About 3 and 1/2 years ago. My husband had a very concerning blood test in which we discovered that his cholesterol was surprisingly and frighteningly high. Coincidentally, a friend recommended the documentary Forks Over Knives to me at that time. In the documentary, a group of medical professionals talk about the positive health benefits of having a vegan diet, and share the findings of a number of scientific studies documenting positive and negative health benefits of eating meat. There is a case study documented in which a gentleman is diagnosed with very high cholesterol, and after changing to a vegan diet is able to drop his cholesterol significantly. So, after watching the documentary, my husband decided to go strictly vegan for 6 weeks. And, sure enough, he had a blood test 6 weeks later, and his cholesterol had dropped by over 60%. Even his doctor was shocked. She said, “I would not have believed, if you weren’t sitting in front of me, that these two blood results came from the same person. Nothing in our training teaches us that you can have this high impact on your cholesterol level through diet alone.”
I remember looking at him shortly thereafter and saying, “So, we are going to stay vegan…..forever?” I mean, I try to be a supportive partner, but for a large part of my life, I joked that if you put bacon and cheese on a leather shoe, I’d probably eat it. I am not a natural vegan. Plus, I was really struggling with how to put a meal together when there is no meat; I was much more comfortable when a plate was anchored by a meat based dish and the vegetables came on the side. My husband, on the other hand, loved vegan eating: he felt great, and didn’t miss meat at all.
So, in the end, we stayed sort of mostly vegan for another couple of years, but my motivation was different from his. Having read a lot of the latest scientific research regarding the impact of meat eating is having on the planet, I accept that we should all be eating less meat for sustainability reasons. I try to eat as many vegan meals as I can to reduce my carbon footprint and to be healthier. And, the more vegans I met, the more I discovered the range of motivations for adopting a vegan diet is wide. I have to add here, though, that the scientific research regarding children and teens, in particular, adopting a vegan diet raises enough questions in my own mind to prevent me ever restricting the meat, fish and dairy my children eat. They have remained omnivorous whatever fad diets my husband and I choose to try out.
From a health perspective, a vegan diet is certainly not for everyone. A strict vegan diet requires supplements to make up for the lack of animal products, and therefore cannot be classed as a “complete” diet on its own. I prefer the term plant-based diet, because it has no accepted definition. For me, it means eating more vegan and vegetarian meals than I used to, but without eliminating meat and diary from my diet. In short, if I made chicken for the kids, and they didn’t eat it all, I’m going to throw it on top of my vegan curry rather than put it in the bin.
What I learned while we were (mostly) vegan for almost 3 years was really eye opening. The first thing I would say is it is really hard and impractical to be strictly vegan all of the time, simply because what we eat is often out of our control. You may visit a restaurant where there is not a vegan option on the menu. You may go to a friend’s house who has cooked a lovely meal that is not vegan. Plus, different people, with different motivations, define vegan diets differently. And people have different priorities that govern decision making principles when you are hungry and there is no vegan option available.
So for example, do you eat honey as a vegan? Vegans that I know who are vegan on an animal protection grounds are less likely to eat honey than vegans that are vegan on health or sustainability grounds (honey production encourages breeding and support of bee populations). Vegans who are trying to control cholesterol will not eat shellfish because shellfish have very high cholesterol, but often other types of vegans will choose a seafood based option if there isn’t a vegan option on the menu. The critical thing is that the hierarchy that you define for yourself, regarding what food choices you make needs to be aligned to your priorities.
Another challenge I experienced when switching abruptly to a vegan diet was rethinking how I structure a meal and learning how to cook without meat, eggs, and dairy. I took a vegan cooking course, and the chef explained to us that you really have to learn about binders – what can hold food together – when cooking vegan meals, because we are used to binding food together using animal products (making meatballs or burgers by mixing ground meat/mince with eggs, for example). The other common mistake I made a lot in the early days was trying to replicate my favorite meals, but with meat substitutes. These never turned out as good as the real thing, except in the case of vegetarian burgers. These days I can make a natural, unprocessed veggie burger that I’d take over a beef one any day of the week (but that’s just me!).
What I found in general, though, is that cooking meals that were never designed to be centered around meat was much better than trying to replace meat with plant-based alternatives in my regular cooking. Plant based substitutes for meat are highly processed. That carries negative health implications and environmental implications. So, I never could get on board with the idea that fake chicken would be better either for me or for the environment than a sustainably farmed chicken. In the first place, fake chicken is made in a factory, that has emissions associated with its processing. Secondly, fake chicken is typically made from either soy or pea protein. The additional processing involved in plant-based meats means that they generate 4.6 times more greenhouse gas than beans, and seven times more than peas, per unit of protein, according to Hopkins researchers. Soy production is associated with deforestation and intensive farming, both of which have negative environmental impacts.
In contrast to fake meat substitutes, there are so many wonderful bean, lentil and curry dishes from around the world that naturally provide a filling, amazing meal with no meat or dairy needed. There are a huge amount of resources available to learn more about cooking vegan successfully. My favorites are BOSH!, fitgreenmind, and Happy Pear. Be careful, though, the social media hype around being strictly vegan is not backed up by proper, longitudinal scientific data on the health impacts or environmental impacts of being vegan. Going vegan is not a silver bullet (spoiler alert: silver bullets do not exist). Eating a balanced diet make of real, sustainably farmed foods is a much better bet.
My greatest conclusion from reading the literature about adopting a plant-based diet is singular: ‘going vegan’ is a simplified message used by a number of groups for the purpose of furthering an agenda. Some of these agendas are altruistic, like saving animals from suffering. Some of these agendas are commercial, like selling you fake meat. Nearly all of them suffer from tunnel vision, however. It is harder to sell this message, but this is the best conclusion I can draw from available research: reducing meat and dairy in your diet will have a positive, but small (less than 10%), impact on your overall carbon footprint. Substituting organically or sustainably farmed food for intensively farmed and imported (to the EU) food will also have a positive impact on the environment. The magnitude of this is difficult to measure as it depends on many factors. I explain how to manage these sorts of complex trade-offs in more detail in the food decision tree.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, my husband still eats a low-meat diet. His cholesterol is medicated and in control, so he is no longer strictly vegan but prefers plant-based eating. I eat a varied diet with a combination of vegan, vegetarian, and meaty dishes, choosing to restrict the quantity of meat we buy so I can spend extra for organic or sustainably farmed meat. If I can buy direct from a local farm with whose farming practices I am comfortable, I will do so with less concern about it being certified organic. I recognize that getting organic certification is extremely difficult, and there are lots of farmers out there who have low-intensity, non-industrial farms but cannot be considered fully organic across all of their operations. I rely on organic certification in the supermarket much more heavily than in the farm shop.