Thursday , June 20 2024

Veganism’s Tenuous Relationship With Health

This article was first published here.

Veganism is all the rage. Advocates of the vegan lifestyle often make bold claims about its transformative positive health effects, including weight loss, mood-boosting, and even reducing the risk of cancer and diabetes. But a little digging into the everyday reality of eating no animal products reveals something rather different.

Since veganism entered the mainstream in the 2010s, the number of people adhering to a strictly plant-based diet has soared. This year, there are an estimated 88 million vegans in the world – more than 1% of the world’s population. Over the past few years, Google searches related to veganism have increased five-fold. By 2025, the global vegan food market will be worth around $22 billion.

Human beings have been eating animal products since the Stone Age. Constructing a completely plant-based diet is possible in the modern world, but it requires a lot of man-made substitutes for everyday essentials like meat, milk, and eggs.

One of the most popular vegan food products is soy. It crops up as an ingredient in countless substitute items, from soy milk to vegan meats like tofu and tempeh. Vegan recipes often rely on soybeans, soy sauce, soy nuts, and other soy-based ingredients.

Why so much soy everywhere you look? Why such little variety? Unfortunately for vegans, plant-based sources of protein are few and far between. Vegans rely on products like soy, but some alarming research suggests it might not be as healthy as many think.

Firstly, claims of health benefits are exaggerated at best. As much as vegans might want you to believe switching from red meat to soy burger patties reduces cancer risks, the science says consuming lots of soy makes no difference to your chances of getting cancer.

Alarmingly, some scientists go much further, warning of all manner of unintended side-effects from eating too much soy. Researchers at the University of California, Riverside found that soybean oil contributes to obesity and diabetes.

Their study, which was published in the widely-respected Endocrinology journal, also found that causes genetic changes in the brain which lead to increased risk of anxiety, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. It corroborated the UCR team’s earlier research, which discovered links between soy consumption and insulin resistance, as well as fatty liver disease.

Other vegan products don’t fare much better on the health front. Quorn, one of the very few soy-free meat substitutes, has been known to cause vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea, and in more serious cases, hives, breathing difficulties, and anaphylactic shocks. In 2013, an 11-year-old asthmatic child died after eating a Quorn burger.

It doesn’t stop with Quorn and soy. Almond milk, a soy-free and dairy-free milk substitute, can have side effects including thyroid problems, abdominal cramps, and skin flare-ups. Meanwhile, aquafaba, an egg substitute derived from cooked chickpeas’ watery run-off, can cause digestive issues and high blood pressure, thanks to its high sodium content, among other problems.

Everywhere you look, vegan substitutes for animal products seem to be riddled with harrowing new health risks, not to mention their failure to provide the essential nutrients our bodies rely on to function.

Some particularly determined vegans might even claim all these health risks are worth it if it means saving the planet. Sadly, these vegan products are often worse for the environment than those they’re replacing.

Almond milk, for instance, requires vast amounts of energy and water to produce, exacerbating its impact on the natural world. As for soy, that ubiquitous vegan ingredient, the environmental consequences of its production range from soil erosion to deforestation and water shortages, not to mention greenhouse gas emissions.

To preserve our health – and help save the planet in the process – we are better off sidestepping the vegan diet and its litany of health risks and enjoying our meat and milk guilt-free. In the meantime, innovators are working behind the scenes to create new ways for us to manufacture the animal products we know and love in sustainable ways, from lab-grown meat to breeding cows with methane-free burps, all of which means we can do our bodies a favor and skip over plant-based substitute products like soy altogether.

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