Happy World Animal Day! This morning we were driving on the Dutch motorway, with all of our belongings in a trailer. A bright orange sun was rising over the meadows, where the fog still covered the grass. On the radio was a lot of news about animals. The news reader reported that 65% of Dutch dairy cows spend part of the year outside. That means that 35% of these cows are locked up for life.
At another station, a lady told how she was going to spend thousands of euros on the health of her labrador puppy, because all things considered he is not so different from a human. “You are also vegan, I understand?” said the presenter. No, she wasn’t.
A growing number of people are concerned about the fact that a lot of animals only exist to provide us with meat and dairy. Some are also worried about the huge impact of the livestock system on the environment, and others are attracted by the healthy associations they have with a vegan diet. Altogether there are more and more people who are vegetarian or vegan — see for example the recent study by the Vegan Society in the UK.
At the same time, diets that are related to veganism are receiving a lot of criticism. Last week I read that the Dutch nutrition authority warns against a diet called ‘The Green Happiness’, because it would contain too little protein and calcium. A while ago, there was news about a bill in Italy that could put parents in jail if they raise their kids vegan.
In my view, children who grow up on vegan food don’t have a higher risk of malnutrition than other children. There’s just as much reason to say that they might be healthier. In most cases, they have very little chance of obesity and cardiovascular disease because the average vegan or vegetarian diet contains less saturated fat and cholesterol than a meat-based diet. Obesity is a form of malnutrition that is just as dangerous as stunting and underweight. According to the Global Nutrition Report published in June this year, the number of children under 5 who are overweight is approaching the number who are underweight.
Of course any diet has to be balanced, whether with or without dairy. The problems of malnourishment in Italy can be a symptom of a rapidly growing movement that is not yet supported by mainstream health care. After all, we have been consuming meat and dairy since time immemorial, and our thinking is shaped by the paradigm that these products are essential. In that environment, parents who make other choices cannot get advice about the diet of their child from their GP.
There is sufficient scientific evidence for the adequacy of a vegan diet, but new knowledge always needs time to seep into the textbooks of universities. In 2003, Joan Sabaté wrote an article about the paradigm shift that according to him has taken place when it comes to the assessment of vegetarian and vegan diets. The assumptions about which nutrients are essential are changing:
Plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains, provide active substances on which human metabolism is dependent. However, only a few of those to date have been labeled as “essential nutrients.”
I think that this paradigm shift still has to happen in many places in society. For example, we talk about “meat substitutes” but I think it is more logical to take a neutral starting position. Whether or not you eat meat and dairy, everyone should make sure to take in enough nutrients and not too much fat and sugar. I believe that whether or not someone is following a vegan diet does not say anything about their overall health.
The growing popularity of veganism gives me hope that the knowledge about this diet will spread more widely. Doctors and dieticians will be better able to give good advice to vegans. And if good information gives confidence to people to reduce their meat and dairy intake, fewer animals will have to sacrifice their lives or their children to us. Now that is good news for Animal Day!