One was the study of more than 77,000 Seventh Day Adventists reported earlier this month that found that compared to non-vegetarians, vegetarians had a 20 per cent lower risk of colorectal cancer (although, interestingly, adding fish to the veggies was better still, with plant and fish eaters having an even lower risk).
The other was the analysis of the lifestyle habits of 451,256 Europeans that found those eating the most plant foods – around 70 per cent of their diet – had a 20 per cent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, compared to those eating the least plant foods.
But not everyone’s ready to swap bacon for beans which is why Brian Kateman from the Earth Institute Centre for Environmental Sustainability at New York’s Columbia University has come up with the term reducetarian, meaning someone who’s cutting down on, but not eliminating, meat.
So why is that any different to “semi-vegetarian” or “flexitarian” – words for those eating mostly plants with small amounts of meat, poultry or fish? Because it’s broad enough to include someone who’s taking baby steps to reduce animal foods – like doing Meatless Monday or eating meat once a day instead of twice.
It’s a long way from being vegan but the important thing is that a reducetarian has made a conscious decision to eat less animal food, says Kateman – and even a small reduction helps. Or as Australian philosopher Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and a supporter of reducetarianism puts it: “Reduce now, and next month reduce more. Maybe you’ll get to zero, and anyway, you’ll be doing less harm.”
Kateman also sees this approach as a way of soothing the hostility that can creep into debates between vegans and non-vegans by uniting everyone who’s reducing animal products at some level.
“It’s a message that allows us to focus not on our differences but on a shared commitment to eating less meat regardless of where we are on the spectrum,” he said in a TEDx talk last year. “If you can go meat-free, great, but if you can’t, just eat a little less.”
Easy ways to do this include using mushrooms instead of bacon or chorizo; swapping a meat meal for a lentil and veggie soup – or replacing ham in a sandwich with cashew or almond butter. It’s also surprisingly easy to de-flesh many dishes like curries or pasta sauces by swapping the meat or poultry for a legume like chick peas. You might sacrifice a little flavour but the payoff is that nothing died in the making of this meal – or lived its life shut inside a sunless shed.
But if arguments for better health and animal welfare aren’t enough to get us eating more plants and fewer animals, here’s another. Eating less meat is one of the most effective actions we can take to protect the climate, says Associate Professor Andrew McGregor of Macquarie University’sDepartment of Geography and Planning.
Around 30 per cent of the world’s non-ice surface is taken up by producing livestock, a key contributor to greenhouse gas production, he explains – but if we all ate less meat it would have two big benefits – reducing greenhouse gases directly from livestock emissions and freeing up more land where we could plant more trees to act as a sink to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“Changing meat consumption is something that can be done today, right now, by everyone,” McGregor says. “Rather than complaining about the lack of progress on climate change people can get active one meal at a time.”
In recent years, boxers David Haye and Mike Tyson, the Williams sisters, UFC fighters, cricketers and footballers have all reportedly “gone green”. Most famously, of course, did Popeye not develop huge biceps on a plant-based diet?
If you are thinking about making the change and worried about your protein intake, the good news is experts say with a little planning, plant-based protein can be just as effective to maintain an active lifestyle and repair and build muscle.
Can I get enough protein from a plant-based diet?
After speaking with several nutritionists, the general response was “yes, but…”. This was invariably followed by suggesting vegans should plan meals carefully.
“You need a variety of different plant-based sources to make sure you’re still getting all the essential amino acids”, says Bethan Hamilton, registered associate nutritionist and National Educator for Vega.
Dr Adam Collins, Director of MSc and BSc Nutrition at the University of Surrey, agrees: “In the UK people eat around 150pc of their protein requirement. You’re probably still meeting your requirements on a vegan diet in absolute terms. If you’re combining plant protein sources you could equally get a full complement of amino acids.”
“I think there’s a big misconception that a plant-based diet is devoid of protein,” says nutritional therapist Lily Soutter. “Make sure you are focusing on the good-quality protein sources, like tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, nuts and seeds. When you combine them it almost makes a jigsaw puzzle and can help to make a complete protein.”
This goes back to the debate on how complete a protein you’re consuming. The best vegan protein powders are composed of a variety of protein sources, from pea and rice to hemp and algae.
While vegan protein is proven to be very effective, its efficacy may not be quite as high as whey, which has “been shown to be more effective than vegan protein”, according to Roberts.
“Whey protein is a good promoter of building muscle, if that’s one of your aims,” says Dr Collins. “That’s not to say you can’t build muscle through a general intake of protein.” Dairy-free alternatives “take a bit more effort to release the protein, and they’re not going to give you a quick-release super-stimulus in the same way.”
With all this in mind, I set about trying some of the leading vegan proteins powders. They were all tested primarily for flavour, with nutritional information taken into account. I cannot vouch for their ability to leave you looking like Arnie – we’ll catch up in a few months’ time on that front.
All the powders (of course, they’re all suitable for vegetarians as well) were tested with milk substitutes or water, as per packet instructions. But as a useful tip, I preferred them all either sprinkled on cereal or in a fruit smoothie.