Why are so many people eating vegan?

Veganism is everywhere these days’but what’s the big deal? Learn how vegan eating is said to be kinder to animals, the environment’and ourselves

Why are so many people eating vegan?

Source: Web exclusive: October 2011

Her skin has an effortlessly luminous glow. Her hair is silky and healthy. But Jessica Barr says her secret isn’t spending hours at the salon: It’s her vegan diet. Like celebrities Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Clinton, Woody Harrelson and (until her recent pregnancy) Natalie Portman, Barr doesn’t eat anything that comes from animals. Her diet is free of all meat and poultry, fish, dairy products, and eggs‘but it doesn’t mean she suffers. ‘It’s easy to figure out that you can nourish yourself just as effectively without those ingredients,’ Barr, an artist and graduate student, explains.

Once negatively associated with hippies and extreme health nuts, veganism is shedding its moniker as vegetarianism’s fussy sibling and is coming into its own. From bookstore shelves heaving with tomes dedicated to animal-free, health-conscious eating, to a slew of restaurants catering to those eschewing meat, dairy and eggs, choosing to pursue a vegan diet is an increasingly accessible option.

Why go vegan?

Those who pursue veganism are usually motivated by ethics, the environment, or by health reasons. For Barr, who became a vegetarian while a teenager and later evolved into veganism, it was a combination of all three’from not wanting animals to suffer, to pursuing a diet that helped to minimize her carbon footprint. ‘There’s a lot of evidence that a diet heavy in meat and dairy (especially non-organic) is connected to a wide range of diseases, including heart disease, stroke, cancer… the gamut of popular diseases,’ she says, explaining that a vegan diet is also said to increase longevity and vitality, as exemplified in studies of cultures that regularly consume fewer animal products.  Barr, who had struggled with endometriosis, says it was her gynecologist who first turned her on to vegan eating to help ease her symptoms. ‘It was a huge step,’ she recalls, ‘especially getting rid of dairy. My pain was gone within a few months.’

At her blog, The Kind Life (an extension of her 2009 book The Kind Diet: A Simple Guide to Feeling Great, Losing Weight and Saving the Planet), actress Alicia Silverstone touts the benefits of a carefully planned vegan diet as part of a holistic lifestyle that embraces simple good health and a gentle approach to the environment. ‘I know it’s going to make your life better,’ says Silverstone, looking sun-kissed and radiant in a video on the site. ‘It’s really playful, groovy, rock and roll, healthy living,’ she adds with a smile’a far cry from the earnest veganism of past incarnations.

For many concerned about the state of the environment, a vegan diet, which uses fewer resources, just makes sense. ‘There is a ton of evidence from all kinds of researchers that agriculture and food production, particularly in animal agriculture, is the number one cause of climate change,’ says Barr. ‘It’s far worse than driving a car or having incandescent light bulbs. So every time we have a meal, we can choose not to have meat that came from a factory farm, or to have local, organic tofu instead of chicken. They’re really easy changes to make.’

For some, however, the appeal of a vegan diet is the promise of weight loss. The 2005 international best seller Skinny Bitch helped bring veganism into the mainstream by repackaging it in a diet book. Lithe and slim, its authors, Kim Barnouin (a former model) and Rory Freedman (a former modelling agent), promise a ‘no-nonsense, tough-love guide for savvy girls who want to stop eating crap and start looking fabulous!’ It’s certainly worked for Mike Tyson: the former boxer showed photographs of himself before and after embarking on his vegan diet while a guest on the Ellen DeGeneres show. ‘It’s an awesome feeling,’ he said of his animal-free eating, while images of his lumpier self were flashed on-screen.

While Barr points out that restaurant eating can occasionally pose a problem (‘sometimes I will check out a menu online to make sure there is something I can eat before I go, or I’ll recommend a different restaurant’), she says that these days, there are usually enough options. And since many of her friends eat in a similar way, dinner parties never pose problems either. ‘Sometimes I will bring my own dish,’ she says, ‘like a vegan tortiere, or some kind of beautiful stovetop stuffing’some kind of dish that is hearty that would appeal to a lot of people, but that I can also eat myself. I often end up impressing people and giving them evidence that a plant-based diet doesn’t have to feel boring or feel like deprivation!

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