Vegan diets – are they good for health and good for the environment?
Ahead of COP26, there is much debate on what can be done to reduce the impact that we humans are having on the health of our world. These discussions cover a broad range of issues, including the adoption of meat-free or vegan diets. Prominent figures, from sports personalities, politicians and social media influencers, point out the benefits they have experienced by adopting this way of eating. They argue that their physical and mental health and the health of the environment, has improved. This blog post explores vegan diets – are they good for health and good for the environment?
Everyone is Unique
Before diving into this topic, a caveat: it is coming from the perspective of a MSc qualified Nutritional Therapist. I work regularly with individuals who are living with chronic pain. These individuals are looking to optimise their diet and lifestyle to maximise their chances of returning to a pain-free existence. Every one of them has a unique story to tell and every one of them has a different starting point. They eat differently and have varying experiences of sleep, energy, relationships and joy. Because of the uniqueness of their experience therefore, there is no one diet that is appropriate.
An individualised approach has to be taken, with step-by-step changes made at an appropriate pace. So there is no pushing of a single dietary type, be that plant-based, meat-free, vegan, vegetarian, keto, paleo, pescatarian or any other, in the Integral Nutrition clinic.
Are Vegan Diets Good for Health?
As a first stop on the meat free diet debate, let’s explore the question of whether vegan diets are good for human health. The answer is that they can be for certain individuals, perhaps at certain points of their lives. There are elements that need special attention and possibly supplementation. B12, iodine, zinc, calcium, selenium are good examples. However, with the right focus, a plant-based diet can fuel good health. For chronic pain, if your starting point is daily processed meat consumption wrapped up in some form of starchy carb, then a colourful, plant based diet will probably be one of the avenues worth exploring to gain some comfort.
What needs some comment here, is the fact that each diet, be that vegan, paleo or any other type, falls on a spectrum from nutrient dense and health providing, to nutrient depleted and chronic-ill health inducing. If your new ‘plant-based’ diet consists of mainly, well plants, fresh from your garden, allotment, local farm, local shop, then you are on the right track. Plants should form the main part of your plate and come in various colours, textures and tastes. This fuels your body, brain and resident bacteria’s desire for variety. However, is this really where some who are pursuing a plant-based diet are going?
With the rise in popularity of plant-based diets, comes investment from the food processing industry to fuel our new desire. Supermarket shelves now begin to be more than just peppered with vegan cheeses, sausage, spreads, meals and milks, ready for our convenience. These foods are made to satisfy our taste buds and our need for a protein element to our meals.
Move away from processed foods
Here is the rub – if there is one thing that you can do to improve your health, it is to move away, as far as is practically possible, from processed foods. They are often devoid of nutrients and contain many non-food additives in the bid to create a food that works for mass production, transportation, stable shelf life, mouth feel and desire for more. It is clear – regular consumption of this type of vegan food is not good for your health.
Are Vegan Diets Good for the Environment?
The motivation to adopt a vegan diet today is often the desire to minimize the environmental impact of our daily need to eat. There is no doubt that mass rearing and routine consumption of animals puts a strain on our ecosystem. There is also no doubt in my mind that eating more plants – in fact, eating mainly plants – is good for our health. Even better, if those plants are organic and local.
So it comes back to what kind of vegan diet being consumed. If it consists mainly of plants, ensuring plenty of protein from beans, pulses, nuts and seeds, then it may work well. This kind of vegan diet can be good for both health and the environment.
However, if a vegan diet consists mainly of soy bean-based or nut foods that have been grown far away, processed to create something approximating meat or cheese, then transported thousands of miles before being consumed, surely this is not good for our health or good for our environment? So we need to be thoughtful when selecting our vegan foods, to ensure we are not potentially damaging both our health and our environment.
Where has the plant-based food come from?
When making your plant-based dietary choices, think clearly about where that food has come from and how many miles it has travelled. Ask yourself whether it would be better to eat something of local origin, be that animal or vegetable, or the packaged vegan food on sale in the supermarket, that has had a long journey. What, on balance, is having the greater, negative, environmental impact?
The Role of Plants
I firmly believe that plants should play a central role in any diet. If you can make 1/3 of your plate leafy vegetables, another 1/3 starchy vegetables and finish the final section with some form of protein and good fat, you’ll be doing well. If the protein portion comes from fresh meat, fish, beans, lentils, eggs, nuts and seeds, as opposed to the heavily processed supermarket convenience foods, then your choices are good.
Local Food – good for our health and good for the environment
I recently read a book by an author I love, Barbara Kingsolver. She often explores environmental issues through her novels – Flight Behaviour a good example. However, ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle’ documents her family’s experience of eating locally. For one year, they ate food that they either grew, reared, processed and stored themselves or foods that were grown and processed within their locality by other small holders and farmers.
It seems intuitive that the environmental impact of eating a diet that contains meat and vegetables grown on local farms, compared to a diet where the principal forms of protein comes from heavily processed forms of soy or other bean, originally grown thousands of miles away, is less. To my mind, it is also better for your health, as it avoids the heavily processed vegan foods now finding pride of place on supermarket shelves.
Be a Locavore
So, what makes sense when it comes to vegan diets – are they good for health and good for the environment? I would argue that eating as broad a range of foods as you possibly can, which may include occasional meat and fish, with as much as possible grown and reared within your locality, will be best for your health and better for our world. If vegan works well for you, then avoid the processed ‘foods’ that are now available and make hearty casseroles with beans and lentils and plenty of vegetables. And make your choices as local as you can. If you want to give this ‘diet’ a name – Locavore is what it is.
Playing with famous words of Michael Pollan, I finish with this:
Nutritional therapy is wonderful for complex widespread pain disorders. Everyone is unique and I tailor my protocols to suit the individual. So, we start where the need is most, optimising your digestion, working on sleep, fuelling your diet with foods that support energy and calm inflammation. We work this out together and move at a pace that suits you.
If you would like to discuss your own situation with chronic ill-health, you can book a free call with me. It is worth investing in your health so you can get your life back on track. Call me to find out more.