A decade ago the labels “vegetarian” and “vegan” conjured up two distinct images. The former denoted a person motivated by animal welfare to follow a meat-free diet – growing up, every classroom contained a handful of children who refused to eat animals, usually outnumbered by those who saw no reason to renounce their fish fingers. “Vegan”, on the other hand, was until recently shorthand for a bearded, sandal-clad plant-eater who spent their weekends protesting for some cause or another (today “hipster” seems to cover this pejorative nicely). While these lifestyle choices may have met with varying prejudices from society at large, both were recognised to stem from one simple aim: to avoid the suffering of animals.
But for anyone pondering a move to a plant-based diet today – and according to a survey cited in the Independent, 18% of us students are doing just that – the motivations are likely to be a lot more complex. Both the Vegetarian Society and the Vegan Society present us with a holy trinity of reasons for making the switch to their friendly, green websites: animal welfare remains on the list, but on equal footing are health and environmental benefits.
These information sites reflect current public debate on meat-eating, and show a shift in the nature of the conversation – once based upon noble sentiments, and a passion to avoid suffering, the arguments for vegetarianism have stepped up a level, and evoke the unavoidable, hard facts: in 2006 the UN calculated that livestock contribute more to global warming than all forms of transport combined, while just last month the WHO confirmed that regular consumption of processed meats dramatically increases our risk of cancer.
Even before the potential vegetarian or vegan has delved into this sea of scientific research, or conducted a personal investigation as meticulous as Jonathan Safran Foer’s in his book ‘Eating Animals’, the meat-free diet today is winning the battle of common sense: less livestock means less strain on natural resources, and a well planned plant-based diet will be high in nutrition, and low in saturated fat.
This rise in numbers of young people steering clear of the meat aisle has occurred during the internet age. With a universe of information at our fingertips, it is natural that we have begun to ask more questions about where are food comes from, and what’s in it.
But the impact of social media and a new “clean eating” culture is also showing signs of impacting our choices. Buzzfeed is teeming with young, shiny-haired, almost exclusively female vegan Instagrammers. Any collective effort to pursue a healthier, more environmentally conscious lifestyle is to be welcomed, however this new online veganism has little in common with the roots of the movement, and contains worrying elements. Many so-called “nutritionists” promoting meat-free, dairy-free, even gluten-free lifestyles hold no scientific qualifications, which is a clear cause for concern. While some of these bloggers are well-balanced, healthy individuals, others promote deeply problematic messages, such as Freelee the Banana Girl, whose calls for a diet of thirty bananas a day are interspersed with selfies displaying the “perfect” body. In a society where teenagers are developing eating disorders at an ever younger age, we must be cautious of rhetoric claiming that cutting out entire food groups is the secret to being healthier, prettier, or happier.
It may well be that veganism as a diet-fad will be dropped by the Instagram set. Those who seek a diet which is good to animals, the environment and our bodies will continue to do so regardless of fluctuating trends, adapting and accommodating to new, well-founded information as we learn more about health, industry and the planet.
IMAGE: Jasper Greek Golangco