In 2015, Freya Robinson decided to go vegan. For more than a year, the 28-year-old from East Sussex did not consume a single animal product. Then, in 2016, on a family holiday in Bulgaria, she passed a steak restaurant and something inside her switched. “I walked in and ordered the biggest steak I could have and completely inhaled it,” she says. After finishing it, she ordered another.
For the previous year, Robinson had been suffering from various health problems – low energy levels, brain fog, painful periods and dull skin – which she now believes were the result of her diet. She says her decline was gradual and almost went unnoticed. “Because it’s not an instant depletion, you don’t suddenly feel bad the next day, it’s months down the line. It’s very, very slow.” In just over a year, the balanced plant-based food she cooked daily from scratch, using organic vegetables from the farm she works on, and legumes and nuts vital for protein, had, she felt, taken a toll on her body.
The morning after the steak felt revelatory: “I felt this surge of energy. My face was glowing again. I remember leaping out of bed and it was only in that moment I realised I’d been slowly depleting my body of vital nutrients.” She says that the days after the reintroduction of animal products to her diet saw her clarity and ability to cope with stress return. Minor inconveniences, such as dealing with a grumpy customer at the farm’s market stall, no longer seemed like a mammoth burden; the intense physical work on the farm felt less laboured. Having operated at what she describes as 60% both physically and mentally, she was now “realising what normal should be”.
In just over 75 years, veganism has grown from a fringe movement to a mainstream lifestyle choice practised by millions globally. In 2019, it was estimated that around 600,000 people in Britain were following a vegan diet – up from approximately 150,000 people in 2014. This year saw the biggest number (more than 580,000 people) sign up for Veganuary, pledging to eat a plant-based diet for the month. Next year is likely to be even bigger. A host of new vegan brands, some owned by the major supermarkets, have made the once niche diet easy to follow.
Since its inception, the raison d’etre of western veganism has been the reduction of suffering caused to animals (the core value, according to the Vegan Society, is to “exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals”). It has come to be thought of as a whole way of living, rather than a diet – adherents typically eschew leather, honey and other things made from animal byproducts. But the food – all plant-based, with no meat or dairy – is what most people think of. And it is increasingly championed for its health benefits. Studies have shown a plant-based diet can be effective for losing weight. “People do lose weight on a vegan diet. That’s quite common,” says Tom Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London. It can also reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and some cancers, lower cholesterol levels and reduce cardiovascular disease.
Many athletes who have gone vegan praise the diet for rejuvenating their careers. In 2017, England striker Jermain Defoe said a vegan diet was partly responsible for his continued career in the Premier League in his late 30s. Though now a pescatarian, he’s still playing for Rangers at 39. Tennis superstar Venus Williams said in the same year that her raw vegan diet had given her a new burst of energy, and credited it with the return of her endurance and strength. Other sporting vegans include Lewis Hamilton and ultramarathon champion Scott Jurek.
Environmental factors strengthen the argument for a plant-based diet as research suggests individuals can reduce their carbon footprint from food by up to 73% by cutting out meat and dairy. The popularity of plant-based alternatives is now big business: the UK’s meat-free food industry is predicted to generate around £658m in retail sales this year.
But just as hundreds of thousands in the UK adopt veganism, many are giving it up – and face a fierce backlash from die-hard vegans for doing so. British freerunner and YouTuber Tim Shieff, who made his name as a passionate vegan athlete, but then admitted he had given up, faced a barrage of abuse. Meanwhile, Canadian fitness blogger Maddie Lymburner, who built up a huge following for her vegan recipes and workout videos, and then admitted she was adding “some animal products” to her diet, was forced to stop posting about food due to the vicious backlash.
In dedicated online communities across Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other platforms, large groups of ex-vegans are sharing stories of declining physical and/or mental health that they believe was caused by their diet. These groups provide support and offer advice for reintroducing animal products. They are also a place to navigate the social fallout that can come when a person leaves a major part of their identity behind.
At first, Tommy Kelly felt his vegan diet was having a positive effect. The 41-year-old from Ayrshire in Scotland made the decision to go vegan for animal rights reasons in 2016 during his recovery from a severe eating disorder. Overseen by a team of specialists, including a nurse, dietitian and psychiatrist, he was consuming a high-calorie diet in order to steadily increase his body mass. “I was constantly gaining weight,” says Kelly. “My health just seemed to be getting better and better and better.”
But around year three, despite taking all the right supplements, problems began to arise. Kelly began noticing he was struggling to put on weight despite eating a calorific diet of grains, fruits and vegetables, proteins and plant fats. Digestive issues left him passing blood and going to the toilet up to 16 times a day – there is evidence that for some people foods high in lectins, like legumes, grains, certain vegetables and nuts, can damage the gut lining if eaten in large quantities over a sustained period of time. Then came the short-term memory loss, mouth ulcers, dry skin, low libido and slow hair growth.
The migraines he’d previously suffered a handful of times a year became daily and debilitating. “My wife actually thought I’d had a stroke at one point,” he says, “I was slurring my speech and I had this facial droop.”
In January 2020, Kelly reluctantly made the decision to reintroduce ethically sourced animal products under advice from his dietitian and wider team. They had become worried about his weight loss, and suspected his decline was linked to the diet. It was a choice that left him racked with guilt. “I didn’t want to do it, because I was obviously really about the ethics,” says Kelly. “It took four to six months for me to even introduce eggs.”
Shortly after he started eating local salmon and oily fish, he noticed a significant improvement in his symptoms, which he says have “totally reversed”. Now, having put on weight on an omnivorous diet despite eating fewer calories, he feels the best he’s ever felt.
For the almost five years Kelly was vegan, he was immersed in the community, organising vigils outside abattoirs, signing up to animal rights group Anonymous for the Voiceless, and undertaking vegan outreach under the name Tofu Tommy. “The veganism kind of becomes your identity,” he says. After reintroducing animal products, and speaking out about his experiences, Kelly was branded a “murderer” and received death threats from strangers. “They lash out at everybody and call you every name under the sun. They’re supposed to be compassionate and they’re really not.”
When Lymburner announced in an Instagram post in August 2020 that she had reintroduced eggs and fish after six years of being vegan, saying it was “something I needed to do for my health and overall wellbeing”, she faced a barrage of horrible comments. She explained that she had been suffering terrible period pains, was losing her hair and had bad acne. Reintroducing a small quantity of animal products allowed her to be a “functioning human” again, she said.
Lymburner had built up a following largely around plant-based nutrition and fitness, and had a combined following of almost 900,000 on YouTube and Instagram. (She has since launched a fitness channel which has almost 6.5m subscribers.) Although most comments were posted in support, the 26-year-old was also labelled a “snake”, a “sellout” and, from another plant-based influencer, a “selfish narcissist who is going back to killing animals again”.
For Chloe Reed (not her real name), the change after she became vegan was less physical than psychological. In 2017, she and her husband decided to go vegan for ethical reasons; like many others, they were inspired by watching influential pro-vegan documentaries such as Earthlings, Cowspiracy, The Game Changers and Seaspiracy. Food and nutrition documentaries like these have boomed in the past few years with the help of global streaming platforms, though some have faced questions over their scientific rigour. (The Game Changers’ claim, for example, that “simply drinking cow’s milk” can reduce testosterone and increase oestrogen in men, was based on a study of just 18 participants, of whom only seven were male.)
Adopting a well-planned wholefood diet – using ingredients that have been processed or refined as little as possible – Reed and her husband both lost weight. “I felt amazing,” she says. But the initial euphoria was short-lived. What had previously been manageable, “in the background”, intrusive thoughts she had lived with her whole life, became impossible to ignore.
“The intrusive thoughts got so much worse and started happening more,” says Reed, 32, who lives in Wiltshire. “And I developed the most horrendous anxiety. After a year or so of being vegan, it got really bad and led me to seek help. I was diagnosed with OCD and anxiety.”
This year, after seeking advice from a dietitian, she made the decision to reintroduce some fish and eggs from a local free-range farm into her diet for the first time in four years. It wasn’t easy. “The fear and guilt were massive,” she says. But she’s since seen a marked improvement in her mental health. “I’m as sure as anyone can be that it was caused by the diet. I’ve only noticed a real improvement since eating animal products.” Conscious that some will say the two issues are not connected, the breastfeeding mother of two believes she has definitely had more energy and even seen her milk supply increase. “I don’t think that can be a placebo,” she says. Friends and colleagues took the news in their stride, but when she shared her experience on online forums she faced an onslaught – mostly from those she refers to as “dickheads on Reddit”. She describes the vegan movement as “toxic”. Whatever the intended effect, it ended up “calcifying my views even further”, she says.
While veganism has never been so popular, it is a diet that defies the western meat-eating culture. Research suggests that vegans face negative bias from non-vegans, with one 2015 study finding that the only disparaged group viewed more negatively than vegans were drug addicts.
This may explain why many vegans seek comfort and belonging in a community. “Depending on why people have decided to become vegan, you might find that some start to identify more with other vegans and veganism as a kind of group,” says Dr Madeline Judge, assistant professor in social and environmental psychology at the University of Groningen. “It’s not just about diet, it’s about a way of living, and because it requires diverging from the norm, you often have to learn a new way of eating, new places to eat, and you might find that you differ in your values from your friends and family.”
For others, Judge explains, being part of a collective that shares the same belief system can bolster efforts and enthusiasm to make a positive difference. “It’s difficult to make a difference in the world on your own. It’s a lot easier if you have a group,” she says.
Rebecca Jones, a practising GP who runs an advice website, The Vegan Doctor, advocates for a vegan diet as a lifestyle change for some patients – especially those who are overweight or have cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol or diabetes. “I always offer a plant-based diet as one of the ways of changing your health,” says Jones. “For me, it’s an ethical choice – a bit like religion or politics. I don’t want my patient to feel like I’m telling them this is the only way.”
Jones, 39, became vegan in 2017 and was vegetarian prior to that. While she acknowledges that there are barriers that can make veganism difficult for some people (cost, climate, location), she believes a nutritionally balanced and well-planned plant-based diet is for everyone. “I think the important words here are ‘well-planned’,” Jones says. “Vegan junk food, for example, is high in calories but has very little nutritional value – if eaten routinely without the addition of legumes, fresh produce, nuts, wholegrains, it can lead to nutritional deficiencies and is a potential pitfall for newer vegans.” When it comes to purported health issues associated with the diet, she suspects the current popularity of veganism may be to blame. “Many non-vegans will also be deficient in some micronutrients, but because veganism is currently very topical, it’s often blamed as the sole reason why somebody might feel under the weather.”
People have different motivations for eating a plant-based diet, but some staunch proponents of animal rights believe that anyone describing themselves as a vegan should be doing it for the animals. “I think the word veganism is thrown around a little bit too easily,” says Jones, adding that people quitting “kind of gives veganism a bad name because it’s seen as faddy and fashionable. If you identify as a vegan, then you are into animal rights. It’s a plant-based diet that’s quite fashionable. Veganism is what it always was.”
“Responsible messaging within the vegan community would keep people healthier and prevent many from feeling they have to turn their back on veganism,” says Sophie Medlin, chair of the British Dietetic Association for London. This, she says, extends to advice around nutrition. “There is a misconception that a vegan diet is nutritionally complete and provides all essential nutrients in adequate quantities.”
Vitamin B12, which is required in the production of red blood cells, is only found naturally in animal foods such as meat and dairy, so vegans must get their B12 from supplements. One study found vegans have lower levels of B12 than both vegetarians and omnivores, and were at higher risk of developing symptoms related to deficiency. “The risks of not supplementing on a vegan diet can be devastating,” Medlin warns. Other deficiencies, in vitamins and minerals including calcium and vitamin D, can manifest in different ways, affecting bone health, for example. “What we’re seeing now in the long-term follow-ups of vegans, compared with vegetarians and omnivores, is they actually have a greater risk of fractures,” says Sanders, who has been studying vegan nutrition for almost 50 years.
For Chloe Reed, having to take supplements of B12, as well as iron, iodine, DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) and calcium contributed to her decision to quit. “Something made me think, you probably shouldn’t be taking that many supplements if you haven’t got an existing health condition,” she says. Freya Robinson agrees: “I don’t really believe that supplements are the answer to a healthy diet.”
Why does veganism work well for some, but appear to have a detrimental effect on others? According to Sanders, while we all require the same diversity of nutrients, “there’s individual variation in requirements”. When a person switches to a plant-based diet, they eat a whole host of foods their gut may not have encountered frequently on an omnivorous diet, including grains, fruits and other carbohydrates. “One of the first things that changes when someone becomes vegan is their gut flora, and it may take a bit of time to settle down,” says Sanders.
“Genetics plays an important role in how efficiently we can convert essential fatty acids,” Medlin says. For some, it’s genetically more difficult to convert the essential nutrients our body needs from plant-based sources into bioavailable versions our bodies can actually absorb and use. “Some of us need more, and some will feel well with less.”
No diet is a miracle cure. But when what you eat becomes a lifestyle – an identity, and with it a membership of a community – people can be left feeling as though they can’t change their habits without letting others down.
Robinson hasn’t looked back since that fateful steak in Bulgaria. She now identifies as an “ethical omnivore”, and believes meat should be treated as an infrequent luxury rather than a daily commodity: once a week is ample, she suggests. But attempts to debate this point with sections of the vegan community on social media often descend into abuse.
Beneath the often vitriolic online war of words, the two groups may find that common ground still exists. The ex-vegans I spoke to all continue to be conscientious about what they’re eating, examine the conditions in which animals are raised, and consider the impact their food consumption has on the environment. They have found that the fight to restore their health does not have to completely compromise the principles that originally drew them to veganism. “There’s the health side, but there’s also the planet side,” Robinson says. “And what cost can you really put on the planet?”