A burger made out of peas – that bleeds? Yoghurt fermented from coconuts? ‘Leather’ handbags made out of pineapples? You’re either someone who yells “Oh kale yeah!” about vegan imitation innovations – or thinks they sound like a big missed steak.

Wait, these puns are all far too cheesy for an article on veganism (unless that cheese is made of cashews), so let’s get to the point…

2018 was predicted to be the ‘year of the vegan’ and six months in, we’re starting to believe it. Chris Hemsworth joined younger brother Liam and fiancée Miley Cyrus in veganism. Actress Rooney Mara launched a vegan fashion line. Drake went vegan. So did Zac Efron. And even Gordon Ramsay tweeted that he’s “giving this #vegan thing a try.”

The number of vegan restaurants multiplied to more than 100 even in pork-loving Shanghai and vegan Prince Khaled announced that Saudi Arabia will open at least 10 vegan restaurants by 2020. Locally, Dominos and Pizza Hut chains introduced vegan cheese and dessert destinations Pancake Parlour and San Churro launched vegan menus to meet overwhelming demand. We could go on, but, in short, at least 70% of the world population is now reportedly either reducing meat consumption or leaving meat off the table altogether.

Is this vegan trend healthy?

“Vegan and vegetarian diets can support healthy living at every age and life-stage, can be perfectly healthy and balanced, and in line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines; however, they need to be planned and having some knowledge of nutrition and food will help you do this,” says Dr Helen McCarthy, VU senior lecturer in Dietetics and Nutrition.

With the need to maintain a balanced diet in mind, there are many reasons the world is embracing veganism in greater numbers, and we explore some of them.

Environmental concerns

Many vegans point to environmental reasons for their dietary choices. They cite the impact of meat and dairy production, at the scale that our population demands, which takes a significant toll on resources. Making one beef patty takes 3kg of grain, 200 litres of water, 74.5 square feet of land, 1036 BTUs of energy (enough to power seven iPads), and releases 6kg of CO2.

An estimated one-third of the world’s grain harvest is fed to farm animals – enough grain to feed 3 billion people. Then there’s the logging of wilderness to clear the land to grow that grain. The unsustainability of the meat and dairy industry was highlighted earlier in the year with a catastrophic warning about the fate of humanity, signed by 15,000 scientists. We are “facing the existential threat of runaway consumption of limited resources by a rapidly growing population”, they claimed, with key causes being the nearly 300 million acres of forest lost to make way for agricultural land, and the amount of fresh water available per head of population worldwide reducing by 26%.

This was backed up by a recent Oxford University study of veganism that concluded a vegan world would produce 49% less food-based greenhouse gas emissions and 50% less acidification of land.

Farming for a vegan diet is less destructive on the environment.

Ethical & health arguments

Ethical vegans believe that all living things, including farm animals, deserve to live to their natural lifespan in a place free from pain and suffering, where they are able to partake in their natural behaviours in appropriate environments – a utopian reality not possible in the current intensive farming industry.

Meat and dairy consumption have also been linked to nine major diseases including cancer and cardiovascular disease, and many vegans anecdotally report weight loss, and a boost to energy levels, mood and general health following their diet switch.

Vegan skater Meagan Duhamel took out gold at the Winter Olympics, and vegan CrossFit athlete Jeremy Reijnders earned the title 'fittest man in the Netherlands,' showing that with the right nutritional intake, vegans can achieve fitness levels equal to any meat-eater.

Animal cruelty in farming motivates many to try veganism.

Can veganism really save the world?

But apocalyptic predictions and Hollywood endorsements aside, can veganism really save us from disease and destruction?

Without good planning and knowledge of nutrition, any kind of diet can do more harm than good, suggests Dr Helen McCarthy, who attributes the rise in veganism in the western world to concerns about health, animal welfare, environmental impact and also social pressure.

“The exclusion of food specific groups, or over consumption of others can lead to health problems in the long term,” she says, citing the also popular Paleo and Ketogenic diets, which can lead to carbohydrate deficiency, raised cholesterol and blood lipids, altered liver and kidney function, poor immunity and nutrient deficiencies.

Dr McCarthy reminds us that to maintain a healthy vegan diet, good knowledge of nutrition and food is required.

Still unsure about what’s right? Why not take a course in nutrition and health science and make up your own mind!

Study food science for an informed view on diet

About the author

Maya Linden has been a vegetarian since birth and vegan the last 15 years. She previously worked as a writer and researcher for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA) head office in the USA.