According to the Cambridge Dictionary, veganism can be defined as : the practice of not eating or using any animal products, such as meat, fish, eggs, cheese, or leather. The term ‘vegan’ was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, co-founder of ‘the Vegan Society’. Initially, the term was used to describe ‘non-dairy vegetarians. However, in 1951 the Vegan Society has updated the definition to:“exclude all forms of animal exploitation…” Veganism seems to be rising fast as a dietary choice with the number of vegans in the U.S. growing by 600% from 4 million (2014) to 20 million (2018). However, it is still in the minority with less than 1 percent of the total world population (79 million out of a total 7.9 billion) being vegan.
- Health Benefits
The increasing numbers of people are moving toward vegan diets due to health, animal welfare, or environmental concerns. Vegan diets tend to be rich in nutrients and low in saturated fats. Research suggests that the diet can improve heart health, protect against cancer, and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Vegan diets can boost heart health in several ways. A large-scale study conducted in 2019 had linked a higher intake of plant-based foods and lower intake of animal foods with a reduced risk of heart disease and death in adults. Animal products such as meat, cheese, and butter are the main dietary sources of saturated fats. According to the American Heart Association, eating such foods that contain these fats raises cholesterol levels. High levels of cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Plant foods are also high in fibre, which are linked with better heart health. Animal products contain very little or no fibre in comparison. In addition, people on a vegan diet often take in fewer calories than those on a standard Western diet. A moderate calorie intake can lead to a lower body mass index and a reduced risk of obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease.
According to a 2017 review, eating a vegan diet may also reduce a person’s risk of cancer by 15%. This health benefit may be due to the fact that plant foods are high in various vitamins and phytochemicals (biologically active compounds in plants) that protect against cancers. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has also reported that red meat is “probably carcinogenic,” noting that research has linked it primarily to colorectal cancer but also to prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer. Eliminating red and processed meats from the diet removes these possible risks.
- Environmental Benefits
Going Vegan also has multiple environmental benefits.
The high levels of carbon dioxide, methane, and other Greenhouse gasses (GHG) produced by animal agriculture generate over 14% of global emissions, greater than all transportation emissions. Studies show that adopting a vegan diet can cut agricultural greenhouse gases in half.
With greenhouse gases being the leading cause of climate change, due to the “greenhouse effect”, we should expect Veganism to help mitigate climate change. Studies have found that if everyone went vegan, emissions contributing to global warming would be cut by 70%, enough to stop and reverse the harmful effects of climate change including rising sea levels, floods, melting glaciers, and droughts.
Animal agriculture impacts the world’s biodiversity by using wild land for soy and maize crops, the primary livestock feed. The increasing use of land has led to a number of native species being threatened on a global level, including different species of monkeys, elephants, bears, tigers, alligators, lions, wolves, and parrots. Choosing a vegan diet will go a long way in preventing species extinction by eliminating the need of livestock and factory farms feed crops. Veganism provides a more sustainable agricultural model, focused on feeding people, not animals for slaughter.
- Negative Benefits
Vegan diets tend to be rich in many nutrients, low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and also higher in dietary fibre. But there are many nutrients that those following a vegan diet oftentimes do not consume enough of. If you’re not careful, following a vegan diet can cause in the development of some deficiencies in vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and zinc. These deficiencies can impact the body in a variety of ways, possibly causing a weakened immune system, a higher risk of experiencing bone fractures, high blood pressure, rashes, or fatigue.
Iron plays a crucial role in transporting oxygen throughout your body but it can be difficult to get enough of it when following a vegan diet. Heme iron (a type of iron) is found only in animal sources. Since those following a vegan diet do not consume heme iron, they must rely on non-heme iron, which can be found in plant sources, but it is not as readily absorbed by the body as heme iron is.
In addition, certain plant-based compounds can further inhibit iron absorption, making it more difficult for those following a vegan diet to consume enough iron, per a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010. Not consuming enough iron could cause the body to feel lethargic and it could put at risk for developing iron-deficiency: anaemia, which is a potentially serious condition that occurs when your body isn’t making enough red blood cells.
Ultimately the success of a vegan diet will rest on the conscientiousness of the individual undertaking it. It may be a restrictive diet and unless we pay attention to the elements of the diet that it excludes, then we might be putting ourselves at risk of developing deficiency-related problems. It has become easier to follow with vegan-friendly food products in supermarkets, which are fortified with nutrients that can be absent from the diet.