'I went vegan on January 1, here's how it's going' - Chef Chad Byrne
With record numbers signing up to Veganuary this year, plant-based diets are becoming mainstream. But just how hard are they to follow, and are the health benefits real? Tanya Sweeney reports
Once upon a time, and not especially long ago, vegans were often regarded with quizzical curiosity at best, and outright disdain at worst. In the 90s, tofu-loving River Phoenix was a weird outlier and anyone requesting a festive nut roast in lieu of Christmas turkey was only trying to spoil the fun.
Fast-forward to the present day, though, and veganism is a red-hot topic for several reasons. British high-street bakery Greggs nearly broke the internet when they announced their plans to release a vegan sausage roll. Vegans were jubilant, not just at the gesture, but the product, too, while carnivore purists had a meltdown about their beloved staple being tampered with (proving this was a critical-mass moment, Piers Morgan made quite a song and dance of spitting his out live on air). But Greggs isn't the only retailer catering for vegans: McDonald's have created vegan Happy Meals, M&S's Plant Kitchen Range has over 60 products, Dunnes has released a vegan pizza and TGI Friday now has a 'Bleeding' vegan burger.
Closer to home, Dublin-based vegans have been able to enjoy vegan Afternoon Tea at the Shelbourne, vegan sushi at Kyoto, and Indian food at Ananda. Long story short, there's no ignoring the phenomenon, and to call it a mere 'food trend' would be understating the case somewhat.
The explosion of the Veganuary campaign, where the vegan-curious can try on veganism for a month, has been dramatic. Veganuary was launched in 2014, with 3,300 people signing up; by 2016, there were 23,000 participants, then 59,500 in 2017, and a staggering 168,000 this year - and these are just the numbers of those that signed up officially online. Some 84pc of 2017's registered participants in the UK were female, while 60pc were aged under 35. According to the charity, a record 300,000 people worldwide are expected to be Veganuary-ing this month.
Among them is 38-year-old Chad Byrne, a Dubliner living in Kerry who works as a chef for the Gleneagle Hotel Group. He went vegetarian three weeks ago (enjoying a nut roast for Christmas), and decided to go vegan on January 1.
"It can get hard (being vegan), working in a commercial kitchen," he admits. "But around eight per cent of our guests are vegan, and while we are known for already having vegan and vegetarian menus, I went to London recently and was really blown away by the vegan restaurants.
"I figured that unless I went full circle, I won't learn as much about what we're providing on our vegan menus if I'm not eating vegan myself. The decision to go vegan was 50pc personal challenge and 50pc wanting to reduce meat."
What he thought might be a culinary limitation made him much more creative in the kitchen.
"I'm incorporating more beans, nuts, seeds and loads of different spice," he explains. "I'm having a lot of frozen fruit in things like smoothies, which costs a fraction of fresh fruit if you go to places like Lidl. If you try your local ethnic food shop, you find things like bottles of coconut oil for €3, where they could be €15 in certain high-end supermarkets.
"These days I'm having nice granola, fruit or smoothies for breakfast, while lunch might be a 'bundle bowl' with loads of mixed fruits, seeds and things like roast aubergine dip. I've started making lots of Indian dahls (lentil-based curries) for myself. At the restaurant, we made an alternative to black pudding bon-bons using black beans, polenta and sesame seeds."
So far, so good, but by Byrne's own admission, it hasn't been entirely plain sailing into a plant-based lifestyle: "I'm normally pretty fond of dairy, and tofu isn't my thing," he admits.
"For the first week, I felt lethargic, but I got some Vitamin B12 tablets and once they kicked in, I was fresh as a daisy," he adds. "I don't know why, but I feel mentally healthier - a little bit more nourished. Even just doing it for a few days would blow your mind."
Evelyn Suttle (28), a museum worker from Dublin 3, has been vegan for over six years, and can remember a time when vegan food choices in supermarkets and restaurants in Ireland weren't quite so abundant: "There were no vegan sausages or bacon for a start - these days, relatively speaking, it's dead easy to be vegan. Initially, it was the health aspect that drew me in, and I realised the countless benefits of eating more fruit and vegetables. I started becoming more environmentally aware around this time and realised that when it comes to Ireland's carbon footprint, animal agricultural products account for around a third of our footprint. In terms of personal health, I've lost excess weight, and as someone who always had asthma, I've been able to breathe better."
Just as veganism has enjoyed an inexorable rise, so too have the myths surrounding it, many of which Evelyn is only too happy to debunk. "People talk about the possibility of a protein or vitamin B12 deficiency in a plant-based diet, and that's absolutely not the case," she states.
"A few months into going vegan, I had blood tests and the results were perfect in every way. You can get a perfectly nutritional and substantial vegan diet at every stage of life, including in pregnancy and after childbirth. The dairy products that people are eating are often fortified with calcium and vitamin B12 in much the same way as the plant-based products are," she adds.
Adjusting to a plant-based 'mindset' didn't pose a challenge for Evelyn: "My only regret was that I didn't do it sooner. The only problem I had was people making comments, and having to deal with that from colleagues and family who see you as different.
"But now, in 2019, half of my colleagues and half of my family are vegetarian or vegan."
The other commonly held perception around veganism that Evelyn is keen to dismantle is the idea that veganism is, in her words, a 'diet of privilege'. "I've heard the argument many times that veganism is for the upper middle classes, often from people who have never tried the diet," she explains. "The three cheapest ingredients on the planet are beans, rice and potatoes, and they're definitely cheaper than beef and cheese.
"What people expect me to eat is wild," she laughs. "Normally I eat porridge for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and maybe pasta for dinner. It's pretty basic stuff. I don't eat green smoothies three times a day."
In her spare time, Evelyn co-runs the blog VegHuns, where this month, they are running a series of pocket-friendly recipes. Researching plant-based alternatives to perennial favourites, says Evelyn, also helps to make the transition easier for novices.
"In terms of dairy alternatives, oat milk and soy or coconut cheeses are good replacements, and a lot of people love nutritional yeast as an ingredient in mac'n'cheese.
"To get yourself started, find whatever your favourite food is in a plant-based version," she advises. "You don't have to go from burgers to salads every day. Believe it or not, the easy solutions are available to people at the drop of a hat."