Vegan culture in Islington and beyond
Vegan culture in Islington seems to be evolving, but what are the health implications of such a diet? We talked to a nutritionist and a vegan activist, to find out if a vegan diet is actually healthy
At last count, in the National Diet and Nutrition Survey in 2012, only 2% of both adults and children in the UK were reported to be vegetarian and just 1% were living on a vegan diet.
In Islington several restaurants serve vegetarian and vegan meals, like the IndianVeg and The Gate. The latter offers a large range of meat-free meals and most of those come with vegan options. Stuart House, 46, is the executive Chef and Organisations Manager at The Gate’s branch on St John Street, Islington. He knows that vegan dishes are hot on demand.
“We serve about 1200 customers a week and about a quarter of those ask for our vegan options,” he says. “So vegan culture in Islington has definitely evolved and grown, especially in the last few years.”
House feels that for many the meat-free lifestyle is also a health option.
“I think many people, especially vegetarians, live their lifestyle for health rather than ethical reasons,” he says. “They are more interested in what they put inside themselves.”
But is an extreme diet like veganism really healthy? According to the National Health Service (NHS) one needs to eat different products from five food groups for balanced nutrition.
For vegans, however, dairy products, eggs and meat are excluded from their diet. Miguel Toribio-Mateas is a nutritionist with clinics in Clerkenwell and the West End, who was vegan himself for nine years before returning to eating animal products to meet his dietary needs. He makes clear which deficiencies vegans suffer from most often.
“Some of the nutrients that vegans have trouble getting in enough quantities are B vitamins, particularly cobalamin (B12), which is present in red meat,” he explains. “A tiny amount of B12 is metabolised in the gut by bacteria, but this tends not to be sufficient to meet daily demands. Some amino acids like taurine are also rich in fish and shellfish, but are practically missing from all vegan sources.”
However, other nutrients can still be replaced in a vegan diet. Proteins, for instance, are mostly contained in eggs or meat. But they can be found in soya products and beans as well. The same goes for iron, which is found in the largest proportions in meat, but is also contained in many vegetables, albeit in smaller quantities.
This can be difficult as Toribio-Mateas explains: “My vegan clients tend to be both iron and zinc deficient, so they need regular testing and food supplements to ensure their levels are optimal.”
There are also more serious health problems that can be due to plant-based nutrition. Irritable Bowel Syndrome and digestive issues are common, as well as allergies due to the consumption of single foods.
“What I have seen time and time again is for vegans to suffer from muscle wastage, inability to grow muscle, or weight gain on a vegan diet that lacks protein and is rich in carbohydrates from grains,“ Toribio-Mateas says.
Still, some vegans say that good nutrition can in fact be achieved with the right knowledge. And that information is now readily available on the internet.
Richie ‘Fruitbat’, 38, is a vegan activist, who shares his opinions about veganism on his Youtube channel. He explains his motivation for his lifestyle choice:
“I felt, and still feel, that denying others their basic right to a life, for no real reason beyond taste and tradition is not only cruel but also diminishes our potential as humans.”
After six years of being vegan Richie experienced severe health problems and finally decided to reintroduce animal products into his diet. After two years of consuming non-vegan food without his health improving, he was diagnosed with Celiac disease, an allergy to gluten, which turned out to be the cause of his health problems.
“In my time as a non-vegan I was unhappy with the ethics of my lifestyle, but I literally didn’t know how I could return to veganism and remain gluten free,” he says. “I then stumbled across an online community of vegans who were getting great health results with a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate fruit-based diet, and decided I had nothing to lose in giving it a try.”
For Richie returning to veganism was the right decision. “The reasons I had for giving up on my veganism in the first place turned out in the end to have nothing to do with my vegan diet,” he says. “There is an awful lot of misinformation around the subject. Some people make it seem way more complicated than it is.”
The question remains if plant-based nutrition is better than eating meat and fish. In contrast to Richie, Toribio-Mateas does not believe in it. “I feel a diet that’s rich in plant foods is best,” he says.
“I agree at large with the sociocultural implications of veganism, but based on the fact that we evolved as omnivorous animals, I don’t think veganism as a dietary choice provides sustainable health in the long run.”
Considering becoming vegan? Or just interested? Check out these websites for more information: