To Vegan or Not to Vegan



I think it’s safe to say that the vegan lifestyle is not a fad. With an increasing number of people adopting it each year – in particular women – it seems this plant-based way of living is here to stay. There’s differing reasons that people make the switch to a vegan lifestyle, with the most common being health reasons, and to protest the treatment of animals through farming practices.

First let’s look at farming practices. Concerns around these practices impact to both animal welfare, and the health of consumers. For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing on Australian farming practices of chicken and beef. According to the Australian Chicken Meat Industry adheres to a government endorsed national “Model Codes of Practices for the Welfare of Animals” which include humane breeding, raising, and processing of birds. These codes were a collaborative effort from the government, the industry, and welfare systems.

The myth that hormones are pumped into our chickens is a fallacy. It’s actually illegal. Antibiotics are used, but in a way that ensures the meat is free of any residue. Antibiotics use occurs only after other management strategies have been unsuccessful and the birds have been inspected by vets before and after antibiotic administration. Only antibiotics assessed and approved for use in livestock industries by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the National Registration are used.

How the animals live could also be an impact on our health, as consumers. According to virtually all commercial chickens are grown in a deep litter system where absorbent substrates are used for bedding for the birds which keeps the floors dry and the birds clean. It seems that the bottom line is that farmers will do what’s best for healthy chickens and putting undue stress on them is counter-productive to produce quality chicken. Bio security measures in Australia are one of the best in the world. Our flocks are free of diseases that poultry producers in other countries find troublesome to control.

Now, let’s address the fair argument about the treatment of the animals during farming. There is still evidence of farming practices that do not keep the welfare of chickens in mind. According to the RSPCA, meat chickens have been bred to produce large breast muscles, and that rapid growth of these specially bred birds can cause leg disorders, joint problems and heart failure. Specialised breeding is a cause for a variety health issues in many animals, including domestic dogs. Chickens on these farms are sometimes kept in dim light for 23 hours a day to encourage lack of movement, increased food intake, and receive no behavioural stimulation. This low space allowance and inadequate lighting can lead to serious welfare issues and even death. I could cite more horror stories about recorded poor chicken welfare but I’ll be here forever and so will you.

Woolworths and Coles announced a few years ago they would only sell RSPCA approved poultry. A step in the right direction? Perhaps. Marketing ploy? Let’s hope their sense of corporate social responsibility is up to scratch, and with the way these two chains compete, I doubt they could afford to deceive the public. Losing a market share in such a highly consumed product would be disastrous.

I will conclude the chicken part of this article with a note from Animals Australia that “acting on concerns of Animals Australia and Lawyers for Animals, the Barristers Animal Welfare Panel provided information that has now enabled the ACCC to mount a case against leading chicken brands for making misleading claims.”

Now to beef; specifically beef farmed for meat. According to Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), the Aussie red meat Industry is committed to animal welfare and how livestock are cared for. The Meat Industry along with the MLA have implemented a wide range of programs and initiatives to address animal welfare concerns. These include the MLA’s animal welfare R&D program, state animal welfare acts and regulations, on-farm welfare standards and guidelines, and feedlots – National Accreditation Scheme, and Transportation – quality assurance program.

Unlike poultry, using hormones in cattle is legal in Australia. According to food hormone growth promotants (HGP’s) are naturally occurring, such as oestrogen, or synthetic alternatives which are used to promote weight gain. HGPs in Australia are approved and regulated by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. The RSPCA states that there is little research on the impact of hormone use on animal welfare and until more information is available HGP’s should be used with caution. The EU banned the use of HGP’s in 1988 because of a possible link to cancer, but there was no scientific evidence to support this. The ban remains nonetheless.

We all saw the news about the poor welfare for cattle and the high mortality rate on export voyages. There are many reports of poor animal welfare when it comes to cattle but again I won’t go into them because it’s depressing, and I’ll be here forever. I will however note that the Victorian Government legislated that the welfare of livestock be ensured (POCTA). POCTA is to a) prevent cruelty to animals, b) encourage the considerate treatment of animals and c) improve the level of community awareness about the welfare of animals. Earlier this year it was announced that a review of Australian export standards will be underway. More room on ships, tighter restrictions based on the conditions in the destination port, and mandatory stunning as a basic precursor for the slaughter of livestock are a few ideas put forward by the RSPCA.

Finally – our health!

The dramatic example of the effect of a plant-based diet can have biometric outcomes on things like blood pressure, diabetes and lipid profile. A healthy plant-based diet aims to maximise consumption of nutrient-dense foods, while minimising processed foods, oils and (in veganism) eliminating animal foods and related products. The claim is that a plant-based, or vegan diet, offers various health benefits, ranging from weight loss and reduced blood sugar, to prevention of heart disease, cancer and premature death.

Most studies on vegan diets are observational. This makes it difficult to know if the benefits observed are actually caused by the vegan diet itself, or other factors not accounted for. A collection of 16 controlled studies to evaluate how vegetarian and vegan diets can affect your health all came to similar conclusions. They found that vegetarian diets effectively lowered blood levels of LDL, HDL and non-HDL cholesterol; and vegan diets lowered heart disease risk and more greatly affected the subject’s weight, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. The conclusions to all the studies were similar to the afore mentioned. A reduction in weight loss, risk of heart disease, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol. claims that a plant-based diet appears to influence mental health positively. Cross sectional and interventional studies showed fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress and mood disturbance.

On the contrary Dr Georgia Eve, a Harvard trained psychiatrist and nutrition consultant, states that plant-based diets increase the risk of mental health for two reasons: 1. Most brain-essential nutrients are easier to find in animal foods, and in some cases are ONLY found in animal foods. 2. A staggering variety of plant foods interfere with our ability to process vital nutrients, making them harder to absorb, utilise and/or store.

Unsupplemented diets in particular are the culprits. According to Dr Eve, plant-based diets must be supplemented because they lack or exclude essential vitamins and minerals such as: Vitamin A, D, K2, Vitamin D, B Vitamins (B1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 12), Iodine, Iron, Zinc, Phytic acid, and Essential Fatty Acids DHA & EPA. Plant foods also contain Goitrogens, Oxalates and Tannins which collectively interfere with iodine metabolism, thyroid hormone production; and interfere with iron, calcium and magnesium absorption. Dr Eve stresses that everyone is different and not one diet fits all. Let’s ask some actual vegans about their experiences with a plant-based diet.

Sydney based youth worker Jessica has been vegan for 5 months now. “One day I watched a video of a calf, upon birth being thrown into a heap. I never used to watch these videos as I just preferred to ignore and in fact had a slight disdain for people who would share them. After watching that video, I broke down. By the end of this month-long investigation, I decided to bow out of consuming animal products altogether – I couldn’t live with the guilt of being a part of that nor the idea of how this was affecting my mental and physical health.”

Jessica has suffered depression, anxiety and panic attacks most of her life. She had not gone more than one month or two without having depressive episodes or feelings of anxiety. When asked how going vegan has impacted her mental health, she said “For the past 5 months straight I have not experienced any anxiety or depressive episodes and in fact have been experiencing waves of overall elevated feelings without any excessive lows.”

As mentioned above, some experts claim that a vegan diet must be supplemented due to serious deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. When I asked Jessica about this she explained “I was experiencing low energy levels and depressive thoughts before I went Vegan, so I went to the doctor to have blood tests to see if there was something more sinister happening. The results came back showing that I had very low iron levels which I’ve had for years. No, I’m not taking a supplement however I’ve upped my plant-based iron sources including spirulina, tofu, whole grains, dark chocolate, nuts and legumes and am also getting my calcium from broccoli, leafy greens and kale. I have noticed a huge improvement in my energy levels and mental state in the last few months. It’ll be very interesting to get my bloods tested again in September to see what’s happening.”

What about fitness and a vegan lifestyle? I can tell you, google ‘vegan athletes’ and you’d be surprised at the number of vegan athletes there are. From sprinters to bodybuilders, UFC fighters, and boxers; you name it. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger is cutting out meat for environmental reasons. According to him “28% of the greenhouse gasses come from eating meat and from raising cattle, so we can do a much better job.”



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Image sourced by VeganBikerPilot Flickr

There is no hidden agenda with this article. I was curious, and so, I investigated. It’s completely up to you, the reader if you want to do more research, but be very cautious when you do; it’s easy to find evidence to support what you want to hear, but not all of it is going to be reputable, relevant to your country, or even true. Whether for fair trade, cruelty free, sustainable, organic, ecologically viable reasons or to try a change in your diet and see if it works for you, there is no pressure from society to go either way. Listen to your inner voice. Mine still hasn’t told me what to do yet but I’m listening.

Featured image Image sourced: Nina Gibson Flickr

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