Veganism is not so much a diet as a complete lifestyle. It means eating no meat, fish, honey, dairy products or eggs; wearing no leather, silk or wool; and avoiding household products and cosmetics that contain animal ingredients or have been tested on animals.

Until the 1940s the word vegan didn’t exist - although vegetarians had been around in the UK from the early 19th century. And then in 1944 a woodwork teacher from Yorkshire called Donald Watson founded the world’s first Vegan Society. The name, which didn’t find its way into the Oxford English dictionary until 1986, came from the beginning and the end of the word vegetarian.

Today, the Vegan Society estimates that around 2% of the UK population is vegetarian and less than half that number are vegan - that’s around 150,000 people.

But the society believes it is on the brink of a breakthrough. It has obtained figures from Google that show a 30% increase in the number of searches for the word ‘vegan’ in the past two years and says Amazon is reporting a growing demand for cookery books with animal-free recipes.

Its own website has seen a dramatic increase in traffic over the last couple of years.

A number of high-profile celebrities, such as model Lily Cole, comedian Russell Brand, designer Stella McCartney, actress Gwyneth Paltrow and politician Al Gore, have embraced the vegan lifestyle - a fact that can only help the cause in our celebrity-obsessed culture.

So it would seem that interest in veganism is growing - and not just because Britain is a nation of animal lovers. The plant-based diet is being held up as life-enhancing and life-prolonging, and many are convinced that it is the only way to save the planet from environmental meltdown.

But it’s far from being an easy choice and in a society that has been meat and dairy-based for thousands of years veganism is still viewed as eccentric or abnormal. Chrissy Leyland, organiser of the Huddersfield branch of the Vegan Society, feels that while this is true the general population has become more knowledgeable about veganism.

The branch recently held a small Vegan Fair in the town centre, which attracted around 200 people to sample vegan food and learn more about the lifestyle. “There is a lot more awareness of veganism today than even just a few years ago,” said Chrissy, “and restaurants are getting better, but there is still a lot of variation.

“We have found that some of the best places to get vegan food are Indian restaurants where there are a lot of vegetable dishes and they don’t serve a lot of dairy.”

L to r, Zak Gravett, Chrissy Leyland, Paul Gravett and James Hodgskiss with Jessie the dog.
L to r, Zak Gravett, Chrissy Leyland, Paul Gravett and James Hodgskiss with Jessie the dog.
 

Chrissy, who lives in the Holme Valley, became a vegetarian as a teenager because of concerns for animal welfare and turned fully vegan by the time she was 15. Her son Zac, who is now eight, has been raised on a plant-based diet.

She says that many vegans start off as vegetarians - who will eat dairy products and eggs - but then come to realise “the cruelties” of the dairy industry. This is something that Vegan founder Donald Watson remarked upon many decades ago when he declared: “The use of milk must be a greater crime than the use of flesh products since after all the exploitation of motherhood and calf-killing, the cow must face the slaughterhouse; thus the dairy cow suffers far more than the bullock taken from the field and slaughtered.”

Jane Speller from Brighouse, a volunteer campaigner for the Dr Hadwen Trust - a charity that funds humane medical research - says she too followed the route to veganism through first becoming a vegetarian but then began researching dairy products. She explained: “A lot of vegetarians aren’t aware of the cruelty that goes on in the dairy industry, the fact that the male calves are killed and the distress it causes the mother and calf when they are separated at birth. The cows end up worn-out and deformed and are slaughtered well before the end of their natural lifespan.”

Jane’s concern for animal welfare led her to become involved with the Dr Hadwen Trust and she travels to vegan fairs to promote the animal-free approach to research. She was at the Huddersfield Vegan Fair with fellow campaigner Jenny Baker.

Their work highlights the fact that the vegan lifestyle is about far more than eating and sourcing ethical food. It’s about respecting other animals in every way. As well as being killed for food, millions of animals are still used in experimentation worldwide every year and yet, as Jane points out, research into human diseases using animals is often unreliable. She explained: “Animals are so different to us so it makes more sense to find new ways of testing drugs and researching that don’t rely on animals. The Dr Hadwen Trust has a positive approach - improving medical research at the same time as reducing animal experiments. It funds research in UK universities.”

Dr Hadwen Trust volunteers Jenny Baker, left, and Jane Speller

The vegan lifestyle and a concern for the environment usually go hand in hand. As The Vegan Society points out, a plant-based diet requires only one third of the land needed to support a meat and dairy diet and the vast amount of grain feed required for meat production is a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction.

In terms of human health, a plant-based diet for everyone could go a long way to solving some of the developed world’s biggest health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Plant foods tend to be low in saturated fat, high in fibre and packed with disease-fighting antioxidants.

Many commentators have said that the only way to feed the entire world is if those of us in the West eat much less animal protein in all its forms. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves and future generations to take on board the ideas of a man who lived to be 95 and founded a movement that had many of the answers, if only we had cared to listen.

* More information on ethical research can be found at www.drhadwentrust.org and on the vegan lifestyle at www.vegansociety.com