Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why go Vegan?

at 10:15 PM
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The vegan diet is becoming more and more popular as an ever-increasing number of high-profile celebrities, including film stars, sports stars and even politicians (for example, ex-US president Bill Clinton) "go vegan".

A vegan diet (otherwise known as a plant-based diet) is one that does not contain any animal products at all. Most people know that the vegetarian diet is one that does not include any meat products but the vegan diet also excludes all dairy products and also eggs and honey - in fact, any product that comes from an animal, and this will include such ingredients as the food additive cochineal, which is made from the crushed bodies of female insects.

So why do people adopt a vegan diet? There are three significant reasons why people do so, and it varies as to which one(s) are the most significant for the individual.

Firstly, for ethical reasons. It is, of course, the case that we can only eat the meat (and other body products such as an animal's milk or eggs) of animals if we confine them and, inevitably, kill them. We have to control animals in order to be able to take what we want from them. For a lot of vegans this is very troubling and they feel that we should not treat animals in the way that we do. Some people might think that in order to get milk and eggs that we don't have to kill animals and therefore a vegetarian diet would be okay from the ethical point of view. But, in fact, in order to have the milk of dairy cows (and other animals whose milk we use) the animals have to be made pregnant (like humans, other female animals only produce milk when they are going to give birth) and then the newborn has to be taken away from the mother so that we can take the milk instead. The newborns are either killed straightaway for cheap meat, or they are sold to the veal industry, in which they are held in very small cages for a few months before they are killed. When it comes to eggs, any male chicks born to the egg farmer are of no economic value (they will never produce eggs which can be sold) and so they are killed immediately - either by being thrown into refuse sacks to suffocate or even ground up alive in mincing machines. So the vegan feels that, ethically, no use of animal products is acceptable.

Secondly, for health reasons. A lot of medical research has indicated that people can live perfectly healthily without having to eat any animal-based foods. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine ( has provided plenty of information about the nutritional benefits of a vegan diet. From even before they are born, people can be provided with all of the vitamins and minerals that they need throughout their life from plant-based foods only. And indeed, a lot of research has shown that the more meat and dairy that one eats, the more unhealthy one becomes. A lot of diseases that cause major illness and indeed premature death, including heart disease, some cancers (including bowel and breast cancer), diabetes and obesity have much to do with the diet that we choose. The science shows that dietary cholesterol (the primary cause of cardiac disease) is only found in animal-based foods; it is nowhere found in plant-based foods. Therefore the vegan has, by default, a zero-cholesterol diet. So people choose a vegan diet in order to look after their health.

Thirdly, for environmental reasons. The United Nations has produced multiple reports showing that the livestock industry has a significant, negative impact on the environment. This is because it takes a lot of land, and a lot of food and water to keep livestock animals alive so that we can access their milk, eggs and flesh (which we get, of course, when we kill the animals). It varies from species to species but, on average, it takes around eight pounds of grain (that is fed to animals) for us to get one pound of meat. And whereas it takes around 1,000 litres of water for an acre of crops it takes around 100,000 litres to be given to animals on the equivalent amount of land. So we have to use up a lot of land and water that we give to animals - who themselves take up a lot of land (we raise around 60 billion livestock animals a year, and they take up a lot of room!). One of the major reasons for the destruction of the rainforests, including the Amazon rainforest, is to clear land to make way for growing grain, which is then given to livestock animals to eat. At the same time, we are also damaging the marine environment as we are taking around 1.5-2 trillion sea animals out of the seas and oceans every year - causing a major imbalance in the ecosystem and leaving large parts of the underwater world completely bereft of life. So vegans see adopting a plant-based diet as making good sense for trying to look after the environment.

These three reasons - ethical, health and environmental - are the main reasons why so many are now choosing a plant-based diet, and together they do add up to a good way of helping to look after ourselves, treating animals better and looking after the planet.

Richard Deboo is a public speaker and school educator on all issues relating to animal rights including diet and nutrition, veganism and the environment. He is the author of "Nine Steps To Eden".

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