My vegan journey began in 2012 when I learnt about the benefits of a plant-based diet on the environment. At the time, I was competing in the Miss Earth Beauty Pageant for the first time. Miss Earth is an international environment-themed beauty pageant about promoting environmental awareness.
This exposed me to the idea of taking personal responsibility for climate change by reducing my individual carbon footprint.
As a result of what I learnt, I adopted a pescatarian/vegan diet at university. This was quite easy because I am lactose intolerant and eggs make me nauseous, so I only needed to remove meat and fish from my day to day food. I also decided to remove all non-sustainable sources of palm oil from my lifestyle.
I followed this diet whilst at university and would then follow a more relaxed diet at home where I would enjoy the amazing Nigerian meals my mum lovingly prepared. However, before the end of my time at university I became a strict vegan and my mum would cater alternative vegan friendly meals for me when I returned for the holidays.
Today, I reflect on this journey and the feeling that being vegan gives me and how it became a self-identifier.
I first noticed this change whilst backpacking through Asia in 2016 with my younger sister. We were on a boat to Laos to a home-stay and the locals were catching fish for dinner, but I, because of my diet refused to eat it. For the whole trip – no matter how sustainable the source of fish or meat – I abstained from joining in the feasts. Upon reflection, considering the original reason for my vegan lifestyle was sustainability and reducing my carbon footprint I recognise that this was in fact one of the rare opportunities I had to eat meat and fish without compromising my principles.
But the “vegan” label, the branding and the feeling that people were trying to catch me out or penalise me left no space for a logical approach. In fact, I remember choosing to buy a baguette before boarding the boat and just eating that for the whole two-day journey rather than risk a “gotcha” moment from the other people who were travelling with us.
I was one of those vegans preaching this ideology and shaming others. I was contributed to an increasing polarity between vegans like myself and the rest of society. I was clinging to a group that adopts an identity that takes over and encourages its members to act blindly.
Myth: A Vegan Life-style is more sustainable
YES and NO!
I had read the statistic: “a vegan life style reduces a carbon footprint by two carbon tonnes” and I accepted it at face value. However, sustainability should always be considered more holistically in terms of economic, social and environmental factors.
Here are a few questions that challenge the vegan lifestyle in economic, environmental and social terms:
- What is the impact of growing grains on the environment and the eco-system?
- What is the impact of a grain-based diet on physical and mental health?
- How does vegan branded food (meat replacements etc) impact the environment?
- Is a vegan life-style simply a socially acceptable eating disorder?
- What is the impact of the surge in veganism on the farming industry?
In this blog post, I will address the some of these questions.
Social Sustainability – Health:
When I first became vegan, I became anaemic. In a vegan diet, you can increase iron by eating green leafy green vegetables, grains, nuts, seed and enriched food such as cereals. However, the iron in plant food is not as easily absorbed so the US Dietary Reference Intake recommends vegetarians and vegans eat 1.8 times the iron of the general population.
Personally, ingesting plant-based sources of iron didn’t cut it for me, so I was prescribed iron supplements. However, using iron supplements has being proven to be detrimental in the long-term. According to a Neurobiology of Aging report on the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease: “Excessive copper and other heavy metals like iron can hinder the clearance of beta-amyloid, a type of plaque that may block certain cell communications and lead to nerve cell death.”
There are other health consequences in long term for vegetarians and vegans. According to a report by Waitrose, 1 in 8 people in Britain are vegan or vegetarian. However, the long-term impact of the diet is only just coming to light. Dr Zoe Harcombe, a public health nutrition research and 20-year vegetarian, said in a recent article for inews: ‘I have no idea of the long-term harm I have done to my body. The day I stopped was the day I realised that I needed to consume 39 eggs daily or a small tin of oily fish to get 15mcg of vitamin D. The sad fact of nutrition is that animal foods are the most nutrient dense and we take great risks by avoiding these foods.” (Read more at: https://inews.co.uk/news/health/aseem-malhotra-mother-died-early-vegetarian-diet-cause/)
It would seem a vegetarian and vegan diet without supplementation simply does not provide enough of the necessary minerals that have been proven to be important. I would argue that any diet that needs daily supplement is not optimal for health or sustainable in the long-term. Please see my blog post – Biohacking your health for more on this.
Environmental Sustainability – Junk food vegan:
Personally, my body struggles to handle soy resulting in bloating, water retention, a change in body shape and an upset digestive system. Soya is a main component in a lot of vegan meat alternatives and vegan junk food. The Harvard school of public health has a very detailed study that considers the impact of soy on people based on ethnicity, existing oestrogen levels etc where it impacts heart disease, menopause, breast cancer, prostate cancer, memory and cognitive function and thyroid function (https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/soy/).
This is just one of many studies which provides an insight into the potential negatives implications of widely adopted vegan diets featuring products such as soy.
These studies also raised major concern on the over-processed nature of the soya being served up. For example, Soya Bean accumulate and absorb herbicides that are dangerous, soya bean oil has high level of omega 6 which can cause inflammation and it blocks protein digestion due to the protease inhibitors.
The largest problem with a soya rich diet is you are eating highly processed food.
This is the case with many of vegan foods. They are highly processed food which have travelled the world in excessive packing, farmed intensively, often produced unethically with unsustainably sourced palm oil which is not better for the environment, society or the economy.
Therefore, isn’t is best to eat locally sourced food from your local butchers, fishmonger and eating whatever vegetable and fruits were in season?
Also, there are many vegan foods that contain unsustainably sourced palm oil. Please see here for a list of some of your favourite vegan brands that contain unsustainably sourced palm oil. (https://www.onegreenplanet.org/lifestyle/guide-vegan-products-and-palm-oil/)
Social Sustainability – Mental Health
A longitudinal study undertaken with 9113 women aged 22-27 in Australia compared the health and well-being of vegetarian and semi-vegetarian women compare with non-vegetarians. Whilst it concluded that vegetarians and semi vegetarians had a lower BMI (body mass index), the mental health and menstrual problem could not be ignored. For example, those following a vegetarian diet in the study reported poorer mental health (22%) in comparison to (15%) in non-vegetarians. The vegetarian group also has menstrual symptom such as a pale skin, inability to concentrate, mental fogginess and mood swings as a result of low iron levels. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17411462#).
This further backed up by the Psychology today ‘The Vegan Brain – Plant based diets, micronutrients and mental health’ which details the vitamins and micronutrient that are deficient in a Vegan diet and the impact on brain health ‘The science is clear on this point: un-supplemented vegan diets pose great danger to brain health. It is my hope that this article will help call attention to these other critical nutrients the brain needs to operate at the top of its game’. It links the deficiency in various vitamins whole host of serious psychiatric problems, including depression, psychosis, memory problems, mania, with increased risk for schizophrenia, autism, depression, and dementia and changes in behaviour or personality.
I highly recommend reading this and ‘Your Brain of Plant’ (http://www.diagnosisdiet.com/micronutrients-mental-health/) especially for those raising vegan children to advice on getting the supplementation* right especially at crucial stages of development.
*But be aware of the body’s limit to absorb supplementation.
What about the animals?
Historically, meat was required for human evolution. There has been a swing from eating what was needed for health to an overconsumption of meat in the west.
However, meat should not be totally removed from a healthy diet, a balance must be struck. The World Cancer Research Fund, the Oxford European Perspective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Study and Harvard School of Public Health all recommend a flexitarian diet and no more than 500 g of red meat consumption per week.
This would allow for individual health needs to be met as well as collectively contributing to a more sustainable world.
To mitigate concerns about animal welfare and environmental standards, I advise shopping locally from farmers who produce high quality, high welfare products and saying no to industrially farmed produce.
This allows you to address the social and economic aspect of sustainability by supporting local traders, keeping your high street open and supporting your local community.
I personally like the statement ‘Eat animals who only had one bad day’. This simply means eating animal that have being raised with good welfare and humanely and their only bad day is the day they die. I think if you chose to eat meat, eat good meat that raised humanely and understand where you food comes from and appreciate it. I think I think this is an effective way to eat meat to meet your evolutionary needs whilst being sustainable and humane.
To be honest, the ideal diet would be owning some land and cultivating it and having animals roam freely and eat what’s needed to maintain a family long-term.
In purchasing meat, you should ensure it is ethical and from a sustainable source. Getting quality food is possible and affordable. There are a couple of great options: You can find farm shops and organic butchers near you using www.bigbarn.co.uk or shop at a wholefood store where you can also reduce packaging. You can also get a vegetable box delivered or visit your local farmers marker for seasonal vegetables.
The aim of this blog post isn’t to call BS on veganism but to challenge those who are vegans to consider why they chose to follow that lifestyle and to critically assess whether their day to day eating habits reflect that choice. But I think a relativist approach is the way forward in most things in life, the devil is in the detail and absolutes rarely provide the flexibility needed to survive in the world we live in.
Simply being vegan without thinking about your dietary choices does not make you more sustainable.
Personally, I will continue to say “NO!” to unsustainably sourced palm oil and aim to adopt a more rounded approach to a sustainable diet. However, I will no longer call myself “Vegan” because on reflection it no-longer works for me. I am simply a person adopting a holistically sustainable life style – economically, socially and environmentally.
I like my new approach to sustainable eating and it’s great to see it supported by the Friend Of The Earth. An approach that recommends reducing meat intake but also encourages environmentally healthy farming, encourages grass fed animal products, reduced soya importation for feed, protecting the environment, improving animal welfare and encourages better farming practice. See here for more. (https://friendsoftheearth.uk/food/sustainable-eating-our-position).
These are my reasons for ditching the vegan label. However, keep doing whatever works for you.
Simply Ayo, I am not a vegan.