Does veganism fully live up to its reputation as a healthier and more environmentally friendly way of eating?
Even though I’m not a vegan, I try to adopt this way of eating a few days of the week. Just to be clear, I’m pro-vegan and have always supported and recognised the health benefits of eating this way. This blog is in no way about slating the vegan diet but an objective way for me to raise my concerns about the direction in which this way of eating seems to be heading. I also want to talk about the topic of environment; whilst this is a key driver for many people adopting this way of eating the issues involved may not be that clear cut and there may be factors that some people have not considered. This is an opinion piece so feel free to get in touch with your views on the topic.
The benefits of plant-based eating
The common perceived persona of someone following a vegan diet is that they’re health conscious and dedicated to eating well, whilst being concerned about animal welfare and environmental issues. Once stereotyped as sandal wearing hippies, the image of modern vegans has been redefined, which has been helped along by celebrities and sports people alike.
Research shows that a well-balanced vegan diet is more likely to contain a higher concentration of key nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients. It has also been shown that plant-based diets may reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and digestive issues such as constipation. People who follow a plant-based diet also tend to adopt healthier lifestyle choices by exercising more, drinking less and not smoking.
One of the well versed concerns over veganism that drives me mad is that you cannot glean all the essential nutrients required for good health by cutting out meat, dairy and other animal products. This concern is misplaced as it’s not the vegan diet that’s at fault here but how an individual’s diet is constructed.
Going vegan doesn’t necessarily equate to healthy eating
The lack of access to prepared vegan foods can be a barrier for people trying to stick with this diet, which has historically required a little more thought and preparation. Whilst the common perception of veganism is that it’s a very healthy way of eating reserved for those dedicated to living a healthy lifestyle, this diet doesn’t exclude sugar, refined carbohydrates and fried foods, which have the potential to cause weight gain and increase the risk of disease.
Vegans are a healthier bunch all-round and typically make healthier food choices as well as leading healthier lifestyles but could the rise in popularity of this diet become it’s Achilles heel?
As veganism becomes more popular so has access to foods appropriate for this diet. The positive here is that vegans have more access to ready-prepared foods that help to take the pressure off meal planning. The downside is that innovation has given rise to the vegan junk-food revolution. Trend reports over the recent years have predicted a rise in vegan junk food, which has the potential to even the playing field with respect to unhealthy eating between plant-based and omnivore diets.
Meat alternatives such as seitan and jack fruit (has a similar texture to pulled pork) are now being used to create kebabs, burgers, pies, tacos and even ‘fish and chips’, which are potentially no less healthy than their meat counterparts. The food industry has also reacted to the popularity of veganism by producing a wealth of snacks, which are often high in sugar, salt and saturated fats. Whilst these foods may make veganism more accessible, it does little to retain the reputation of this diet as being superiorly healthy.
Veganism and the environment
Concerns over the environment have always been a valid reason for many people to go vegan. I have always used this as one of the key reasons to go vegan or eat this way a few days of the week when I write about this diet but reading around the topic recently got me thinking more deeply.
Seasonality can cause challenges to vegan eating as foods may become more limited during certain months. It’s all well and good eating a plant-based diet but if you’re eating tomatoes and other summer vegetables all year round then this will ramp up the carbon footprint of your shopping basket.
Meat production is undoubtedly one of the most damaging environmental factors given the release of methane gases and use of water involved in farming, but the production of plant foods also needs some consideration. Like omnivores, many of us now expect to be able to access certain foods all year round, but the foods we choose to put in our weekly shopping baskets can take their toll on food mileage. Vegan foods high in protein such as beans, pulses and lentils are mostly imported from Brazil, Canada and the US, whilst other popular vegetables used extensively in vegan cuisine such as avocados are flown in from Kenya and Mexico.
According to the Vegan Society, the UK has growing conditions that are suitable to producing plant proteins such as beans and pulses for direct human consumption, but it currently assigns only 16 per cent of its agricultural land to growingsuch crops, most of which are used to feed farmed animals.
The demand for on-trend vegan foods also impacts on the country from which they’re sourced. The popularity of foods such as quinoa has driven their price so high that they’ve become unaffordable to those relying on them in their country of origin. Social media has helped to drive the popularity of vegan eating and you will struggle to find a single vegan Instagram profile that doesn’t include an avocado. I use this fruit as an example because they take their toll on the environment by requiring more water to cultivate than any other crop and the demand for this food has even led to extensive deforestation to farm more of them in countries such as Mexico. The issue of plastic also exists no matter what diet you follow given its excess use in food packaging.
Finding a balance between locally sourced and imported foods
Whilst veganism is at its core healthy, it’s not exempt from many of the environmental concerns of any other diet. Sourcing local food and following the seasons harvest is a good way to reduce your carbon footprint but there also needs to be a balance to insure the welfare of the farmers, whose livelihood relies on exports of their food. UK producers of foods such as quinoa, lentils and pulses are on the rise but including some imported foods as well as locally sourced can help to support all food producers globally.
I think what I’m getting at here in this blog is that whilst veganism may have a reputation for being healthy and helping to protect the environment, it’s not that clear cut. The evolution of vegan junk food is set to continue and has the potential to threaten the health of vegans, although the impact may not be that great given the attitudes of most vegans towards health. It may be that the effect of these foods sees a rise in new vegans that find it easier to follow this type of diet with the availability of such convenience foods. This new breed of vegan may also be defined by a very different health profile to their predecessors. Putting meat to one side, there are also many other environmental considerations vegans share with omnivores, which need to be equally taken account of.
Whether you’re vegan or omnivore the basic principles of healthy eating still apply and the quality of your diet relies on the food choices you make whilst the responsibility to protect the environment is an issue that should be considered by everyone and not taken for granted just because you choose to follow a plant-based diet.
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