The term ‘vegan’ inspires a number of different images for people. Some see a person with a penchant for culinary delights which taste like cardboard. Others are struck by the visual of a tree-hugging hippie, throwing their hairy-under-armed fists in the air in protest. In any case, more and more people are opting for the vegan diet, an intake strictly deficit of all meat and dairy products (including eggs), and nourishing in organic and natural resources like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In the past, a vegan lifestyle was a badge worn with pride – a statement for the welfare of animals. These days, however, more of us are reaching for a second salad serving for our waistlines rather than our furry friends.
Joey De Backer, Accredited Practicing Dietitian from Living Nutrition, says a vegan lifestyle can assist in a longer life expectancy, reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. “Vegans are cutting out a lot of processed food and food with a high concentrated fat content. They get the benefits from more natural, organic sources,” she says. Studies have shown a vegan diet can improve your health and wellbeing, give you a connection to the environment and – if used properly – help you reach your health and fitness goals.
Many famous athletes and celebrities have jumped aboard the vegan train, in support of its wholesome outlook at food, life and the way the body responds to it. An Olympic gold medalist and former world record holding athlete, Carl Lewis has been a vegan since the early 1990s – often saying his best year competing was thanks to the eating habits which provided him with more energy. Even tennis superstar Venus Williams has switched to a vegan lifestyle after being diagnosed with Sjorgen’s Syndrome, an incurable disease of the immune system. According to blogher.com, Williams’s switch was a New Year’s resolution – the kind that actually sticks. “There are athletes and marathon runners who are vegan and swear by it,” says De Backer. “A lot of it comes down to that idea of eating clean or eating pure.”
Mel Long, 26, has been a vegan for nearly three years, using the diet as a form of discipline, and clean eating. “I’m one of those all-or-nothing type people, I didn’t want the temptation of fatty dairy products or fast food” she says. Mel says she considered the vegan transition for quite some time, and since switching over has never looked back. “It got me healthy again, it made me feel way better. Cleansed is a good word to describe it,” she says. “You’re not eating processed food, and you’re not putting crap into your body.” Whilst she has nothing but good things to say about her vegan lifestyle, Mel admits she has to be aware of her body and the nutrients she might be lacking. “At the start I thought I would just eat whatever is vegan and stop eating animal products,” says Mel. “I went to the doctors because I started to feel quite
tired and lethargic and found out I was quite anemic, so I started taking supplements to keep on top of things.”
De Backer says this is often an obstacle for vegans, especially when first starting out. She notes the most common deficiencies in vegans and some vegetarians to be iron, zinc, omega 3 fatty acids, and vitamin B12. While some of these vitamins and minerals can be supplemented through foods, others cannot. “Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products, it’s the main one that most vegan people need to supplement.” De Backer says the most common misconception towards veganism is that it results in a lack of protein, but with a regular intake of protein rich foods like beans, nuts, seeds, and tofu, vegans will be just as strong as any meat eater.
De Backer says although a vegan diet can be very healthy, it needs to be well planned to fit the individual. “I think it (veganism) can be dangerous if it’s not right for you.” American welterweight boxer Timothy Bradley enjoys a vegan diet nine months of the year for training purposes, but says he couldn’t do it year in, year out. “For fights, I have to do it,” he told the Wall Street Journal, saying his thoughts were clearer and he felt sharper when going green. De Backer says the popularity of veganism is due to people becoming more conscious of their eating habits and the impact it can have on their health. “People are aware of the risk of saturated fats and animal fats, and are opting to eat less meat or dairy products for health reasons,” she says.
Lefki Pavlidis is the coordinator of the Vegan Easy Challenge, a plan designed to help people’s transition into the healthy lifestyle. Originating in 2009, the 30 day challenge was run through November but in 2012 has extended its limits, allowing people to partake in the ‘start any time’ challenge since last May. “We’ve had over 850 people sign up from all over the world,” said Pavlidis, who agrees there’s a noticeable spike in numbers. “More and more people are definitely giving the vegan diet a go. It’s mentioned more often in the media these days and we’ve seen many celebrities go vegan … with the potential to influence millions,” she says.
But while the proof of this cleansing lifestyle lies in the dairy-free pudding, De Backer says it’s not the only alternative. “You have cultures that live completely off meat or completely off fish and they survive as well. The main thing is for the food that they’re eating to be unprocessed and whole, and just healthy, fresh food – whether that is animal or plant.” De Backer says people thinking of joining the vegan crusade need as much information as possible. “Do your research, find out about the nutritious food that you need to eat in order to get the minerals you need. Some people thrive on a vegan diet, for others it just doesn’t suit them, they feel tired and horrible and it’s a real chore,” she says.