As 2015 progressed so did the number of clean-eating articles, blogs and recipes encouraging us to eat a plant-based diet of whole, unprocessed, unrefined foods. Mintel’s report on Global Food & Drinks Trends 2016 predicts a “profoundly changing” marketplace this year, in which foods previously seen as alternative, such as non-dairy milks and veggie burgers, are becoming mainstream.
Clean eating means choosing the healthiest, most wholesome, unpolluted food you can, being mindful of where it comes from (local and seasonal as much as possible), and using fresh ingredients, freshly cooked. It means eating plants not animals: vegetables, wholegrains, beans, nuts, lentils, seeds and fruit.
It means not eating processed foods (broadly, most things that come in a tin, box or plastic wrapping), refined foods like white bread and rice, meat and animal products, bad fats, dairy, and sugar.
The health benefits of a wholesome diet with low to no meat and sugar consumption are well documented. But although plant-based eating has become a trend, it should become the way we all eat, without needing a label put on it. It has to, for our own health and that of the planet.
So here are my six reasons plant-based eating is cool in 2016.
Some really cool famous people are doing it
Plenty of celebs have been vegan for years: Woody Harrelson, Moby, Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain, Jared Leto, Joss Stone, Ellen de Generes, Portia di Rossi and Michelle Pfeiffer are just some (several inspired by Diet for a New America).
And there are more all the time, including Ellie Goulding, Leona Lewis, Hunger Games star Liam Hemsworth, Ecotricity founder Dale Vince, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Thandie Newton and Emeli Sandé.
Russell Simmons (basically ran hip hop back in the day, became a multimillion-dollar empire builder, now a yogi and meditator) has been a vegan for 20 years and if he ain’t cool I don’t know who is. Now he’s released a book, The Happy Vegan, on the physical and mental benefits of a plant-based diet.
You can be fit – really fit – eating plants
Boxer David Haye, Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton, footballer Phil Neville… they’re just for starters. There are vegan athletes in pretty much all fields, including football, endurance athletes, long-distance cycling, marathon running, weightlifting, volleyball, winter sports and surfing.
Perhaps the most high-profile are Serena and Venus Williams. During the tennis season, they eat a raw, vegan diet, consisting of veggies, beans and lentils, brown carbs, protein powders in green juices, and raw, sprouted foods. And I betcha didn’t think vegans could freerun across buildings like this.
You CAN eat out in restaurants
London is still somewhat behind New York, LA and Berlin in fresh, contemporary vegan eateries. But it’s changing, with Ethos in Fitzrovia, Detox Kitchen off Carnaby Street (both are expanding) and Deliciously Ella’s newly opened Mae Deli in Marylebone.
Restaurant-wise, there’s Vanilla Black in the City, which has all the fancy foams and posh plating-up you could want. Bruno Loubet’s Grain Store in Kings Cross, while not vegetarian/vegan, gives veg (and its sustainability policy) star billing. At The Gate in Notting Hill, even vegetarians/vegans could get menu choice paralysis.
A new, upmarket option is chef Jason Atherton’s innovative vegan menu at his Michelin-stared Pollen Street Social. Dishes such as pearl barley, roasted Jerusalem artichoke and truffle show that vegetables can get the five-star treatment and be just as much of a dining-out experience as meat.
Just start somewhere: you don’t have to be all or nothing!
Plant-based doesn’t have to mean you go completely vegan. It can mean just getting more plant-based meals into your diet, more of the time. Increasingly, people are doing just that but without becoming vegan or vegetarian (sometimes called flexitarians) – including committed carnivores who would never give up meat completely.
New vegan foods are appearing all the time: Ben & Jerry’s recently launched four non-dairy ice creams and Hellman’s has just announced its vegan mayonnaise.
Beyoncé, for example, launched her 22-Day Revolution vegan eating plan last summer but didn’t become fully vegan. But she says she “absolutely” makes better choices and, even though the vegan police were all over her, a lot more people can relate to her approach: “plant-based” rather than vegan.
Even those who eat a vegan diet may not classify themselves as such or live an entirely vegan lifestyle; ‘vegan’ just sounds so hemp-shirt-wearing worthy (and I am one).
Successful food blogger Ella Woodward is typical. Her recipes are meat-free and dairy-free, and she is passionate about promoting plant-based eating, yet she won’t be described as vegan. Why? First, because she eats honey and wears leather, but second because the word vegan is too exclusive and often “comes with criticism of other people”.
There are now enough vegans who occasionally eat egg that there’s even a word for it: veggan. Or you could be a climatarian (one of NY Times’ top new food words of 2015), eating a diet designed to reverse climate change. That means locally produced food, less meat (and from pigs and poultry rather than cows, as they produce fewer emissions), and drastically limiting your food waste.
There are an estimated seven million vegetarians and 1.2 million vegans (two per cent of us) in the UK. ‘Vegan’ is currently more searched on Google than ‘vegetarian’. This month, thousands of people in the US and UK went vegan for Veganuary and for many it’s the start of a longer-term change. Or you could try the Vegan Society 30-Day Pledge.
It’s better for the planet
Animal agriculture is as damaging to the planet as fossil fuels. True story. With more scientists and writers raising awareness of the facts and figures, it’s getting harder to avoid.
Did you know, for example, that eating a kilogram of grass-fed beef is worse for the planet than flying from London to New York? Rearing the cow generates around 643kg of carbon dioxide, and that’s more greenhouse gas emissions than that long-haul flight.
Mintel’s food trends report describes eco eating as the new reality, saying: “Drought, worries about food waste and other natural phenomena not only affect the worldwide food and drink supply, but influence preparation and production. In 2016, sustainability evolves from being good for the bottom line to being a necessary new product development consideration for the common good.”
Leonardo DiCaprio is the latest high-profile champion of the animal agriculture/global warming message. As if winning a Golden Globe, donating millions to environmental groups, talking to the UN about climate change and saving tigers wasn’t enough, he has thrown his weight behind anti-animal agriculture documentary Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret.
The film puts the meat industry under the microscope and concludes that it is “primarily to blame” for global warming, water depletion, deforestation, species extinction and ocean dead zones. After the film’s success through social media, inspiring many viewers to go vegan, DiCaprio has exec-produced an updated cut and got it on Netflix, and to a far wider audience.
The UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization agrees that animal agriculture plays a “major role” in climate change. The natural resources that animal farming needs, such as land and water, are getting scarcer and are increasingly threatened by degradation and climate change. It predicts that, at our present rate of consumption of animals, the number of livestock on the planet will increase by 70 per cent by 2050.
Related: Three reasons not to eat kale
Guardian writer George Monbiot has called Britain’s land “sheepwrecked” by animal agriculture: stripped of vegetation and wildlife in pursuit of relatively minimal food productivity. He said: “It is hard to think of any other industry, except scallop dredging, with a higher ratio of destruction to production. Meat is bad news, in almost all circumstances.”
This poor ratio of animal products produced versus resources used is called a diminished return on investment. It’s the reason there is enough food to feed everyone on the planet, yet almost a billion people are starving (that’s more than the combined population of the US, EU and Canada).
Half of the world’s cereal crops are fed to livestock that are bred to feed affluent nations with meat, eggs and dairy. But the amount of food produced is far less than the amount of grain used, and if the plants used to fatten animals were consumed by humans instead, an extra 1.3 billion people could be fed.
Find out more about the damage caused by animal agriculture and the Eat For The Planet movement.
It’s better for the animals
It’s not all Countryfile out there, you know. Most animals don’t spend their days in green fields with farmers who make their welfare a priority. Factory farming is a business, with the emphasis on factory not farming.
Not to go all radical vegan on you, but here’s what life in a factory farm looks like, including undercover footage shot in the factories of some well-known food brands:
Chickens and turkeys are kept in huge industrial sheds of 30-40,000 birds, with no natural light or room to move around, unable to go outside, pecking each other and causing injury or death, living in their own faeces, often diseased, and most of them crippled because they are bred or fed drugs to make them several times larger than their legs can support.
Baby male chicks are gassed or thrown alive into electric mincers as they are the wrong sex to produce eggs, and the wrong breed to be bred for meat.
Dairy cows spend half the year in concrete cages with metal bars. They endure a punishing, constant cycle of pregnancy and birth, because they only produce milk when they’ve had a baby. On birth, the cow’s baby is taken away from her, so that her milk can be given to humans instead, and as cows have strong maternal bonds they cry in distress for days.
They are bred to produce six to 12 times their natural amount of milk, which makes their udders so heavy and distended that most can’t stand properly, and prone to a painful inflammatory disease called mastitis.
Male calves are shot in the head as they are the wrong sex to produce milk, or killed after a few weeks to make meat for pies and baby food, or may be raised as veal.
Free-range farming is often so intensive it is almost indistinguishable from factory farming. Organic is often no better, as simply giving animals organic feed means the meat can be labelled ‘organic’. It doesn’t mean the animals’ living conditions are better.
Then comes the killing. Paul McCartney famously said: “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian.” Animals for meat can be transported hundreds of miles without food or water and shot in the head on arrival. This often doesn’t kill them, but nevertheless they are hung by their legs, their throats cut (some are still not dead) and skinned and gutted. Here, have a look (OK, so I failed on the radical vegan bit):
When Liam Hemsworth went vegan last year he said: “After all the information I gathered about the mistreatment of animals, I couldn’t continue to eat meat. The more I was aware of, the harder and harder it was to do.”
World heavyweight boxing champion David Haye went vegan in 2014, saying: “I watched a TV documentary about how animals are farmed, killed and prepared for us to eat. I saw all those cows and pigs and realised I couldn’t be a part of it any more. It was horrible.
“I did some research to make sure I could still obtain enough protein to fight and, once satisfied that I could, I stopped. I’ll never go back.”
This week, Russell Simmons said on America’s CBS: “The reason why this transition [going vegan] needs to happen is because we’re poisoning the planet. We won’t be able to inhabit it if we continue.
“It’s the worst karmic disaster in the history of the world. The abuse of 100 billion animals birthed into suffering.
“I’m not an angry vegan. I am a yogi. I want people to live longer, I want to save the planet, and I want to stop this karmic disaster that’s beyond anything we’ve ever committed.”
Jacqui Gibbons is an editor at High50 – and our in-house vegan. Follow her on Twitter: @jacqui_journo