For anyone that has been eating a plant-based diet for a while, the current popularity and mainstreaming veganism starts to feel like you’ve woken up in an alternative universe.
Real engines of this social change are the babies that probably refused to eat vegetables in the first place – the baby boomers. The baby-boomers were born after the war and account for 74.9 million people in the USA alone. As a generation, they continue to rewrite the rules, with recent studies suggesting that ‘old age’ doesn’t start till you are 74. Cashed up, they have become increasingly interested in maintaining their quality of life. Alan Waker, believes that:
“Our conceptions of ‘old age’ are hopelessly out of date because of population ageing,” he said. “For many people, 70 is the new 50 and signifies the quiet revolution that has taken place in longevity….An average man who retired in 2012 can expect to live until the age of 86.2 years while a woman who turned 65 last year would have 23.9 years still to live on average”
What are the roots of this change?
People’s choice to become vegan, from people I’ve spoken to, seems motivated by fear.
In 2012, it is believed that about 2.5 million Americans over the age of 55 are vegetarian. What is driving this change is the emerging abundance of evidence of what an animal-centric diet does to your health.
Many of the later in life-stage health concerns are related to the consumption of red meat, dairy and other animal products. There have been a multitude of studies that point to lifestyle choices as the key determinant of wellbeing and avoiding cancer. With findings suggesting that just eating more fruits and vegetables will extend your life more than any other action.
A recent study by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), has shown that brain health is the second most important component in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially later in life: ‘As people age they can experience a range of cognitive issues from decreased critical thinking to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease’. The study cites 8 nutrients that are vital to keeping your brain in good shape. Many of which can only be sourced within a balanced plant-based diet.
“This looks pretty good, doesn’t it?”
Of course, there have been many famous embracers or defections, based on your point of view, to a plant-based lifestyle. The hamburger loving President Bill Clinton, has been ‘vegan’ for the last four years and is a passionate embracer for the change. Chelsea Clinton called her father “probably the world’s most famous vegan.” He’s also been called a chegan (cheating vegan) since he sometimes wavers. Regardless, he’s been a powerful example for many Baby Boomers. The vegan cause also includes many other famous names that have lifted the profile and popularity of the label.
“Eat your vegetables”
I am not a vegetarian because I love animals; I am a vegetarian because I hate plants.
As more and more people enter a plant-based lifestyle as a fashion, there is a tendency to follow the ‘herd’. The real danger here is that many are adopting the diet without understanding how to balance their food.
Sylvia Escott-Stump, president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, in 2012, warned:
[In particular, such regimes, if poorly planned, may be relatively low in protein, calcium, Vitamin B12 and zinc.] “These nutrients are especially important in aging to support wound-healing and to keep a healthy immune system,”
A pressing concern is that as more people follow, the lack of adequate knowledge of a plant-based diet and resulting ill-health might lead to negative perceptions a plant-based living. While we say it as a negative that a ‘bad workman blames his tools’ – in a world of fashionable and faddish diets there is ample evidence that we do blame the diet before we question our understanding or adherence to it.
So, how to eat them?
There are two broad schools of thought on plant consumption: cooked or raw. In practice, most of those that are not strict raw eaters use a combination of both preparations. The raw argument is that cooking food destroys some of the vitamins, nutrients and enzymes.
A study looking at long-term raw plant-based lifestyles showed that the diet lacks lycopene. Cooking tomatoes increase their levels of lycopene. Lypocene at high levels has been linked to a lower risk of both cancer and heart attacks. This is a finding which is consistent with the health benefits of the ‘Mediterranean diet’.
When you either boil or steam carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage, peppers and many other vegetables, the body is supplied with more antioxidants, such as carotenoids and ferulic acid, than they do when consumed raw. However, other cooking methods such as roasting or frying deplete the vegetable of their nutrients.
Just-poached vegetables show off their natural attributes and taste fresh and light in a way you never get with roasting or frying.
Scientifically, there is still some debate on the best way to eat vegetables: cooked or raw. However, the evidence is leaning towards favouring raw foods but not at the expense of some cooked vegetables.
Planting the seed with the next generation
There are recent studies that indicate that a sudden adoption of a vegan diet is definitely a positive move towards good health but it is not the complete picture. While many baby boomers are benefiting from finally learning to love their vegetables, there are the current generations to think about.
There is growing evidence that the benefits of a plant-based diet are cumulative from a very early age. Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information for the Cancer Research Campaign, stated
‘While cancer is a disease which affects older people, it is so important to lay the foundations of a healthy lifestyle early on …These findings are shocking. It is horrifying that so many children are eating so little fruit and vegetables and potentially storing up health problems in later life.’
It’s comforting to see experimentation on how to get children to start their lives with a plant-based start. In the US, A Queens elementary school just had its first anniversary as a vegetarian school. A different type of controlled environment is the experimentation within American Jails where meat-free days are assisting in the health of the inmates but also financial savings for the taxpayers. Perhaps framing the change as an economic benefit is the easiest way to convince people that feel threatened that a plant-based lifestyle challenges their lifestyles.
We can be hopeful that the trend continues to grow, with social initiatives from meat-free Mondays to meat-free weeks. Perhaps reflecting on the start of this discussion, the alternative universe might be a place where people were ignorant of their own body’s needs and perhaps reduce the needless burden on the planet and animals of an animal-centric diet.