The rise of veganism

From hippie stigma to the fastest-growing millennial lifestyle 

Writer: Nishika Jain
Editor: Lucy Masdin
Artist: Patrick Marenda

Meat free. Dairy free. Whey free. In a world full of cheese, chocolate and hamburgers, living life a vegan doesn’t sound like so much fun, does it? Veganism, however, is increasing in popularity at a staggering rate – jumping up by 360% in the last decade. There are currently more than half a million vegans in the UK alone, who have given up their once beloved meat- and dairy-filled diets. From enthusiastic environmentalists to fitness freaks, veganism is spreading like wildfire.

While veganism is still dogged by the stereotype of the under-nourished, lanky, lentil-loving hippy, it actually has endless advantages. In terms of improving one’s health, a well-planned vegan diet that follows healthy eating guidelines does contain all the nutrients that the body needs. Both the British Dietetic Association and the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recognise that it can be suitable for every age and stage of life. Some research has linked vegan diets with lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower rates of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. As vegans consume considerably more legumes, fruits, vegetables, fibre and vitamin C, research has also indicated that the risk of getting cancers of the lung, mouth, oesophagus and stomach is reduced. 

Despite this, when going vegan, many are concerned that they may start exhibiting deficiencies of essential nutrients. For example, the prospect of eliminating dairy from the diet may conjure fears of calcium deficiency and brittle bones. Sufficient calcium, however, can be obtained from dark green vegetables, dried figs, almonds and fortified soy products. Equally, another crucial nutrient, vitamin B-12, that helps the body produce red blood cells and prevents anaemia, is most commonly found in animal products. Again, this can be easily replaced with enriched cereals, fortified soy products and supplements.

Besides its positive impact on health, veganism also allows us to take a step towards a greener world. One of the most effective things an individual can do to lower their carbon footprint is to avoid all animal products. The production of meat and other animal products places a heavy burden on the environment – from the crops and water required to feed the animals, to the transport and processing involved from farm to fork. The vast amount of grain feed required for rearing livestock is a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction. In Brazil alone, the equivalent of 5.6 million acres of land is used to grow soya beans for animals in Europe. Impoverished populations are driven to grow ‘cash crops’ for animal feed, rather than food for themselves, threatening global food security. On the other hand, considerably lower quantities of crops and water are required to sustain a vegan diet, making the switch to veganism a constructive way to minimise negative impacts on the environment and local communities. Additionally, for all the animal lovers, going vegan is an excellent way to showcase their compassion and ensure that they pose minimal harm to animal life.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, as attention has turned to immunity-building to beat the coronavirus, many are taking up green, clean and plant-based diets. Major outbreaks of zoonotic diseases such as COVID-19, SARS, bird flu, swine flu and more, that have claimed millions of lives, have significant links to wet markets and factory farms. As more people adopt a vegan lifestyle, the chances of a future pandemic greatly reduce and the human health crises associated with animal agriculture like antibiotic resistance also decline.

However, while support for veganism is growing, many people despise this way of living. Anthropologists have been arguing about what our ancestors ate for decades. Some have even gone so far as to say that meat made us human. Many academics believe that a vegan diet can stunt brain development and cause irreversible damage to a person’s nervous system. In 2016, the German Society of Nutrition stated that for children, pregnant or nursing women and adolescents, vegan diets are not recommended. After the Royal Academy of Medicine in Belgium decided a vegan diet was ‘unsuitable for children’, parents who brought their children up as vegan could find themselves in prison.

To find out the effects of a vegan diet, a study was conducted on Kenyan schoolchildren, who were fed one of three different types of soup – one with meat, one with milk, and one with oil – or no soup at all, as a snack over seven school terms. They were tested before and after, to see how their intelligence compared. Surprisingly, the children who were given the soup containing meat each day seemed to have a significant edge. By the end of the study, they outperformed all the other children on a test for non-verbal reasoning. Although more research is needed to verify whether this effect is real, it does raise intriguing questions about whether veganism could be holding children back.

All in all, as interest in animal safety and environmental sustainability grows, the near future may see a paradigm shift in food consumption. When embarking on the journey to a plant-based diet, it is important to do it slowly, make the process enjoyable, and speak to a nutritionist, to ensure that the new diet is nutritionally complete. While Lady Gaga may have felt great wearing a meat dress, maybe it’s time she changes into a dairy-free cupcake dress instead.

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