Health, Environment

Plant-based diets: Enervating or life lengthening?

'Consuming animal-derived foods creates a burden on our bodies, and vegans are exempt from these burdens,' expert tells Anadolu

Elif Tugtekin  | 19.11.2023 - Update : 22.11.2023
Plant-based diets: Enervating or life lengthening?


Sacrifice for some, joy for others but one thing — with research ongoing — is becoming clearer by the day: Vegans and vegetarians tend to live longer.

A July 2023 study in the European Heart Journal showed that well-balanced plant-based diets are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, dementia, and cancer.

Speaking to Anadolu about the viability of the vegan diet, dietician and nutritionist Tuba Gunebak said that when we consume animal-derived foods, all the toxins and heavy metals in the animal's body, which we consume as muscle, are transferred to us.

"This creates a burden on our bodies, and vegans are exempt from these burdens," Gunebak told Anadolu.

A separate study from last year, estimating the impact of food choices on life expectancy, suggested that consuming legumes, whole grains, and nuts, while avoiding red meat and processed meats, could help extend a person's lifespan.

For men, this could result in up to 13 more years of life, while for women, it could lead to an additional 10.7 years of life, the study said.

Diet and ethics

Besides the health aspect of diets, they can also offer insights into a person's identity, values, and their impact on the environment.

Chris Ciocchetti, the Beaird chair of philosophy at the Centenary College of Louisiana, urged vegan individuals to "focus on moral growth and gradual shifts in their dietary choices" for a sustainable plant-based diet.

"Rather than striving for perfection from the outset, people should aim to reduce their consumption of animal products progressively," Ciocchetti stressed.

Delving into the ethical and psychological aspects of adopting a plant-based diet and their implications for individuals, he went on to say that a diet focused on environmental and ethical considerations could provide a sense of transcendence beyond personal needs that eventually contributes to mental well-being.

Veganism, which requires a person not to consume food derived from animals, has sparked numerous debates and challenges over the decades. Social struggles and physical hardships are among the greatest difficulties vegans face.

Though these diets seemingly don’t appear rich in nutrients, "with careful planning to ensure all nutritional needs are met, a vegan diet can be sustainable from a health perspective," according to dietician Gunebak.

Gunebak said she observed that many who embrace veganism or vegetarianism often cannot sustain these diets for long. "They find it challenging because it requires a different effort and dedication," she said, while underlining her firm belief that if a person struggles hard enough, replacing animal-derived food with alternatives is possible.

"Vegans need to employ different approaches to mitigate the risks of B12 and iron deficiencies. Primarily, it is imperative to take B12 vitamin supplements as this vitamin is predominantly found in animal-derived products," she said.

To diminish the likelihood of iron deficiency, Gunebak said it is vital to consume plant-based foods rich in iron in conjunction with vitamin C-rich foods to enhance its absorption. Regular blood tests and guidance from nutritionists are essential for a healthy vegan diet, she urged.

Can the vegan diet truly be sustainable?

From the first known vegan, Donald Watson (1910-2005), who founded a group called the "Vegan Society" veganism continues to grow as a lifestyle choice focused on ethical and environmental issues.

According to data retrieved from Google Trends, there has been a substantial global surge in interest surrounding veganism from the mid-2000s. Leading regions include Israel, Australia, the UK, Austria, and New Zealand.

But what are the key driving factors behind the growing popularity of the vegan diet in recent years?

The widespread use of social media platforms has greatly increased awareness on reasons to adopt a vegan diet, effectively carrying this message to a much larger and more diverse audience.

One vegan woman told Anadolu on condition of anonymity that she had come across documentaries and YouTube videos depicting the cruel treatment of animals in factories during her university years.

"I found it ethically troubling to witness them stuck in small spaces," she said, adding that over time, she "phased out" non-vegan foods from her life.

Small steps, not overnight change

Discussing the challenges individuals may face when transitioning to a vegan lifestyle, Ciocchetti addressed the social and psychological aspects of the transition.

He acknowledged that food was not just about nutrition but often holds cultural, familial, and identity-related significance, as well.

"The challenge is thinking about how to develop a vegan diet, that lets me understand myself and connect with my traditions, my families, the people around me in ways that are interesting and useful."

Ciocchetti emphasized the importance of developing a sustainable and balanced approach to veganism and encouraged individuals to find ways to adapt traditional recipes, incorporate familiar flavors, and gradually reduce their consumption of animal products. By doing so, people can bridge the gap between their current dietary habits and the goal of minimizing unnecessary harm.

He highlighted that transitioning to a completely vegan diet overnight might not be realistic for everyone and recommended small steps to adapt to the lifestyle at slow yet sure pace.

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