Veganism: what’s the impact on our health and the environment?
With increasing numbers of people trying veganism, and the likes of even Greggs the bakery in the UK giving vegan products a go, it’s clear that going vegan has tipped into the mainstream. New research from Bupa Global into the health, diet and lifestyle habits of people around the globe backs this up, as it found 65% of people in the UK have tried the vegan diet in the past five years, and it was the third most popular diet globally.
The research also found that of all the diets considered, veganism was found to be the most sustainable versus more ‘fad’ diets, and that it was considered by many participants as a lifestyle choice as opposed to a ‘diet’.
To improve the health of the environment and colleagues’ wellbeing, Bupa Global in Copenhagen introduced a weekly Meat-free Day in the staff restaurant. Two and a half years since its launch, the initiative is still going strong. We caught up with Viviana Holm, the driving force behind meat-free days, and Dr Søren Carstens, Bupa Global’s Head of Clinical Operations, to understand the initiative’s impact.
How did the meat-free initiative begin?
Viviana: Meat-free days in Bupa Global Copenhagen locations began as a pilot in May 2016, starting with a six-month trial period.
I had been keen to launch this initiative for some time, but it was challenging at the start because meat is a big part of Danish culture. As a nation, we have the highest percentage of people consuming meat per day in the world. There were questions about the campaign, but information and education is key, as is taste! If you provide healthy and delicious food, people will focus less on what isn't on the plate and more on the fact that it tastes great.
After the pilot we did a survey to see if this was something that we could make permanent. The results were really positive and we launched weekly meat-free days.
What impact has the initiative had so far?
Viviana: The result of two and a half years of one meat-free day a week in our Copenhagen locations, equates to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to driving a bus for 675,660 kilometres. That's the same as driving around the world 17 times. Not only has the initiative reduced gas emissions, it's also helped save 43,363,125 litres of water – the equivalent to filling almost 17 Olympic swimming pools or taking 1.4 million showers.
How does reducing meat in your diet impact your health?
Dr Carstens: If you choose to go vegan, there may be many benefits to your health. Vegan diets tend to be higher in fruit and vegetables, meaning they are rich in vitamins and minerals, and high in fibre which decreases the risk of diseases like colorectal cancer. By avoiding foods which are typically high in saturated fat, such as red meat and cheese, you can have a positive impact on blood cholesterol levels.
Vegan diets can also generally be lower in calories due to not consuming meat and dairy products. This decreases the chances of diseases that are associated with being overweight such as diabetes, high blood pressure and a reduced risk of heart disease.
Is it difficult to go vegan?
Viviana: I stopped eating meat when I was 14 years old – so that's a long time ago. I've been vegan for about five or six years and my husband and two children are also vegan.
For me, reading and educating myself helped me to take steps to make changes. Six years ago, soya milk was basically the only thing available in Denmark. I had to order products from Germany for things we really liked. But over the last couple of years there's been an explosion here in Denmark and supermarkets now stock a range of plant-based products and meat substitutes. Meanwhile, in the UK, supermarkets have seen also an increase in vegan products in the last year.
What’s your advice for someone making a change to a vegan diet?
Dr Carstens: Going vegan is a commitment. Always remember why you are doing it. You need to be mentally prepared and accept that this will require sustained effort and time.
It’s sometimes said that vegan diets are bad for you because you can’t get essential vitamins and minerals that are present in meat into your body. This isn’t true, and it is possible to get everything your body needs with a no meat or no animal products diet.
A vegetarian or vegan diet can be healthy; however, vegetarians and vegans need to make a planned and sustained effort to maintain a nutritionally balanced diet.
Picture you preparing to run your first 10 miles or a marathon. You don’t just go out and run the whole distance on the first day. Careful planning and commitment is a must in order to succeed. The same goes for a radical change like going vegan. Plan, read about the dos and don’ts and, if you can, have someone join you.
Notes to editors:
- That's the same as driving around the world 17 times – www.worldmeatfreeweek.com (impact of 250 persons having one meat-free day per week for two and a half years)
- In comparison, it requires 244 litres of water to produce one litre of soya milk – 72% less water - https://waterfootprint.org/media/downloads/Ercin-et-al-2012-WaterFootprintSoy.pdf