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What is a vegan? A beginners guide on foods to avoid and the health effects

Honey? Wine? Dark chocolate? Let us navigate you through the vegan minefield

Matty Edwards
Thursday 21 June 2018 13:13 BST
I went vegan for 10 weeks and this is what it did to my mind and body

Veganism is on the march. With now more than half a million vegans in the UK, what does it actually mean?

It might seem obvious what being vegan is, but there is even an app, Is It Vegan?, to check if certain products count or not. Simply scan a product and the app will analyse its ingredients and give you the thumbs up or down.

Budding vegans and curious meat eaters may be wondering about the finer details about what the lifestyle entails.

The definition of veganism, according to The Vegan Society, who coined the term in 1944, is:

“A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”

It is therefore more than just cutting out meat and dairy products, but a more comprehensive lifestyle choice striving to avoid animal cruelty and exploitation.

Although veganism objects to animal testing for the development of medicines, The Vegan Society doesn’t recommend you avoid drugs prescribed to you by your GP. Instead you can ask for medication that doesn’t include animal products such as gelatine and lactose.

Is honey vegan?

Honey is often mistaken as vegan friendly, but it definitely is not, because the harvesting of honey by humans exploits honey bees and their health can be damaged by a sugar substitute that beekeepers replace the honey with.

The selective breeding of bees to increase productivity is also harming a species that is already endangered by increasing susceptibility to disease.

(AFP/Getty Images) (AFP/Getty)

What you wouldn’t think is/isn’t vegan

There may be condiments lurking in your cupboard that could catch you out. For example, some pestos contain milk and eggs and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce contains anchovies.

Wine may have been filtered through a fining agent, which can include a range of animal products, including bone marrow, fish oil and gelatin.

Avocado fans who are too lazy to make their own guac, beware: some supermarkets add cream to their guacamole.

By contrast, there are tonnes of products that you would might not have thought are vegan, from Oreos (just leave the milk on the side), to Ritz cheesy crackers and some dark chocolate.

For all sorts of products, from beer to tattoo ink, animal charity PETA has published hundreds of FAQs to help you dodge the vegan minefield.

What happens to your body?

With the lifestyle itself cleared up, you may be wondering what actually happens to your body when you go vegan.

Due to the absence of red meat in a plant-based diet, vegans are typically deficient in vitamin B12 and iron, which can lead to headaches, dizziness and if left untreated, anaemia.

In addition, you may feel tired, develop a calcium deficiency and go to the toilet more, but on the flipside you will probably lose weight and could reduce your risk of heart disease. Vegans can also take supplements to counteract the lack of vitamin B12, iron and calcium in their diet, so there's no need to fret.

What not to ask a vegan

Now you know what being vegan means exactly, it’s probably best to stop asking irritating questions, which plague vegans’ daily lives.

Jenny Liddle, former trustee of The Vegan Society, told The Independent the most annoying things people say are: “‘Where do you get your protein? Oh but you won't be able to have that will you? It must be really hard being a vegan.’”

Other nauseating comment include: “I couldn't be vegan - I love my bacon and cheese too much!" "I'm nearly vegan - I only eat chicken once a week!" "But what would happen if you were left in the desert and all you had to eat was your camel?" "But Lions eat meat."

“These comments are irritating because they demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of my own standpoint, and a lack of respect,” Liddle said.

“It seems to be acceptable to say these things even though veganism is a protected belief. It's basically bullying someone for being different, for having a different viewpoint from them.”

This article has been updated. It was originally published in December 2017.

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