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The basics of plant-based eating to get you through Veganuary

The basics of plant-based eating to get you through Veganuary

Veganuary is a charity campaign encouraging people to try being vegan for January and, if possible, throughout the rest of the year.  Last year (2019) saw the greatest number of people involved in the Veganuary campaign as over 250K from 190 countries embarked on the month-long pledge.

What were the key findings from last year’s Veganuary campaign?

  • For the first time since the campaign began, health became the main driver (46%).
  • 34% of participants stated animal welfare and 12% environmental concerns as drivers for involvement in the campaign.
  • Most participants were women (87%).
  • The majority of participants were aged between 25 and 34 years old (28%).
  • 47% said they plan to remain vegan after Veganuary.
  • 77% said that while not planning to remain vegan after the campaign, they will try vegan again in the future.

How can you make a smooth transition to veganism?

Findings from last years Veganuary campaign showed that 60% found the challenge easier than anticipated.  The rise of vegan food on the high street (including both take-out and restaurant options) as well as the wide range of meat-free alternatives and snacks now available is likely to have helped many people switch to eating plant-based.

Cooking from scratch is always going to be a healthier option and while this may seem daunting it’s not difficult to ‘veganise’ many of your favourite home-cooked meals using these alternatives.

Seek out your preferred dairy alternative

Oat and soya milk have a richness which is similar to cow’s milk while those made from nuts, seeds and rice tend to be waterier.  Each alternative has its own unique flavour and out of all of them, soya has the highest amount of protein which may be an important factor for some people.

What you choose is a matter of personal preference so try all of them to see which one you prefer but always look for fortified varieties to help maintain good intakes of calcium and vitamin B12.

Soya is a good alternative to dairy yoghurt.  Other options include coconut milk and nut varieties including cashew, but they do come with a higher price tag.

Meat alternatives

There are a number of meat alternatives to choose from which include tofu and tempeh (made from soya), seitan (made from wheat gluten) and Quorn.  These foods are all high in protein and also contain a variety of other nutrients including magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium.

These options are available in many forms including mince, pieces and shredded which can be used to replace minced beef, chicken, pork and duck in many common home-cooked dishes.

You can find marinated varieties of tofu which are easier to use for beginners.  Tofu can also be scrambled as a good alternative to egg for breakfast.

Other interesting alternatives include jackfruit, palm hearts and banana blossom which have been used to emulate the look and texture of dishes such as pulled pork, scallops and breaded or battered fish.  While these options make a convincing alternative, they do lack the same protein content.

Fruits and vegetables

It sounds counter-intuitive to talk about fruit and vegetable consumption given the nature of a vegan diet but given only 30% of the population eat five-a-day (1), it’s worth flagging up for those going vegan for January.

This groups of foods are a key source of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that help to protect the body from disease.  Including above and beyond five daily servings is important on a vegan diet to glean as many of these nutrients as possible.

Given the availability of vegan processed and ready-made meal options as well as the rise in vegan ‘junk’ food it is easy to exist on this type of diet without eating enough vegetables.

Keep it in mind to always add more vegetables to the dishes you cook.  You can boost your intake with smoothies and dishes such as soups, casseroles, stews and stir-fry’s which can be bulked out with plenty of vegetables.   Varieties such as spinach and peas are really easy to throw into many dishes.

Explore different flavours

The absolute key to great tasting vegan dishes lies in the spices and marinades used to make them. Meat alternatives, beans, pulses and grains can be a little bland so make use of dried spices and spice blends, sauces (e.g. cook-in sauces, soy sauce, sriracha, harissa), fresh herbs, flavoured oils and dried fruit to add flavour.

You can create a strong savoury flavour (umami) by incorporating ingredients such as nutritional yeast, mushrooms (especially dried made into a stock), seaweed, miso paste, tomato puree, sundried tomatoes, soy sauce and nuts into dishes.   Vegetables such as onions, garlic, beetroot, asparagus and tomatoes also help to create umami which is often enhanced when they’re cooked.

Shop-bought dressings are great, but you should explore recipes from cookbooks and on the web for homemade options which are bursting with flavour and include additional ingredients such as tahini, miso, citrus juices, pomegranate molasses and umeboshi paste.

Don’t be put-off by unusual ingredients that seem a bit ‘fancy’ as they are all now widely available  in supermarkets and not too expensive.  Many of these ingredients keep for a while and dressings can be made in bulk and kept in the fridge.

Beans, pulses and lentils

No vegan diet is complete without these highly nutritious ingredients which supply protein, fibre, magnesium, iron, zinc and calcium.

This group of foods are available canned or in ambient packs which is more convenient than soaking overnight and then boiling to cook. They’re really versatile and can be used to make vegan dishes such chilli, curries, soups, stews and salads to bulk them out and increase their nutrient content.  Chickpeas and soya beans make a good snack when roasted with spices.

Grains

All grains are vegan and can be used as a base for many dishes.  These foods are a useful source of protein as well as zinc, magnesium and B vits.  Grains such as rice, barley and spelt as well as pseudo-grains such as quinoa can be used to make salads to which you can add anything to and make in bulk to use across the week. You can also add cooked grains to soups or sprinkle over vegetable salads.

Snacks

Some people may find they need to supplement their diet with snacks across the day if they need to eat more food to meet the demands of their lifestyle.

Easy vegan snacks include dips with pitta or chopped veggies,  dried fruit and nut bars, dairy-free yoghurt (topped with nuts, seeds or dried fruits), rice cakes (topped with nut butter, guacamole or mashed banana), edamame beans, nuts, seeds or roasted chickpeas.  Smoothies and shakes are also good and can be made to be high in protein.

Fortified foods and supplements

There’s no reason why you can’t get everything you need on a vegan diet, but it can be tricky to start with for some people.  Seek out fortified varieties of foods, especially those containing vitamin B12 which is difficult to obtain on a vegan diet.Food should always come first but if you’re worried that your diet may not very well balanced then a basic vegan multivitamin and mineral supplement is a cost-effective way to bridge any gaps.  Young children, particularly fussy eaters and also teenage girls are groups that will probably benefit from a supplement especially when going vegan.

It’s not that difficult to switch to a vegan diet once you know what’s available and how to modify your favourite everyday meals.  Don’t rely solely on ready-prepared vegan dishes and stick to the basic principles of healthy eating (it’s just as easy to eat an unhealthy diet when going vegan).

Try and use Veganuary as an opportunity to explore recipes that use ingredients which may be new to you.  This campaign is also a great opportunity for you to commit to new eating habits that can extend beyond January and help you to improve your overall long-term health.

 

Try this simple one week vegan menu plan to kick start your Veganuary.

 

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined

Does veganism fully live up to its reputation as a healthier and more environmentally friendly way of eating?

Does veganism fully live up to its reputation as a healthier and more environmentally friendly way of eating?

Does veganism fully live up to its reputation as a healthier and more environmentally friendly way of eating?

Even though I’m not a vegan, I try to adopt this way of eating a few days of the week.  Just to be clear, I’m pro-vegan and have always supported and recognised the health benefits of eating this way.  This blog is in no way about slating the vegan diet but an objective way for me to raise my concerns about the direction in which this way of eating seems to be heading.  I also want to talk about the topic of environment; whilst this is a key driver for many people adopting this way of eating the issues involved may not be that clear cut and there may be factors that some people have not considered. This is an opinion piece so feel free to get in touch with your views on the topic.

The benefits of plant-based eating

The common perceived persona of someone following a vegan diet is that they’re health conscious and dedicated to eating well, whilst being concerned about animal welfare and environmental issues.  Once stereotyped as sandal wearing hippies, the image of modern vegans has been redefined, which has been helped along by celebrities and sports people alike.

Research shows that a well-balanced vegan diet is more likely to contain a higher concentration of key nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients.  It has also been shown that plant-based diets may reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and digestive issues such as constipation. People who follow a plant-based diet also tend to adopt healthier lifestyle choices by exercising more, drinking less and not smoking.

One of the well versed concerns over veganism that drives me mad is that you cannot glean all the essential nutrients required for good health by cutting out meat, dairy and other animal products.  This concern is misplaced as it’s not the vegan diet that’s at fault here but how an individual’s diet is constructed.

Going vegan doesn’t necessarily equate to healthy eating

The lack of access to prepared vegan foods can be a barrier for people trying to stick with this diet, which has historically required a little more thought and preparation.  Whilst the common perception of veganism is that it’s a very healthy way of eating reserved for those dedicated to living a healthy lifestyle, this diet doesn’t exclude sugar, refined carbohydrates and fried foods, which have the potential to cause weight gain and increase the risk of disease.

Vegans are a healthier bunch all-round and typically make healthier food choices as well as leading healthier lifestyles but could the rise in popularity of this diet become it’s Achilles heel?

As veganism becomes more popular so has access to foods appropriate for this diet.  The positive here is that vegans have more access to ready-prepared foods that help to take the pressure off meal planning.  The downside is that innovation has given rise to the vegan junk-food revolution.  Trend reports over the recent years have predicted a rise in vegan junk food, which has the potential to even the playing field with respect to unhealthy eating between plant-based and omnivore diets.

Meat alternatives such as seitan and jack fruit (has a similar texture to pulled pork) are now being used to create kebabs, burgers, pies, tacos and even ‘fish and chips’, which are potentially no less healthy than their meat counterparts.  The food industry has also reacted to the popularity of veganism by producing a wealth of snacks, which are often high in sugar, salt and saturated fats.  Whilst these foods may make veganism more accessible, it does little to retain the reputation of this diet as being superiorly healthy.

Veganism and the environment

Concerns over the environment have always been a valid reason for many people to go vegan.  I have always used this as one of the key reasons to go vegan or eat this way a few days of the week when I write about this diet but reading around the topic recently got me thinking more deeply.

Seasonality can cause challenges to vegan eating as foods may become more limited during certain months. It’s all well and good eating a plant-based diet but if you’re eating tomatoes and other summer vegetables all year round then this will ramp up the carbon footprint of your shopping basket.

Meat production is undoubtedly one of the most damaging environmental factors given the release of methane gases and use of water involved in farming, but the production of plant foods also needs some consideration.  Like omnivores, many of us now expect to be able to access certain foods all year round, but the foods we choose to put in our weekly shopping baskets can take their toll on food mileage.  Vegan foods high in protein such as beans, pulses and lentils are mostly imported from Brazil, Canada and the US, whilst other popular vegetables used extensively in vegan cuisine such as avocados are flown in from Kenya and Mexico.

According to the Vegan Society, the UK has growing conditions that are suitable to producing plant proteins such as beans and pulses for direct human consumption, but it currently assigns only 16 per cent of its agricultural land to growingsuch crops, most of which are used to feed farmed animals.

The demand for on-trend vegan foods also impacts on the country from which they’re sourced.  The popularity of foods such as quinoa has driven their price so high that they’ve become unaffordable to those relying on them in their country of origin.  Social media has helped to drive the popularity of vegan eating and you will struggle to find a single vegan Instagram profile that doesn’t include an avocado.  I use this fruit as an example because they take their toll on the environment by requiring more water to cultivate than any other crop and the demand for this food has even led to extensive deforestation to farm more of them in countries such as Mexico.  The issue of plastic also exists no matter what diet you follow given its excess use in food packaging.

Finding a balance between locally sourced and imported foods

Whilst veganism is at its core healthy, it’s not exempt from many of the environmental concerns of any other diet. Sourcing local food and following the seasons harvest is a good way to reduce your carbon footprint but there also needs to be a balance to insure the welfare of the farmers, whose livelihood relies on exports of their food.  UK producers of foods such as quinoa, lentils and pulses are on the rise but including some imported foods as well as locally sourced can help to support all food producers globally.

I think what I’m getting at here in this blog is that whilst veganism may have a reputation for being healthy and helping to protect the environment, it’s not that clear cut.  The evolution of vegan junk food is set to continue and has the potential to threaten the health of vegans, although the impact may not be that great given the attitudes of most vegans towards health. It may be that the effect of these foods sees a rise in new vegans that find it easier to follow this type of diet with the availability of such convenience foods.  This new breed of vegan may also be defined by a very different health profile to their predecessors.  Putting meat to one side, there are also many other environmental considerations vegans share with omnivores, which need to be equally taken account of.

Whether you’re vegan or omnivore the basic principles of healthy eating still apply and the quality of your diet relies on the food choices you make whilst the responsibility to protect the environment is an issue that should be considered by everyone and not taken for granted just because you choose to follow a plant-based diet.

 

If you liked this blog and are interested in the topic of veganism then have a read of these:

Thinking of going dairy free?

The blokes guide to going vegan

Are you and your daughters lacking iron in the diet?

Foods high in zinc

Quorn, cauliflower and sultana curry recipe 

Supergreen stir-fry with smoked tofu recipe

Raw salad with black garlic dressing recipe

Nutty couscous and veggie salad recipe 

Edamame bean salad recipe