Words by Hadley Stewart - @Wordsbyhadley


January might be over, but the talk of ‘New Year, new me’ certainly isn’t. As well as being stone cold sober this January, the next steps into a brighter and healthier 2019, apparently, involves eliminating certain food groups from our diets. ‘Going vegan’ to be exact.

Veganuary has been dubbed a publicity stunt by some, and a positive way to get more people thinking about their diets by others. So are there any health benefits to following a vegan diet, and what are some of the reasons behind why people decide to change their eating habits? I spoke with three gay men who are embracing the vegan diet, and not just for one month of the year. 

DEBATE

“Veganuary is a gimmick,” says Dean who is returning to a vegan diet after a short hiatus last year. “I started following a vegan diet as a challenge to myself to do it for a month, and I carried on for two years.” In addition to a vegan diet being a challenge to himself, Dean also watched a number of documentaries about where we get our food from, and the environmental impact of dairy and meat production, which prompted him to rethink his eating habits. “The two I can remember are Vegucated and Cowspiracy. A more recent documentary that convinced me to go back to being vegan was What the Health.”

Fellow vegan Joel seems disappointed by people not continuing a plant-based diet, once Veganuary is over. “I’m in two minds about Veganuary,” he says. “I like it theory. It should encourage people to try it, and shows it’s achievable. It also gets veganism more awareness, but it always surprises me that people don’t continue after the month is through.” Joel says that he would struggle to return to eating food groups that come from animals, such as dairy and meat products. He believes that if you’re going to start Veganuary, you have to be in it for the long haul. “If people just do it for a month, complaining all the time about how incredibly difficult it is, and have three or four lapses, and then go back in February to eat steak and cheese and bacon and whatever, then what was the point?”

“Veganuary is a publicity stunt, but it’s great!” says James, who has been vegan since 2017, after being in a long-term relationship with a vegan. “I think a very small minority who do it will become vegans because of it, but most importantly I think it shows everyone involved that you can still eat well on a vegan diet.

As well as health benefits, James also thinks Veganuary could have an impact on wider factors: “It may encourage people to lose the stigma against vegans, and reduce meat and dairy in their own diet after the month is up.”

PROS AND CONS

Dean admits his energy levels have been boosted since deciding to follow a vegan diet. “Personally, I feel more awake and full of life when I’m not eating meat. I mean, when you’re a meat-eater you’re literally filling yourself with death - the flesh of dead animals. When I went back to eating meat after two years of being vegan, I found myself feeling more lethargic after meals and in general and I put on over a stone in weight.” Moreover, Dean’s emotional wellbeing was also influencing his food choices. “Eating meat felt like a quick fix. When I felt sad or lonely I found chicken comforting, when I was drunk I wanted a kebab, and when I had a hangover I wanted bacon.” Now that he’s back on the vegan train, Dean believes that taking more active decisions over what he eats has also seen broader benefits. “I’m taking control not only of my stomach but also of my mind. For me there’s something deeper going on. I’m not letting my emotions dictate what I eat.”

Agreeing with Dean, James also feels like he has more energy now that he’s following a vegan diet: “Since eating a plant-based diet I do feel more awake and far more energised. It’s made me find healthy alternatives for things like chocolate bars.” Yet despite feeling the physical benefits of a plant-based diet, James acknowledges that it’s sometimes difficult to share with other people that he’s vegan. “I have to admit that I always find it awkward revealing my dietary choices to new people as I then have to have the same debate with everyone I meet.” Are there misconceptions, perhaps? “I think everyone assumes every vegan can be hostile on the issue, whereas I would rather just explain the reasons I’m doing it and let others make their own choices.”

Joel disagrees and says he hasn’t noticed any health benefits since starting to follow a vegan diet. “I imagine if someone had a ‘poor’ diet before, they’d feel the benefits just because of increased intake of vegetables and so on. For me, the positive is that I’m living in accordance with my ethics, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. It feels good to have a sort of strong defining belief.” As for public perceptions? “There is a stigma,” he says. “Just look at the reaction to Greggs vegan sausage roll. People kind of lose their minds about what other people eat.”

Dean has also faced similar conversations when discussing his diet. “Friends and dates would wrongly assume I was judging them for eating meat and animal products. I think there’s a misconception that a vegan is a more righteous person or we think of ourselves as a better people.

“Friends and dates would wrongly assume I was judging them for eating meat and animal products.” In addition to him not always getting a positive reaction to being vegan, Dean also thinks that there is a stigma attached to vegans who step away from a plant-based diet. “It was almost like I was an alcoholic who had fallen off the wagon,” he said of returning to eating meat last year. “My meat consumption was judged more harshly than someone who had never been vegan.”

EXPERT OPINION

“A vegan, or plant-based, diet includes foods derived from plants only and excludes all animal products including honey, dairy and eggs. If a vegan diet is balanced and complete, it is often rich in beans, pulses, seeds, and fruit and vegetables.” explains Karla Smuts, Registered Dietician. “These are all characteristics of a diet which if followed consistently, can protect against conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer like bowel cancer.”

That being said, Karla is keen to point out that veganism does not equate to being healthy. “It’s important to remember that a vegan diet isn’t healthy by default. If not balanced and well-planned, vegan diets may be lacking in a number of nutrients that are traditionally derived from animal products, including vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and omega 3 fatty acids.”

“It is possible to for a vegan diet to provide you with all the nutrients you need if planned well,” advises Karla. “While there are a number of reasons why more and more people are becoming vegan including the reduced environmental impact and for ethical reasons, becoming vegan purely for health reasons is a drastic step and should be considered carefully.”

Now that Veganuary is over, it will be interesting to see how many continue to be vegan. It’s clear that veganism remains a topic that sparks debate, but for many vegans this seems more than just about following a set diet. For those who have been vegan for a long time, the physical, mental and ethical benefits of being vegan outweigh the questions and stigma they might face from others.

Yet despite being marketed as a way of improving our health, it seems clear that being vegan requires broader personal convictions, to pursue something so often challenged and challenging.  


Read all the article from FS #170: