More Than Just A Diet: An Inquiry Into Veganism

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Mann, Sarah E

BACKGROUND: The vegan diet has gained momentum in recent years, with more people transitioning to the diet, whether for health or more ethically based reasons. The vegan diet, often characterized as very restrictive, is associated with health benefits but raises concerns. Controversy regarding the diet exists within the public sphere, with those actively supporting and advocating for it, and others questioning its purpose and proposed benefits, even disparaging its existence, perhaps because of a lack of knowledge about the diet. OBJECTIVE: This study aimed to provide a fuller picture of the vegan diet, encompassing both the nutrition and health of the vegan diet as well as related ethical beliefs by studying scientific and popular literature in tandem. Furthermore, the study aimed to provide an insider’s perspective of the vegan diet as a means of combating stereotypes and making the diet more relatable/understandable to those who are not vegan. By combining all three sources, the project aims to educate the public regarding a diet and lifestyle that is often perceived, at least partially, in a negative manner. METHODS: The research was conducted in two parts – literature review and interview study. A literature review of both the scientific and the popular literature was conducted and reviewed from August to November. Pubmed database was used to research the scientific findings while food blogs, vegan websites, and newspaper articles comprised the popular literature. The interview study involved semi-structured, one-time, in-person private interviews conducted during February and March. Twenty vegans (10 students from the University of Pennsylvania and 10 Philadelphia residents) were interviewed and questions targeted personal history of veganism, related health beliefs, factors influencing the decision to become vegan, and diet composition. Once all data was obtained, it was analyzed in tandem. RESULTS: Findings suggest that a well-rounded vegan diet is healthy and such is evidenced by the variety of whole foods and increased vegetable and fruit intake. Health benefits include a decrease in cholesterol, lipid levels, blood pressure, weight, and a reduced risk for a variety of diseases including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Despite the benefits, health concerns do exist, especially in regard nutrient deficiencies, without a well-planned and varied diet. Nutrient concerns include calcium, vitamin D, iron, and particularly vitamin B-12 for which supplements should be taken. The nature of the interviews conducted for this paper was such that a comprehensive but diverse collection of information was obtained, precisely because the interviewees have chosen the vegan diet for a multitude of reasons, and approach their diet and lifestyle in varied ways. However, there are some commonalities that were revealed. Results of the interview studies demonstrate that about half of the vegans are potentially at risk for vitamin D deficiency because most are taking neither vitamin D supplements nor a multivitamin. Comparing the scientific literature with the interview results reveal that most of the vegans include working out within their daily routines, such that they place emphasis upon physical fitness, suggesting that the vegan lifestyle has benefits beyond merely nutritional. Finally, comparing popular literature to the information gleaned through the interviews conducted establishes that many of the stereotypes regarding the vegan diet are unfounded. CONCLUSIONS: The vegan diet is one that is chosen by individuals for various reasons, including health and/or ethical reasons. While many health benefits exist, it is essential for those who are vegan or are planning to become vegan to be educated about potential nutrient deficiencies to prevent adverse outcomes. In addition, it is evident that the vegan diet is much more than a diet itself, but has developed into a lifestyle, often associated with animal rights and environmental advocacy as well as a greater concern for physical activity and mindfulness. Further research begs the question of whether the health benefits associated with the diet are solely attributable to the diet or in conjunction with a greater physical activity level and mindful living. With regard to providing an accurate picture of veganism in the popular literature, it is essential to combat negative unsubstantiated stereotypes and myths by providing vegans with unbiased voice with which to share their own stories and beliefs. Lastly, the popularity of the vegan diet and the question of whether it is nutritionally sound, raise issues of anthropologic significance. Specifically, it prompts consideration of whether our ancestral diet was vegetarian in nature, or depended upon meat for evolutionary progress. Moreover, this study demonstrates that the human diet has changed over time, such that our dietary needs, choices and preferences are inherently reflective of cultural and nutritional anthropology.

Babette Zemel, Theodore Schurr
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