It's no longer just a millennial eating fad - the older generation is jumping on the bandwagon, too, discovers Lucy Holden
It's getting harder to escape veganism. Time was when plant-only diets were for young, idealistic world-changers. But, thanks to the popularity of initiatives such as Veganuary, there's a new breed of meat and dairy dodgers: vegan OAPs.
They may not shout about it - and they certainly won't be posting selfies holding vegan burgers on Instagram - but, healthwise, older vegans have never felt better. "I wish I'd done it years ago," says Eileen Giles, a 76-year-old grandmother from Hastings, East Sussex, who became vegan two years ago.
"Until fairly recently, it singled you out as a bit of a freak. And some of it is damn stupid - shouting at meat-eaters achieves nothing - but I've never felt better."Eileen is just one of an increasing number of over-50s who have gone vegan, and while it was the idea of animal cruelty in farming practices that prompted the change, it's the health benefits that have cemented it.
"I have arthritis in my knees and back, which hurt quite a lot of the time," she says. "At one stage, I was taking tramadol for it, which made me hallucinate. It took the pain away but it took every other feeling away, too; I felt like a zombie. But when I became vegan two years ago, the pain became much more manageable, and now I don't take any medication at all.
"If I'm standing for a long time or walking long distances I can feel it, but paracetamol is all I need to stop it aching." Studies have shown similar results. In 2015, analysis of 600 vegans, published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, found that following a vegan diet for three weeks significantly reduced acute and chronic inflammation.
Other small studies have suggested it could reduce pain and stiffness in arthritis patients - which Eileen noticed first-hand.
That was partly due to another huge benefit: weight loss. "I have hypothyroidism [underactive thyroid gland], and all my life I haven't been able to lose weight, no matter what I've tried. But when I became a vegan, I dropped two dress sizes. Being lighter took some of the pressure off my knees, and also gave me more energy. Now I can even bend down and put my shoes on."
Eileen's granddaughter Sarah, 29, first introduced her to the lifestyle, though for years Eileen thought it was a bad idea. "I used to berate her constantly, worrying that she wasn't getting enough good food," she says. "But then a few years ago my husband, Mike, came back from the shops with two sirloin steaks for dinner and I just thought: 'I can't eat that.' My body was telling me I didn't want meat any more. I'd been thinking for a few years that I shouldn't really be eating the lambs we saw bouncing about the fields, and then I watched lot of documentaries on YouTube and hated the thought of the animal cruelty in the meat industry."
Nowadays, it's so easy to be vegan. Two years ago, we went for dinner in a restaurant and all I could order was chips, because there was nothing else on the menu. But now the supermarkets are full of stuff, even in Hastings, and so I'll never go back. Even my husband likes vegan cheese now, and he's 81."
The myth that veganism is only for the young is further busted by Dulce Bradshaw, 64, from West Sussex. "I've been vegan for a year and a half and have so much more energy," she says. "I work in a busy hotel, often from 6am until 6pm and don't ever feel that the diet leaves me hungry or tired. In hindsight, I think eating meat made me lethargic - maybe it didn't agree with me, but I often had stomach cramps and indigestion, which entirely went away when I went vegan. I would say my health improved dramatically."
With the likes of Brad Pitt, Beyoncé, Benedict Cumberbatch, tennis's Williams sisters and the Duchess of Sussex having raved about veganism, the idea that there are health benefits - not just celebrity-backed street cred - to being vegan has been half-forgotten.
Talk to a practising vegan about their health, and most will say: "Vegans don't get colds." Caroline Back, 56, who converted from vegetarianism seven years ago and now runs Friendship Shoes, used to work in a busy office: "People would be hit with rounds of colds every three months, and I never picked anything up. I think it's because dairy is associated with mucus production and breathing problems. My 28-year-old son has asthma, and so I suggested he go vegan last year, and the chest infections he had constantly while growing up are not a problem any more. Neither is the asthma."
More evidence is needed to support anecdotal testimony that veganism can aid disease prevention, but Dr Frank Miskelly, a consultant physician in elderly care at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, says: "It seems that a vegan diet could not only reduce the rise of diabetes, as part of a weight-loss plan, it could also help with renal problems. The high-protein diets associated with meat-eaters can put a strain on the kidneys."
Weight loss can also help with metabolic syndrome, the very Western disease associated with obesity, high-blood pressure and high cholesterol. If you picture a middle-aged man who did no exercise, that would typically be the kind of person who would suffer from metabolic syndrome."
There's a lot of anecdotal evidence for the health benefits of veganism, but I'd like to see more studies into it - and on older people, specifically."Anna Daniels, a registered dietitian based in Harrogate, says: "
There are some real positives in a plant-based diet so full of antioxidants, which you get from a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables. It's a diet-rich in nutrients and high in fibre, which can help lower your chances of getting bowel cancer and bone disease. But make sure milk alternatives like soy milk are enriched with calcium and vitamin D, or add calcium to your diet by eating tofu, sesame seeds and brown bread.
Also, take a vitamin B12 supplement (a micronutrient that's essential for good health, but that's found mostly in meat, fish, eggs and dairy), or look for foods fortified with it."It seems veganism doesn't have to be just for January.