At some point in our lives, we have all been given advice about our diet. The media constantly tells us that we should be switching out artificial, manufactured foods for organic alternatives. Some of the most contentious topics of debate revolve around vegetarianism and veganism. The question is, what is it that makes people want to cut out meat and animal produce from their diet, and is this choice easily justified?
Helping your Health
Eating a healthy, balanced diet can be tough for students, especially as processed foods are sometimes the cheaper option. Some would argue that the lack of meat and its associated proteins stops the body from performing at its best, but many athletes disagree. Indeed, both Venus and Serena Williams adhere to a vegan lifestyle and remain at the top of their tennis form. Indeed, some students at the University maintain that their vegan or vegetarian lifestyle has improved their health.
Amy Mullen said that being vegan has helped her stay healthy because she “has to [eat] more fruit and veg, [as] that’s kind of the only option.”
With as many as 60 per cent of individuals not eating their recommended minimum of five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, it is easy to suggest that one of these lifestyles would help improve health standards. Nina Uduardi-Lakos, a vegan, added: “You start thinking more about the food you eat because you want to make sure you get all the vitamins, minerals and protein.”
Ms Uduardi-Lakos does admit, however, that unhealthy treats are still a temptation. “I mean, Oreos are vegan,” she said.
There is also research that suggests fruits and vegetables can improve the state of your skin, and the research into this is found a lot closer to home than you might expect. Several years ago, a research group at the University looked at how increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables a person eats in a day can cause detectable changes in skin colour in just six weeks.
Dr Ross Whitehead, a researcher as the University, said that this study may provide a “stronger incentive for people to eat more healthily.” The “golden glow,” as it was called by some UK news outlets, is claimed to come from just two extra portions of fruits or vegetables a day, pushing us closer to the regularly recommended five-a-day NHS figure.
Professor David Perrett, a supervisor of the study, said: “A good diet is associated with an attractive skin tone. The message that a good diet improves skin colour could improve health across the globe.”
Indeed, Heni Horvath of the St Andrews Vegan and Vegetarian Society (VegSoc), attributed her clear complexion to her diet, saying: “I definitely have had amazingly clear skin since I became a vegan.”
Not all of the media coverage surrounding vegan and vegetarian diets suggests they have a positive effect. Some even claim that such diets can be detrimental to your health if you are not very careful about the quantity and nutrients of what you are eating. An interesting example is Maria Strydom, a vegan mountaineer who tragically died of exhaustion and altitude sickness whilst ascending Mount Everest earlier this year. When interviewed in March, she said, “People have this warped idea of vegans being malnourished and weak [and] by climbing the seven summits we want to prove that vegans can do anything and more.”
Ms Strydom’s death sparked a frenzy of claims that her diet was to blame, but previous achievements of both vegans and vegetarians, including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, gave no evidence of this.
The Ethics of it All
For many people who decide to become vegetarian or vegan, the decision is an ethical rather than health-related one. What most of us try not to consider when we eat meat is that it comes from an animal that has been killed solely for this purpose.
Emily Lomax, a member of St Andrews VegSoc, summed up some common concerns: “The animals themselves lead miserable existences, overfed to the point that they can’t support their own weight, cramped together in sheds or even in outdoor spaces. These animals are not allowed to roam so that they don’t expend energy and lose weight because that loses the farmers money.”
Saving the Planet
Before the Flood, a National Geographic documentary co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, explores humans’ contributions to climate change. The documentary claims that in the US, just under half of the landmass is used for food production, and 70 per cent of this is just for cattle feed, with very large amounts of methane are released in the process. Even more interesting was the claim that only one per cent of the crop land usage was used for the growth of fruits, vegetables and nuts.
With the world releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than ever before, can we justify the apparent inefficiency in meat production? When a cow is fed, most of the energy goes towards sustaining the animal, and only a small amount of the energy and nutrition of the crops goes to humans when eating meat.
The Meat Free Mondays campaign states that using land to grow crops for human consumption could reduce gas emissions by a large amount. The campaign also claims that while 800 million people live in hunger, the crops fed to livestock could “feed three times this number of people.”
Commenting on the statistic, Ms Mullen said, “I really hate how much land is used for animal feed when there are people who don’t have enough food.” She added that an even more significant issue is livestock’s water usage, saying: “People tell you to switch the tap off while brushing your teeth but still eat animals, which is wasting far more water.”
Basing the decision to go vegan or vegetarian purely on environmental issues, however, can sometimes appear strange. Ms Horvath points out that some arguments can appear contradictory as, “eating vegan ice cream made of palm oil might be good for the animals, but not so much for the environment.” Before the Flood highlights the fact that palm oil production is one of the major contributors to deforestation in areas like Indonesia.
Being a Student
For those of you wondering if the transition to a vegan or vegetarian diet is one that can be easily made while at university, Ms Lomax argued that maintaining either diet is no added hassle. She said: “Shops have plenty of veggie and vegan foods and alternatives, especially as they cater for allergies and intolerances too.”
The Tree, a not-for-profit part of the Transition UStA group encourages “sustainable food choices by making local food readily available at affordable prices.” The benefit of these sources is that many have great links to local producers and seasonal produce, giving students the opportunity to not only save the planet but help the local economy, too.
The St Andrews spirit runs strong through the vegetarian and vegan groups, with VegSoc regularly holding social dinners for anybody who wants to attend. The society was also quick to point out that the online community is amazingly helpful with its endless supply of both vegetarian and vegan recipes. It certainly seems that there is a bountiful supply of delicious, healthy meals available to keep you energised throughout your day.
Maintaining the lifestyle is not always the easiest, as Ms Mullen explains. IShe said: “I often struggle with being vegan. Especially when I’m really busy or stressed and don’t want to cook. It’s hard to find something ready-made that’s vegan, and it’s a lot harder if you really want junk food.”
When asked about the combination of drinking and her diet, she stated that it’s not an issue and that “most spirits are vegan.”
It is interesting to point out that despite the apparent health benefits of a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, these effects are somewhat countered by the decision to drink alcohol. This choice falls into the larger issue of university drinking culture, which is so prevalent that most people, even those on health-centred diets, forget the negative impact that alcohol has on the body.
The reasons for choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle range from wanting to improve your health to a wider concern about leaving less of a carbon footprint. Whilst the transition to these diets is a challenge, the overall movement is growing, and many local suppliers are trying their best to accommodate to the demand.