Thursday, April 5, 2012

Veganism on the rise

Between San Jose and Foster City there were five vegan restaurants, and one was vetoed for the presence of peanuts and my desire to live through the night. As I waited outside the restaurant for Sophie Scafani to arrive, I began to dread what I had gotten myself into – vegan or not, just the look of this place made me nervous. I was becoming increasingly jealous of the people streaming into the Italian restaurant across the street. The restaurant Sophie ended up choosing, Loving Hut on University Avenue in Palo Alto, looked more like an ice cream shop from the outside with its cartoon sign and the extensive use of yellow and red paint and decorations. They had pictures of meals taped to the front windows, which is usually an immediate sign to me to leave as fast as I can. Once Sohpie arrived I put my brave face on and chose what seemed the least terrifying, a vegan potpie. Since I had never had a real potpie before, I figured having no comparison would be best. Although the meat substitute looked disturbingly like meat, the pie melted in my mouth and the contrast of the side citrus kale salad lit up my taste buds. We ended the evening with a decadent chocolate cake that was layered with a creamy mouse and dusted with delicate pieces of chocolate.

And people say vegan food can’t taste good.

Veganism’s recent explosion into popular culture has left behind shrapnel of myths and misunderstandings. In the past two years alone veganism has doubled and now makes up 2.5 percent of the United States population, according to a Harris Interactive study. Though often confused as just another fad diet or a self-righteous act of animal rights activists, veganism has sparked the interest of researchers and onlookers alike. Research and the medical community agree that with proper planning and nutrition, veganism can be incredibly healthy. It is linked to lower cholesterol, decreased rates of osteoporosis, and reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and obesity. On the other hand a diet high in meat and dairy products has been linked to heart disease, certain types of cancer, hypertension, obesity, stroke, gallstones, food-borne illnesses and diabetes. Veganism has caught on as a diet of elite athletes who tout its health benefits, including Venus Williams and Scott Jerek, an ultra marathon runner.

Even though veganism is often seen as just another diet to drop some extra weight or as something only adopted by animal loving fanatics, ethical concerns for animals’ rights and welfare, desire for health and environmental considerations are all often motivations behind a strict vegan diet. But regardless of the motivation, there is little dispute that veganism is the most sustainable diet. 

“The reality is the only way (feeding the world) is going to be sustainable is if an increasing number of people eat less meat, less dairy, less eggs, up to and including veganism,” said Vasile Stanescu, a vegan expert and PhD candidate at Stanford University.

Students surged into Benson from across campus in a mad dash to be first in line for today’s lunch. They glanced at the specials board before scurrying off to fill their fancy of pasta, meat and cheese. But for vegans, today was just like every other day without any specials on the board to excite their palates. Lizzie Urie, a sophomore at Santa Clara, headed straight to the salad bar. Her expansive lunch options for the day included the selections of the salad bar or a custom sandwich. As she reached for the tongs and began to place spinach in her compostable container she let out a slight sigh. Although food boredom plagues most Santa Clara students in Benson, the vegan options create an extreme case.

“For a while I was just like ‘god I am just making it even harder on myself by saying I can eat even less now,’ but I mean, I’m already lactose intolerant, I can’t eat meat, it seemed logical,” said Lizzie. A vegan for only a few months, Lizzie swore off dairy and all other animal products in solidarity with her uncle who has gone vegan in order to stay as healthy as possible while he waits for a heart transplant. But before she started emptying her refrigerator of every last morsel of cheese, meat and dairy, she researched the diet change and talked to her doctor to make sure she went about the change in a safe and healthy way.

One of the biggest mistakes many vegans make is not planning their diets and ensuring they are getting enough iron, zinc, vitamin B-12, protein and calcium says Mary Mahoney, Santa Clara’s registered dietitian. Although her office feels more like a waiting room in a doctor’s office than a place to kick off your shoes and have a good chat, Mahoney does her best to make her guests feel comfortable with the warmth of her seven inch space heater and her large smile. A self-described “flexitarian,” Mahoney still acknowledges the benefits of a vegan diet.

“I think you can have a really healthy vegan diet, if you put some thought and planning into it,” she said. “If you just decide one day to be vegan and cut out all animal products and you don’t really pay attention to what you are eating, ever, than you could be missing out on some important nutrients.”

Although it is relatively easy to get ample amounts of protein in a vegan diet through beans, lentils, soy and other sources, vegans need to be careful that they are getting enough iron and vitamin B-12 in particular. Vitamin B-12 is created as microbes begin to grow on meat and other animal products. Many vegan substitutes such as soymilk include B-12, and it is also added to other foods like cereals. Although it is possible to get enough B-12 by eating items it has been added to, the easiest source is through a supplement. Without enough B-12 or iron, the body becomes anemic and struggles to hold enough oxygen in the blood, and weakness, dizziness and lack of energy can become problematic.

Sophie, who has been vegan for a year, never paid attention to her iron or B-12 consumption until she began to feel many symptoms of anemia. Even though she had never been particularly active, Sophie agreed to a 30-minute workout with her friend. But after only a four minutes she started feeling shaky, and while doing lunges her vision became gray and spotted, she recalled. With little warning for her friend she began to vomit violently into the grass. Although she joked that four minutes and thirty seconds is her maximum workout, it was a wake up call for her to start taking iron supplements and a multivitamin to be sure she was getting enough B-12.

Veganism in recent years has caught on as a diet for elite athletes, with Kansas City Chiefs tight-end Tony Gonzalez, mixed martial-arts fighter Mac Danzig and even Mike Tyson joining in as a way to step up their performance and keep their bodies in the best shape possible. Athletes and weekend warriors alike are beginning to explore the benefits of a vegan diet.

Around campus he easily blends in with the students in his skinny jeans, plaid T-shirt topped with a black hoodie, and his black, thick-rimmed glasses that disappear into his messy brown hair and stubble. But underneath the hipster garb is a Stanford PhD candidate and a lecturer in Santa Clara University’s Environmental Studies Institute. Justin Eichenlaub stands with one foot in the academic world of environmental and animal studies and the other in growing culture of veganism. Eichenlaub has relied on a vegan diet for the past few years to get his body through grueling bicycle rides that are often 200 miles in a single day.

“I consider myself an athlete,” said Eichenlaub with a chuckle. “(It’s) funny because there’s a whole brand of pro-veganism stuff like let us show you our athletic prowess, and then you can see.”

With the drastic increase in veganism in only two years, total consumption of meat has also decreased in the U.S for the first time since records have been kept. A total of 7.5 million people in the U.S. have cut out all animal products from their diet, but many more are opting for vegan or vegetarian meals on a more regular basis. There are many factors that could be responsible for the rapid increase including a changing cultural view of veganism and the growing popularity with celebrities and high profile athletes. Veganism has also become a growing trend within the emerging “hipster” culture, which aims to dissociate from mainstream culture.

Although veganism has been brewing for the past few years in pockets around the United States, especially in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City, it has begun to spread rapidly and break out of the major urban vegan centers, according to Stanescu, vegan expert and PhD candidate at Stanford University. Veganism is no longer reserved to PETA members or animal lovers, and instead is beginning to branch into environmental movements because of pollution and green house gas emissions, the driving force behind climate change, attributed to the production and consumption of animal products. However, for most people who follow such a strict diet, health, animal rights and sustainability are all motivations.

At just over 5 feet, including the added height of her tousled, wavy brown hair, Sophie was by far the smallest person in Loving Hut. In her hands the fork appeared to be made for giants. Her blue eyes widened behind the thick black frame of her glasses that reach from the bottom of her eyebrows to rest on her cheekbones as her soy “BLT” was placed in front of her.

Her petite frame dressed in a navy striped dress and a denim jacket with vegan pins and patches, testament to her love for animals and contempt for people who do not treat them to her expectations. “I was always disgusted by meat. Like when I would eat it I was always like ‘there’s flesh in my mouth.’ We’re all beings and we all deserve respect. I’m not gonna fuckin’ eat you,” she said.

In the U.S. animals have been integrated into the factory farming system to increase production at lower costs.  Animals are crammed into small spaces and unnaturally fed grains. Chickens that are being raised for meat are packed into sheds that hold 20,000 chickens in a single room with an average of 130 square inches each, according to the Mission of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Animal Cruelty. Their sensitive beaks are cut off without anesthesia or numbing to make sure they cannot peck one another in their cramped, stressful environment according to a report by UC Davis. Cows are fed a constant stream of antibiotics to try to kill the E. Coli that grows in their stomachs because of the corn they are fed and to fight off the infections they get from standing ankle deep in their own waste according to a New York Times article by Michael Pollan.

In an industry that treats animals as just another item to produce, the longer you live the more you suffer. Chickens kept for eggs are likely to suffer the most in their lifetime. Hens are confined into a cage with a total floor space of a regular sheet of paper with six other hens, according to Pollan. The hens cannot fully stand up, stretch their wings, or engage in normal behavior. The metal wire cages cut into their feet, remove their feathers, and cause bruises and abrasions. The hens will produce more than 250 eggs per year, which over-taxes their bodies before they are sent off to slaughter when they no longer produce enough eggs.

“One of the bizarre ironies in the factory farm system is the quicker you are killed, the better off you are – the more life actually equals more suffering,” said Stanescu, a vegan expert at Stanford. “I’m trying to boycott, I’m trying not to give money to something that I think is cruel and exploitive, so if I want to boycott that industry, than I want to boycott all of that industry and I want to boycott parts of that industry that actually produce the most suffering.”

Animal cruelty and treatment are strong reasons many people decide to live a vegan lifestyle. “I think that health, environment and [ethics] do all sort of reinforce each other, and I mean vegans always say that so I’m a little weary of it, but for me if it was just for health or just for environment I would probably eat butter and cheese every now and again,” said Eichenlaub.
“What’s keeping me from doing that, what’s making me do it more, pretty much a 100 percent thing is this ethical consideration for animals.”

In the United States alone 55 billon land animals are killed each year for consumption according to the Food and Agriculture Association of the United Nations. The FAO projects that by 2050 the amount of animals that are killed each year will double to 110 billion. In 2007, 275 million tons of meat were produced, which is equivalent to 92 pounds for every person on Earth and in the U.S. we eat more than 200 pounds per person every year.

Our current and projected meat consumption is far from sustainable. Livestock production contributes 18 percent of green house gas emissions globally, which is more than all of transportation, cars and planes included, combined. Switching from the average American diet to a vegan diet prevents more carbon dioxide emissions than switching from an average car to a hybrid. A vegan diet saves 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide every year, while a hybrid car only prevents 1 ton of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a University of Chicago study.

“A vegan diet is the most sustainable diet, and I don’t know of any other diet which is more sustainable. I don’t know of any diet which is as sustainable,” said Stanescu who has researched other diets that claimed to be more sustainable, including a local based diet, and found that none could stand up to a vegan diet. “The single greatest action that a person can take to help the environment is to shift from a meat, dairy and egg based diet to a plant based diet.”

Raising livestock and other animals for consumption uses a staggering amount of the world’s resources. One third of grains harvested globally are fed to livestock. The production of these grains and the animals themselves soak up more than eight percent of global water use according to the United Nation’s “Livestock’s Long Shadow” report.

In addition to the resources used and the greenhouse gas emissions, livestock production is a source of great environmental destruction and pollution. Cattle ranching and livestock production are the primary reasons for deforestation in the Amazon and the largest contributor to deforestation worldwide. Livestock waste is collected in large lagoons that leak into waterways and aquifers. Fifty percent of antibiotic use, 55 percent of soil erosion and sediment, and 37 percent of pesticide use are all attributed to livestock production.

Although the amount of animal products consumed in the U.S. has fallen slightly, other countries, including India, China and Brazil, are increasing their consumption to be more like the standard Western diet. China has more than quadrupled its consumption in the last 40 years. In 1961 China consumed 8 pounds of meat per person, but in 2002 they reached 115 pounds each. While Chinese consumption is still significantly less than the United States’ 275 pounds per person, the current projects are astounding. This increased desire to eat like we do in America is the main reason why global consumption of animal products is expected to double by 2050.

With more than 7 billion mouths to feed, how we are going to realistically feed all of us is a growing concern. Our current eating habits are not sustainable and will not support the needs of so many, and the projected 9 billion hungry bellies will be an even greater challenge.

“The key is that most people don’t even realize that they have a choice. Most people just believe eating meat is beyond question –it’s nothing to even think about, it’s like drinking water,” said Stanescu. “As a vegan the most powerful thing we do is allow people to realize that they have a choice, they actually can choose. And once people realize that it is optional, everything stacks on one side.”

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