Gone are the days when plant-based food meant bland salads and disappointing burgers, when “vegan leather” was just an oxymoron, and the closest thing you had to a vegan friend was the quirky, meat-free songstress Phoebe Buffay.
Now, veganism is everywhere. Burger King offers a Whopper with a vegan meat patty, Tesla cars come with cruelty-free leather, and when KFC UK launched a vegan chicken burger, it sold out in four days, performing 500 percent better than the average new product.
By now it’s likely you know a vegan, a vegetarian, or somebody who’s trying to eat less meat. So what is the definition of a vegan diet? And why do people go vegan?
What Is a Vegan Diet?
A vegan diet includes no animal products. Animal products can mean anything from meat (including fish), cheese, eggs, honey, and gelatin (a food ingredient obtained by boiling the skin, bones, or tendons of animals). If a food is made by or out of an animal, it’s not vegan.
A vegan diet, also known as a plant-based diet, can be rich in anything else – fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes. Don’t be fooled; creatives in the culinary world use these ingredients to make everything from stretchy dairy-free cheese and vegan ice cream to meaty plant-based burgers. And you don’t have to do the hard yards in the kitchen yourself (unless you want to). Most supermarkets stock a variety of vegan products and more and more major fast-food chains are jumping on the bandwagon to cater to the rising number of people eating animal-free.
Vegan Diet and Health
More people are turning to plants for the good of their health. Health was the most popular motivator for the participants of this year’s Veganuary campaign, which sees people going vegan for the month of January. Forty-six percent of the 250,310 participants named health as their main reason for taking part.
A growing body of research is pointing to the harmful effect of meat, dairy, and eggs on the body. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) named red meat a Group 2 carcinogen, meaning it is probably carcinogenic. WHO classified processed meat like bacon and pepperoni in the Group 1 category, signifying that it causes cancer in humans. Asbestos and tobacco smoking are in this category, too.
Meat consumption has also been linked to diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, and arthritis.
While a meat-based diet could cause the onset of disease, research suggests eating plant-based could actually help you live longer. Vegan foods are rich in fiber, unlike animal products, which contain none. Researchers from the University of Otago studied the link between diet and disease earlier this year. Looking at data from 185 observational studies, they found that those who consume the most fiber are 15 to 30 percent less likely to die prematurely. They also discovered a 16 to 24 percent reduced incidence of type 2 diabetes, stroke, and colon cancer among those who follow fiber-rich diets.
Vegan foods also contain no cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is only found in animal-based foods. High cholesterol can lead to plaque forming along the inside of the artery walls, causing the artery to narrow and blood flow to decrease. This raises the risk of stroke, peripheral artery disease, and heart disease. A study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic in 2018 suggested that red meat could increase the risk of heart disease 1,000 percent more than a plant-based diet.
Vegan Diet and the Environment
“A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth,” not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use, and water use,” Oxford University researcher Joseph Poore said in a statement last year.
Poore was the lead researcher on the world’s most comprehensive analysis of farming’s impact on the planet. The analysis saw the researching team assessing the environmental impact of the 40 food products that make up 90 percent of the total food consumed around the world. To do this, they analyzed data from around 40,000 farms in 119 countries.
The study found that many environmental issues could be helped by reducing meat and dairy consumption. If those industries were removed, land use could be reduced by more than 75 percent. That would free up an area the size of the U.S., the European Union, China, and Australia combined — all capable of feeding the world’s population.
Animal agriculture also uses vast amounts of water. “Beef has a particularly high water footprint at about 1,800 gallons per pound, while pork follows at 578 gallons and chicken with 468 gallons,” says environment website Water Calculator. “On average, the water footprint of a vegan or vegetarian is around half that of a meat-eater.”
Animal-based food production is also linked to ocean dead zones, water pollution, deforestation, and species loss. It’s a leading generator of greenhouse gas emissions, which drive climate change. Animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the world’s entire transportation sector, a fact that prompted the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to name meat “the world’s most urgent problem.”
“Our use of animals as a food-production technology has brought us to the verge of catastrophe,” it added.
Global food-related emissions could drop by 70 percent before 2050 if the world went vegan, according to a study published today in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences in 2016.
Vegan Diet and Ethics
A survey by Vomad asked nearly 13,000 participants why they went vegan. Most — 68.1 percent — named animal welfare as their main reason.
The decision to stop eating animal products helps some align their behavior with their beliefs. Many people would call themselves an animal lover. Forty-five percent of Brits have an animal living with them. Most (93 percent) pet owners claim that having a pet makes them happy and 88 percent say it improves their overall quality of life.
Social psychologist and author Dr. Melanie Joy has researched the concept of carnism, a set of beliefs that lead people to eat some animals but not others.
Joy believes that although most people do not want animals to suffer, social conditioning steers many toward animal-based diets. She claims that this can cause cognitive dissonance, mental discomfort experienced by those who hold contradictory beliefs.
To prevent this discomfort, people subconsciously shift their views on animals to see them as food rather than sentient beings. The meat industry does well to further this by marketing cow meat as beef, pig meat as bacon, and calf meat as veal.
Documentaries like “Dominion” uproot this way of thinking. The 2018 film uses hidden camera and aerial drone footage to expose the “dark side of animal agriculture.”
Many people subscribe to the belief that farm animals live out happy lives before being sent to slaughter. However, an analysis from the Sentience Institute found that approximately 99 percent of animals in the U.S. meat industry live on factory farms.
The Truth About Factory Farms
Factory farming, also called intensive animal farming, aims to maximize production. Some factory farms keep hens in cages the size of an A4 piece of paper. Others confine mother pigs to sow stalls so small that they cannot turn around. The industry permits workers to remove parts of animals’ bodies without pain relief; chicks have their beaks cut off and calves have their horns, tails, and testicles removed.
The meat, dairy, and egg industries also cut animals’ lives drastically shorter than their natural ones. The natural lifespan of a chicken is eight years. But chickens bred for meat are killed as early as six weeks old. Cows can live to be 20 or older. But those raised for meat are sent to slaughter at just 18 months old. Lambs are killed at six months even though many will naturally live to be 14 or older.
The Daily Mail called “Dominion” the “scariest movie ever made”. Many say they can’t make it past the 10-minute mark due to the confronting nature of the footage. High Note Cafe in Idaho stopped serving animal products and went completely vegan after its manager watched just 15 minutes of “Dominion.”
Adopting a vegan diet also supports human rights issues.
Experts say we are growing enough food to feed 10 billion people. Yet almost 795 million — or one in nine people — suffer from chronic undernourishment. Between one-third and one-half of the world’s crops are fed to livestock. Eighty-two percent of starving children live in countries that grow crops for animals raised for Western consumption.
A study published by the National Academy of Sciences last year found that we could feed an additional 350 million people by swapping animal-based foods with vegan alternatives.