What month is it again?
Pope Gregory X111 would probably be turning in his grave. Gone are the well known months of the year – we now have Januhairy (you need to watch Gavin and Stacey to get this one), Ginuary (my particular favourite), Februdairy (a campaign to celebrate dairy in all its creamy glory), Steptember (to encourage us all to do 10,000 steps a day) and Movember, to name but a few. But perhaps the most well known is Veganuary – a non-profit organisation encouraging and supporting people worldwide to try a vegan diet during January and beyond. Since it’s inception in 2014 this organisation has grown in strength and recognition and has a number of well know Ambassadors including Chris Packham, Joaquin Phoenix, Sara Pascoe and of course Sir Paul McCartney who championed Meat-free Mondays many years ago.
It’s hard to find out exactly how many people in the UK are vegetarian or vegan as the last proper study to look at this was in 2012 when the National Diet and Nutrition Survey estimated that 1-2% of the population ate no meat or fish 100% of the time. But given the current concerns over animal welfare, environmental issues and our own health it’s highly probable that this percentage has increased. It’s hard to find a balanced review of the pros and cons of going vegan. Few would argue with trying to end the appalling conditions many animals are kept in in order to feed us, and the practices of separating calves from their mothers at birth and culling newly born bull calves but is it fair to tarnish all meat and dairy producers with the same brush. Some farms place great emphasis on sustainability such as Pipers Farm, Yeo Valley and The Ethical Dairy, so perhaps it’s a matter of choosing more wisely and not simply buying that chicken for a fiver.
The environmental impact of eating meat and dairy produce is focused around the huge burden of growing feed and providing water for animals. According to The Vegan Society “In Brazil alone, the equivalent of 5.6 million acres of land is used to grow soya beans for animals in Europe. This land contributes to developing world malnutrition by driving impoverished populations to grow cash crops for animal feed, rather than food for themselves.” And lets not forget the methane produced by cows which contributes to global warming – current estimates are that agriculture is responsible for 18% of the greenhouse gases released worldwide. But, never fear, scientists are at this very moment testing a vaccine that could cut down the methane producing microbes in a cows stomach …
From a health point of view, a recent study showed that people who eat a vegan or vegetarian diet may have a reduced risk of heart disease than meat eaters. But the same study also indicated a higher risk of having a stroke on a plant based diet. These findings could, of course, be down to lifestyle factors rather than simply diet. On an individual level, iron (for red blood cell production) is more easily absorbed from meat products and so may be a cause for concern in vegans, but as long as the vegan diet is rich in pulses, wholemeal bread and flour, fortified breakfast cereals, dark green veg, nuts and dried fruits then this shouldn’t be an issue. Many vegan products are now fortified with calcium making it easier to get your daily requirement of this important mineral. And again leafy green veg, seeds, pulses and bread are good sources. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal products so as well as eating fortified foods (such as breakfast cereals, bread and yeast extract) a supplement may be needed. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to reduce the risk of heart disease, are found in flax and linseed oil, soya based foods and walnuts, but current evidence suggests that these plant sources may not have the same heart health benefits as those in oily fish. Choline, a nutrient that may be linked to brain and liver function, is becoming more widely discussed in relation to vegan diets. Those following a meat and dairy free regimen are advised to eat plenty of veg such as broccoil and sprouts, baked beans, mushrooms and quinoa and peanuts. So what experts are really saying is that as long as vegans have a balanced diet and eat a variety of whole grains, pulses (beans and lentils), vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds they should be OK. Which is pretty much the advice for the population as a whole. Boring but true.
Certainly it’s easier than ever to switch to a vegan diet. The shops are currently full of new plant-based products and meals – although popping a fancy label on something which is inherently vegan anyway (cauliflower curry, tomato and aubergine pasta) and charging extra is rather disingenuous. Any cafe worth it’s salt will offer soya, oat or nut milks and most eating establishments now have a vegan option on their menu.
So, have I gone vegan for January. No. Will I go vegan in the future. Probably not. The truth is I like meat and dairy products and can’t imagine a life without cheese. Yes I know there’s vegan cheese but let’s be honest – it’s disgusting! As a friend of mine said if you haven’t eaten cheese for 20 years and someone offers you a vegan variety you’ll bite their hands off no matter what it tastes like. But I do think that as a nation we are eating too much meat and particularly cheap meat. Meat production today is nearly five times higher than in the early 1960s. So I will make a pledge to only buy from reputable butchers/farms, eat 2 or more plant based main meals each week and maybe even do 2 completely meat-free days (I haven’t told hubby about that yet).