Oh, vegans. For some, the mere thought of veganism is gut-wrenching and appalling. Sacrificing meat? How on earth is such a concept even fathomable? Others, however, champion the idea of giving up meat. After all, who wouldn’t want to discourage animal abuse, reduce one’s carbon footprint, and shift to a potentially healthier lifestyle?
Just in January, I was the former individual — the one who cringed whenever the word “vegan” rang in my ears. The thought of going vegan was utterly implausible in my mind. Yet, for whatever reason, I decided to go vegan for a week in February and conducted extensive research on the topic. I will be straightforward about the purpose of this article: to all you die-hard meat eaters out there, my former people, just consider veganism. This article is not designed to force you to drop everything and become 100% plant-based, but to simply understand the vegan side.
Let’s start with the basics. In 1944, the term “vegan” was coined by a small group of vegetarians who formed the Vegan Society after breaking from the Leicester Vegetarian Society in England. This group chose not to consume any type of animal product. According to the Vegan Society, “veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
As such, vegans will avoid eating meat, eggs (including mayonnaise, since it is made of egg yolks), dairy products (such as milk, cheese and butter, which is derived from cream), fish, honey and gelatin (which is obtained through animal bones, pigskins and cattle hide). Insects are also avoided.
However, despite the seemingly restrictive nature of the diet, a wide range of substitutes are available for vegans to choose from. Plant-based meats, such as the Beyond Burger, take the place of natural meat while still providing a pleasant taste. Plant-based eggs, such as “JUST Egg,” as well as plant-based milks — of which soy, almond, oat and coconut milk are popular choices — are all potential options for vegans.
I will not lie to you, jumping into a vegan diet after being well acquainted with meat your entire life is certainly no easy task. I had several doubts during the first week of my experience. What helped pull me through were a few of my friends with whom I had made this one-week pact. They offered their support and encouraged me to persist.
While vegans certainly do not make up the majority of U.S. citizens, many groups are still being formed to promote veganism and support newly-converted vegans.
“A person’s choice to not eat meat is so defining of who they are and what they believe that I really wanted to meet other people who had maybe reached similar conclusions and had made a similar choice in terms of eating animal parts,” Ted Huntington, director of Vegans of Orange County, told the New University.
Yet, veganism goes far beyond being a simple dietary plan or lifestyle change. The adoption of a vegan diet has major environmental impacts.
As a result of the increase in demand for meat products, countries are using up more land in order to make room for animals to raise for food, and crops to use for animal feed. In the U.S., 80% of all agricultural land is dedicated to raising animals for food and growing crops to feed them. Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution found that “‘seven football fields’ worth of land is bulldozed every minute to create more room for farmed animals and the crops that feed them.”
In addition, the meat industry is fueled by vast quantities of water. The primary consumers of water in the U.S. are farm animals such as chickens, pigs and cattle that are being raised for consumption. It takes 2,400 gallons of water to harvest a pound of cow flesh as opposed to 180 gallons in order to produce a pound of whole wheat flour.
The meat industry is also a large contributor to global warming. A major report on land use and climate change conducted by 107 scientists for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that global warming is primarily fueled by the West’s high consumption of meat and dairy products. It suggests that a reduction of meat consumption could lead to more people being fed while utilizing less land.
“We’re not telling people to stop eating meat … but it’s obvious that in the West we’re eating far too much,” Professor Pete Smith, an environmental scientist from the University of Aberdeen, said.
The agricultural runoff, including unprecedented amounts of manure, from these farming industries is the number one source of pollution in waterways.
A critical example of the adverse effects of agricultural runoff is the “dead zone” found in the Gulf of Mexico. Virtually all sea animals and plants have died in this area due to a severe lack of oxygen — hence the coined name, dead zone. The cause of the dead zone was the nitrogen from animal feces and fertilizers that originated in animal factory farms. The pollution flowed from the Mississippi River and eventually found its way to the Gulf of Mexico, measuring at about 6,952 square miles in 2019.
A Princeton University study in 2006 found that a nation-wide decrease in meat production and a shift to a vegetarian diet would dramatically reduce nitrogen levels in the Gulf, and would render the dead zone almost non-existent. While global warming may not be the immediate issue on everyone’s minds, it definitely should be.
It is no question that our presence on earth is parasitic. Of course, it would be amazing if we could magically eliminate all of the adverse environmental effects we cause simply by existing, but that is just not realistic. However, by adopting, or even partially adopting a vegan diet, we can greatly benefit our environment, reduce global warming and maybe even prolong the life of this planet.
In addition to the desire to reduce one’s carbon footprint, veganism provides a means to protest the abusive conditions experienced by animals in the farming industry.
Huntington, Vegans of Orange County director, found the harm inflicted on these animals as “gross to see… but I think people, in particular those who eat meat, should really see at least once where much of our food comes from and how it is processed, because although it may be a little shocking and disgusting, it definitely can be an eye-opening and really informative and educational experience.”
Animals are often confined to cages so small they are unable to turn around. Many farming industries try to reduce the amount of space they use in order to maximize profit for their companies. However, as a result, the comfort of these animals is sacrificed.
The animals are deprived of exercise and are given drugs to dramatically increase their body weight for the purpose of maximizing meat yield. They are also genetically manipulated to promote faster-than-normal growth.
“One look at what is happening to animals used to feed and clothe humans is many times enough to convince a human to stop participating in such barbaric and violent industries,” Huntington said. “Knowing this fact … it seems bizarre and shocking to me that there is somehow a giant wall blocking average people from knowing about these simple and terrible truths.”
The world does not revolve around us. This may sound preachy, but what right do we have to treat innocent animals with such cruelty? They have done nothing, absolutely nothing, to suffer in such abismal living conditions. If people just witnessed the horrible treatment animals in the farming industry are subjected to, many would jump on board with veganism. However, the long distance between the food on our plate and the living, breathing source of that food makes it all too easy to turn a blind eye to the unacceptable truth. We need to face the facts and start taking action.
Veganism is a lifestyle change that will not only positively impact the environment, but also promotes fair treatment of animals. However, the vegan diet is not something you just nonchalantly hop onto. If not done properly, the vegan diet can result in some health problems.
According to Jody Margolis, a registered dietician nutritionist at the UCI Student Health and Wellness Center, if the vegan diet is not done with “intentional mindfulness to include a variety of wholesome, plant-based foods someone might feel low energy, poor mood, concentration or focus and be susceptible to a variety of vitamin/mineral deficiencies.”
One of the most prominent health risks associated with veganism is vitamin B12 deficiency.
“Vegans are at highest risk for Vitamin B12 deficiency as the best sources come from animal foods,” Margolis said. “Some plant-based foods like cereals or soy milk are fortified with B12 but would have to be consumed often and regularly.”
As a result, a vitamin B12 supplement, taken either orally or sublingually, is recommended.
Vegans also face an increased risk of osteoporosis, since they tend to consume lower levels of calcium and vitamin D. As well as a potential lack of Omega-3 fatty acids. Low iron and zinc levels pose an issue as well as anemia can arise from inadequate iron levels. Supplements may be needed in order to compensate for these issues. In addition, vegans who eat large amounts of legumes as a plant-based protein source may also develop a leaky gut.
It is critical to be conscientious about what one is putting into their body under a vegan diet. Some vegans, according to Margolis, “lean into easy, convenience foods like frozen bean burritos, bagels, French fries, pasta and fake meats, which can all be high in sodium and refined carbs.”
However, all of these health problems can be avoided if one plans ahead and develops a healthy vegan meal plan. In fact, there are a number of health benefits that vegans will experience.
“Health benefits for following a more plant-based diet may include reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even cancer prevention,” Margolis said.
Vegan foods are rich in vital nutrients. Vegans tend to consume more fiber, potassium, antioxidants, magnesium, folate and vitamins A, C and E. These nutrients help reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases. Vegans also have higher concentrations of antioxidant carotenoids, lower levels of saturated fats and a higher proportion of total Omega-3 fatty acids than non-vegans.
Marco Springmann, the senior researcher of environmental stability and public health at the University of Oxford, said “[w]e’ve found that the vegan diet could be one of the healthiest diets, outperforming pescatarian and vegetarian, because the vegan diet is higher in fruit, vegetables and legumes, and the health benefits from this compensate anything else.”
Those who stick to a healthy vegan diet maintain a healthier weight, since most vegan foods are generally less caloric than animal-based ones and contain less saturated fat. As a result, vegans typically have lower BMIs, lower blood pressure and healthier cholesterol levels than non-vegans.
“Keeping my weight down and staying in good shape has been easier,” Huntington said. “I find that I have much better stamina.”
Vegans have up to a 32% lower risk for cardiovascular disease and a 75% lower risk of developing high blood pressure. According to several randomized controlled studies, vegan diets are more effective at reducing cholesterol, total cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels than non-vegan diets. While animal-based foods appear to be linked with painful inflammatory responses, a raw food vegan diet rich in probiotics can alleviate some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and help reduce pain.
Converting to a vegan diet may seem like a challenge, but UCI offers a variety of resources for those who are already or aspiring to be vegan. The two main dining halls on campus, the Anteatery and Brandywine, both offer a variety of vegan food options. Additionally, other establishments, such as the Planteatery in the Student Center, provide vegan meals as well.
UCI has a variety of clubs that promote global sustainability. One is Anteaters for Animals, which is a club that encourages veganism while also raising awareness about the plight of non-human animals.
Students can also learn about how best to tailor their vegan diet to their own needs by meeting with Margolis, who can be found at the Student Health Center or the UCI Center for Student Wellness and Health Promotion.
In addition to UCI, Orange County itself provides a plethora of resources and food options for vegans. An abundance of vegan restaurants can be found throughout the area. Vegan groups also exist in the community, such as the Vegans of Orange County.
I know I might seem like a total hypocrite. Just a few months ago, I abhorred veganism and anything related to it and now here I am preaching to the high heavens about its greatness. But opinions change, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Upon questioning the basis of my hatred of veganism, I quickly found it to be irrational. Moreover, upon conducting my extensive research and even giving the diet a try (and finding that it is very maintainable), I realized that I had it all wrong; relinquishing animal-based products does not mean the end of the world, and veganism is not the enemy, but the solution to so many of our problems.
Alessandra Arif is a Staff Writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.