The words 'I'm going vegan' may make many of us think of the tree-hugging, beardy-weirdy, socks-with-sandals brigade, not to mention a long list of nutritional deficiencies from not eating any animal-based foods.
However, for all the reasons for going veggie - whether its love of animals, religion or economics - there may be some serious benefits that accompany switching from omnivore to herbivore. That's the argument put forward by the eye-opening documentary Fork Over Knives, which argues that almost all diseases could be avoided if we switch to a plant-only diet.
For Brits - this would be easier said that done. As a nation we currently eat around 76.2kg of meat per year and 131g of red meat a day. Meanwhile, statistics from vegsoc.org show that only 1.8 million of us have gone veggie to some degree. So what do the experts think? MSN Her caught up with nutritionists Claire Harper (thenutritionguide.co.uk) and Kirsten Brooks (eatyourselftohealth.com) to see how our love of meat could be hurting our health, and what you should do to reap the benefits of plant-only eating.
What would it involve?
Not all vegetarians are created equal; some may still eat fish (pescetarians), eggs, cheese and other dairy products, while others do not. 'Vegan' means going completely plant-based, which involves giving up all processed foods, and anything animal-based. The documentary Fork Over Knives follows two doctors as they examine Asian cultures where degenerative diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and even many forms of cancer are non-existent.
The obvious link? They are all eating very little to no animal products.
Harper says there may be a great deal of truth to these claims. "The evidence does point to a predominantly plant-based diet being protective against degenerative disease," she says. "This has been shown time and again in numerous studies. Eating high quantities of plants (fruit, vegetables, legumes, beans) is associated with lower levels of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, kidney stones, cancers, Alzheimer's and many other conditions.
"However, it is also evident that humans evolved on a diet containing meat and fish. In terms of achieving optimal health, I disagree with the premise of Fork Over Knives that no animal products should be eaten at all, because some are important for good health and vegan alternatives can be poor replacements."
Brooks adds: "I would agree that often diseases such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and certain obesity-related conditions can indeed be prevents and sometimes reversed by adopting a healthy, natural, wholefood and largely plant-based diet. However, it would be naive to suggest that nutrition is the whole answer, as stress, genetics, sedentary lifestyle and toxic environments all play their part."
What's so bad about meat?
Most of us have at least a basic understanding of what we're getting from meat; chicken and fish equals protein, while iron comes from red meat. Too much fatty cuts or junk food like burgers and kebabs, however, and we're likely to gain weight and risk developing serious illness.
Brooks says: "Meat and dairy are a source of saturated facts. Furthermore, they contain lots of omega-6 fatty acids, an excess (which is very common) promotes inflammatory changes in the body. Given that most health conditions have an underlying low-grade inflammatory component to them, an imbalance in these essential fats can set up the disease process."
Harper adds: "The argument against eating animal products is the correlation between low incidence of disease and low meat, fish and dairy product intake. Some studies show that decreasing animal protein shows a decrease in the effects of carcinogens in the cells and a decrease in tumor initiation."
So how should you act?
While both of our nutritionists agree with certain aspects of the plant-only clarion call, both are also wary of emptying your fridge of all animal products. This is primarily because being a 'healthy' vegan is not as easy as it sounds. Meat and fish do provide us with nutrients that are otherwise hard to come by. Vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron and zinc are the most common deficiencies seen in a plant-based diet gone wrong, and can lead to weaker bones, memory-loss and low-energy levels.
If you do choose to embark on this plant-only path, Brooks advises you to ensure you do it properly. "Avoid sugary food, ensure carbohydrates come from wholegrain sources (brown rice, oats, and quinoa), that fruit and vegetables figure highly, and eat adequate protein in the form of lentils and pulses," she says.
"They should also eat nuts and seeds, but I believe they should supplement with fish oil if they are not eating any oily fish, for its Omega-3 content which has numerous health benefits, and have their iron, vitamin B12, calcium and zinc levels checked."
Harper believes that just because you aren't eating 'harmful' animal products doesn't mean you're clear of danger. She says: "I have also seen lots of unhealthy vegetarians and vegans, so I strongly believe if you are going to cut out both meat and dairy, you need to do it sensibly, and with professional guidance. Meat is an excellent source of protein, and contains higher levels of minerals like zinc and iron in more bioavailable forms.
"Be selective with animal products and aim to eat only those that are of high quality, nutritious, un-processed, free from preservatives - just like our ancestors were eating! Grass-fed beef, wild meats like venison, organically fed chicken and eggs, wild Alaskan salmon etcetera, and make up the rest of their diet with lots of lovely plants. Remember that you don't need to eat meat every day."
Brooks rounds up by saying: "Ideally meat should be organic to minimise unnecessary chemicals, hormones and antibiotics. Red meat should be minimised to reduce cancer risk, and processed meat like ham and bacon entirely avoided as it has stronger links to cancer and type-2 diabetes."
So, while eating more plant-based foods seems to be beneficial, don't rule out meat entirely; just choose more carefully. Forks Over Knives? Yes, but don't throw away your blades just yet.