The great vegan debate: Health or hype?

The great vegan debate: Health or hype?

Individuals with differing views on veganism joined hands at the Vegan Street Food Tour in Haarlem, showcasing the diverse range of plant-based options. While some embrace veganism out of compassion for animals, others are drawn to its health benefits. However, questions linger about the validity of these health claims, with reliable studies only recently becoming more accessible.

Fresh orange juice in support for local firms. © Rosita Wijnberg

On February 18th, I had the opportunity to join a gathering of individuals intrigued by veganism, alongside experts, for a captivating Vegan Street Food Tour in Haarlem. I met individuals with differing views on veganism – some sceptical about its implications, while others enlightened me about the importance of treating our bodies like temples. Sustainable change starts with a mindset shift, often sparked by simple acts like watching videos of vegans debating meat enthusiasts. Gradually, individuals lean towards embracing veganism.

Lukas Wang, a recent vegan convert on the tour, finds it easy to adopt a vegan lifestyle in the Netherlands. Festivals, gatherings, and train stations offer vegan options, while every city hosts market days featuring locally sourced produce. Supporting this, Felix, an omnivorous chef exploring the culinary world’s future,  emphasises, “There is an increase in demand for sustainably and organically produced foods.” He highlights the opportunity for creative, nutrient-dense meals but acknowledges the challenge of adapting old habits for most individuals. Chefs like himself already contend with demanding work hours and high-pressure environments. Customised or unusual orders only compound their workload, making it difficult for them to sustain their livelihoods.

Lukas’ first vegan sushi “tomato tuna.” © Rosita Wijnberg

Veganism is deeply ingrained in daily life in religious nations like India, where about 400 million people follow plant-based diets rooted in ancient teachings linking spirituality with food choices, aiding the path to enlightenment. Despite the online misconception equating veganism solely with compassion and wealth, people in regions with lower healthcare costs, like the global south, challenge this idea. According to a recent study, plant-based diets are valued for their cost-effectiveness and health benefits, driving their adoption across diverse cultures globally.

Across cultures, meat-based dishes hold significant cultural significance, reflecting dietary practices inherited from our ancestors over 2.6 million years. Felix, emphasising tradition, firmly asserts its importance with a simple “Certainly.” The thought of losing iconic dishes like bolognese sauce is unsettling for many. Besides, optimal health is achieved through balance. Including moderate portions of fish, meat, and dairy alongside vegan essentials ensures sufficient vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids for overall well-being and mental clarity.

Primates like chimps, orangutans, and gorillas primarily consume plant-based diets, drawing parallels with contemporary veganism. The thriving health of gorillas without animal proteins raises questions about the necessity of meat in human diets. Lukas shares, “It really doesn’t matter at all whether you get plant-based protein or not, so I would say that that’s a misconception for as far as I can tell about health.” Historical evidence, including the dietary practices of ancient gladiators, challenges traditional notions of protein sources, demonstrating that whole grains, nuts, and beans suffice for most individuals. 

Vegan pita bite. © Rosita Wijnberg

With the rise of meat substitutes offering cholesterol-free options, some are higher in sodium and saturated fats compared to real meat. Lukas, who challenges the idea that meat alternatives ease dietary transitions, emphasises, “Really feeling full after a meal is one of the hardest things to get up to the level that you had it as a meat eater.” The tour participants I ate with also raised concerns about the prevalent B12 deficiency among vegans, noting that the shift to meat alternatives could trigger cultural tensions, hindering systemic changes necessary for a healthier, sustainable food system.

The tour also highlighted that vegans have a lower risk of high blood pressure, obesity, and certain cancers, potentially leading to longer lives. Blue Zones, where communities with the most centenarians reside, underscore the health benefits of a 95% whole food plant-based diet, known to reduce autoimmune diseases. Moreover, vegans demonstrate healthier lifestyle habits, including reduced smoking and alcohol consumption, and increased physical activity levels, even after accounting for factors like age, sex, race, alcohol, and exercise.

While scepticism about exaggerated claims in the industry is valid, Lukas advises, “It’s a little bit dubious, like there are so many studies and that’s another thing I would recommend is don’t get overwhelmed by the fact that there are studies, so many studies arguing for and against your position.” Despite potential setbacks, which can be managed through planning and supplementation, intentional dietary choices may enhance overall health and well-being.

About The Author