Five devotees to a vegan diet talk about how it's changed their lives.

Chicken made from pea protein. Soy "steak" burgers. A long flat white with almond, hazelnut or soy milk. Wake up and smell the soybeans, people, veganism has well and truly gone mainstream.

True vegans avoid all animal products – that's meat and dairy but also things like leather and silk - for animal ethics reasons. Even banknotes are an issue for some because they're made with animal tallow.

Some people follow a vegan diet but call it "plant-based" as they're more worried about the environment or their health. Canvas spoke with several converts to the cause.

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Mark Craig, 46, GP

Mount Albert GP Mark Craig had no interest in a plant-based diet until a chance discussion with a colleague seven years ago.

"I used to work in surgery, so I come from a very non-flowery background. If someone said to me I'd become interested in food as a therapy for medical conditions, I'd have laughed at them."

Over a period of a few weeks he sourced all the evidence he could and found it compelling enough to cut all animal products from his diet. He compares doctors' reluctance to accept the dangers of animal proteins with smoking.

"Doctors used to get paid to advertise the benefits of smoking, so they were never going to change. Now, if you eat those sort of foods yourself, it's very hard to change the behaviour of your patients."

Craig encourages his patients to at least eat more vegetables as a starting point. "I talk about eating whole, unprocesssed food as much as possible. The 'wholefood, plant-based' diet is the one for health. You can eat a vegan, plant-based diet and still have Coke and Oreos every day."

He strongly believes in the diet's ability to prevent illness. "It seems normal these days to get blood pressure [problems] in your 50s, high cholesterol and heart disease in your 60s, cancer in your 70s, and dementia in your 80s. I think they're seen as difficult and complex diseases, so they must need difficult and complex treatments. Food is too simple, it's something you can do every day without thinking. You've got to be a bit open minded."

He's collecting case studies of how the diet has helped his patients, to try and convince other doctors. One includes a 34-year-old woman who had acute rheumatoid athritis.

"There is really good evidence with auto-immune conditions that you can reverse them. She went away and changed her diet and 80 per cent of her symptoms went away within two weeks. She had eggs the next week and within a day her symptoms came back."

Personal trainer and nutritionist Ginny McArthur. / Photo: by Jason Oxenham
Personal trainer and nutritionist Ginny McArthur. / Photo: by Jason Oxenham

Ginny McArthur, 59, nutritionist

Ginny McArthur avoids the word vegan because of the stigma surrounding it. She's a competitive bodybuilder who stopped eating meat after getting "completely chicken and egg-whited out".

"Having got to the end of my bodybuilding and gone, 'Phew, I don't want to eat meat for a while,' I started to look a lot more at what you could achieve just using plants. Actually, you can get everything you need without eating animal protein."

That's a change from what she used to tell her vegan clients. "I had advised them against being vegan through pregnancy and advised them against bringing up vegan children."

But she now believes it's possible for everyone. "You can choose to do it slowly or you can choose to do it overnight. I don't think it matters but you do need to be mindful of making sure you are getting everything your body needs. I still do a little bit of bodybuilding. I hashtag myself 'menopause with muscles' and I also put something along the lines of 'plant-based bodybuilding', because you can actually do it, you don't need to be stuffing yourself full of chicken and steak to build muscle."

Since her diet change, her only lapse has been a couple of eggs from a friend's bantams. "They were pretty good. But I had to think quite hard about having those eggs and whether I really wanted them. I can remember in the early days thinking I probably do need some animal protein and getting my organic chicken, then looking at it and just putting it back and going, 'You know what, I can't eat it anymore.' I think it's a mindset."

Former freezing worker and vegan convert, Carl Scott in his home town, Dunedin. / PHOTO: CHRISTINE O'CONNOR
Former freezing worker and vegan convert, Carl Scott in his home town, Dunedin. / PHOTO: CHRISTINE O'CONNOR

Carl Scott, 49, former freezing worker

"I was a freezing worker, my dad was a freezing worker. [He] was a hunter, so when we were kids we used to go out hunting with him. I trapped possums as a kid - and as an adult. I also worked on a battery farm.

"I never liked it. But when I became a freezing worker, I said to myself, 'People eat meat, people need to eat meat, someone's got to do the dirty work – you eat meat, why should you be exempt?' I almost took pride in not just buying meat from the supermarket, I participated in the process, I thought it was a necessary evil, humans had to eat those things, but I never enjoyed it.

"I became vegan in 2010. The short version is it was a spiritual experience. 'Vegan' kept popping up on my radar, and I made the decision to give it a try, and I'm really glad I did. Another part of my journey was a little dog called Jed came into my life. I met him when he was 2 years old, he lived with my ex. And for the last four years of his life he lived with me. He was the first of another species that I really bonded with, and that really made me look at animals through different eyes and think about animals differently.

"To begin with, I never saw the word mentioned in mainstream media and if you did, flip a coin and it might be curious and interested, or outright derogatory. 2014, hang on something is happening. 2015, shit this is getting big. 2016? BOOM. Ever since then it's been everywhere and for the most part, it's positive. There are still a few people criticising vegans but no one is laughing at us anymore.

"A friend from SAFE [animal action network] told me when he went vegan, he felt like he literally knew every vegan in New Zealand and he said he wouldn't have a clue now.

"What does a stereotypical vegan look like? I don't know any. I know literally hundreds of vegans and I couldn't pigeonhole any of them. We're an incredibly diverse communitiy but it's funny these stereotypes exist.

"I don't go out with [non-vegans] anymore. I've kind of got to the point where I don't want to sit there and look at pieces of corpse anymore. I know that animals didn't actually need to die and I've worked in a freezing works, so I know how horrible the death is. It doesn't need to be happening, but it is happening - and that bothers me."

Leigh Bowie, 30, self-employed dairy farmer

"I was getting eczema for quite a few years. I went and got some blood tests done and they came back with me being intolerant to dairy, egg and coconut. I just cut out the dairy and egg but my skin still didn't clear up. thought to myself right, I'm going to do no meat for a month and see how I feel. I never thought that I would go plant-based but I loved it so I carried it on.

"I didn't do it for ethical reasons but I've found, as I've gone on, I've really changed. I've always really cared about animals but it's gone to a new level now. I do find it offensive when, on the vegan Facebook page, people start going on about it because ... dairy farmers, the people I know, love their cows to bits and the cows are well-looked-after. The cows are their pride and joy, although I know it's not like that with every farmer. Sometimes in calving I'll feed the calves but I'm not heavily involved.

"When it's time for them to go to the works, it can be a bit upsetting.

"I feed my family, two boys aged 3 and 5 and my husband, plant-based at home.

"We eat everything. Curries, Mexican dishes, all things with spices and stuff like that. My boys eat meat if they want it but I noticed at our Christmas dinner, my 5-year-old didn't want meat. I made a Thai salad with tofu and a soy flavour, I put that on their plate.
My husband loves it. At first I was cooking him a piece of meat on the side and then he just said, 'Don't worry about it.' If he goes out for dinner he'll eat meat but we don't eat it at home. I definitely didn't think that he would be on board but the food is just so tasty.
I know a handful of other vegans. I have a friend who had alopecia. She went mainly plant-based and her hair grew back. Another friend, who has a kidney disease [has] recently gone plant-based because she's got a new doctor who's been doing some research [on its benefits].

"My pet hate is when people say to me, 'Where do you get your protein?' because I do CrossFit most days and people assume that because I'm plant-based I will be lacking in protein. No one has ever been lacking in protein, ever.

"I know now that I could handle a little bit of dairy if I wanted it - but I don't."

Vegan Kelly Kerr pictured at home on her lifestyle block near Tauranga with some of the animals she shares it with. / Photo: Alan Gibson
Vegan Kelly Kerr pictured at home on her lifestyle block near Tauranga with some of the animals she shares it with. / Photo: Alan Gibson

Kelly Kerr, 42, entrepreneur, designer

"I had heart surgery and spent four months in hospital. I was the youngest and fittest person there and I ate quite well. I got to meet a lot of people with heart conditions. A lot of it was self-inflicted, it's their eating habits. They were all coming out of surgery wanting steak and smokes, and I just thought that's got to play a big part in it. I was doing my own investigative stuff, and adopted a vegan diet.

"Specifically, I don't see that we have the right to decide that animals should die. That's it in a nutshell. There is plenty sufficient nutritional stuff out there that doesn't involve animals dying.

"All my own children - I have eight, plus two foster children - they all eat meat. The kids all want to try and once a week maybe they'll have a vegan meal with me. But they're just so used to it, it's hard to wean them off it. And the foster kids ... they're eating lots more fruit and veges than I assume where they came from and they're really interested in the lifestyle, so I think just talking about it and showing how yum the food is may have an impact on them as they grow up.

"I often go without. I'm just too much of a busy mum to think of myself and pack food for myself. Sometimes I eat rubbish food, hot chips, stuff on the go, just to get fed. I think I accidentally cheat often when we're out. If I'm starving, and I'm trying to get rid of food the kids have left, I'll just eat that because I'm so starving and I can't make any more food.

"Not meat, just the vegetables on the plate and maybe there is some gravy on it. Never directly a piece of meat.

"I really craved cheese at the start, for a good two years. That was really hard because I have to cook for everyone and make cheese sauce and put cheese on top of everything.

"This is a real cheese family. It was also really hard to give up my Doc Marten boots, leather bags and down jackets. Real hard. But in all honesty, I don't miss any food now.
I know no other vegans. I never bring it up, but anywhere I go and eat, somebody always mentions it and you spend the whole meal discussing your life choice and why. Everyone's got a funny quip as to why it's a stupid idea, the same things every vegan has – like the type of teeth we have, we're supposed to eat meat. It's just so old. I guess every family mocks you for the things you do. That's cool, but it's a bit horrible when you go to dinner parties and things where there are strangers or it's semi-formal. People want to discuss it and you end up starving almost, because you're talking the whole time, telling people about it. Everyone wants to know, everyone is so interested.

"But it's the best life ever, it really is. You're the most in tune with nature, more empathetic to creatures, big and small. It's changed my whole outlook on life. My health is a million times better. I've got so much more energy, I feel like I'm 20 again."