What is veganism?
“Food consumption is an environmentally significant behaviour, accounting for around 20-30% of Western greenhouse gas emissions” – Beverland, Wahl & De Groot, 2015
Veganism has been suggested as a solution to many of our sustainability problems; including climate change, biodiversity loss and antibiotics resistance. As such, over 1% of the UK over-15 population is now vegan, with a disproportionate amount of that 1% being young (42% of UK vegans are aged between 15-34) and living in urban areas (88%) (Twine, 2018). In fact, in recent years veganism has seen a huge increase in popularity, led by the growing vegan community (Twine, 2018). But what, exactly, does veganism involve, and is it sustainable for you and the planet?
As with most diets, there are several variations of veganism – including the avoidance of all things from animals (including avoidance of leather for example), or just avoiding the consumption of all animal produce (meat, dairy and eggs in particular). Then there are those who will eat meat substitutes (products made to replicate meat), or those who avoid anything meat-ish altogether, those who are vegan for the supposed health benefits, for cost savings or for personal beliefs (especially ethical arguments around animal welfare and sentience). For the purpose of this essay, a vegan lifestyle will refer to the refusal to consume all animal products, regardless of personal reasoning (although, an interesting research paper on the different approaches to a vegan diet was written by Twine, 2018).
This essay is the first of a series of short pieces on veganism, looking at its sustainability in terms of nutrition (read on), environmental degradation, social and economic impacts. So without further ado, let us look at the nutritional side of a vegan diet, and whether it is sustainable for the body in the long run.
Veganism and health
As with any diet, there are ways to do it healthily – but it is just as (if not more) easy to do it unhealthily. This is an important caveat – it has been shown that a plant-based, whole foods diet is a safe and effective way to become healthier (Hester, 2017), with vegetarian diets in general being associated with reduced incidences of diabetes, improved blood pressure and lower instances of ischemic heart disease (Heiss et al., 2017). However, other studies link a vegan diet to nutritional deficiencies (Heiss et al., 2017) and reduced bone mineral density, which increases the likelihood of bone fractures (Iguacel et al., 2018). This might suggest that, without ensuring you are getting all the vitamins (notably zinc and vitamin B12) that predominantly derive from animal products, you could put yourself at risk of diseases associated with vitamin deficiencies (Iguacel et al., 2018).
Excessive meat consumption has been shown to be a risk factor for the development of Type 2 diabetes and is associated with colorectal cancer (Raphaely, 2015). A diet with lower meat intake therefore has a lot of scientific support. Reducing meat intake also implies an increase in the consumption of other foods, particularly vegetables, legumes, pulses and beans, in order to receive all the necessary vitamins and minerals for the body (check out the book “Food Pharmacy” by Lina Aurell and Mia Clase for a more in-depth look at the benefits of reducing your meat intake).
Interestingly, the scientific support for ditching dairy seems to be quite low: dairy products are rich in important nutrients for bone growth, with Rizzoli (2014) finding that increasing daily calcium and protein intake with dairy products protects against bone fractures throughout life, and especially in the elderly and growing children. It was also found that by increasing intake of dairy foods to the recommended 3-4 servings per day, a reduction of at least 20% in osteoporosis-related health costs could be seen in the US (Rizzoli, 2014). The consumption of dairy products has also been linked to decreased obesity risk in children, reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, increased bone mineral density, and reduced risk of several types of cancer (Thorning et al., 2016). It is therefore difficult to justify avoiding dairy products on nutrition grounds – unless you suffer from allergies/intolerances associated with these products.
From the existing academic literature on the subject, it seems that the sustainability of a plant-based diet for your health in the long run depends on:
- Whether meat is being supplemented by over-processed vegan alternatives – processing foods alters the chemical composition of these foods, potentially reducing the nutritional value of them
- Whether mineral and vitamin supplements are being taken to reduce risk of nutrient deficiencies
- Whether the food that is consumed is contaminated with pesticides and chemicals during its growth and production (though this one applies to all diets).
To summarise then, a nice quote from Heiss et al. (2017):
“Compared with nonvegetarian diets, vegetarian diets [including vegan diets] can provide protection against many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some cancers such as colorectal and prostate.”
This next section is going to be a quick round-up of commonly asked questions around vegan diets and health, followed by some hopefully helpful answers. Note: I am not a health expert!
- … But what about protein??
This question appears to be top of the ‘annoying things vegans hear all the damn time” list. Famously, meat contains animal protein. And funnily enough, plants contain plant protein. Good sources include beans, lentils, chickpeas, spinach, broccoli and legumes (Hester, 2017). Eating a varied diet of whole foods will mean that you will probably get the right amount of protein for the body, which is less than you may think – 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight. The Vegetarian Resource Group provides a nice overview on the topic, and a handy list of vegan foods from which you can get your protein (plus a sample menu).
- What is tofu?
Tofu is made from soybean curd. It is high in protein and contains all the essential amino acids your body needs. It is low in calories but high in protein and fat, making it a popular meat substitute (Healthline.com).
- Is following a vegan diet expensive?
This of course depends on what you buy. Frozen vegetables, pasta, rice, potatoes etc. are not expensive, and you are probably already buying them anyway. Vegan options on restaurant menus tend to be cheaper, and staying away from processed foods will also reduce the cost.
A well-informed, whole foods plant-based diet can be sustainable for the body. There is a range of scientific evidence in support of reducing intake of meat and increasing consumption of vitamin-packed legumes and vegetables. Twine (2018) writes that veganism is a socially identifiable practice open to a broad range of methodological practices. As such, there is likely a way to go vegan which is palatable to most people. So, why not try going without meat for a meal or two? You might discover something you enjoy even more.
Twine, R. (2018) Materially constituting a sustainable food transition: the case of vegan eating practice. Sociology, 52(1), pp.166-181
Beverland, M.B., Wahl, K.M. & de Groot, J. (2015) Sustaining a Sustainable Diet: Vegans and their Social Eating Practices. In Annual Macromarketing Conference, p. 145
Raphaely, T. (2015) Impact of meat consumption on health and environmental sustainability. IGI Global.
Hester, E.R. (2017) The Benefits and Concerns of Veganism in Women’s Health.
Heiss, S., Coffino, J.A. & Hormes, J.M. (2017) Eating and health behaviors in vegans compared to omnivores: Dispelling common myths. Appetite, 118, pp.129-135
Iguacel, I., Miguel-Berges, M.L., Gómez-Bruton, A., Moreno, L.A. & Julián, C. (2018) Veganism, vegetarianism, bone mineral density, and fracture risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition reviews, 77(1), pp.1-18
The Guardian (2019) The 14 things you need to know before you go vegan. [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jun/19/the-14-things-you-need-to-know-before-you-go-vegan (Accessed: 22/09/2019)
Healthline.com (2018) What is tofu, and is it good for you? Available at: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-is-tofu#nutrition (Accessed: 22/09/2019 )
Rizzoli, R. (2014) Dairy products, yogurts, and bone health. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 99(5), pp.1256S-1262S.
Kratz, M., Baars, T. & Guyenet, S. (2013) The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease. European journal of nutrition, 52(1), pp.1-24
Thorning, T.K., Raben, A., Tholstrup, T., Soedamah-Muthu, S.S., Givens, I. & Astrup, A. (2016) Milk and dairy products: good or bad for human health? An assessment of the totality of scientific evidence. Food & nutrition research, 60(1), p.32527