Going vegan: What you need to know to make the switch

A vegan diet can help improve your health, the planet and animals’ lives. Here’s what it means to adopt a plant-based lifestyle and how to do it.

It used to be something of a niche lifestyle for young millennial women, but going vegan is moving mainstream.

Dietitian Nicole Dynan says finding vegan options in supermarkets is easier than before, social media is awash with images of vegan food and more of her clients are seeking advice about adopting a plant-based diet.

While the precise number of vegans in Australia is unknown, Vegan Australia estimates about 2 per cent of Australians are vegan.

“I see people coming in from just about every age group, from people in their 70s to parents seeking support for their children who want to go vegan,” Dietitians Australia spokeswoman Nicole says.

What does going vegan mean?

Vegans don’t eat products made wholly or partly from animals.

Some also avoid using products made from animals.

“They eat food like fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds,” Nicole says.

Dietitian and nutritionist Lucy Taylor, a vegan herself, explains foods that are off the menu include meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, dairy, eggs, honey and gelatine (used in jelly and lollies).

She says other no-go items include certain clothing materials (such as wool, leather and silk), dietary supplements (such as fish oil and collagen), beauty products (such as lipsticks and nail polish that include animal-derived ingredients), and skincare products made with lanolin, extracted from sheep’s wool, or other non-vegan ingredients.

Why go vegan?

Many people adopt a vegan lifestyle for animal-rights reasons or because it is kinder on the planet.

According to one study, a global switch to vegan diets would cut food-related greenhouse-gas emissions by 70 per cent by 2050.

Many also go vegan in pursuit of their health.

According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, well-planned vegan diets are healthy, nutritionally adequate and appropriate for people of any age.

“The caveat is they have to be planned correctly,” Nicole says.

“A vegan diet could be just as unhealthy as a diet with lots of meat if it’s not planned well.”

A healthy vegan diet includes avoiding or limiting “vegan junk food”, such as fast food and packaged snack foods, Lucy advises.

“These are typically highly processed foods with very little nutritional value,” she says.

Health benefits of going vegan

Lucy explains a well-planned vegan diet based on whole plant foods (including fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds) can help lower cholesterol, blood pressure and the risk of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, and improve gut function, among other health benefits.

“Vegan diets are typically lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre, magnesium, folate, vitamin C, potassium and beneficial phytochemicals,” she says.

How do you start a vegan diet?

“In very simple terms, it’s about removing the meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy from your diet,” Lucy says.

“But it’s important to keep in mind these foods usually contribute essential nutrients to the diet, such as iron, zinc, calcium, iodine and long-chain omega-3s, which will need to be sourced elsewhere from plant foods and, in some cases (such as vitamin B12), from dietary supplements.”

A common mistake people make is remove meat from their diet but not replace it with legumes (such as beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas) and soy foods (such as tofu and tempeh).

“Legumes and soy foods are considered by the Australian Dietary Guidelines as acceptable alternatives to meat, as they are a good source of protein, iron and zinc,” Lucy notes.

Lucy and Nicole recommend seeking advice from a dietitian before going vegan and checking your GP supports your vegan diet.

Written by Joanne Trzcinski.