By Nitara Wijayatilake
The adoption of vegan diets has increased majorly in the past decade, with people growing more and more concerned about their health and environment. Long-lasting beliefs about meat-centric meals are dying out and being slowly replaced with a desire for plant-based power. Celebrities rave over kale smoothies and avocado on toast, but is there a real benefit of making the switch from meat? To examine whether veganism is just a temporary trend or here to stay, this article will explore whether potential health benefits of veganism are worth the denial of man’s staple food: meat.
In theory, plant-based diets are a healthy-eater’s paradise. Converting to veganism can both reduce your risk of Cardiovascular disease and produce a healthier gut microbiome to combat infection, all whilst aiding weight loss and increased fitness. Plant food is heavy in antioxidants, fibre and phytonutrients, resulting in more diverse bacteria in your gut. For instance, polyphenols (micronutrients accessible through plant-based foods) increase the quantities of bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, giving anti-inflammatory protection and better cardiovascular function to the body. Fibrous fruit and vegetables can vastly improve your immune system.
Feeding the collections of gut bacteria we possess harnesses energy and produces short-chain fatty acids which are importantly used as fuel by host cells and shape intestinal function. A study by Gewirtz sees mice fed on low-fibre diets develop chronic levels of inflammation and have them put on significant amounts of weight. Further to this, red-meat consumption will increase the inflammatory compound trimethylamine N-oxide known to promote heart disease twice fold. A more well-known benefit is that plants do not contain cholesterol, and elevated levels of cholesterol are associated with atherosclerosis – the build up fat in the arteries.
Dr. Ornish, in a famous study, proves how merely a year on a low-fat vegetarian diet can actually dissolve plaques clogging up the heart. Surely, all these advantages and more would lead more people onto the road to metaphorical salvation, but why are there still stigmas around eschewing a meat-based diet?
From a young age, there is a strongly perpetuated idea that meat makes you strong. Somewhat disproving this, a revelatory Netflix documentary “The Game Changers” investigates how the strength of athletes is actually improved by eating a vegan diet with plant-powered athlete Patrik Baboumian breaking a record in weightlifting.
However, without supplements, those who decide to live a vegan lifestyle may lack essential iron, calcium, B12 and other compounds. Iron, within the haemoglobin molecule, is crucial in binding oxygen and transporting it to respiring tissues. People making the transition away from animal products often complain of lethargy and fatigue due to inadequate iron consumption. Although iron can be accessed through plant foods such as leafy vegetables and soybeans, this only provides non-heme iron – which is less easily-absorbed by the body. Animal based protein provides us with heme-iron which humans can take up much more readily. Despite this, increasing your vitamin C intake (accessed through fruit and vegetables) can heavily increase iron absorption. A mineral considered crucial to the body is calcium; drinking milk and developing strong bones have become synonymous in many minds, and discussions have begun on whether this is merely an old wives’ tale or not.
Around 65% of the world’s population has problems digesting lactose after infancy, yet continue to drink milk whilst lacking the enzyme lactase, which can result in some bad side effects, including stomach pains and nausea. Nevertheless, calcium is still vital for bone and teeth development and can prevent osteoporosis. However, calcium-rich foods are not restricted to milk; they also include leafy vegetables, tofu and soya.
One of the most heavily argued reasons that meat is a necessary evil is the vitamin B12. B12, needed for DNA synthesis and nerve function, cannot be accessed by eating just plants and vegans do need to take a supplement. However, this also means that livestock need to take a supplement of B12 too- why not just cut out the middle-man? The meat myths continue…
If your dietary concerns are less health-focused and more centred on global sustainability, veganism still works as a solution. The meat industry attacks the environment daily and many people are unaware of the disastrous effects it has on our planet. The greenhouse gas emissions of animal agriculture alone are equal to all of the emissions from transportation. That includes all the trains, aeroplanes, cars and boats in the world. Moreover, rearing livestock uses huge amounts of freshwater. Approximately 683 gallons of water are used to make 1 gallon of milk. The ratios appear unjustified.
Another factor crippling the environment is the deforestation due to the land needed for animal agriculture. 90% of the cleared Amazon rainforest is used for grazing livestock. A significant amount of land is used for livestock feed. Again, these animals are acting as an intermediary and instead, humans could access the energy directly from plants; this surely seems to be more sustainable. However, the environmental aspect of the vegan argument is possibly the most disputed. When you eat mangoes from India, soybeans from Brazil and tomatoes from Mexico, your carbon footprint is increased. When sourcing meat sustainably and locally, there are no emissions from transport across the world. Although eating vegan and locally is the most ethical and healthy approach to life, this is not always practical.
Wanting to be healthy, ethical, environmentally conscious and all whilst enjoying what you are eating is a difficult balance to strike. From this, the concept of ‘flexitarianism’ has arisen: eating mostly plant-based but occasionally consuming meat or fish. Merely reducing your intake of meat and dairy products can boost your health tremendously. Choosing a Beyond instead of beef burger or partaking in “Veganuary” may be considered a mere trend but can also really help improve the health of both yourself and the environment. Although there is still the need for more research to be done on plant-based diets and their potential benefits or risks, this health “fad” is definitely one to last.