Those switching to vegetables and distilled water “have to dread no disease but old age”. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley acknowledged in 1813 the health benefits of eating a vegetarian diet. Shelley opposed animal cruelty and had visions of a society ‘infused with equality, social justice and spirituality’, rooted in diet choice, and is an attitude which is ever-present in many vegans of today.
Shelley was preceded by Plato, Pythagoras and Socrates, to name a few reputable historic sources who have mentioned the importance of vegetables. Being vegan or vegetarian has been selectively adopted for years, and, in this connected world, and with statistics from The Vegan Society suggesting half a million Britons have adopted veganism, what can we take from other cultures to shape how we may continue the growth of adoption in the UK today?
Omnivorous people may pose questions like “what if we are being misled?” or “how else will we get the nutrients that are only in meat, dairy or eggs?” The question about transparency associated with vegan foods can be met with the problem that there is evidence that the meat and dairy industry has not been so transparent with society. One program, popularized by Netflix, ‘What The Health?’, highlighted many issues in the US. It seems unfair to question honesty as an argument against veganism specifically, when this ‘smoke and mirrors’ is already at play in society, unless we are to put animal agriculture under the same scrutiny, an action which could receive both passionate support and rejection. In terms of nutrients, there is research which bring to question the adoption of a wholly vegan diet. For example, Italy is currently ranked top of the Bloomberg Global Health Index (BGHI), and Italians’ diets generally include animal products such as cured meats. Of course, we must acknowledge that diet is not the only factor in the BGHI, but will almost certainly have an impact, and the UK is a more obese nation than Italy, so perhaps we are obliged to take greater action.
A key question on many vegans’ lips: “if it can be made without animal products, then why choose anything else?” From cheese on toast, to a roast dinner, many everyday meals can now be made with vegan ingredients. There has been ample reporting on great vegan locations for eating out around the world too, including Berlin, Warsaw and Singapore as well as several locations in the US. A wealth of exciting, colourful dishes can be found, and choice continues to multiply. There is new research being published all the time worldwide exploring how a vegan diet can affect health, both positively and negatively. One study found vegans had a lower frequency of excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods in Spain, even when compared with vegetarians. This study also highlighted that vegetarianism had social associations with a healthy lifestyle, but also links to being overweight and excessive sugar consumption. It brings the question, is it better to not eat animal products, and simply switch to sugary, high-processed foods? Certainly, in Western cultures, both can be found in abundance.
Countries such as Japan and South Korea have lower obesity rates and higher life expectancies than the UK. This data cannot be attributed to diet alone, but it can be used as an indicator that diet decreases the likelihood of developing some health issues. So, could we be adopting some of the eating habits of these countries to improve our lives in the UK?
School-children in Japan seem to get the nutrition they need in school meals so perhaps we could start there, as how you eat as a child shapes dietary choices for the rest of your life. This method has been considered in the UK, as we have seen campaigns to improve the nutritional content of school meals and perhaps with further campaigning this could have a positive impact such as ‘meat-free’ days, which would be an incremental step towards improved public health and sustainability.
There is no question that vegetables are an essential element of a human diet, however there seems to be a lot of room for debate around how much or little we need to include animal products, especially with the ever-growing number of meat and dairy alternatives available to consumers in the UK.
And today, in the UK, veganism continues to be in opposition to the dominant culture, but it is steadily growing. However, as with almost every radical change in social norms, there has to be the ‘influencers’ and ‘early-adopters’ that lead the way, who may not be met with warm gratitude, but perhaps with rejection. There is hope for the movement, as with the abolishment of slavery and the adoption of the women’s vote, it takes time, and, as one vegan, Connor Page said: “Vegans are advocates of rights for all living beings and the earth itself, they should continue to live and promote the mission for a more sustainable planet; unwavering and together.” And as research continues as the trend grows, we are all becoming more informed about the benefits and potential risks associated with adopting a vegan lifestyle.