Do I have to become vegan? There are currently more than 500,000 people in Britain who say they have done that – a fourfold increase in the last ten years. And the meat, the fish, the dairy and eggs (and honey – it is made by bees and is therefore a by-product of animals) – a revolution shows no signs of delay.
The rise of veganism would have surprised and delighted Donald Watson, a British teacher who founded the Vegan Society with his wife and neighbors in 1944. They created the word “vegan” by taking the first three letters and the last two letters of the word vegetarian.
They had a simple but powerful belief that we should not “exploit” animals for any purpose, and their mission became “living without exploitation.”
Dr. Michael Mosley, pictured, stops a vegan sausage roll – a product inspired by Donald Watson who founded the Vegan Society in 1944
But in addition to the fact that they want to be more ethical, most people who become vegan certainly do so in the belief that it is good for their health.
A few weeks ago, X Factor guru Simon Cowell announced that he is now vegan and has given him “much more energy and focus,” while F1 driver Lewis Hamilton told his Instagram followers a few days ago that he was “healthier and was happier “than ever on a vegan diet.” Hamilton mentions his impressive muscle growth by eating more plant-based proteins.
So am I missing it?
The rise of McVeganism
Along with the increase in veganism, there has also been a dramatic increase in the development and marketing of ready-to-eat foods aimed at the vegan market. There are vegan burgers and vegan sausages, and when the Greggs bakery chain launched a vegan sausage roll earlier this year, it quickly became their fastest selling new product.
I’m not a big fan of sausage rolls, but to investigate this article, I decided to try one.
The Greggs vegan sausage roll has a slightly unpleasant aftertaste and contains 310 calories along with half the recommended daily amounts of saturated fat and a third of your daily salt intake
My first reactions were that, although it had a somewhat unpleasant aftertaste, it wasn’t that bad. But when I read the list of ingredients on the Greggs website, I discovered that it really wasn’t healthier than the pork version. They contain around 310 calories, as well as half of your daily recommended amounts of saturated fat and a third of your recommended salt intake, which is quite a lot for something you don’t really get much from.
So it’s not a good idea to live on sausages.
But what interests me more is how veganism relates to my favorite way of eating – the Mediterranean diet.
Although there have been many high-quality studies demonstrating the health benefits of a Mediterranean diet, veganism has been looked at much less, let alone tried to compare the two. But I did find one that was conducted a few months ago by researchers at Sheffield University.
For this study, the researchers asked 24 healthy volunteers to follow a Mediterranean diet or a vegan diet for a month.
Those who followed the Med diet were asked to eat lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and olive oil; they were encouraged to eat lean meat and eat fatty fish at least twice a week. Those who became vegan were asked to cut not only meat and fish, but eggs and dairy.
What happened? Well, by the end of the month, those on the vegan diet had lost just over 2 pounds and had seen some impressive decreases in their cholesterol scores.
Blood taken by vegan volunteers during the month showed significant decreases in various important micronutrients, in particular iodine and vitamin B12
Although those on the Med diet saw less weight loss, they saw some clear improvements in the flexibility of their blood vessels, suggesting that they had reduced their risk of heart disease.
So both diets turned out to be good for the heart, but in different ways.
However, the researchers discovered a significant disadvantage of becoming a vegan. Blood taken by vegan volunteers during the month showed significant decreases in various important micronutrients, in particular iodine and vitamin B12.
This is despite the fact that the volunteers initially all received vitamin B12 supplements and were encouraged to take them regularly. Iodine is mainly found in cow’s milk and white fish, and because we Britons do not consume enough of it, we are among the most iodine-poor people in the world.
This is important because your thyroid needs iodine to make thyroid hormones, which are vital for a healthy metabolism. Vitamin B12, found in meat and other animal products, but not in a large amount in vegetables, is vital for many things, including keeping your brain in good condition.
The researchers pointed out that the significant reductions they discovered in this study “should be worrying for people on a vegan diet because poor micronutrient status can have serious health consequences in the long term.”
The message is, if you want to become vegan, keep a close eye on what you eat. The Vegan Society website provides useful information on how you can ensure that you get enough of the right nutrients in your diet.
Do you still want to be vegan? Here’s how to do it right
I have never tried to follow a vegan diet, but a friend of mine, Dr. Giles Yeo, a geneticist from Cambridge University, has.
A few months ago he decided to become a vegan for a month and as a scientist he dealt with it very systematically.
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Before he started, he read a lot of vegan cookbooks and got help from a leading dietician to make sure he got the right nutrients. He also decided to skip ready-to-eat vegan-labeled foods in the supermarkets and cook all over again. More than four weeks he lost nearly 9 pounds without really trying, and his total cholesterol score fell by 12 percent.
Despite these benefits, he has decided not to remain a complete vegan – “I love meat too much to give up,” he said. Instead, he has become a flexitarian and is trying to ensure that about a third of his meals are now vegan. His best tips?
- Before you start, take a good vegan cookbook and practice making a few nutritious meals that you like and that you can make without too much effort.
- Instead of just replacing meat with something like lentils or Quorn, you go for recipes that are specially designed to be meat-free.
- Try to stay vegan for one meal, such as lunch, before becoming a full-time vegan.
Shall I become vegan? I think it is good to do, but like Giles, I would have a hard time giving up the meat completely. So I’m going to try to be vegan a few meals a week and see how I continue.
Can meat-free help beat cancer?
A friend of mine, Patrick MacIntosh, has embraced veganism with more heart than Giles. Patrick became a vegan after being treated for multiple cancers (bowel, skin, and prostate) and believes his new diet helped his recovery. Is he right? Well, a recent study comparing vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters concluded that a vegan diet actually reduces your risk of developing cancer by about 15 percent. Patrick’s advice? Grow as many vegetables as possible. Beetroot and onions are apparently simple.
After a walk to the South Pole, Patrick is now raising money for the World Cancer Research Fund by cycling around the world. He left London a few days ago and hopes to reach Japan by September. Read more on kmgfoundation.co.uk or follow him on Twitter – @kmgfoundation.