An international campaign fuelled by plant power

An international campaign is encouraging people to go vegan in January. But is it healthy to cut out all animal-based foods, asks Sharon Ní Chonchúir.  

Keith Walsh shopping in Swan's on the Green, Naas, Co. Kildare.

You’ve done it again. Despite your best efforts to resist temptation over Christmas, you scoffed mince pies, gobbled turkey and ham sandwiches and finished the entire box of Roses.

Veganuary may be the solution to your sluggishness. The people behind it claim that switching to a vegan diet for January will help you kickstart the new year with renewed energy.

Established in 2014, the aim of Veganuary is to create a global movement whereby more and more people try a vegan diet.

The promoters are bringing their message to the US for the first time and in 2018 they hope to convince more people than ever that veganism is good for them, good for animals and good for the environment.

Are they right? Is a vegan diet a healthy and sustainable one for people and for the planet?

Many celebrities think so. Brad Pitt, Miley Cyrus and Sinéad O’Connor are animal lovers and long-term vegans while Beyoncé, Bill Clinton and Rosanna Davison have embraced veganism for the good of their health.

It’s not just celebrities who are interested in veganism. While there are no firm figures on how many vegans there are in Ireland, we do know that the Vegan Society has run out of information packs, such is the demand.

We also know that the Happy Pear cookbooks — which consist entirely of vegetarian and vegan recipes — were bestsellers this year and last. The first one has sold more than 100,000 copies in Ireland to date.

Even Google corroborates this. There were 20 times as many searches for veganism in Ireland in August 2017 as there were in August 2007.

There are many reasons why people become vegan. For Terri Walsh (pictured right) , the three times world pole sports doubles champion and co-owner of Fierce Fitness Dance Studio in Maynooth, it was animal welfare.

“I went vegan in January three years ago and think it’s a great time to start,” says Walsh, an ambassador for Veganuary.

Now aged 31, she had been vegetarian since the age of 12. “Going vegan was the obvious next step but it took time to get there,” she says.

“My eyes were closed. For example, I thought that cows made milk anyway, so what was the harm in milking them? ... It was only when I understood the farming practices involved that I decided to change the way I eat.”

Her parents were worried initially. “They are both big meat eaters,” she says. “They thought veganism wouldn’t be the healthiest in terms of protein and nutrients.”

It didn’t take them long to see they were wrong. “I started to feel stronger almost immediately,” she says.

“I had more energy and could perform for longer. I train for hours every day; doing pole, gymnastics, gym work and trapeze and I don’t feel tired. My parents no longer worry. I think they’re proud of me for standing up for what I believe in.”

Environmental concerns is another motivator for vegans. Farming livestock contributes to global warming, deforestation and water pollution, which is why some decide not to consume animal products.

Professional rugby league player Anthony Mullally became vegan for these reasons. Concerned about the environmental impact of the egg and dairy farming industries, he stopped eating animal products last summer.

Since then, he claims the diet has only helped his performance. He had his most consistent playing season this year, setting a new bench press personal best. He also says he has much more energy in the mornings.

Vegans like Mullally might be surprised to learn that veganism may not be the most sustainable way to eat.

According to several international recent studies, the most sustainable option globally combines a modest consumption of animal products with a mostly plant-based diet.

Not that this makes any difference to Walsh. “I couldn’t eat animal products now I know how cruel the farming methods are,” she says. “That’s what’s important to me.”

Health is another reason people choose veganism. At first glance, vegan diets certainly seem to offer health benefits.

Studies show that vegans tend to be thinner than non-vegans. They are likely to have lower blood sugar levels, higher insulin sensitivity and up to a 78% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Vegan diets are also associated with a lower risk of prostate, breast and colon cancer as well as a lower risk of heart disease.

In fact, vegans are said to have a 75% lower risk of developing high blood pressure and up to a 42% lower chance of dying from heart disease. This is why Bill Clinton was convinced to try veganism.

Dietician Sarah Keogh of thinks vegans’ weight rather than their diet might be the reason for this.

“It might not be the diet itself but obesity,” she says. “Almost all cakes, biscuits and chocolates are out if you become vegan and you’ll probably end up losing weight.

"Weight is a major factor in diabetes, heart disease and some cancers and that could explain why vegans have a lower risk of developing them.”

Keogh also draws attention to the fact that vegans are at higher risk of stroke and colorectal cancer as well as fractures in later life as a result of their lower bone density.

Health coach Ailis Brosnan has been vegan for more than 20 years wholeheartedly endorses veganism’s health-giving properties.

“I gradually moved away from eating animal products after leaving home at 17 but I made the final transition when I was working with Dr Dean Ornish (the author of the best-sellingDr Dean Ornish’s Programme for Reversing Heart Disease) in California,” she says. “He was working on the links between diet and heart disease at that time and I could see that becoming vegan was the right thing to do.”

It was only when she moved back to Kerry that she realised it was unusual. “I didn’t stand out in California but in Ireland 20 years ago, people didn’t even know what a vegan was,” says Brosnan who is qualified in sports science, health promotion and health psychology.

Her family were worried and only began to relax when they saw that she was thriving on the diet. “I was relaxed about my nutrition until the children came along but then I upped everything a notch so that I could be as healthy as could be while pregnant and breastfeeding,” she says.

“Now the entire family follow the diet and we are all— including my two children aged four and nine — fit and healthy vegans.”

Brosnan, 46, is so fit that she takes part in endurance sports. “I did an Iron Man this year where I swam four kilometres, biked 180 kilometres and ran a marathon and now I am training for a 50km ultramarathon,” she says. “My diet plays a huge part in helping me to do all of this.”

While Keogh accepts that people like Brosnan and Walsh can be fit and healthy vegans, she is cautious about declaring veganism a healthy diet.

“Any diet is a good diet if it gives you the nutrients and calories you need,” she says. “A vegan diet has a lot going for it, with lots of fruit and vegetables and fibre but it is missing certain things and as a result, it can never be nutritionally complete.”

The science proves it. Studies show that vegan diets tend to provide more fibre, antioxidants and beneficial plant compounds than meat-based diets. They are also richer in potassium, magnesium, folate and vitamins A, C and E.

However, they lack vitamin B12 and can be low in calcium, vitamin D, iodine and the omega 3 fatty acid DHA.

“B12 is only found in animal products and calcium is not as nutritionally available from plants,” says Keogh.

“You’d have to eat 16 servings of broccoli to get your recommended daily allowance. You’re also likely to lack iodine and DHA if you’re not eating meat or fish. You’ll have to add some or all of these to your diet through fortified foods or supplements.”

If these nutrients are added, then veganism can be healthy. “It doesn’t matter how you’re getting your nutrients as long as you’re getting them,” she says. “It just takes a bit more awareness and effort if you’re vegan.”

Walsh agrees: “My diet is healthier than it ever was because I’m more aware of what I’m eating,” she says. “Now, instead of having a coleslaw and cheese sandwich for lunch, I’ll have brown rice with lentils and spinach. It’s more nutritionally balanced and I feel much better on it.”

Brosnan is equally conscious of what she eats. “I make sure I get my omega 3s and my calcium from the likes of figs, green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds,” she says. “My diet is all wholefoods and very varied and I supplement with B12.”

Keogh has encountered lots of vegans who are not as well informed. “People seem to think a vegan diet is healthy in itself,” she says. “They don’t realise they need supplements and as a result, they can harm their long-term health.”

If you are interested in veganism, Walsh and Brosnan would urge you to try the diet for the month of January.

“See how you go,” says Brosnan. “You’ll probably find you sleep better and have more energy.”

She recommends starting with small changes. “Make a shepherd’s pie with lentils, for example,” she says. “Tweak the recipes you already cook and try a new recipe at the weekend when you have more time.”

Walsh advises following Bosh TV for their vegan recipes and planning ahead by bulk cooking and freezing meals.

“Stock up on snacks like nuts, blueberries and hummus,” she adds. “And research what’s close to work so that you know you can nip in for something to eat if you’re hungry.”

Neither Brosnan nor Walsh would ever go back to their pre-vegan days. “Whether it’s my health, the environment or animals, a vegan diet makes sense to me on all levels,” says Brosnan.

“A vegan diet is a no-brainer to me,” says Walsh. “I’m fit, strong and vegan and there’s no need for me to have animal products. Why would I ever go back?”

Though Keogh doesn’t go as far as endorsing the vegan diet, she does acknowledge that we could all take something from it.

“If Veganuary resulted in us all eating five to seven servings of fruit and vegetables a day, that would have a huge health benefit,” she says.

“We don’t need to try an extreme diet that we will give up a few days into 2018. We could make this one positive change and keep it going into February and beyond.”


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