Gone Vegan

Lindsay Hutton discovers the politics and pragmatics behind a meat and dairy-free diet.

I live in Hamilton, in a cute little borough populated with shiny, happy Ugged-and-Lululemon’d young couples with $1500 strollers and yoga mats rolled up under their arms. The health food store up the street does a tidy business. In the summertime, backyard vegetable gardens are a dime a dozen and one can’t walk a block or two without passing several iPodded joggers with gloriously toned bottoms. Let me put it like this: the area was recently sanctified with a Starbucks coffee shop, for better or for worse. Living in this particular area, it’s easy to consider that “healthful” living is most easily employed by those privileged with a good education, a white face and a good credit rating. To say nothing of a lot of spare time. 

Walking about fifteen minutes eastward tells a different story. I work out at the local YMCA; its location is in the downtown core of Hamilton, an area hit hard in the last fifteen years. Many of the people here look different. Cigarette butts and Tim Horton’s coffee cups litter the sidewalks; teenaged, weary mums queue up in cheque cashing joints; lonely, forgotten people beg for change or a smoke and lots of folk who seem far too young to be in scooters or wheelchairs. These are lives marred by poverty and it shows; many of these people's lives don’t include the access and opportunity to live more healthful lives, for a multitude of reasons.  

In Canada, the leading causes of death are cancer and heart disease, comprising nearly 60% of the death rate each year. In the past ten years, we have also witnessed a surge in cases of type-two diabetes and its related health complications. Health Canada estimates that nearly two million Canadians have type-two diabetes (roughly 15% of the population) and foresee the total reaching three million in the next few years. 

The past twenty years have seen several study-based indications pointing to the fact that, genetics aside, low-income people are disproportionately more likely to get heart disease or type two diabetes. The 1996/1997 Population Health Survey indicates that poor people are nearly twice as likely to have heart disease, and several other studies suggest that poor peoples’ propensity toward developing type two diabetes is disproportionately higher, especially in aboriginal communities. 

So yes, I’ll interrupt myself here: what does this all this stuff have to do with veganism? Though there hasn’t been a study (that I could find, anyway) specifically addressing the income and education status of Western vegans and vegetarians, several indicate that it does tend to be a lifestyle choice favoured by those with at least a middle-class background with some post-secondary education and a steady income. This doesn’t mean that every vegan is Foucauldian scholar with a black Amex and really good hair, far from it, but I imagine you’re catching my drift.

So when I read a 1999 analysis by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition finds that vegetarians and vegans show a 34% and 26% (respectively) lower risk of ischemic heart disease, it gave me pause. The same goes for the piece I read in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association published in February: they found that putting people afflicted with type-two diabetes on a vegan diet lowered their LDL (bad) cholesterol, stimulated weight loss and decreased nearly all of the subjects blood glucose levels to a point whereby their need for medication was either eliminated or significantly reduced. Moreover, the health benefits of a vegan diet outperformed that of the other subjects who were placed on the diet most often prescribed for diabetics. This is startling, weighty stuff. 

Plant-based diets are good for us, it seems. Properly planned, they offer lots of fibre, antioxidants and nutrients as well as lower levels of bad fats and cholesterol, sodium, sugar and artificial food additives. Vegans and vegetarians tend to be more health conscious and can easier maintain a healthy body weight (never mind The Skinny Bitch Diet, either – I’ll address this insulting monstrosity later on), a significant health factor. We know that what we take into our bodies plays a sizable role in our health and wellness, and most likely figures in our culture’s tendency to die of heart disease and develop type-two diabetes. Like maybe the 50+ kilograms of meat each Canadian consumes per year isn’t so great for us, after all.

Now, simmer down -- I would never be so brazen to suggest that our culture’s widespread adoption of veganism would propel us headlong into some veggie nirvana, with government-issued yoga mats, green smoothies and butterfly nets with glucometers and pacemakers relegated forever relegated to the Smithsonian and the desks of people who have weird taste in paperweights. I would suggest, however, that perhaps that learning about plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy is a worthy public health initiative.  What do you think?

Let Lindsay know how she’s doing! Email her at lindsaygonevegan@gmail.com for recipe and content requests, feedback, gushing love letters and seething hate mail.  

Next on Gone Vegan: Vegan meatloaf!? It’s really good! Also, Lindsay takes a look at meat and dairy consumption and their combined effects on our environment (all that manure has to go somewhere, people…)