I have been lucky to have grown up with access to good food. I learnt how to cook and from an early age understood basic nutrition. My parents cooked fresh most nights and this habit passed onto me as I began to fend for myself at university. I feel very privileged to have experienced this.
Nevertheless, when I started at Durham in September 2019, I changed my dietary journey, feeling strongly that vegetarianism was the right step for me.
Summertime 2020 gave me much time to reconsider my diet again, and the impact it has on the world around me. Eventually, I felt a moral urge to go vegan. When I gained that next level of independence, moving into private accommodation in my second year, I began this transition. Though I became vegan primarily for moral and environmental reasons, it came to my attention that there is much evidence that going vegan is better for an individual’s health than the average British diet.
Now, I am no medical expert, but doing a bit of digging did shock me: the standard, ‘balanced’ diet that I grew up with isn’t as healthy as it’s presented on our screens, in our shops, and advertisements.
Firstly, I’ll address the health benefits I have experienced personally since going vegan. I have been very privileged to have generally been in good
health all my life. However, I used to experience really bad indigestion, bloating and heartburn almost every time I ate a meal. This was really uncomfortable and at times painful. Packets of Rennie’s were my only cure.
However, after following a plant-based diet for several weeks, I began to realise this feeling disappearing. It appeared as if cutting out dairy settled
my stomach more. Of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but the fact that around 70% of the world’s population are to some degree lactose intolerant is food for thought.
Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and diabetes, kill 41 million people every year – 71% of deaths globally –
according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). More and more nutritional experts are concluding that diet, more specifically our heavily animal product-based diet, is a major cause of this staggering figure.
Dairy products contain saturated fats, and the fat in meat is known as ruminant trans-fat. WHO recommends we significantly reduce our consumption of these fats, since they are major causes of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. As we eat more animal products, these fats begin to build up on our muscle cells and prevent sugars and carbohydrates from crossing the cell membrane.
Therefore, the sugars remain in our bloodstreams. This build-up of fat leads to insulin resistance, blood vessel clots, and eventually cardiovascular disease.
Furthermore, studies, such as one undertaken in 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, have concluded that processed and red meats are carcinogenic, because of the chemicals that are produced during the cooking process.
A plant-based diet avoids all this. Since all nutrients essential for human health (other than B12, which can be easily supplemented) can be found in plant products, cutting out meat and dairy is a considerable way to end this deadly epidemic of NCDs.
Plant-based diets are also closely linked to longevity. People who live in so-called ‘Blue Zone’ areas, the places in the world with the highest numbers of centenarians, follow a 95% – 100% plant-based diet.
Furthermore, many pro athletes are turning to vegan diets, reporting faster recovery after exercise, more energy and weight loss. Serena Williams, David Haye, Lewis Hamilton, and Germany’s strongest man in 2011, Patrik Baboumian, all follow a vegan diet.
Of course, veganism is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. You can be an unhealthy vegan, and the lifestyle can make you seriously ill if you forget certain nutrients.
Moreover, there are other essential pillars of good health, including regular exercise, social interaction, and sleep. However, despite enjoying the foods I grew up with, veganism, as it becomes more accessible for the average person, whilst not the be-all and end-all, is undoubtedly a step in a positive direction towards a much healthier lifestyle.
Illustration: Sophie Draper