When I opened my Vegetarian restaurant in the early 90s being Vegetarian was not very common , and being vegan was a very small minority, stereotypically it was “hippies” and animal activists who were vegan - and often would look very thin and unhealthy. Eating out was a nightmare , and there was very little vegetarian convenience or takeaway , never mind vegan. It was also based very much on eating brown bread / rice / pasta and a very soya based diet - so getting optimal protein was very difficult.
Over the last 10 years being Vegan has become a very much more “normal” way to eat. When Veganuary started in 2014 just 3000 people participated, and in 2022 over 629,000. There is definitely a shift in peoples thinking when it comes to veganism. This has coincided with more research and talk about following a plant based diet which was first written about in 1980 by Thomas Colin Campbell, the Cornell University biochemist .
Putting plants especially vegetables, but also fruit, nuts, legumes and seeds as the main part of your diet. Plant based and vegan are often interchanged but they are not the same thing. Being vegan means having no animal products or derivatives at all. Plant based is about having plants as the centre of your diet, these are where the majority of your nutritional requirements come from, but with the addition of some animal products.
Both plant based and vegan will require more creativity in the kitchen to ensure a fully balance diet. Being vegan it can be harder to get your protein requirements in, it often involves a lot of planning to ensure that enough complete proteins are consumed. A lot of plants have protein but none of them are a complete protein. You need to combine them to ensure you get the 9 essential amino acids needed to make complete protein This is often why people are plant based as they feel they are lacking in protein so know that they can when their body needs it have some animal protein ( which is a complete protein) to ensure their nutrition is optimal.
There are many pros and cons from being vegan, as well as being a carnivore both from a health point of view and an environmental point of view - which is increasingly becoming a factor into what we put on our plate. However we need to be careful if we are being vegan from an environmental viewpoint, thinking about where our food comes from, the seasonality of it, the distance it has travelled.. In the Algarve we are all too aware of the problems that monoculture brings to the water supply from the massive avocado farms. Avocados are a big staple in a vegan diet, as they provide a lot of beneficial nutrients, but from an environmental point of view they can have quite a heavy footprint from transportation and water. It is estimated to be around 200litres of water to grow one avocado . By ensuring that we buy locally and in season then we can keep the environmental impact of our food choices much lower. This is the same whether we are talking about plants or animals. There is no denying the evidence for meat providing a bigger carbon footprint so being less environmentally friendly, however the choices we make in our plant based foods can also have a negative impact on the environment.
From a health point , everyone's health can benefit from eating more fruit and vegetables and the greater the variety the better it is for us. This is often one reason why people feel so much better when they become vegan or plant based as they are being more creative in the kitchen , eating a wider variety of plants , and reducing the amount of red meat that they eat.
When looking into research for the pros and cons of meat - there is no definitive answer. It is generally accepted that eating a lot of red meat can be detrimental to your health. Most Nutritionists will recommend reducing red meat consumption. It is “suggested” by WHO ( World Health Organisation) that eating red meat could be carcinogenic , and that it can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease - but this is only a suggestion.
From a research point of view, you can pretty much find research to back up any type of diet , and as such it is impossible to say one diet is better.. At the end of the day we are all unique, and as such it is impossible to have a one size fits all for a diet.
We need to find a way to eat that both suits our body, our ethic and has the least impact on the environment. We want to ensure our bodies are fueled correctly to perform as we need them to. To do this in a way that keeps our weight healthy, that enables us to have a nutritionally dense and diverse diet that covers all food groups . It is full of a variety of plants, getting a good dose of antioxidants, eating foods that help our guts to be healthy, and to ensure we are getting enough protein for our needs , whether that is purely plant based or there is some animal protein as well.
Whether you want to be Vegan or to be predominantly plant based there is no doubt that increasing the amount of vegetables & plants that you eat and reducing the amount of red meat has a positive effect on your health.