Hummus where the heart is

Natalie Farmer explains the true value of veganism for the health of the environment, people and our furry friends

25th April 2016

There’s no doubt in my mind that every student at Newcastle University has heard the joke about how you know if someone is a vegan (don’t worry, they’ll tell you). In fact, you’ve probably also heard from some (not all) vegans that eating meat is “so mainstream”. You’ve heard that being a vegan is not only good for your health and the environment, but also makes you hipster and cool.

Most of you (like me) will probably have dismissed these claims immediately. We’re humans, built to be predators and carnivores. We have canine teeth to chew meat. We evolved to kill and eat other animals. Meat is an essential part of our diet.

But what if the vegans have a point?

“A diet high in vitamin C has recently been shown to help our blood vessels to relax, reducing the risk of heart disease – to the point where it is just as effective as aerobic exercise”

The definition of a vegan is a person who not only doesn’t eat animals, but also doesn’t eat animal products. That includes foods such as dairy, honey and eggs. A vegan will also avoid exploiting animals in any way, including in clothing and accessories (such as those made from fur or leather) and in medicines. Sounds like it’s basically just as healthy as a vegetarian diet, right?

Not really.

Research published in 2014 shows that a vegan diet provides protection against obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease – even when compared to a vegetarian diet. A recent study by Oxford University predicts that 8.1 million deaths could be prevented by 2050 by adopting a vegan diet. This is because a vegan diet contains more vitamin C and fibre. Vitamin C-rich foods include cantaloupe, sweet peppers, kale, artichoke and broccoli, to name a few. A diet high in vitamin C has recently been shown to help our blood vessels to relax, reducing the risk of heart disease – to the point where it is just as effective as aerobic exercise, in fact! Furthermore, a diet high in fibre can normalise bowel movements and promote a healthy colon. It can also slow the absorption of sugar from the gut, which not only aids in the management of diabetes, but could prevent diabetes from developing. To get more fibre, eat fruits and vegetables, whole-grain products, cereals, nuts and seeds.

So couldn’t we accomplish this simply by eating more foods rich in vitamin C and fibre, as well as our usual meat-and-dairy-abundant diets?

Unfortunately, this still isn’t as beneficial as a vegan diet (although it is definitely better than nothing). A vegan diet has much less saturated fat. Eating a diet high in saturated fat causes an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad cholesterol”) which contributes to atherosclerosis, the process that clogs up arteries and leads to heart failure. Foods high in saturated fats (and ones to avoid) include cheese, hydrogenated oils (found in baked goods, margarine, crisps and chips) and fatty or processed meat. Sorry, everyone.

Not only are there countless studies and research that support a vegan diet, but there are people, too. And it’s not always about being a strict vegan, either; making smaller changes (such as having one meat-free day per week) not only has health benefits, but may also ease the transition from carnivore to herbivore. Gary Player (a retired South African professional golfer, for those who don’t know) has eaten a mainly vegetarian diet for most of his life; this, on top of regular exercise, has made the 80-year-old look (and feel) at least 20 years younger. His advice is to “make the change over time” so as not to “shock your system”. Russell Brand and Alanis Morissette are among many celebrities that turned to veganism in order to live a healthier lifestyle.

But it’s not just about our own health. If living a longer and healthier life isn’t enough, then think about the environment.

Natalie Portman adopted a vegan diet in 2009 due to “the environmental effects of the mass production of animals”. Marco Springmann, lead researcher from the University of Oxford, says that a poor vegetables to meat ratio is “the greatest health burden globally”. Furthermore, research from the University of Exeter has found that by reducing global meat consumption by 50%, carbon dioxide levels can be “significantly lowered”. For every person who switches to a vegan diet, carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by 1.5 tonnes per year. The reduction of this greenhouse gas (along with methane, a gas which chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows produce) could reduce the effects of global warming.

A vegan diet could save water, too, given that 1 pound of meat requires 2,400 gallons of water to produce, compared to the 25 gallons it takes to produce 1 pound of wheat. Further to this, 30% of the earth’s land mass (which is approximately equivalent to the size of Asia!) is used to raise animals for food. The statistics say it all: by switching to a vegan diet, not only could you contribute to the reduction in global warming, but you could also save water and precious space as well.

Going “cold turkey” and cutting out all animal products immediately requires a helluva lot of motivation. As someone who has the willpower of a lemming, I know I appreciate vegans a whole lot more now after doing my research. But research suggests that even small changes can have big benefits for both your health and the environment.

So how about next time a vegan starts to talk about how cool they are and how much good their diet does for both you and the world, you spend a little bit of time listening?

There’s no denying that they’re right about the benefits.

Whether or not it’s cool is up to you.


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