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Tuesday, 12 December 2017 12:03 pm

Veggie tales: why a vegan diet can be as varied as any other

In a nation that prides itself on farming ability, taking meat off your plate is considered unpatriotic by some. ANGIE MILLS finds out why some people opt-out of a omnivorous diet: 

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OZZY Osborne is one. So is Mike Tyson. Natalie Portman was one. And Steve Jobs was rumoured to have been one.

How many vegans there are, it’s not known. Why they do it, only they can say.

It is a trending topic that’s well discussed, yet veganism still seems like a mysterious act of great rebellion to many people.

It’s estimated more than half of the world’s population is vegetarian, but vegans are a whole new kettle of fish (pun intended).

With more than half of New Zealand land being used for farming, and our taste for a meat and three-veg type dinner, it could be argued we are the world’s least vegan country.

Alice Leonard (right), co-ordinator of the Vegan Society of Aotearoa, says before she met her partner, she held a common kiwi view on veganism.

“I freely admit that before I met Billy, my only thoughts about veganism were that it was extreme behaviour by attention-seeking individuals, who got satisfaction from depriving themselves of nice food,” she says.

“I now know, of course, that a vegan diet can be as varied as any other diet. I enjoy vegan treats like cakes, cookies, chocolate and ice-cream.”

A vegan is a person who knowingly chooses not to consume, use or wear any products produced from, tested on, or containing animal by-products.

This differs from a vegetarian person, who, as quoted by The NZ Vegetarian Society, “does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or crustacean, or slaughter by-products,” but might still choose to consume eggs and dairy.

Alice says even though the Vegan Society are seeing an increase in people turning to what she considers a more ethical lifestyle, the vegan community is still a small minority in a country that is largely focused on the production and consumption of dairy and meat.

Of course, producing, processing and selling dairy and meat are how many kiwis make a living, so why would someone oppose that?

Alice says she thinks most people become vegan because they care about animals and don’t want to be part of a system that inflicts great suffering.

Campaign manager, Mandy Carter, at animal advocacy group Saving Animals from Exploitation (better known as SAFE), says people have the misconception that New Zealand has a clean and green reputation and the horrific things happen abroad like in the US.

But, she says, they don’t realise that those practices are the same here.

Factory farming is an issue SAFE has made a big deal of for a few years now.

The term “factory farming” has become fashionable since the 1960s to describe factory-like farming operations, and is often used to compare a confined and large scale farming operation with small scale, free-range, and supposedly ethically sound operations.

Pigs and hens are most commonly “factory farmed” in New Zealand, while cattle are added to the mix over-seas.

Mandy says with public support SAFE has been instrumental in moving toward more ethical farming practices in NZ after having sow-crates banned from 2016, and is now trying to outlaw battery hen cages.

She says alternative farming practices are available that are more ethical, and the public are in better support of, but the only way to live a truly cruelty free lifestyle is to choose veganism.

REACH OUT: A SAFE poster advising people to not buy into the Pork Industry Board's pig care accreditation

 “People are horrified by meat farming, we do a lot of public outreach and people often comment that they didn’t know about issues and are now swapping cage eggs for free range eggs.

“But going vegan is really one of the best ways you can help animals, it’s voting with your wallet. It’s a way of saying ‘I don’t support cruel farming practices’.”

Although a small minority, Alice Leonard says The Vegan Society have definitely seen an increase in people choosing to be vegetarian and vegan, as well as omnivores including more plant-based foods in their diets.

But despite this, author of vegetarian lifestyle guide, ‘Living a Good Life: To be a vegetarian in New Zealand’, Pam Bidwell, says vegetarians only make up between 1-2% of New Zealand’s population.

Alice says as a vegan living in central Auckland, she feels supported in her lifestyle choices, but for others living in places where they don’t know other vegans, it may not be so.

A 2008 paper written by Annie Potts and Mandala White of the NZ Centre for Human-Animal Studies in 2008, considers how kiwi vegetarians are ‘At Odds with Their Nation’.

One hundred and forty seven vegetarians of varying degrees participated in the study, and were asked questions like, where did they feel they fit into the NZ mainstream.

None of the participants felt they did fit into the mainstream, one woman said how she was criticised for not eating meat at a social gathering.

“I had a stranger confront me at a barbecue when he saw I wasn’t eating meat. He said I should be ashamed of myself for not supporting New Zealand’s agricultural industry.”

One man said he was generally treated like an alien, and another woman said she thought it counter cultural to not eat meat in a widely meat eating nation.

A survey conducted by Potts and White about perspectives and experiences of ethical consumers showed unanimous rejection of factory farming by the 157 volunteers surveyed.

It was the single issue all volunteers agreed on, that free range farming is the bottom line of ethical consumption.

Vegan Hannah Lessels, who didn’t know any others in the community until she set up the Wellington Vegans Facebook group in 2008, says she surprised by how many people have joined the group.

Brought up as a vegetarian in the UK, Hannah says she says doesn’t receive a lot of backlash because of her lifestyle, but more comments on how she doesn’t fit the assumed stereotype.

“A guy at work, when he found out I was vegan he looked at me and said, ‘oh you don’t look like an anarchist’,” she says.

“I was just like, ‘what’s anarchy got to do with veganism? I’m not.’”

Hannah adopted a fully vegan lifestyle after being what she describes as a “semi-vegan” for about 10 years.

She says since having been brought up vegetarian, and spending such a long time considering making the change to veganism, it wasn’t difficult to do.

However, NZ is far behind the rest of the world in terms of catering to a vegan lifestyle, Hannah says, since having travelled to Canada, which is considered one of the most diverse countries in the world, and have a large vegetarian community.

A few veg-friendly food outlets are popping up though, with Pranah in Newtown having been a meat-free café since its opening seven years ago, and Alice Leonard’s Angel Food available online.

Alice says the idea behind Angel Food is to deliver treat foods to vegans, and to make it easier for people to become vegan and remain vegan – “because everybody needs treats!”

She says something which holds many people back from adopting a vegan lifestyle is the regret of giving up cheese.

“When I became vegan there was no delicious vegan cheese available in NZ.

“So many people say ‘I could never live without cheese’ that I knew a decent cheese replacement was vital.”

The fewer changes you have to make to your regular diet, the easier it is for you and your family, she says.

Dietician Amanda Johnson (right) says she doesn’t advocate eating meat or not, but if people choose to go without meat, eggs and dairy, they need to be careful about replacing the nutrients associated with those products.

“The problem with removing meat from a dinner plate is that you’re also removing a complex source of nutrition,” she says.

“A vegetarian diet has potential as long as it is balanced and contains nutrients from the four new food groups: whole grains, vegetables, fruit and legumes.”

She says if vegans don’t carefully balance their diet, they become more at risk of iron and vitamin B12 deficiency.

“Lack of iron leads to iron-deficiency anaemia, poor cognitive development in infants, fatigue & tiredness, and B12 deficiency is a very serious condition with non-reversible effects like nerve damage, anaemia, and impaired neurological development in infants.”

Iron, which is largely found in red meat, can be sourced from leafy greens and legumes, but vitamin B12 is only found in animal food sources, and vegans are recommended to take a supplement or eat fortified foods.

“It’s really important that you don’t just eat cereals and vegetables,” Amanda says.

“You need nutrients from the four main food groups, like iron containing foods: nuts and seeds, and dairy food alternatives like fortified soymilk for vegans.”

She says she often sees people who have become vegan for religious or ethical reasons, and don’t know how to avoid deficiencies

“If you say a standard kiwi meal is meat and three veg, and you take the meat away from that and say ‘I’ll just have the vegetables,’ it’s not going to meet your nutritional need.

“People that come and see me often have nutritional concerns, and they’re very open-minded and keen to learn how to eat healthily.

“The biggest mistake that people make is that they can just remove the nutrients from their diet and not have anything to replace them with,” she says.

Amanda says anybody can become a vegetarian, but some sub-groups, like pregnant women and young children have very high nutrient needs.

She says if a person is to adopt a vegan diet, it is a good idea to have your blood levels for vitamin b12 and iron checked.

As for recent speculation about phytoestrogens in soy milk being linked to breast cancer, Amanda says it’s just that, speculation.

“I think soy products are perfectly safe. Probably in young babies, you would need to make sure there’s not too much, but it’s important that if you cut out dairy you need to replace those products.”

But she says, “I wouldn’t have a problem with someone replacing dairy with soy.”

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