Long gone are the days when vegans were treated as second-class citizens who subsisted on lentils and found it very hard to go out anywhere for a meal, says Catherine Fraser.
NOVEMBER is Vegan Month and the campaigning group Animal Aid is keen for people to see how easy it is now to give this way of life a go – even if it is just for a day or a week.
Melanie Stevens, PA to Helena Holt, the chief executive of the Devon Air Ambulance Trust, took the plunge and went vegan four months ago.
"I think it's the best decision I've ever made," she says. "I went vegetarian back in March. I had stopped eating meat and then just ate fish, purely for health reasons, but then I decided to get some information on going totally vegetarian out of curiosity and thought it sounded fantastic for the health benefits and losing a bit of weight as well.
"I spoke to my husband about it and we both decided to go vegetarian. I lost quite a bit of weight and felt brilliant on it and so going vegan just seemed like the next logical step. Giving up meat and dairy has just made such a massive impact on my health."
The Stevens are not weak and pale, though, as popular myth would have it that vegans are: both of them are a lot fitter than they were and now take part in distance events, including running a seven-mile race last month.
The main cause of death in this country (and other countries, such as the United States, whose citizens eat a lot of meat) is heart disease. The consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products, the three main sources of dietary cholesterol, contribute greatly to heart attacks and other circulatory problems.
According to EarthSave, an American educational diet foundation, the average vegetarian is 75 per cent less likely to have a heart attack compared to the average non-vegetarian, and for vegans the risk is even lower at 90 per cent, which makes the diet attractive for many people. There is also a move from some health professionals towards advising people to try eating vegetarian or vegan meals a couple of days a week.
"I used to suffer really badly with IBS, I got bloated and I felt very heavy and lethargic," Melanie admits. "I was a lot heavier than I am now. I used to suffer with spots and eczema but I've not suffered with any of that since I became a vegan. I really wasn't expecting that and it was something of an added bonus."
Giving up all foods which contain animal products has not always been so easy: many forty-somethings will remember the brown chunks and granules which passed as meat substitutes 30 years ago, while soya milk was impossible to find.
"Yes, 20 or 30 years ago I would have struggled to go vegan, I know, but nowadays there's so much you can buy. Shopping in the big supermarkets is not a problem and they all do their ranges which are free from animal products. You can get soya-everything nowadays – milk, yoghurt, cream – or rice and almond milks – and you get those pretty much anywhere," Melanie says.
"In terms of recipes, the internet is loaded with them and I've also got vegan cookbooks. The food is very easy to prepare and cook. You don't have to mess around defrosting meat or worry about food poisoning. My shopping is a lot cheaper too.
"Initially, you do spend a lot of time looking at labels. But it's important not to put too much pressure on yourself – just take it one step at a time. Don't jump in and say overnight that you are vegan as it is easier just to do bit by bit. After I had cut out meat, then fish, then dairy, I started reading labels. Then I started looking through my wardrobe and at what I wore, as well as hair and beauty products. If you throw yourself into something which is such an enormous change too quickly you might find it unsustainable."
If there are people thinking of going vegan, what could Melanie tell them about the sort of food she eats? "I eat the same things as I used to eat – just vegan versions. I love curry, Thai food and Japanese food. And I love spaghetti bolognese and chilli con carne – but that is with the carne, obviously. I think my favourite is curry though – I love it and there are so many things you can put in it."
Vegan Month culminates in the South West Christmas Without Cruelty Festival, which takes place at the Corn Exchange on Sunday November 27 and features poet Benjamin Zephaniah, along with stalls selling Christmas cards and cruelty-free and eco-friendly products and gifts.
See Penny Ritson's recipe opposite for a vegan curry, and for more information on a vegan lifestyle, see www.govegan.org.uk