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Alumni Voices: going vegan isn't a foolproof way to be healthier, but we shouldn't ignore the benefits

Gurpreet Kharay

02 January 2020

Gurpreet Kharay (Nutrition, 2009; Medicine, 2010) is a doctor in Adelaide, Australia.

There are many reasons for considering a vegetarian or vegan diet, from the environmental and ethical to the potential health benefits. Veganism, which differs from vegetarianism in avoiding all animal products including dairy, has become increasingly popular in the last decade and has been a major food trend this year. It isn’t only about food either, I was shopping on my local high street recently when the staff at a Doc Martens store directed me to the vegan shoe collection. Their sales pitch had me thinking twice about being a leather-goods consumer.

We are increasingly exposed to positive vegan messages at home too. When looking for dinner recipes online there is no shortage of ‘clean food’ vegan options. This kind of emotive language has often had me thinking twice about my ingredient list, perhaps replacing ‘unclean’ cheddar with vegan cheese.

There are a number of things you should consider if you are planning on extending Veganuary into long-term veganism. Unfortunately, due to the highly restrictive nature of the diet, vegans are at risk of being deficient in certain nutrients such as calcium and vitamin B12 usually found in dairy and meat respectively. Calcium is vital for healthy bone development and B12 has a role in DNA synthesis as well as helping to maintain a functioning nervous system. It is important that those on vegan diets ensure they eat enough calcium-rich foods like kale and soy and they are also advised to take B12 supplements. On the plus side, varied vegan diets are abundant in other nutrients and essential minerals, thanks to the inclusion of fresh fruit and vegetables.

There may be some significant health benefits to healthy vegetarian and vegan diets. They are thought to be cardioprotective as they are lower in cholesterol and higher in wholegrains and nuts. Recent studies have also shown a link between bowel cancer and that of a diet rich in red and processed meat and, although more research is required to confidently say vegan diets are cancer protective, we do know that consumption of legumes and fibre are thought to have preventative properties. Unfortunately, vegan eating is often seen as difficult or expensive. Perhaps for this reason, vegans in the west are typically young, female, educated and wealthy. This means many of those who could benefit from a vegan diet are missing out. It is well known, for example, that in industrialized countries mortality from cardiovascular disease is higher in the lower socioeconomic groups.

Equally important is the contribution a vegan lifestyle could have on helping protect the environment for the future generations. Global livestock accounts for around 15 percent of greenhouse emissions, production is expected to double by 2050.

I’d be the first to admit going vegetarian, let alone vegan, would be very challenging for me. But when I think about my carbon footprint, I know my consumption of animal products is something I need to change. Veganuary might not be appealing to everybody, but it does offer an opportunity for us to consider the ways we can reduce our use of animal products. I won’t be going cold turkey (no pun intended), but one new year’s resolution I will be keeping is to cut back on the steak dinners.

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Gurpreet Kharay

Gurpreet Kharay

Contributor to Alumni Blog.

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