On Board For Veganuary?
Following Go Sober for October, Movember and a well-deserved month off for the holidays, the latest mensual metaphor to make the headlines is Veganuary. Promoted by, among others, a UK charity of the same name, the idea is that we should all go vegan for the month.
At Goal Master, we applaud people who raise awareness of real health issues and promote behaviour change for the better. We do not applaud people who omit important information from their narrative and fuel fads that can injure health in a meaningful way. Though their intentions are indeed noble, Veganuary does a bit of both. They tell us there are three reasons to be a vegan: to protect the planet; to protect animals and to protect health.
Let’s examine each reason, and tell the full story:
It’s true. Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to global warming. According to the UN’s World Resources Institute, animal agriculture causes 14 to 18% of human greenhouse gas emissions globally. Compare fossil-fuel based energy consumption, which accounts for 64%. That said, 18% is meaningful by any measure. If everyone refrained from eating meat, the impact would be profound.
For us, the argument strains a bit when comparing veganism (no animal based food) to vegetarianism (typically eating eggs and dairy products in addition to plant based foods). Using potatoes as a benchmark, let’s compare the relative greenhouse gas contribution per kilogram of food consumed. Meat contributes from 2.5 times to 40 times the potato (with chicken at the low end and red meat at the high end). Eggs contribute 1.65 times the potato. Milk and yoghurt contribute less than the potato (and most other plants).1
So, if you want to do you part for the planet, by all means reduce the amount of meat you eat or forgo it all together, but think twice about eliminating dairy and the nutritional benefits that it provides. If you really want to do your part for the planet and your health, also consider leaving the car at home and walking or riding your bicycle more often. If you really mean it, consider giving your time and/or money to one or more of the many organisations that fight climate change.
It’s true that large-scale, commercial animal agriculture (in contrast to enlightened farming) does not treat animals particularly well. Laws that protect the welfare of cats and dogs don’t apply to cows and chickens. Some practices are cruel by any measure. If you are concerned for the welfare of all God’s creatures, then not eating meat is a well-justified idea. As with the planet, however, there is an important distinction between veganism and vegetarianism (between killing animals and milking them, particularly where sound principles of animal husbandry are employed).
Here, the argument fails. The total omission of animal-based food products from your diet is not healthier and, for many people, less healthy than omnivory. What is true, however, is that a diet based primarily (but not exclusively) on plant-based whole foods is, for most people, a very healthy diet. For people who eat a typical Western diet, more plants and less meat is a good idea; more whole foods and less processed foods is a good idea.
And, not all vegan food is healthy. Plant-based whole foods are healthy; vegan meat substitutes often are not. Many meat substitutes have nutrition labels that read like a science experiment, and they are laden with fats and calories, often more so than their meat counterparts.
We examined in some detail the health implications of veganism in our recent blog on the Netflix documentary “The Game Changers”. https://goalmasterfitness.com/the-game-changers-should-you-change-your-game/
- Vegans have a hard time consuming sufficient protein to optimise their health and performance. They strive to achieve the minimum government guideline amounts, rather than the significantly greater amounts recommended by the preponderance of recent scientific evidence. Plants are far less protein dense than meat and dairy. Almost all plants have an incomplete amino acid profiles, meaning the protein only “works” when combining them with other plants that include the missing amino acid. It’s possible for a vegan to eat adequate protein, but few do.
- Vegans have a hard time getting sufficient amounts of some essential micronutrients from their diet, particularly iron, vitamin B12 and calcium. Plant-based sources are often less bio-available (capable of absorption by the body) than animal based sources. Regular supplementation can be necessary.
Being vegan for one month will very likely do you no harm. But equally, it will do neither you nor the planet any good if you revert to your old eating habits in February. Improving your health and nutrition is about making sustainable long-term changes to the way you eat. Forgoing all animal-based nutrition, including dairy, cold turkey, forever, may be unachievable and undesirable from a health perspective for most people. Eating more fruits and vegetables, and less meat, can be a healthier and more sustainable starting point.
So, what should you do? There is no one right or wrong answer. If your conscience drives you to veganism, by all means go vegan. Do so mindfully of the discipline you will need to stay optimally healthy.
If you can accept some compromise to your principles, then for your health, you might consider flexitarianism – a predominantly plant-based diet, rich in whole foods, low in processed food, plus occasional modest amounts of quality meat, fish, chicken and dairy.
Would you like to join us for Flexibruary?
1 Cheese is higher, at 4.7 times the potato.