Many of us are embarking on Veganuary in a desire to be healthier, save the environment or even just to lose weight as we hunker down in lockdown once again. This year a record 500,000 people have signed up to the Veganuary challenge to eat only plant-based foods for a month; double the number who pledged to go vegan in January 2019.
Yet we should be careful what we wish for.
According to a report commissioned by the Health and Food Supplements Information Service (HSIS), an influential group of doctors and nutritionists, many of us are adopting plant-based diets but that could mean a serious lack of vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fats in our diets – with worrying health implications.
I couldn’t agree more. In 2019, I embarked on a strict vegan diet to cure my crippling migraines. After years of throbbing pain, I started to look at alternative remedies. One thing I kept hearing was how certain foods such as meat, chocolate and cheese could trigger migraines.
Those of us who live in a twilight world of low-grade wellness are suckers for anything that offers us a respite from chronic pain. When a nutritionist friend told me to try a plant-based diet – “It will cure your migraines overnight,” she trilled – I immediately turned to Google. Hundreds of sites promising instant cures popped up.
Yet, following a vegan diet, I was not only thin and gaunt but I permanently lost my hearing in one ear (This, however, was not conclusively because of veganism, but a speculative association between a virus I have permanently in my body and the deficiency of several essential nutrients).
Despite the warnings about deficiency in important minerals and vitamins, veganism continues to soar in popularity. Glamourised by slim beautiful health bloggers and sold as an aspirational aesthetic by hip celebrities, we are all rushing to fill our stomachs with nut rissoles and smashed avocado.
A week after deciding to go vegan I emerged from my local Waitrose groaning under armfuls of vegetables and birch juice. I threw out my tins of tuna, walked hastily past the aisles of lamb and sirloin and stocked up on nut butter and chia seeds. At first, I don’t deny that I felt fantastic. My skin glowed and I lost a stone in weeks not months. Problems, however, started to creep in slowly. After less than a month in, I began to experience waves of extreme tiredness. My limbs felt heavy and just going to the shops felt like wading through treacle.
Eventually, I went to see my GP. “It’s probably just the menopause,” she said, as I sat slumped in the chair rattling off all my symptoms. As time went by I felt increasingly worse and continued to lose weight at an alarming speed. My face looked drawn and friends commented on my appearance. “What’s happened to you?” one woman asked. “You look anorexic.” Others joined in.