Far from being a fringe diet, veganism has gone mainstream in the last few years, with more of us giving up meat and other animal products than ever before.
An amazing 400,000 people in 192 countries took part in Veganuary in 2020 – a huge increase on the 250,000 who participated in 2019. And even more people have adopted a vegetarian diet. An estimated 7% of the UK’s population are vegetarian – that’s around 4.7 million people.
But when you are used to basing your meals around meat, it can be hard to know how to begin adopting a meat-free diet. Our guide for beginners should help you get started with a vegetarian or vegan diet.
The benefits of going meat-free
As with any new habit, it is easier to stick to your new meat-free diet if you understand the benefits. For some of us, it is the benefits to our health that are attractive. To others, it is the benefits for the planet or for animal welfare. Let’s have a quick look now at some of the reasons you might choose to go meat-free.
1. Better for your health
It is believed that eating less meat is better for our health. Moving to a vegan or vegetarian diet can have the following benefits:
- Reduce the risk of heart disease: Meat, especially red meat, is high in saturated fats and cholesterol, both of which are bad for our heart health. Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet can therefore reduce our risk of developing heart disease – by up to 25%, according to a 2017 meta study.
- Reduce the risk of cancer: Cancer Research UK highlighted the risks of eating a lot of processed and red meat – processed meat can cause bowel cancer and red meat also raises our risk of cancer. In contrast, eating a vegetarian or vegan diet can reduce the risks of developing cancer by as much as 15%.
- Lowering blood pressure: The high fat and cholesterol content in meat is a big cause of high blood pressure, building up in our arteries, and preventing good blood flow. This can lead to serious complications, including strokes, aneurysms, and organ failure. But eating less meat can help – a vegan diet has been found to be effective at lowering our blood pressure.
- Manage blood sugar: An inability to properly process sugar is the underlying cause of type 2 diabetes, a disease typically associated with lifestyle and diet. Studies have found that a plant-based diet can better regulate our blood sugar, as well as helping us to lose weight (a key factor in our risk of developing diabetes).
- Reduce inflammation: Increasing evidence shows that inflammation causes several chronic diseases, including diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and cardiovascular disease. One of the key factors in reducing inflammation is a well-balanced gut microflora – and going vegetarian or vegan can help. Both diets are associated with higher levels of beneficial gut bacteria and lower levels of organisms that can cause disease.
2. Better for the planet
Farming animals for food has several serious consequences for the environment, especially when it is done at intensive, high-volume levels. So, many people reduce their meat and dairy intake for the benefit of the planet.
Meat production is associated with greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming. A 2014 analysis by researcher, Henk Westhoek, and his team suggests that if everyone in the European Union halved their meat and dairy consumption, we’d see a 25–40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
It also takes a lot of water to produce meat. While the exact amount will depend on where and how the animal is raised, the Water Footprint Network says it takes an average of 15,000 cubic metres of water to produce just 1 tonne of beef, which is 20 times more than is needed for cereal or starchy roots. So, switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet also reduces water usage.
3. Better for animal welfare
Whether eating meat is ethical or not is up for debate. But there is no denying that the demand for meat worldwide has resulted in intensive farming practices that are bad for animal welfare, as well as bad for the welfare of human workers.
Animal rights campaigners have brought many of these cruel practices to the attention of mainstream media over the last few decades, with issues such as battery chicken farming, farrowing crates, and overuse of hormones and antibiotics now known about by many members of the public.
While higher standard ways of producing meat, dairy, and eggs are available and might ease the conscience of some consumers, high welfare animal farming can’t meet the current demands of our meat and dairy-heavy Western diets.
So, for those who care for animal welfare, going meat-free is a step towards more ethical farming practices.
How to go meat-free
Understanding the benefits of going meat-free is the first step in successfully moving to a vegetarian or vegan diet. But it can still be confusing when you are first starting out. Here are some other suggestions to help you successfully go meat-free:
1. Make a meal plan
Whenever you first adopt a new diet, it takes time to get used to cooking and eating in this new way. Making a meal plan for your first few weeks will help you as you discover what works and doesn’t work for you. It also makes it easier when you go to the shops, by giving you a clear idea of what to buy.
There are some fantastic vegetarian and vegan cookbooks available to inspire you with delicious recipes that will keep you from missing meat. Some of our favourites include:
River Cottage Veg and River Cottage Much More Veg
These two cookbooks by chef, television presenter, and sustainable living campaigner, Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall, are a great choice for meat lovers looking to go meat-free. Full of flavour and simple to follow, these two books will introduce you to some delicious ways of cooking vegetables.
The first in a four-part series, the Bosh! cookbook is brilliant for those who are new to vegan cooking. It has over 100 easy-to-make recipes and focuses on food that is modern, delicious, and satisfying. It is written by Henry Firth and Ian Theasby, the duo behind vegan living site Bosh!
Deliciously Ella Everyday
Deliciously Ella creator, Ella Woodward, has several good cookbooks for vegans, but this is our favourite for beginners. Focusing on simple meals, snacks, and packed lunches, it is a great reference guide for when you are first starting out on a meat-free diet. Plus, all the recipes are gluten-free too.
2. Do a Pantry Audit
Once you have written your meal plan and your shopping list, go through the food you already have and remove anything that contains meat (and other animal products, if you are going vegan). If you don’t have them in the house, it is easier to avoid eating them out of habit. Gift them to a friend or neighbour so that they don’t go to waste.
3. Explore meat-free substitutes
If you are struggling to embrace vegetables and missing meat, you might want to try some of the meat alternatives that are now available. Fortunately, the growing popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets means that it is usually fairly easy to find substitutes, many of which are made from seitan, soya, or pea proteins.
These substitutes aren’t as good for you as natural vegetables, fruit, legumes, and wholegrains, but they are a useful option for when you are transitioning away from a carnivorous diet. Tofu and tempeh are also good alternatives to meat in many dishes, although not everyone loves the texture.
4. Be mindful of nutrition
Especially if you are going vegan instead of just vegetarian, you do have to think a little more strategically about getting all your nutrients when you eliminate meat from your diet. B12 is one crucial vitamin that can only be found in animal products, so you’ll need to supplement if you are going vegan.
Protein is always one that people ask about when going meat-free. If you are still eating other animal products, eggs and cheese are good sources of protein (although cheese is also high in saturated fats). If you are going vegan, make sure you have enough legumes, nuts, seeds, and wholegrains in your diet to meet your daily protein requirements. If you are looking to build muscle, you might also want to supplement with a vegan protein powder.
While vegetarians can continue to consume dairy, calcium is another consideration for vegans. Unfortunately, a recent study suggests that vegans are more prone to bone breaks than non-vegans if they don’t get enough calcium.
Some plant-based foods are rich in calcium, including bok choy, broccoli, pulses, kale, brussels sprouts, beans and sesame seeds. You can also take a calcium supplement – look for one with vitamin D which is also needed for strong bones.
5. Make a plan for when you are out and about
The most challenging time to stick to a meat-free diet is when you are on the go or visiting friends or family. You will soon fall into a routine at home that helps you to avoid meat and prioritise plant-based meals. But this is more difficult when you are buying food in restaurants or to take away, or when someone else is doing the cooking.
Planning in advance how you will handle these situations will help you to stay strong. Fortunately, it is easy to find vegetarian food in most shops and restaurants now, although it can be more challenging for vegans. Consider making food to take with you when you are out, so that you know you have something you can eat.
At other people’s houses, it might depend on your relationship. Hopefully, if you explain in advance that you are avoiding meat, most people will be able to accommodate you. If that is causing some friction, you can offer to bring your own alternatives so that your host doesn’t have to adapt their plan on the fly.
6. Take it slow
Finally, if you are struggling to go completely meat-free, there’s nothing wrong with taking it slowly. Not everyone can jump straight into a meat-free lifestyle. You might want to start with just a few meat-free days a week and build it up until you eliminate meat completely.
If you are one of the many people who struggle to give up one or two foods (bacon and cheese are big ones for many of us), let yourself have those foods and eliminate other meat or animal-based products. As time goes on, you may find you are more open to avoiding those foods too.
Going meat-free can be a great choice for your health, animal welfare, and the planet. Using our simple, practical tips to get you started should put you on the road to success. Just remember, it is OK to be flexible when you are adopting a new diet. Do what you can – being overly strict isn’t sustainable but every little helps when it comes to reducing your meat consumption.