As more people opt for a vegan, plant-based diet, Joanna Blythman explains why she isn’t tempted while nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens examines the health implications...
Veganism is on the rise, with a 360% increase in the past decade, according to last year’s survey from the Vegan Society. Dedicated vegans, who eat no animal-derived foods at all, still account for only 1.5% of the population. However, more people are adopting a ‘part-time’ approach, and more vegan foods are available in shops and provided in restaurants – a trend driven by the perception that a vegan diet, free from all meat, eggs, and dairy foods, is healthier for you, and better for the planet. Last year, searches for vegan information and recipes at bbcgoodfood.com increased by 300%.
I respect the central motivation driving veganism – notably, the desire not to kill animals – although as an omnivore, I am prepared to kill to eat, providing those animals have had a decent life. Cruel, factory-farmed animal products were struck off my shopping list long ago.
I fully appreciate the argument that stuffing animals with cereals that could be fed directly to people doesn’t make sense. There is no doubt that large-scale factory farming operations can pollute and devastate their local environments, producing methane emissions that contribute to global warming.
However, around 73% of land in the UK is not suitable for growing crops, but is well suited to rearing livestock. So, I believe that free-range, low-density, pasture-based animal rearing on such land can produce good-quality food for humans, be compassionate to animals, and sustainable - even beneficial - for our precious environment. Crucially, I may not be a health professional, but I just can't see how an exclusively vegan diet can be healthy long-term.
Initially it may seem like a good option, as you’re eating more vegetables. However, no amount of greens or chia seeds can make up for the absence of some meat, fish or dairy, unless you take supplements regularly, as Good Food’s nutritional therapist explains below. I prefer to get my nutrients from food.
Health apart, it seems to me that being fully vegan means rejecting most of the foods that Britain produces. Our rainy, green land is perfect for rearing animals, and it feels counterintuitive to me to completely avoid their products if we believe in supporting our local farmers and producers.
There is also the environmental issue associated with importing the protein-rich staples that vegans eat in place of meat, fish, eggs and dairy. Of course, some enterprising farmers are experimenting with protein-rich legume crops, like fava beans. There is now even a limited supply of British-grown quinoa. But most of the chickpeas, soya and nuts, which are so valuable in a vegan diet, all come from overseas.
We have recently woken up to the previously underrated possibilities of UK-grown vegetables: we no longer turn up our noses at kale and caulifower. But maintaining a plant-food-only diet in these isles is always going to be more challenging than it would be in countries like Sicily or Cyprus.
Kerry Torrens, Good Food’s nutritional therapist, says:
Someone who sticks to a strict vegan diet will lack vitamin B12, unless they take supplements or eat appropriate fortified foods, like plant-based milks and yogurt, breakfast cereals, spreads and yeast products. This means that they may have trouble producing red blood cells, which can lead to anaemia.
Vegans are also more likely to be short on vitamin D3 and long-chain omega-3 fats (from oily fish) – and in some cases, iron and zinc, which are more dificult to absorb from plant foods. Nevertheless, vegans (or those on a mostly vegan diet) have a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) and are slimmer than the general population. They are also less vulnerable to heart disease and type-2 diabetes – two common modern-day diseases. The main issue for health is not whether we eat food derived from animals or strictly do not – it’s the fact that most of us eat too much of it.
If you'd like to trying cooking up a vegan feast, take a look at our vegan recipe collection.
Interested in learning more about health and nutrition? Read up on our balanced diet for vegans guide.
Do you agree with Joanna? Let us know in the comments below...