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Everything you need to know about veganism before you get started

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If you’ve ever been curious about veganism or simply wondered if it is as good for you as those already following the lifestyle claim, read on to find out.

Veganism. A term so small on paper but enormous in regards to the impact it has on millions of lives. It is unquestionably worthy of not only reverend respect as a belief system but also in-depth analysis and investigation.

Where does it come from, what does it really mean and what are the consequences of it? 500,000 people signed up to try being vegan in January 2021, but why and will they continue on into February?

All this and more will be discussed as we get to grips with veganism.

What is veganism?

This is a big question that can have a shockingly short answer. In the most basic terms possible, veganism is the practice of negating any and all animal-based products from your life. The root of the wider movement is grounded in the belief that animals are sentient beings that humans do not have the right to use for their own benefit.

vegan animal rightsEssentially, veganism seeks to treat all animals — human or otherwise — with equal respect and right to life. A concern about worldwide exploitation of animals is central to the movement, and though no one religion is inextricably linked to the lifestyle, many have interchangeable and comparable ethical underpinnings. Dharmic religions are particularly connected to plant-based living, with Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism leading the charge.

How did the movement start?

Though the vegan label was bestowed on those avoiding animal products in the 1940s, the practice has been around for far longer. Evidence suggests that even as far back as 500 BC, Greek philosophers were posing the question of equality and benevolence between species. Buddha was having similar open conversations with his followers at the same time, proving that consciousness of the idea of ‘otherness’ was already global and that veganism didn’t start in one location.

buddhist vegan

As with any organic evolution of thoughts and ideas, veganism began to take a more definite shape, in the 1800s, when individuals began to identify an internal conflict regarding animal consumption. As more people engaged in the debate, the topic became less of a spiritual concern and more of an ethical conundrum which all came to a head in 1944, when Donald Watson called a life-changing meeting.

Along with five fellow dairy-free vegetarians, Watson decided that there needed to be a more defined term for the way they lived and so, the term ‘vegan’ was born.

Read our story on Buddhist veganism.

Aren’t there different types of vegans though?

As with any belief system, there are different interpretations of what being vegan looks like. There is little point in trying to arrange sub-groups into any form of hierarchy, because who can say which lifestyle is best and how would the parameters be decided upon? It is far more inclusive and positive to accept and respect all of the different degrees of veganism and to try and understand the motivations of each.

The most common sub-categories (because who doesn’t love being given a neat label) include:

Dietary

This is a branch of veganism that sees people excluding any and all animal foods from their diet. In addition to refusing to eat meat, anything created from animal products is also avoided, meaning that dairy and honey are both off the menu. Yes, honey too.

If you’re not sure why vegans don’t eat honey, read our story that explains everything.

When no other vegan ideals are followed, the term plant-based diet is often interchanged with vegan here. This can be a difficult transition — especially for seasoned meat-eaters — as animal products can be found in a surprising number of foodstuffs, from skimmed milk powder in crisp flavourings to certain colouring additives in seemingly vegan-friendly goods.

There are plenty of dietary sub-genres too, including raw and HCLF (high carb, low fat). It can be a little confusing at first, but the key is to start with the basic principles and then hone your dietary preferences as you go. There’s no need to apply a label if you don’t want to.

Ethical

ethical veganismThis form of veganism is all-encompassing and involves an entire lifestyle commitment. Consumption of any animal products is a big no-no for advocates of this belief system, including but not limited to; beauty items, clothing and even car interiors. Yes, you read that correctly, and you won’t find an ethical vegan driving a vehicle with leather seats.

Ethical vegans have a deep commitment to the idea that we have no right to claim sovereignty over other species, therefore we cannot use their bodies for our own benefit. Every facet of an ethical vegan’s life will be centred around their beliefs, as they will dictate every purchase and decision. From toilet roll through to home office stationery, everything has to be considered in terms of its wider impact.

Again, there are different ‘shades’ of ethical veganism at play, despite it appearing like the most prescriptive option. For example: while some devotees would never have a pet, others (including us here at The Vegan Review) consider welcoming a rescue animal into their homes as a positive way to give back to the animal world.

Environmental

Vegans who are guided by environmental concerns tap into the above two branches, but have an added complication in the form of being conscious about carbon neutrality of vegan food options. Palm oil sustainability is often a major concern too.

Aware of the widespread damage caused by the meat and dairy industries, environmental veganism has long avoided animal products, while also being cognisant of where and how plant-based foods are made.

veganism environmentPrevious reportage about the damaging effects of soy production and the waste created by alt-milks are all taken into consideration and as a result, many environmental vegans seek to make and grow as much of their food as possible, themselves. With around 80% of the world’s soy coming from the US, Brazil and Argentina, deforestation for soy agriculture remains a bone of contention.

How does The Vegan Society define veganism?

Contrary to what you might think, you don’t have to join The Vegan Society, but it is a useful source of information, especially when you are first embarking on a plant-based journey. It promotes a rounded approach to the lifestyle and seeks to be inclusive for all ages and motivations.

It defines the movement as follows:

“Veganism is a philosophy and 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; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms, it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

Though it’s by no means the only definition out there, The Vegan Society has summed things up nicely here and offers an easy on-ramp to a community of like-minded people that can offer insights and advice. Particularly to those who are wondering where to begin.

How to go vegan

One of the most frequently asked questions is: “How do I get started with turning vegan?” and the answer is simple. You plan ahead.

Food waste is a real problem, especially in the UK where more than 6 million tonnes is discarded every year, with an estimated 70% still being suitable for consumption. So whilst you might be tempted to simply throw out anything and everything in your cupboards that contain animal products, we ask that you use it up first, or donate it to somebody that will. With your cupboards and fridge ready to restock, you can begin with the basics: your first supermarket shop.

We highly recommend investing in a lot of store cupboard essentials that add bulk and flavour to a meal, without hiking up the cost. Things like tinned chickpeas, plant-based milk, tomatoes, tofu, frozen vegetables and pasta are your best bet and offer an easy base to work with. From here, you need to add in some fresh produce, to top up your vitamin levels and finally, you can think about treats. Alt-meats tend to be less healthy than whole foods, so try not to base all of your meals around them. They are also far more pricey.

plant based dietWhen it comes to cooking, start by veganising your favourite dishes and then experiment with a little more culinary creativity. The trick is to ease yourself in gently and to not make the change too jarring. If you start eating unusual new products that your body isn’t used to, you might notice some discomfort and mistakenly attribute that to your new lifestyle. Slow and steady wins the race.

With food tackled, you can start to think about other elements, if you want to. Remember that there is no pressure and you won’t get penalised for making mistakes. Vegan superpowers are just a myth, we promise.

If you feel uncomfortable wearing clothing made from leather, wool and other animal products, you should look into selling or donating them, so as to not contribute to landfill and then think about how you want to shop for replacement pieces and your self-care items. You’ll need to know the difference between vegan and cruelty-free labels and you might also want to think about ethical production values in terms of your fashion choices.

Read our full guide on how to go vegan.

What health benefits does veganism offer?

Before turning plant-based, it’s important to get a rounded idea of what to expect in terms of changes to your body. The anticipated health benefits of veganism are a serious draw and once you understand exactly what vegans eat, you can start to monitor the way a new eating methodology impacts you personally. Consuming only plant-based foods can result in:

Lower blood pressure

Studies have shown that cutting out meat, fish and dairy products as part of a vegan diet can help lower blood pressure and reduce the likelihood of a dependency on medication. This is because so many whole foods are a natural defence against ill health, but be mindful of the fact that not everything that’s vegan is good for you. High-sodium junk foods shouldn’t replace fruit, vegetables and legumes as your main food groups.

Read our full article about how veganism can lower blood pressure.

Reduced risk of heart disease

The low-fat nature of a whole foods vegan diet makes it a good choice for anyone trying to avoid heart disease. Usually caused by a build-up of fatty deposits, heart disease causes arteries to get narrower, making it that much harder for blood to pump around the body. This makes it harder to exercise and suddenly, a negative cycle has been created.

Significantly lowering fat intake levels by cutting meat and dairy is a step forward in the fight against heart disease and a distinct benefit of veganism. The British Heart Foundation agrees too and regularly posts delicious vegan food inspiration on its social channels.

Weight management

Despite anticipated weight loss being a chief motivator for trying out plant-based foods, there is no guarantee of a scale victory. Instead, it is more positive to focus on the positive health effects, and if smaller jeans are needed as a result, that can be a bonus.

We would like to state that the health benefits derived from a vegan lifestyle vary from person to person and are dependent on other factors, including exercise, alcohol consumption and smoking. Cutting meat, fish and dairy from your diet will not offset all of the negative consequences of an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle.

What are the downsides to being vegan?

In the interests of total transparency and objectivity, it’s vital that you are aware of potential negatives associated with veganism. After all, if it was perfect for everyone, great for the planet and easy to follow, wouldn’t everybody be vegan already?

Potential issues include:

Vitamin B12 supplementation

With a balanced diet, vegans can get almost everything needed from food. And yes, that includes protein. The one thing that needs to be supplemented however, is vitamin B12, as it is not found in plant-based foods. The good news is that it can be easy and delicious to add it into your everyday eating schedule.

Vital for energy release, a healthy nervous system and red blood cell production, B12 isn’t something to skimp on, and thanks to nutritional yeast, you don’t need to. The name might not be appealing, but nutritional yeast — or ‘nooch’ as it is commonly known — is a cheesy-tasting additive that works well in just about any savoury food. In small doses, you won’t notice it at all, but if the dairy cravings hit, you can ramp up your portion and make a vegan mac and cheese with nooch as the main flavour enhancer and you won’t be sorry. Nor will your body.

nutritional yeastNutritional yeast used to only be available in health food and specialist shops but most major supermarkets in the UK now stock it, usually in the Free From aisle.

Increased shopping bills

Any new lifestyle has an initial cost implication and veganism is no different. You’ll probably notice your food costing more, as you stock up on some of the more unusual seasonings and essentials, but once you have them in, you will find that your top-up-shop costs settle down. Similarly, if you are going to buy new makeup and personal hygiene items, that will be a big initial hit, but one that will level out.

Uncomfortable conversations

This might seem like a glib inclusion, but it’s important that you are prepared for the fact that your lifestyle change might offend, confuse or just interest those around you, leading to some conversations that aren’t guaranteed to always be pleasant.

vegan societyThere is a real disconnect here that you choosing to tread lightly and consciously inspires aggression in return, but just remember that there is usually misinformation or misunderstanding at the base of conflict. Try to diffuse any that you encounter with patience and open dialogue.

Read our guide on how to tell someone you’re vegan.

Do you have to start during Veganuary?

Though a useful challenge for some, Veganuary is not the official starting point for anybody wanting to move over to a plant-based lifestyle. You can switch whenever you like.

 

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The percentage of people who stay vegan after using Veganuary to dip their toe in the water of animal-free eating is relatively unknown, with reports varying from 47% to 72%. Vegaunary is set to release its official figures for 2021 shortly, so that will make for interesting reading.

Remember that a lifelong change won’t happen in just 31 days and it’s okay to slip up, eat something by mistake or just lapse. We are all human and change is a constant process.

You made the switch and love it. What else is there to try?

If you are looking for inspiration as to how to take your veganism in a different direction, there is an entire community to engage with. From activism to launching a plant-based business and spreading the world, there is a lot that you can do.

You’re already thinking outside of societal norms by treading the vegan path, so why not see how else you can think outside the box?

Read our chat with Loui Blake about making vegan entrepreneurism his focus.

Amy Buxton
Amy is a committed ethical vegan, raising a next generation compassionate human with her husband and their beloved dog, Boo. A freelance writer with a background in PR, she decided to use the COVID lockdown period to refocus her client base and has come to The Vegan Review as a senior writer and editor, before moving into her external content director role. "What we should be doing is working at the job of life itself" is Amy's mantra, courtesy of Tom from The Good Life.

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