It was once another term for ‘alternative lifestyle’. Now Veganism is a global obsession with some heavyweight backers. Carroll Du Chateau looks at how a diet free of cheese, meat, fish and eggs went from hippie to hip.

"Vegans are everywhere in Auckland," says 26-year-old Sarah Beale, green eyes shining. "It's not like we have to sit round eating lentils anymore!"

An artist, yoga teacher and part-timer at Harvest Wholefoods in Grey Lynn, Beale is the antithesis of the spotty, sad-looking vegan. She lives with three vegan flatmates who all cook for themselves, considers eating out her hobby, and talks about the huge explosion of vegans in her social circle.

Beale left New Zealand on her OE at 20, loving nothing more than a juicy steak. Her conversion to vegan started soon after in South America. "I was in Bolivia and saw the way they ate and produced meat there and it put me off," she says.

"I learned how much water they needed to raise animals on grass, plus the climate and ecological trigger points they were facing."


So she became vegetarian and thought that was enough. "Then I came back to New Zealand and met a vegan, who told me more about the production of milk and eggs and challenged my views on the world. So I decided I'd better look into it a bit more."

And what did she find? Basically veganism is a world full of plant-eaters who tread "lightly on the planet". Most modern vegans consider their diet an ethical decision. It's all tied up with factory farming, cruelty towards animals - and reaches as far as global warming. Meat is the enemy: large-scale meat production is thought to contribute as much as 22 per cent of annual greenhouse gases.

"The trends are towards a plant-based diet, which is much more sustainable than farming animals, and I feel much more comfortable knowing no animal has suffered for the food I eat. Now my ethics extend to include makeup and other cosmetics. I won't use anything that's been tested on animals or exploited animals in any way."

This cuts out all farmed animals, including chickens bred for their eggs. But surely free-range hens lead relatively happy lives? "Well maybe," says Beale, "but many don't. My personal view is that I'll probably have chickens one day and eat one of their eggs if it popped out - but I wouldn't exploit my pet chooks."

Her secondary reason for going vegan is more self-focused. "I prefer the lighter and cleaner feel of a vegan diet," she says. "My body processes work better, I'm more emotionally balanced - and it's easy to find vegan chocolate!"

Her day starts with green juice of apple, lemon, kale and other green veges plus turmeric and ginger roots. "It's very thin, sour and cleansing."

Next comes Dr Libby's rapid raw breakfast, which consists of chia, pumpkin, sunflower and flax seeds, chopped almonds, desiccated coconut, chopped dried figs, kiwifruit, a pinch of psyllium husks, banana, and lemon juice to stop it going brown. "I make a two-day supply and keep it in the fridge. I had it this morning. It's very light and energising but filling."

Because of her demanding exercise regime, Beale needs to eat large amounts to get enough nutrients, so it's on to morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper ... "Mid-morning I had a heated vegan samosa stuffed with vegetables and spicy lentils as well," says Beale. "For me, piping hot food is important. Too much cold food makes me a little unbalanced."


What is driving the resurgence of veganism

It was so big in the hippie 60s, but then drifted into the "dippy" category as people realised how difficult it was to eat a balanced diet without involving meat, fish, cheese and eggs. A decade ago, the vegan diet was considered whacky, if not plain risky. Vegans were seen as un-fun characters who lived on dandelion tea and brown rice. Now, eating vegan is seriously cool.

Like many movements, veganism gathered steam in America. Rock star-types, including former US President Bill Clinton, who suffers from serious heart disease, swing between a vegan diet and a little salmon on the side. Actor Gwyneth Paltrow is so focused on her all-plant diet, she's written her own vegan cookbook, It's All Good, and people including vegan author and animal activist Colleen Patrick-Goudreau hold meetings about the virtues of veganism and draw huge, highly motivated crowds. Watch one of these "Joyful Vegan" talks online and it's hard not to convert immediately. It's like watching a religious rally. When the blond Patrick-Goudreau flicks her long, lustrous hair and tells her audience the way to good health is to cut out the animals that process our protein for us, the crowds shout back and occasionally cheer.

She describes how cows have their calves taken from them so early after birth it drives them almost mad with grief. Is it fair to put them, and their calves, through such anguish so we can make cheese and drink their milk, she asks.

According to Patrick-Goudreau, we don't need dairy products, cheese, milk or eggs to be healthy. Instead, we should eat the kind of plants and grains the cows and chickens eat themselves: cut out the "middle" domestic animal and everyone will be happier and healthier. No more bawling calves, no more battery hens forced to live in tiny cages, producing eggs for our breakfasts.

Meanwhile, in Auckland, the raw food vegan movement is gaining momentum with the force of a southerly storm. Much of its popularity has to do with the "cool" factor, which has seen the proliferation of vegan cafes, restaurants and vegan ingredients in supermarkets, making it relatively easy to eat out and cook vegan. As Beale points out, vegan cafes are popping up in our coolest suburbs, while healthfood stores, including Harvest Whole Foods, stock an astonishing range of delicious vegan cheeses, nut-based butters, milks and much more. Even supermarkets stock vegan ingredients.

"And when we're eating out and there's no choice for vegans," says Beale. "I go and talk to the chef, and usually he's happy to oblige." She talks about the beautiful meal the chef at Orphan's Kitchen on Ponsonby Rd put together for her a few weeks ago. "You have to be the driving force behind what you want, if you want to change the world."


By the time Jeremy Bland and Megan May of Little Bird Organics opened their first Unbakery cafe in Kingsland four and a half years ago, the movement was in full swing.

Megan May at the Unbakery cafe in Kingsland. Photo / Babiche Martins

"The little space in front of our factory was packed within a week," says Megan. "The TV3 people were there, queuing up the driveway. We were up all night making cakes!"

"The movement's driven by fashion, health, people with obsessive tendencies and the crazy rise of Instagram and Facebook," says Bland. (They have about 42,000 people following them on Instagram, plus 17,000 on Facebook.) A whole lot of our customers are coming from the 'eat healthy' angle, but the fashion part helps, too."

Says May, "We were very lucky - right time, right place." They opened their second cafe in Ponsonby last August to the same sort of reaction and now have 60 staff.

Read more: Brunch review - Little Bird Unbakery, Ponsonby

Alongside the ethical and cool motivators, there's another thoroughly human, selfish reason to go vegan: It's almost impossible to gain weight on a plant-based vegan diet, even if you eat all day. And if you're only in it for health and weight reasons you can hook into the VB6 or Vegan Before 6 diet invented by New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman.


As Bittman told Shape magazine, he invented the diet seven years ago after his doctors told him he had pre-diabetes, pre-heart disease and high cholesterol. Like most of us, Bittman was well aware he wouldn't be able to stick to a full-on diet, so he invented his own. The idea is to eat vegan all day, then switch to his normal diet after 6pm. As he said, "We all know diets don't work. I wanted something I could stick to for the rest of my life. Everybody wants to drink at night and feel like they're eating normally when they go out to eat." So Bittman combined the two. The results were spectacular (though obviously he didn't totally binge in the evening hours). After five and a half months he'd lost nearly 16kg and his doctors reported his blood sugars and cholesterol were back to normal and his sleep apnoea disappeared, too.

Is a vegan diet really good for you?

Certainly it's worked for Clinton and Bittman, but is the health factor scientifically proven? Today, even Clinton's doctors are arguing over which diet works best.
Alia Bland, 38, and her husband, Jeff, are convinced. The family, including their children, aged 10, 7 and 4, went vegan in 2000 when Jeff was having health issues.

"A friend suggested we try vegetarian and vegan diets," says Bland. "We started off vegetarian, and were pretty mainstream for about eight months, then gradually we began eliminating dairy, eggs, and any other animal products we were eating along the way."

Results were encouraging. Jeff's health improved and Alia felt better, too. "From age 16, I'd had chronic hayfever," she says. "I was allergic to the cat. Any dust and my lungs just shut down. It wasn't until months after I cut out dairy, that I noticed how much better I was."

Alia Bland with son Alfie, 4. She and her whole family have embraced veganism. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Nor was there resistance from the children, who enjoyed their roast vegetables, beans, lentils, dhal and curries. For breakfast Bland makes buckwheat porridge flavoured with honey, nuts, cinnamon and fruit, and a little almond milk and they take pita pockets, falafels, fruit, nuts and "naked" muesli bars for lunch. Their eldest son, 10, gets up early and bakes his own tahini and nut-coated wedges so they're still warm for morning tea.
"The only resistance came from older friends and family," says Bland. "The common assumption was that we need animal protein to be healthy."

The couple stopped telling people they were vegan and gradually they noticed others coming around. "My brother Jeremy, and his wife, Meg, eat a plant-based diet, and three out of seven of Jeff's siblings are vegetarian, too."


They're now following the vegan diet for the planet's sake, which makes it easier and more socially acceptable. "It takes the choice out of following the diet," says Bland. They also take supplements including vitamin B12 occasionally and their health is excellent. "I've had two flus in 15 years plus some tummy bugs. The children pick up the odd cold from school but they don't get them as badly as the other kids in the class."

No matter why you decide to do it, turning vegan is a big step. Practising vegans recommend enthusiasts go vegetarian first, before cutting out meat, fish, eggs, cheese and all other dairy foods, including wines that use eggs or milk products in the filtering system.

Others argue that our digestive systems are designed for omnivores and essential "first-class proteins" that contain all the amino acids we need for optimum health. Dr William Ferguson, a Kumeu-based GP with a particular interest in health, wellbeing and nutrition, who regularly advises his patients on diet, is diffident about promoting veganism from a health perspective. "I can't quite understand the health rationale to become vegan," says Ferguson who was a vegetarian for 15 years. "From a health perspective I don't see it."

Although he suggests his patients increase their intake of fresh and raw fruit and vegetables, and get a juicer if they're really serious about their health, "I'd never tell a patient it's wise to go down the vegan track."

Indeed, he says, there are possible downsides, related to the lack of high-quality protein in the vegan diet. "Being a vegan requires a great deal of attention to what you're putting in your mouth, and vegans struggle to get enough vitamin B12," he says. As he points out, researchers are not sure exactly how much vitamin B12 people need. "What they do know is the crucial role adequate vitamin B12 plays in the brains of 70-plus patients.

"Adequate vitamin B12 definitely has an impact on slowing brain shrinkage, and in promoting the health of pregnant women and their unborn babies. So vitamin B12 is important, especially for older people and during pregnancy."


New research on protein in the vegan diet is more reassuring. Nutritionists now agree that although proteins found in vegetables are missing essential amino acids, a varied diet ensures vegans get all they need from a mix of lentils, beans, tofu, tempeh, seitan (a protein made from wheat), soy milk, nuts and seeds plus whole grains and some vegetables. Nor is it necessary to pair different proteins together at one meal to form a complete protein. As long as a variety is eaten during the course of a day, the body will select and use what it needs.

Vitamin B12, on the other hand, needs to be added, either through fortified vegan food or supplements. As Beale explains, you do have to take it seriously. "I eat savoury yeast and mushrooms, which contain B12. Plus, I don't wash the soil off too hard, especially if it's organic, I have no issues with dirt."

Auckland's vegan network is steadily increasing

Beale reels off her favourite cafes: "The Little Bird Unbakery in Ponsonby Rd is one of the most popular cafes in Auckland. Revel in K Rd does the greatest vegan sweet treats and meals as well. The Tart Bakery is going vegan. They make sausage rolls with lentils, strawberry danishes, vegan cream doughnuts! The Bluebird Cafe in Dominion Rd is Hare Krishna and has good food, Ethos Cafe at East West Organics' in New Lynn is excellent, the Wise Cicada in Newmarket is great, Cossett in Mt Albert is fantastic. I could go on and on ..."

Auckland's mainstream restaurants have joined the feeding frenzy. Hectors at the Heritage Hotel serves vegan breakfasts every morning, there are vegan lunch options on Fridays and vegan wines and dinner options, too. Hell's Pizza is on board with a gluten-free base and vegan cheese, and at Euro on Princes Wharf, chef Simon Gault has added several vegan and vegetarian dishes to the regular menu.

Vegans New Zealand has at least 1000 members, as does Auckland Vegans, which runs Pot Luck dinners once a month at the Trades Hall in Grey Lynn. Vegetarian and vegan cookbooks now have their own section in bookshops, including Little Bird Organic's new recipe book, The Unbakery by Megan May.


Beale says: "We now live in a world where there are so many food options we don't need to exploit other species for what they might offer us. It's all about treading more lightly on the planet."