Updated: Mar 1
Have you ever heard of the term VEGANUARY? In 2014, the term was coined in the UK in an attempt to encourage people wanting to transition towards a plant-based diet and to make it their new year’s resolution. The movement has gained considerable momentum since it‘s birth, and what started with 5-10k people has grown to over half a million participants in 2021. Is 2022 the year where we make it to a million? Plant-based nutrition has gained much notoriety since study after study has shown that it confers great benefits to the health of both the human body and the planet.
Climate change, extreme weather events including wildfires, floods and storms, deforestation, species extinction, ocean dead zones, water and air pollution, green house gas emissions and land degradation, are just a few of the detrimental effects that animal agriculture has on our planet. Our grand-children will have to deal with whatever is left of our fragile planet. The damage that we've caused in the last 100 years will leave its scar on a planet that has been in balance for millions of years. The challenges that future generations will face are giants in comparison to what we've seen. Animal agricultural practices have also been directly linked to past pandemics, including AIDS in the 1980's, the 2005 bird flu (avian influenza), the 2009 H1N1 swine flu, 2002 SARS, and possibly the 2019 COVID pandemic. By adding more plants to your plate, you naturally make less space for refined foods that are calorie dense and nutrient poor, you crowd out animal products, like processed meats and red meat that are both classified as carcinogens by the WHO, and you consume disease fighting foods instead of disease feeding ones. And did I forget to mention that you're also saving the planet. Yay you! Go get'em Tiger.
New Year, New You?
Most of those reflecting on possible New Year's resolutions quickly recognize the beneficial effects of a healthy diet and often prioritize improvements in this part of their life. And what better time to turn the page and write a new chapter than January 1st, or 2nd if you’re hungover.
Is VEGANUARY going too far though? Meat corporations would say so. They’ve been trying to outlaw the movement since meat sales and profits have been consistently decreasing each of the last few years. This is thought to be in part because of the rise of veganism, as well as marketing campaigns like meatless Mondays or tofu Thursdays. Is dedicating a whole month to veganism going too far?
The average person that transitions towards a plant-based diet can expect to cut their carbon footprint in half, save over 4000 liters of water per day, save 45 pounds of grains (fed to animals) per day, save 20 pounds of CO2 equivalent as well as save the life of an animal each day. That's one single person, for one single day. Up to 1000 people, maybe more if you share this article, will see this. If a few of you go full-plant, or many of you eat a plant-based meal here and there, the environmental impact can be great. There is strength in numbers, and thankfully since we have to eat 3-5 times per day, one single person, even a single meal can add up over time and help make a significant impact.
Are vegans too extreme?
Veganism is defined as a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of animals. Some do it for health, some for the animals and some do it for our planet. This definition does make space for some flexibility. The absolutism that some associate with being vegan, which some would interpret as the 100% avoidance of animal products, is unfortunate since it can set the bar unnecessarily high for non-vegans. For those that aren’t convinced that going full-vegan is for them, veganism could be a direction in which somebody is moving, instead of a position or stance that someone holds fiercely. The term ”vegan” is particularly useful when describing a meal, or a dish on a menu, but not as much when describing a person, unless the practice of veganism is used to describe core values or religious views, instead of nutrition.
We already know that in terms of health benefits, the longest living populations consume more than 90% of their calories from plants. This means that animal products can still account for up to 10% of their daily caloric intake. Even if under our strict definition they wouldn’t be considered “true” vegans, they are still unknowingly contributing greatly to the reduction of animal suffering and exploitation. Most would agree that having 100 more people trending towards veganism is as desirable as having 1 person avoid animal products completely by going “full” vegan.
Personally, I support the vegan cause and consider myself to be one, but I still think that in some way, the extremist nutritional views of some are a turn off for many others who would otherwise consider trending towards this lifestyle. That’s why I would rather people use terms like “plant-centric” or “plant-predominant” when describing a dietary pattern rather than a “vegan diet”. Diets free from animal products aren’t synonymous with health. You can still be eating vegan junk and call yourself plant-based. My goal is to promote a healthy whole food, minimally processed and plant-predominant pattern of eating for your health, the health and sustainability of our planet, as well as for the ethical treatment of animals. If you make it to 80% plant-based, then I’m super proud of you. You’ve just contributed significantly to improving your health, to reducing your carbon footprint as well as reducing the amount of suffering inflicted on animals.
If you’re considering the plant-based lifestyle, then don’t let perfect get in the way of good, or of better. There’s no need for an extremist or black and white way of seeing things. The pressure of going full-vegan sets the bar unnecessarily high and discourages most from trying to trend in the right direction. Plant-predominance in one’s diet is a spectrum and the goal should be simply to move towards the right end of the spectrum. It took me almost 2 years to make a full transition to where I could finally call myself “100% plant-based” or “vegan”. Never for one minute did I think that the progress I had made before that wasn’t good enough. I would have been very insulted if someone would have suggested that the presence of small amounts of animal products at the start of my journey wasn't good enough.
My first few months, I simply tried to replace my usual breakfast consisting of eggs and ham, or ultra-processed cereal, with a healthier meal. First, I switched to yogurt, even if it contained dairy. Not long after, I switched to oatmeal, convinced by science that dairy was contributing to my eczema, asthma and allergies. I was still eating meat, but I had made progress and was trending in the right direction. Although I had cut down on dairy significantly, I was still adding it to my coffee. Honestly, the milk in my coffee was one of the last things to go. I started adding bananas and apples as snacks instead of processed granola bars or protein bars. Shortly after, beans, peas and chickpeas started replacing meat in my stir-fry, in my soup, or in my wraps. Then I learned how to make tofu tastier by pressing it and marinating it. I added faux-meats like plant-based sausages and burgers. It was a slow process, but I knew what my end goal was. For some, their goal may be to go 50%, or 90% plant-based, and that’s awesome. I knew I wanted to go all the way, so I recognized that my black and white views would have to see some grey.
Most people chuckle at my lifestyle and say: “I could never imagine not eating meat again”, to which I reply: “you don’t have to”. Simple incremental reductions help significantly with health parameters. The benefits are dose-dependent. If you eat a little more plants, you get a little more healthy. If you eat a lot more plants, then you get a lot more healthy. As long as you’re trending towards the healthier end of the spectrum, that’s a win in my book. Could you accept the #veganuary challenge? Could you decrease the amount of animal products in your diet? Could you include more plant-based meals in your day, or a plant-based day in your week? How about Meatless Mondays or Tofu Thursdays? Are you up for the challenge? If so, let me know on social media, and I’ll add you to the growing list of people who are on the same journey!
So to answer my original question: “Have the vegans gone too far?”, I‘d say hell no. Their intentions are pure, ethical and logical. Although the message can sometimes appear rigid and extremist, the motivation behind the movement is justified. Each of the last years since its birth in 2014, Veganuary has grown. Whether it’s for health, for the planet or for the animals, veganism doesn’t have to be an all or nothing stance. It should instead be something to strive for, knowing that any possible and practical movement towards the right side of the spectrum will help. So although I agree with the message and the movement, my opinion is that the vegan message could be delivered in a way that’s more inclusive, more forgiving and more compassionate towards the humans that have not yet discovered the magic of a lifestyle that benefits health, the sustainability of our planet and that minimizes exploitation and suffering of sentient beings, in whichever way is possible and practical, while accepting some flexibility. Thanks for reading and considering joining me for Veganuary! You can do it a meal a day, a meal a week, a day per week of even go full-plant. Any contribution is welcomed and appreciated!
Immediately after publishing my post, I received this message, which I wanted to make sure to share:
“Hi Dr Jules, I appreciate your point of view and in general it is the approach I take with patients—in the clinic of course it all depends on context, severity of health issues and the person’s readiness to consider change. I am very clear with the health message and my recommendations but, aim not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. At the same time, for the health message I tend to avoid the word ‘vegan’ since it relates to what is not eaten, and I prefer ‘whole food plant based’ focusing on what is consumed. If people in the vegan movement are vegan because of their ethical and moral convictions, I think it is difficult to ask them to ‘soften their message’ because that really could be perceived as a betrayal of their core values…”
What a great perspective! I couldn’t agree more! If you have any suggestions or comments on any of my posts, please share!
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior.
Plant-based Dr. Jules 💚🌱