It’s almost 2020 and the hype of veganism is building. Veganuary is almost upon us. The notion that vegan is healthy and better for the planet has become popular, but is this really the case? I’m not convinced and if you’re on the fence or considering doing Veganuary here are a few reasons why perhaps you should and why perhaps you shouldn’t do Veganuary. Here I’ll challenge some of the main viewpoints of veganism and hope you’ll do the same.
Consider This Before Veganuary
There are three main arguments that I’m aware of for going vegan:
- It’s better for your health.
- It’s better for the environment.
- No animal cruelty.
Here’s why these points may not be (and probably aren’t) so true.
Better For Your Health
Going vegan means you miss out on a lot of nutrients such as B vitamins which are mainly found in meat. You’ll struggle to get omega 3 fatty acids from fish and you’re subjecting your body to lots of plant toxins. A vegan diet is typically high in carbohydrates, but low in fat. This may sound like a good thing, but your cell membranes are composed of phospholipids which are made mainly from fat. Fat is critical for cell membrane stability and it is required to help transport fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K around the body.
The other side of the argument is that certain forms of nutrients can be converted into other forms. For instance, the plant form of vitamin A, beta-carotene, or ‘carotenoids’ can be converted into the animal form of vitamin A which is retinol. This occurs when carotenoids are broken down by an enzyme in the liver to form retinol. However, the conversion of carotenoids into retinol is relatively low, between 9 and 21%. The same goes for many nutrients found in plants such as vitamin K and iron.
Also, the truth remains that plants want to live. Yes, as stupid as that may sound, they don’t want to be eaten. Plants try and survive by producing toxins which ward away predators and discourage animals from eating them. And then if they don’t survive, at the very least they want to spread their seeds out so they can grow. Many plant seeds are designed to make it intact through your digestive tract so that when you poop, the seeds can grow (and in some fresh manure, full of nutrients). Part of the reason why we cook them is to denature some of these toxins, but it also doesn’t remove all of them. Plants produce their own pesticides to try and discourage consumption. In fact, 99.9% of dietary pesticides consumed are natural. Produced by plants truly.
Plant Defence Chemicals/Compounds
Don’t forget about the other compounds in plants which have been known to irritate human guts such as excessive amounts of fibre, lectins, gluten and phytates. Depending on what type of vegan diet you eat, you may find that you consume lots of fibre which will make your gut feel rather bloaty and is likely to lead to lots of flatulence. This tends to happen though if you just eat lots of fibrous and cruciferous vegetables (I’ve done it before).
Lectins are a plant compound found mostly in grains which actually bind to certain minerals inhibiting their absorption (what good is that)?! Gluten, well, we know that lots of people are complaining about gluten intolerance. Gluten sensitivity may be more widespread in the population than we think. And then we have phytates which are another type of nutrient inhibitor, binding to nutrients, preventing their absorption.
What About Supplements?
It’s possible to argue that you can supplement many of these minerals and vitamins, but what is the efficacy of these supplements? What good does it do if your body can’t actually utilise the supplements because of how they are stored or processed. Of course, I’m sure some are effective, but I also think there are supplements out there which don’t do much.
On a side note, if you’re going vegan and you’re considering buying the processed vegan products out there, perhaps you should consider how much nutrition they really contain e.g. a vegan sausage roll made in a lab versus a sausage made out of real meat. It’s not natural and is probably devoid of many micronutrients. One reason so many plant-based foods like cereals and flours are fortified is because of their lack of nutrients.
Anyone going vegan should be aware that there is a high chance they will be deficient in the following nutrients:
- Omega 3 fatty acids
- B vitamins (especially B12)
- Vitamin D
But Isn’t Meat Bad For You?
If you dig in deeper to many studies mentioned regarding meat consumption being ‘bad for you’ or being correlated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease you usually find that their methodology isn’t exactly reliable. It’s methods like a questionnaire being given to participants twice over a 6 year period regarding what they eat.
Secondly, I think that in most cases when they compare vegans or vegetarians with a group of meat-eaters, the reason why studies may conclude that vegan/vegetarian diets are better for biochemical markers and reduced risk of disease is that the people in the vegan/vegetarian group are more health-conscious. It’s very hard to find interventional studies which control for everything except what the participants eat. The vegan group of a study may have fewer heart attacks over a 5 year period, but they might also sleep better, avoid deep-fried food and exercise regularly.
Interestingly, people in Hong Kong have the highest life expectancy despite having the highest levels of meat consumption, which is around 700 – 800g per day. And that’s whilst living in a heavily polluted environment. The country with the next highest life expectancy is Japan and since 1960 they’ve been steadily increasing their meat consumption to around 350 – 400g per day.
Another thing to consider when eating meat is how much it’s processed and how it’s cooked. Your hormones will react differently depending on whether you eat a seared ribeye steak versus a beef burger deep-fried in soybean oil (which is high in phytoestrogens and has been shown to be obesogenic and diabetogenic). Other refined vegetable oils are better, but not much so. Many studies do not control for many variables within meat making it hard to pinpoint or specify whether a cause and effect are due to:
- The meat causing a change in chemical biomarker e.g. cholesterol, triglycerides, HDL levels, LDL levels
- The oil/what the meat is cooked in or how the meat is cooked
- The foods eaten with the meat
- An entirely unrelated factor such as sleep, exercise or stress
My suggestion is to simply opt for higher quality meat in a more natural/less processed form whenever possible. I believe in the same concept for all foods e.g. choose baked potatoes instead of potato chips, real fruit over fruit juice, pork chops over sausages. In a sense, real food, in a state as close to as you’d find it in nature.
Better For The Environment
It’s often heard from the vegetarian, vegan and plant-based community or even your average person that eating less meat is better for the environment. It’s why more people are opting for a flexitarian approach where they might have ‘meat-free Mondays’. However, animals and plants are part of one system. One gives and one takes. The other gives and the other takes. Animals eat plants and excrete them passing on their seeds allowing them to reproduce. Plant seeds grow in the animal manure and use the animals in order to spread their seeds and keep reproducing. Most organic produce is grown using animal manure, so you could even argue that isn’t technically vegan.
A figure somewhere between 18 and 50% is usually thrown around about how much consume meat contributes to greenhouse gases. Well, it seems incredulous to me that animals could produce more greenhouse gases than that of vehicle transport such as jets, planes and trains. It all started when the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations published a report stating that livestock produce more greenhouse gases than the global transportation system, producing 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases.
However, in that comparison, they compared the tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases from transport to a lifecycle assessment of the greenhouse gases released from livestock. Since then, the report’s senior author, Henning Steinfield has corrected that claim, but not before word spread out and many other larger figures erupted (from seemingly nowhere) about the catastrophic effects that consuming meat has on our planet.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 3.9% of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock (with 2% of those emissions coming from beef) and 4.7% of gas emissions come from agricultural crops. Clearly, animal agriculture isn’t the issue here yet we all seem to think so.
In fact, a study found that if the entire U.S. eliminated all animal agriculture, greenhouse gas emissions would only be reduced by 2.6%. However, in terms of global nutrition, more calories would be consumed from increased carbohydrates and there would be a greater amount of nutrient deficiencies, particularly in calcium, omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, vitamin B12, vitamin A and arachidonic acid.
What About All The Water Used To Make Beef?
It takes about 1,200 litres of water to produce a pound of beef which is a fairly substantial amount. However, at least 90% of the water used (this figure is closer to 95%) in producing meat from livestock is rainwater. I really hope people aren’t complaining about animals using up rainwater because that sounds absolutely ludicrous to me.
We Can’t Eat Most Food Eaten By Livestock
Part of the argument against humans eating animals is that we could be either:
- a) Planting crops (and covering more land with crops) than the animals which are currently inhabiting that land.
- b) Eating some of the grain which is fed to these animals.
It’s quite easy to argue that the land used for grazing animals could be replaced with agricultural crops except that 60% of agricultural land globally is too rocky, steep or arid to support crops. However, this land can be used by livestock and it is.
Chickens literally eat scraps of food that humans don’t want and turn it into meat. So do pigs. Sheep and cows are also fed leftover grain from agricultural crops which are unfit for human consumption along with other food waste. Then they also consume lots of grass which humans can’t eat and turn it into meat (something we can eat). 86% of global livestock feed is inedible to humans. It’s actually an efficient way of feeding the planet, by giving what humans can’t eat to animals and then eating the animals for enjoyment, energy and nutrients.
If you consume animal/plant products produced locally in your country, I’d argue you’re helping to reduce your carbon footprint. I think from this perspective it’s much better to simply buy meat and vegetables locally than to eliminate meat completely since you’ll make it hard to obtain all the nutrients your body needs which is likely to make you more susceptible to illness, fatigue and mood swings.
No Animal Cruelty
One other important argument for going vegan is eliminating animal cruelty. There is this idea that if you don’t eat animals, you’re not contributing to harm to animals. However, many of these crops that we eat have lots of pesticides added to them in order to prevent animals, rodents and insects from eating them or damaging the crops. Millions of these creatures are being harmed or killed by pesticides or the harvesting process. There is a cost to everything that we eat.
I’m certainly not saying that the meat industry is perfect, and it’s far from it, but if you want to support better meat production then you should try to go free-range or even better, pasture-raised or organic.
Why You Should (Maybe) Do Veganuary
If you’re still not convinced or you’re determined to press on ahead with Veganuary, by all means, go ahead. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea to try out a vegan diet and I think it’s a good time to record how you feel on a day to day basis. See how diet affects mood, exercise performance, sleep, heart rate variability, poop (I’m not kidding) and more. If you have an Oura ring or a smartwatch such as a Fitbit or Garmin, these can help you monitor those metrics. I certainly believe that many of the positive effects felt on a vegan diet come from eliminating many of the processed foods and there’s no reason you couldn’t do the same, but keep eating meat and other animal products.
It might work well for you, it might not. If not, you can always try and find a way of eating which encompasses a more holistic approach incorporating animal products in order to hit your body’s nutritional requirements.
Thanks for reading this article, I hope you found it insightful and I’d really appreciate it if you could share the news with others. I think people should be well informed before starting any sort of ‘diet’ and I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the vegan diet.
Also thanks to Brian Sanders and Paul Saladino, I pulled some resources off their page which provides strong arguments against the Vegan Documentary, The Game Changers. If you’re interested, I highly recommend you look at their argument which encompasses the other side of the story, backed with evidence. You can check both out on Instagram @food.lies and @carnivoremd