A Brief History: Going Vegan Isn’t Anything New

On May 1, 2019, Beyond Meat, a company that produces meat-free look-alikes to classic meat products, priced its initial public offering at $25 a share. Today, not even a year later, the share price sits at $119.49 after climbing to an astounding $239.71 last year. What's driving this food frenzy?

On May 1, 2019, Beyond Meat, a company that produces meat-free look-alikes to classic meat products, priced its initial public offering at $25 a share. Today, not even a year later, the share price sits at $119.49 after climbing to an astounding $239.71 last year. What’s driving this food frenzy?

Meat production and consumption are now coming under fire as being bad for the environment and bad for our health. Indeed, a trip to the American Cancer Society’s website shows the consumption of processed meats labeled as carcinogenic to humans, sandwiched on a list between the substances polychlorinated biphenyl and radioiodine. On the same website, the consumption of red meat is listed as probably carcinogenic to humans. It doesn’t help either that the production of meat has long been tied to animal cruelty. To figure out how we got here, especially in a world where meat has been and continues to be a large staple and dense nutrient provider in many cultures, a deep dive into history is necessary.

Many followers of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism have for centuries believed humans shouldn’t inflict pain on animals. This led them to follow vegetarian diets that excluded eating the flesh of animals. This belief, however, was not exclusive to followers of these religions. The famed Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras of Samos, known in middle and high schools across the world for his theorem about right triangles, also promoted this benevolence among all species. Up until very recently, save for a few exceptions, this was the only major reason people abstained from eating meat.

The word “vegan” is attributed to a British woodworker named Donald Watson, who in 1944 advocated for abstaining from beef after it had been discovered that tuberculosis was found in 40% of Britain’s cows at the time. In typical use, this word described and continues to describe people who abstain from eating any animal products, including dairy products and eggs.

Supermarket shelves teeming with vegetables

At the turn of the 21st century, a second major reason to support not eating meat or dairy products started to crop up: avoiding meat from an environmental standpoint. A report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2006 called for urgent remedies. The problem? That animal husbandry was found responsible for 20-33% of the freshwater usage in the world and generated more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport industry. Although the numbers thrown out can vary, recently two researchers from the University of Oxford found that cutting meat and dairy from our diets alone could reduce our personal carbon footprints by up to 73%. Additionally, while meat and dairy are responsible for 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, the products provide just 18% of the calories and 37% of protein levels worldwide. Even today, the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s website lists the agriculture sector as the largest source of methane emissions in the United States, where meat and dairy constitute about half of this.

About a decade into the 21st century, a third major reason to support veganism came into force when meat became linked to health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Although the causes are multifactorial and still being elucidated, certain individual triggers have been studied. Looking at cancer, for example, carcinogens such as heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were found to be in high concentrations in all types of cooked meat. Fast forward to the present, and the World Health Organization’s website now lists processed meat as a link to colorectal cancer, while red meat is a probable link to colorectal cancer. These two types of meat are also listed as being probably linked to pancreatic and prostate cancer.

It’s quite remarkable that foods many of our ancestors ate, foods that have long been touted as nutritionally dense and necessary for good health, are now under fire. Many nutritionists and scientists have looked to the structure of our teeth and gut to examine our meat-eating. Both are, in fact, more similar to those of other animals that don’t eat meat, with a few caveats. For one, our teeth aren’t built to handle meat the way a lion’s or cheetah’s are. Our guts are also longer than those of traditional carnivores. This allows more time to break down fiber from plant foods. A shorter gut would help meat get through quickly to avoid infection with meat-associated pathogens. In support of meat-eating are the aforementioned caveats, studies showing that our guts have enzymes that have evolved to digest meat, which may have helped encephalization and physical growth, that eating fish helped our brain health, and that eating bone marrow gave us a density of amino acids and micronutrients that we couldn’t find elsewhere.

Although nutrition science is a confusing and constantly evolving subject, the many reasons to support veganism, namely those from animal rights, health, and environmental standpoints, ensure that it will only become more popular in the coming decades.

Dairy, another very popular animal product, has also come under fire. The ability to digest milk from cows is thought to have first evolved in dairy farming communities in central Europe about 7,500 years ago. As such, the enzyme lactase, which is used to digest milk, is unsurprisingly found more in individuals of European ancestry than it is in individuals with different ancestry. Hypotheses for the ‘why’ of milk drinking include it being able to compensate for a lack of vitamin D from the sun and as a source of protein, calories, and calcium. Regardless, a cow’s milk is indeed very different from that of a human. Additionally, our mothers produce milk for us when we are born, and then this production shuts off early into our lives, indicating that after this point, we no longer need milk. In fact, contrary to popular belief, drinking milk has not been linked to lower rates of hip fracture in adults. However, drinking a cow’s milk early in life has instead been linked to type I diabetes. Furthermore, as cows in the dairy industry are continuously impregnated to produce milk with high levels of mammalian estrogen and progesterone, we are putting ourselves at risk of developing certain hormone-dependent cancers, including breast and ovarian.

Through the tumult of ever-changing diet and nutrition recommendations, our life spans have still increased very rapidly over the last few centuries. It is entirely plausible that the density of proteins and nutrients in animal foods that may have helped to keep us alive to a certain point have now begun to hurt us as we live to see more life past that point. Although nutrition science is a confusing and constantly evolving subject, the many reasons to support veganism, namely those from animal rights, health, and environmental standpoints, ensure that it will only become more popular in the coming decades. Take note though that a healthful vegan diet refers not to processed foods, but to whole, unprocessed plant foods. For those of you who are interested in eating more along these lines but have no idea what to eat, a position I once found myself in, you can get started on your journey by checking out this beginner’s guide to a plant-based diet.

Saami Zakaria is a second-year medical student at Jefferson. He is an avid exercise and nutrition aficionado and has been predominantly vegan for two years. 

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