Going vegan is hot right now. More and more people are turning away from animal foods, although we don't really know how many; recent data suggests 10 per cent of Kiwis are always or mostly vegetarian.
Still, there are many more options hitting the market as alternatives to animal meats and milks, and it would appear this is based on a trend towards more of us dipping our toes into a vegan way of eating.
This is not a bad thing. As I've discussed before, one of the things everyone across the nutritional spectrum agrees about is that we could all stand to eat more plants; cutting out animal foods should in theory mean we are eating more healthy vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. There's also an environmental benefit; experts tell us eating fewer animals, on a global scale, will help reform the food system and save the planet.
To get the best possible health benefits from a vegan diet, though, it needs to be well planned. Just cutting out all animal foods, without replacing them with healthy alternatives, is a potential pitfall. Going vegan is not a ticket to health; It's perfectly possible to eat an unhealthy vegan diet just as it is to eat an unhealthy omnivorous one.
To eat a healthy vegan diet, you'll need good sources of protein, calcium and iron – all things nutritionists say we can possibly miss out on if our vegan diet isn't well planned. (Vegans also need to take a supplement of vitamin B12; this is one thing it's not possible to get from food in a full vegan diet).
Protein is probably the easiest one to deal with here. It's important because it helps us feel satiated and keeps our muscles strong. There's protein in lots of plant foods, in varying amounts, so as long as you're getting a good range and variety of these (i.e. not just broccoli and leafy greens) you're probably going to be fine. It used to be thought we needed to have "complete" proteins in every meal (eg beans and rice) but now we know we can achieve the same thing by having different types of protein across the day or week.
Lentils, chickpeas and beans are your friends here, containing both protein and carbohydrate, as well as useful gut-friendly fibre. Soybean products such as tofu and tempeh are also super useful – these can be used in lots of creative ways in cooking. Don't be scared of tofu; there's so much variety available now and it's really worth investigating some of the delicious ways it can be used. I love the fresh tofu available at Asian supermarkets; tempeh is a fermented soybean product that's worth playing with, too. Don't forget whole soybeans either – edamame beans are a great freezer staple to toss into all kinds of dishes or eat as a side.
I'm less enthusiastic about the vegan faux-meat products around; the burgers, chicken, mince etc. I can see why these are appealing; they're easy for people wanting to try out a vegan option; you can just replace the meat with one of these and no one's going to complain.
I've yet to try a meat replacement I like the taste of, however, and all the ones I've tried so far have been fairly heavily processed foods, compared to meat which, obviously, has a single ingredient. Some have been high in sodium or saturated fat, which doesn't seem ideal.
Iron is something that can be of concern when adopting a vegan diet, in particular for young women, who might already be vulnerable to iron deficiency. More than a third of teenage girls don't get their daily iron requirements, according to the data. Plant foods contain iron, but it's a different type to that contained in animal foods, which is less well-absorbed by our bodies. That means we need to aim for more iron from plant foods than we'd need from meat, and again the vegan diet needs to be really well thought out. Good plant sources of iron are soy products, legumes such as lentils and beans; whole grains; nuts and seeds and green veges.
You can see where this is going. Being vegan but eating mainly raw treats and vegan burgers is not going to make you healthier – and may make you less healthy. But a carefully- planned and well-balanced vegan diet can be healthful and delicious.
That is not to say we all need to be vegan. I've noticed promoters of vegan diets are using the term "plant-based" to describe the diet. It seems "plant-based" is a less political, more friendly term.
But plant-based doesn't have to be plant-only. A vegan diet is not the only way to eat a plant-based diet. We can still be plant-based – as I am, as many of the world's healthiest people are – and still include small amounts of animal products. When it comes to health, it doesn't have to be vegan or nothing.