Vegetarianism and veganism are becoming increasingly common amongst our generation, often to the great dismay of our parents and grandparents who view these trends as downright unhealthy and rather peculiar; images of angry activists and emaciated figures spring to mind, providing that they have even heard of the terms before. However, with the recent announcement by the World Health Organisation, the huge media flurry around vegan YouTuber Essena O’Neil, and World Vegan Day all being covered by the mass media, the transition of this issue from the fringe into popular culture can be observed. Research carried out in 2014 suggests that 13% of Britons follow a vegetarian or a vegan diet; this is at a stark contrast to the 3% found to be doing the same in 2009. This trend is reflected in the Durham population as well, with the Vegetarian and Vegan Society now consisting of around 320 members on Facebook, and still growing each day.
For those of you wondering what could potentially possess this growing minority to change their eating habits, the answer is that there is no single cause. However, the multitude of reasons that people have for making such choices can be divided into three categories: ethical, environmental and health. The most historic of these, although arguably the least relevant in causing the sudden increase in the number of vegetarians and vegans today, is the ethical reason. This was first promoted by Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who believed that humans should respect and preserve all forms of life. This ethical perspective was then expanded upon by Donald Watson who coined the term ‘vegan’ in 1944 and founded the Vegan Society because he believed that all animal derivatives are “products of pain, suffering, and abominable interference with the law of love.”
This historical legacy stands in contrast with the origins of environmental vegetarianism and veganism, which only came to the forefront in recent years, with the release of the documentary Cowspiracy in 2014. This documentary has an extremely large following within the vegan movement in particular, with many reporting that watching it was an enlightening experience that motivated their transition to the lifestyle. Cowspiracy makes many shocking revelations – for example, that producing just half a kilo of beef takes 12,000 litres of water. Moreover, it highlights the fact that 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by livestock and their by-products. This puts the damaging effects of humans’ excessive meat consumption on global warming into perspective, and highlights the personal responsibility of all environmentalists to embrace this cause in their activism; for most, this translates into reducing or eliminating the amount of animal products in their diet.
While the aforementioned factors resonate with some, the most pertinent reasons for adopting plant-based lifestyles are those related to health, according to Mintel (a London based market research firm). An aspiring vegetarian studying in Durham agreed with this, stating that while she loves the taste of meat she prefers not to eat it, as it can slow down digestion due to a lack of fibre. Another vegetarian student stated that she was trying to cut out dairy from her diet as casein, found in most dairy products, has been linked to acne and other skin problems. Nutrition research, and to an extent popular media, has emphasised the damaging effects of eating foods laden with cholesterol and saturated fat, both of which can be found in abundance in animal products such as eggs, cheese and red meat, for years. In fact, the WHO’s announcement that processed meat can be considered a Group 1 carcinogen, suggesting that it definitely causes cancer, and red meat a Group 2 carcinogen, suggesting that it may cause cancer, does not come as a surprise to many.
Furthermore, it must be noted that the rise in the number of vegetarians and vegans who are concerned about their health is most pronounced in the 16-25 age group. The reason for this could be that this group is more likely to come across information about these alternative lifestyles on social media than any other. YouTube hosts a large vegan community with many channels – NutritionFacts.org, for example – giving detailed information on studies that found adverse health effects related to all forms of animal products, even those considered ‘healthy’ in mainstream consciousness, such as chicken and fish. One third-year vegetarian emphasised this point, stating that she watches many vegan and vegetarian YouTubers as they are a great way to learn about healthy nutrition. She also indicated that YouTube made it a lot easier to be vegetarian as ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos provide healthy, student friendly recipe ideas, so that she didn’t need to spend too much time thinking of what to eat in the week. This made vegetarianism more accessible for her as well as countless others.
Meat-free diets are becoming more and more accessible and easy to maintain, even in small towns such as Durham. The Tesco in the Market Place, for example, stocks a multitude of meat free options, such as Quorn products for vegetarians, and soya ‘mince’ and bean burgers for vegans. Regardless of people’s motivations for becoming vegetarian or vegan, the maintenance of the lifestyle is becoming increasingly effortless. These products are affordable, delicious, and can be enjoyed even by those who eat meat. I would suggest giving this lifestyle a go, if not for the reasons above, then simply to better understand those of our peers who choose to live this way.
Featured photograph: Takver via Flickr