Veganism – Can it save humans and the planet?

Although not a new concept, veganism is suddenly at the forefront of public consciousness. A recent survey conducted by comparthemarket.com indicated that 7% of the UK population (more than 3.5 million people) identify as vegan, with an additional 14% identifying as vegetarian.

The primary reasons people choose veganism are for its health benefits, their concerns about animal welfare, and the environmental impact of a meat-based eating pattern. By eating less meat and animal-based products, fewer animals are slaughtered and raised for human consumption, which leads to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, deforestation, and water shortages that result from farming practices linked with meat production.

So what’s the difference between a vegetarian and vegan eating pattern? Vegetarian is an umbrella term for various plant-based eating patterns, which includes veganism. For example, a lacto-ovo vegetarian eating pattern is predominantly plant-based but includes dairy products and eggs, and avoidance of meat and seafood.  A flexitarian eating pattern involves eating mostly plant-based foods, with occasional consumption of seafood, poultry, eggs and dairy products. A vegan eating pattern includes only plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and pulses.

There is consistent evidence that people who follow a vegetarian eating pattern have a healthier body weight and significantly lower risk for chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. This type of eating pattern also reduces constipation and diverticular disease, as well as risks for kidney stones and gallstones. Recent evidence suggests that a vegan eating pattern may provide additional protection against some of these conditions as compared to a lacto-ovo vegetarian eating pattern.

Despite its many benefits, a vegan eating pattern also has its challenges. One challenge is the risk of inadequate intake of vitamins D and B12, riboflavin, zinc, iron and calcium.  These essential nutrients are either only exclusively present in animal-based products, or may be difficult for the human body to absorb from plant-based foods. A second challenge is ensuring a vegan eating pattern provides enough high-quality protein to support health. Both of these challenges are easily addressed for many people in the UK due their having widespread access to high-quality nonmeat protein sources. However, those with a limited income and lack of access to shops that carry a variety of high-quality plant-based foods (such as low-income families and older adults) may not have the resources to purchase and prepare these foods. Vegans can ensure a high-quality protein intake through mutual supplementation, which involves combining two or more plant foods on a daily basis that complement each other with regards to their amino acid profile. As such, a high-quality protein meal can result that doesn’t have to be expensive. Examples include rice and beans, barley and lentil soup, tofu and broccoli with almonds, or a spinach salad with pine nuts and kidney beans. It is important to recognise that consuming a nutritionally adequate vegan diet involves planning and knowledge about the nutritional content of foods. It also requires a person to regularly eat plant foods that are naturally good sources of, or fortified with, the nutrients of concern. 

 Do we have to follow a vegan eating pattern to derive the health and environmental benefits of consuming more plant-based foods? Not necessarily. By reducing both the frequency and amount of meat and animal-based products we consume, we will improve our own health and that of the planet. We can do this by participating in initiatives like “Veganuary” or “Meatless Mondays,” or by choosing to eat mostly plant-based meals and snacks daily. Food outlets, schools, and worksites could also support our ability to make healthier choices by offering more plant-based foods that look attractive and smell and taste delicious.  In addition, government-supported subsidies for plant-based foods would help ensure plant-based foods are affordable and accessible to all of us.  Once considered a niche movement, veganism and vegetarianism are now fully mainstream and here to stay.

Professor Janice L Thompson, Professor of Public Health Nutrition and Exercise, School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Birmingham.