification and skin health, which could explain why people commented on how well I looked. Folate, on the other hand, is important for helping the body break down and convert the food we eat into energy.
Still, my iron, vitamin B6 and B12 levels fell slightly; a typical result of a vegan diet, he explained, as some of their best sources are animal products. This is something that could cause problems over time, as these nutrients are essential for making energy.
As such, 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 – there’s no way to predict who – but only few do well on it long term.”
Cohen’s sentiments are echoed in the new book Kale and Coffee by the YouTube vlogger Kevin Gianni. After being a strict raw vegan for six years, Gianni became exhausted, irritable, was hardly able to get out of bed and had zero sex drive. Blood tests showed some of his hormones were dangerously low, including testosterone and pregnenolone, which are essential for both sex drive and energy.
His doctor advised him to urgently reintroduce animal protein into his diet, and Gianni now believes that despite the initial boost most people get when they start veganism, 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 deficient 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 to keep an eye out for deficiencies, then work with a nutritionist to correct them.”
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 had expected to want nothing more than a rare steak or plate of lusciously grilled octopus 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. 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.