Do you want to feel healthier? Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to feel better, not just in your body but in your life? Do you want to do something to make the world a better place? Then maybe it’s time you considered a vegetarian or a vegan lifestyle. We spoke with Alan Lee, one of the organizers of VegfestUK, about the event, about vegan foods, and about what it takes to adopt a plant-based lifestyle.
RN: Tell us how VegfestUK got started.
Alan: My colleague, Tim Barford, has been vegan for about 30 odd years and has a festival background. He was always keen on uniting people together with pestles and parties and he came up with the idea of combining veganism with a party, happy, clappy atmosphere. Back then it was called the Bristol Vegan Fair. It took place first in Bristol in 2003 and then the show got bigger and bigger. We moved to our current venue, an outdoor amphitheater, in Bristol from 2007 onwards. That’s also the time we started putting on headline music in addition to the daytime activities which are mainly food and educational talks and cookery demos. In 2009 we started doing another show in Brighton, and last year we started doing a show in London Olympia. So right now we have three shows every year: Brighton in March, Bristol in May, and London Olympia in September.
RN: How many people typically attend?
Alan: At Brighton we typically have over 5,000 people. Bristol is around 15,000 to 20,000. And in London last year we had 9,000 visitors but expect around 10,000 visitors this year.
Brighton and London are slightly different from Bristol because Brighton and London are indoor events. For these two events the focus is mainly on food and family activities. There’s plenty of free samples and special discounts. There’s also a selection of caterers who sell delicious vegan food on the day. Family activities include lots of interesting cookery classes for kids, as well as kid’s entertainers, hula-hooping, face painting, smoothy bakes, and even pancake tossing. For information on vegetarian and vegan living we have a collection of talks, cookery demos, workshops, and short films, inspiring people about the best of a plant-based lifestyle. There’s also performances from comedians and musicians which have gone down really well with our visitors.
Bristol is an outdoor event, so there’s the addition of headline musicians during the evenings after the daytime activities. For example, last year we had headliners such as Happy Mondays and Caravan Palace, and this year we just had our Bristol event in May and were really glad to have bands like Boney M, Rose Royce, Abba Gold, Peter Hook and the Light, Ruts DC, Goldblade, Zion Train, and Black Roots.
RN: You used the expression “plant-based lifestyle.” Can you explain that?
Alan: A plant-based lifestyle is more than choosing what food we eat. We tend to start with food when it comes to being vegetarian and vegan because food is the easiest thing to relate to for most people. But a plant-based lifestyle can include clothing and cosmetics; not wearing clothing such as wool and leather, or using cosmetics which do not involve animal testing.
RN: Why is this important? Why should people care about this?
Alan: A plant-based lifestyle is good for four reasons. One is for health. A diet based on a collection of fruits, grains, vegetables, beans, and then pulses or legumes can be very healthy for the body, providing essential nutrients.
Second, it’s very good for animals; that’s a given, as we don’t have to kill them in using plant-based foods.
Third, a plant-based diet is good for the planet. Farm animals actually produce a lot of greenhouse gases and many pollutants.
Fourth, a plant-based diet is very much more sustainable than an animal-based diet because animal-based foods take much more land, water, and grains to produce than purely plant-based foods.
Also, last but not least, plant-based foods are delicious. In contrast to what many people tend to believe, we have lots of options for plant-based ingredients ranging from meatless meats and cheeses, to plant-based milks like rice milk, hazelnut, and soy. So nowadays its very easy to eat plant-based and be healthy and happy at the same time. You can easily find vegan products that you like and so you’re more likely to stick with it nowadays then maybe a few decades ago.
RN: Some people say you have to eat meat for protein. How would you respond to naysayers who insist that a vegan or vegetarian diet isn’t healthy?
Alan: Let’s first start with the protein question, which has been asked for ages, ever since there was a concept of vegetarianism. And I suppose that’s the major concern for many people who are thinking of going vegetarian or vegan but have held back. The truth is, many vegetarian foods are rich in protein. Actually all plant-based foods contain protein. But they differ in their percentage by weight and their percentage by calories. Vegetarian foods such as beans, tofu, quinoa, seitan … Products like this are very rich in protein. Fruits like seeds, hemp, pumpkin seeds, and nuts contain protein as well. There are lots of varieties of vegetarian foods and vegan foods that can provide enough protein for the body.
The other common concern that leads people to believe vegetarian and vegan diets are not healthy is that by going dairy free one may miss out on sufficient calcium for the bones. Again, green vegetables and other types of plant-based foods easily provide the body’s requirement for calcium. And plant-based calcium is also easier for the body to absorb.
There are other nutritional concerns for some people such as a lack of iron or a lack of some B vitamins. The response to that is similar to that for calcium actually. Again, if we eat a balanced plant-based diet we can easily obtain all the essential nutrients. The keyword here is balance, because even on a vegetarian or vegan diet, as on a meat-based diet, we can get unhealthy, but if we eat a balanced range of various vegan foods we can be very healthy.
RN: Can you tell us about your background and how you became vegan?
Alan: Before working full time in VegFest I use to be a research student in mathematics and I was doing my PhD studies. Around 2012 I started thinking about eating less meat and eating more veggies and about three months later I came across this film called “Vegucated” which told the story of three meat and cheese loving New Yorkers who try going vegan for six weeks. They learned a lot about the new lifestyle and they vowed to try to continue to be vegan after the six weeks. I found this film fascinating and inspiring and it was the first time I ever noticed the suffering that animals endure during the production of meat and dairy nowadays. Then I thought to myself, I don’t want to contribute to this anymore. Hence, I went vegan straight away. But it was hard to start actually. It was very hard because I use to be a heavy meat eater and I constantly felt hungry. But a month later I slowly grew into eating less meat and it felt more comfortable.
A week later it was VegFest Bristol 2012 and I went down there as a visitor and picked up lots and lots of tips on how to be healthy and happy on a plant-based diet. So needless to say I was really into the meatless meats provided there. I think the most important thing was the talks and cookery demos which gave me inspiration on how to be healthy and happy on a vegan diet.
The last thing was there were lots and lots of like minded people to talk to, for sharing tips and advice. And that was really helpful, what really helped me to stay vegan for so long.
Weeks after that I was organizing my own screenings of films like Vegucated and related films like Forks Over Knives, and Planeat which films are related topics and again experiencing event organizing thru organizing these smaller events. In 2013 I started helping out voluntarily at VegFest starting with Brighton in March and continuing with Bristol. In June last year I came on board full time as part of the VegFest team and started working on the London show last year, and continuing on with our annual trio of shows since then.
RN: What would you say is your favorite dish?
Alan: When it comes to hot foods, I’m really big on Indian cuisine. Indian cuisine is easy to make vegetarian and vegan. Also, at VegFest Bristol last month, we had the pleasure to have some companies selling vegan pad thai and vegan sushis. These were absolutely amazing. I’m also quite big on vegan meats because, before I went vegan back in 2012, I was quite a big meat eater. Sometimes I do miss the flavor and texture a little bit, but I’m quite happy with the vegan meats on the market right now. There’s also vegan ice cream which is just delicious, made of nuts and coconut milk with syrups and food extracts, and plant-based cheeses made of soy, nuts, or rice.
RN: How can people who want to adopt a vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based lifestyle get started?
Allen: I guess for a lot of people it isn’t that easy at all to go vegan straight away. There’s a lot of factors behind it, not only taste but cultural habits and peer pressure. For example, when you dine out with meat eaters, the first time you try eating vegan with them it’s going to feel awkward.
I would say that if you’re not comfortable with going vegan straight away do it one step at a time. That way your body is going to find it easier to adjust, and your mind is going to find it easier to adjust as well.
If you’re really keen on transitioning towards veganism, the thing to do would be to pick out your best or your favorite vegan products and eat as many of them as you want. And that way you feel happier inside about this transition so that you’re not suffering by not eating enough but actually eating abundantly and your body is going to thank you for that.
The events of VegfestUK are a great place to find support and inspiration as you embark on a plant-based lifestyle. Visit their site at http://vegfest.co.uk/ and their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/vegfestuk
If you can’t make it to the UK, look for similar vegan and vegetarian events, meet-ups, and groups in your area. You’ll find the people friendly and the food delicious.