Veganuary: does the science support the hype?

 

In case you haven’t noticed, veganism has been in the news quite a lot recently. With record numbers embracing a plant-based diet during Veganuary, some advocates are signalling that 2019 is the year when vegan diets go mainstream.

Vegan diets are on the rise

The number of vegan and vegetarian people has risen sharply in recent years. The latest 2016 figures from The Vegan Society suggests that there are currently 542,000 dietary vegans in the UK, up from just 150,000 in 2006. A poll last year also revealed that 1 in 3 people in the UK are trying to reduce their meat and dairy intake.

A decade ago, vegans were typecast as tie-dye hippies. Today, public figures — from James Cameron to Serena Williams, Natalie Portman to Mike Tyson — are promoting the benefits of cutting animal products from their diets. Hop over to Instagram or Pinterest and there are hundreds of thousands of recipes and vegan-friendly products. Veganism is in the headlines on a daily base. It’s omnipresent.

The high street embraces consumer demand

Supermarkets, restaurants and shops are also embracing Veganuary. Step into your local store and the number of products far outweigh what we used to see only a few years ago. In 2016, UK meat-free market sat at £559million. According to the Mintel ‘meat free food report’, it is expected to grow to £658million by 2021.

Every supermarket stocks products ranging from vegan cheese to vegan shwarma. Your local restaurant sells vegan pizza. Your favourite shoe shop sells leather-free shoes and boots. Being vegan has never been so easy. Even Greggs, the bastion of questionable meat, buttery pastry and artery-clogging doughnuts, now sells vegan sausage rolls.

The reasons behind the trend

For the record numbers of people taking part in Veganuary in 2019, there are a number of factors why they choose to give up animal products for a month.

A recent survey by Mintel suggests that almost half of people looking to reduce meat consumption are doing so for health benefits. Other major driving forces include the environment, animal welfare and weight management.

Animal rights is not a debate we’re going to delve into. As a science blog, however, it’s only right that we question the scientific link between veganism, the environment and our health. Does a vegan diet really reduce carbon footprint, and is it conducive to better health outcomes?

Veganism and the environment

Unless you’ve been locked in a cupboard over the past few years, you’ll have noticed that there has been an awful lot of coverage related to the environmental impact of eating meat and dairy.

Studies show that agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases. According to recent research, as much as 50% of all greenhouse gases will be attributed to agriculture by 2050. And it is animal products that have the greatest impact of all.

A kilo of lentils produces just 0.9kg of CO2, whereas a kilo of beef generates 27kg of CO2. A 2016 Oxford University study suggests that if everyone converted to a vegan diet, food-related emissions would drop by 70%.

In May 2018, another piece of Oxford University analysis, led by Joseph Poore, suggested avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest thing an individual can do for the environment.

He stated that “A vegan diet is probably the biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth — not just greenhouse gases but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.”

Comprehensive. If the thousands giving up Sunday roasts for Veganuary are doing it to save the planet, the science suggests that it can have a real impact on the planet’s health.


Whilst it will take a huge global cultural shift to reach the numbers necessary for a tipping point to take place, the increasing number of people embracing a plant-based diet, or a flexitarian diet, particularly in the west, can only be seen as a positive thing.

Real-world health outcomes

Following a vegan diet has a positive environmental impact. But what about health? Think of vegan food and you might imagine a diet of avocado toast, lentil dahl and beetroot salads. But a vegan could just as easily gorge on chips, cigarettes and super-strength cider.

As you would expect, most people have a more sensible approach to their vegan diet. And though veganism isn’t guaranteed to lead to better health outcomes, huge bodies of research suggest that a plant-based diet has an overall positive effect on health. From type 2 diabetes to heart disease, eating less meat can have a huge impact on lives.

As The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggest:

“Vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer, and obesity. Low intake of saturated fat and high intakes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts and seeds (all rich in fiber and phytochemicals) are characteristics of vegetarian and vegan diets that produce lower total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and better serum glucose control”

All of this makes sense. The more fruit, vegetables and whole grains we eat (inevitable when eating a vegan diet), the healthier people are, which makes them less likely to suffer from some major chronic conditions. As an example, a 2016 study from Oxford University argues that vegan diets could cut 8.1million deaths a year.

It’s also good for losing excess weight. In 2015, a study found that vegans lost comparatively more weight than following omnivourous and vegetarian diets. In 2016, 26% of people in the UK were classified as obese. A switch to a vegan diet, then, has the potential to improve the nation’s health.

Can a month without eggs, meat and dairy really have a positive impact?

Veganuary is just a month. Can giving up dairy, eggs for 31 days really make much of a difference to health and the environment? During Veganuary 2018, 62% of participants stated that they intended to stay vegan beyond January. Of this group, 67% claimed that their health improved in just a month. If we take these stats at face value, even though Veganuary is only a month long, it can have a much longer impact, particularly if those 62% stick to their word.

For most people, taking part in Veganuary is just a New Year’s resolution. Many people taking part will have already broken it. But with a long-term commitment to reducing intake of animal-derived products, it could be one of the best resolutions people can make. Not just for human health, but planet health too.

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