At this point, even if you’re not vegan, chances are you know a vegan, have dated one, or have eaten a vegan meal. If you live in a cosmopolitan city, especially one known for good food, i.e., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, or L.A., no doubt, you’ve noticed a growing number of vegan eateries, as well as vegan options on restaurant menus overall. We’re not just talking brown rice and veggies here (though that’s a perfectly acceptable option), but vegan food that is smart and complex, beautifully presented, and yes, delicious. At places like Chloe’s on Bleecker Street, in Manhattan, lunchtime crowds line up onto the street for the mouthwatering vegan burgers. And try getting a table without an advance reservation at the vegan Mexican restaurant Gracias Madre either in San Francisco or L.A. The interesting thing about the vegan food trend is that, unlike other food fashions, it didn’t really start as a foodie thing – it’s evolved into one. The fundamental reasons behind veganism go deeper than our taste buds, starting with the environment.
The Paris climate talks cited food and agricultural industry as the second biggest target for reducing carbon emissions. Nearly 20 percent of man-made pollution comes from the meat industry, putting factory farming ahead of transportation in contributing to the greenhouse effect. It takes about 40 calories of fossil-fuel energy to create one calorie of edible meat protein in the U.S, compared to 2.2 calories of energy to create the same amount of plant protein. Livestock contribute both directly and indirectly to climate change through the emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. A report from Worldwatch Institute states that when the entire life cycle and supply chain of the industry is taken into consideration, the annual GHG emissions animal agriculture is responsible for globally is as high as 51 percent. The report recommends that people consume plant-based foods instead of meat, eggs, and dairy products. The UN released its own report, Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production, urging "a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products" to help curb climate change. The journal Climate Change published a study comparing the carbon footprints of meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans. On average, meat eaters in the U.S. produce 16 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution per day; vegetarians account for 8.5 pounds; while vegans are responsible for 6.5 pounds per day. Clearly, switching to a vegan diet has enormous potential for impacting climate change.
Animal and Human Welfare
For anyone who cares about animals and their treatment in the food industry, there is no simpler and more accessible way to help prevent their suffering than going vegan. Most of us have seen documentation of animals on industrial farms being kept in cramped conditions, unable to do what they would do under more natural conditions. According to VeganOutreach.org, one person can spare about 50 animals per year by going vegan. And you can get just as much protein from plants. Vegan Outreach cofounder Matt Ball thinks it is inevitable that factory farming will end for a number of reasons. “Eating animals is just too inefficient, especially as human population grows and developing countries consume more calories. In the long-term,” he says, “humanity will change such that eating animals is no longer relevant.” One estimate has it that the 760 million tons of grain used to produce meat could feed 11 billion people and end the global food shortage 14 times over.
In general, vegans have lower incidences of type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease than meat eaters, as well as lower rates of obesity. Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables may also lower certain cancer rates, notably colon cancer. Kim A. Williams, Sr., MD, president of the American College of Cardiology, became a dedicated vegan after learning that his LDL cholesterol level was high at 170. Eating vegan allowed him to bring it down to 90 (below 100 is ideal) within six weeks. Dr. Williams says he often discusses the benefits of adopting a plant-based diet with patients who have high cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease, or are obese. Bill Clinton went vegan after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery and a later stent surgery. He since lost 20 pounds and has become an advocate for eating vegan and meatless. He told CNN, "All my blood tests are good, and my vital signs are good, and I feel good, and I also have, believe it or not, more energy." Recently the World Health Organization issued a report warning that processed meats rank alongside cigarettes as a major cause of cancer. According to the findings, 50g of processed meat a day, the equivalent of one sausage or less than two slices of bacon, increases the chance of developing bowel cancer by 18 per cent. Understandably, half of all Americans are reportedly trying to cut down on meat.
Of the millions estimated to be vegan, many have made the switch for health reasons, or because it’s a humane and environmentally conscientious choice. For almost all, a major perk is that vegan food is delicious, and just keeps getting more so. As the demand for vegan food surges, so do options, with vegan substitutes available for virtually anything - hamburgers, chicken, pizza, desserts, ice cream. Bill Gates, having invested in vegan-friendly products, blogged about plant-based alternatives that are produced more sustainably, and taste great, with which “you can create a nutritious, protein-rich meal that’s good for you and the environment.”
Along with the new food products, there’s a flourishing vegan culture of cookbooks and related bestsellers, hip new restaurants, and an array of Web sites dedicated to vegan eating and lifestyle. “There is a new veganism,” comprising a more diverse and expansive group of people, says Michael Parrish DuDell, a vegan and senior editor at Ecorazzi.com. No longer associated with deprivation, veganism has become more about delicious, conscientious eating, and it’s shaking up the culinary world, says DuDell. “You can walk into some of the best restaurants and tell them you’re a vegan, and they’ll prepare a great vegan meal for you.”
Today, nearly a fifth of all students are vegan (or vegetarian). There’s also an impressive list of celebrities and popular figures who have made the switch. (Google and see.) While veganism continues gaining international momentum, its practice dates back to ancient cultures such as those of India and Greece. As for its future, vegan activists believe veganism won’t be the exception, but rather the accepted norm. Eventually the vegan maxim may prove true: “We’re not crazy; we’re just from the future.”