Vegan diets are surging in popularity, but are sometimes viewed with a degree of scepticism. A barrage of questions like “won’t you miss meat?” and “how will you get enough protein?” are often posed at those who become vegan. I once asked those same questions, but now I have some answers. Here’s my story.

Environmental impact

My initial interest in switching to a plant-based diet arose when reading about the impact of dairy and meat farming on our planet. I’m passionate about making the world a better place, but how can one person make a difference? 

The world is in a state of climate emergency, and as the UN secretary-general has pointed out, “it is a race we are losing.” Making a meaningful difference can often feel overwhelming given the demands of everyday life and so I was startled to learn that switching to a vegan diet can reduce one’s carbon footprint by up to 73 percent. In fact, eating less meat is one of the most beneficial things a person can do for the environment.

Researchers at Stanford and UC Berkeley have indicated that phasing out industrial animal agriculture is “our best and most immediate chance to reverse the trajectory of climate change.” Industrial agriculture accounts for 70 percent of freshwater consumption, 30 percent of global land use, and 80 percent of global deforestation. Previous to learning these statistics, it hadn’t occurred to me how much of an impact my diet was having on the planet we call home. 

Health benefits 

While I was excited about the benefits that going vegan could have for the planet, I still had some reservations about the impact it would have on my lifestyle. As someone who enjoys playing sports and staying active, I didn’t want a new diet to negatively impact my performance. I knew that there were countless studies about the importance of protein consumption in building and maintaining strength and energy. 

And so for several years I was eating foods such as chicken and eggs, which I knew were rich in protein. But after watching documentaries like The Game Changers and reading about athletes who had switched to a plant-based diet, it became clear to me that scores of athletes in a variety of sports have actually excelled on a vegan diet. 

Athletes like Lawrence Okolie, Venus Williams, and Alex Morgan are stalwarts in their sports who have performed at the highest level while being vegan. They and others have experienced faster recovery times (a study has shown vegan athletes had improved cardiovascular health and faster recovery), improved endurance (a study has shown submaximal endurance might be better in vegans), and an ability to add muscle strength (a study has shown protein source is not likely to have an impact on strength). 

There’s also a growing body of evidence about the health benefits of a vegan diet outside of athletic performance. One study has found that a vegetarian diet can lower the risk of heart disease by up to 40 percent and that a plant-based diet can actually reverse the onset of coronary heart disease. A separate study shows that vegan diets can reduce the risk of prostate cancer by up to 35 percent. 

Being vegan is not for everyone. According to the UN, meat, eggs, and milk offer vital sources of protein and nutrients for many people in the developing world. These foods support important health and developmental functions, especially in children, new mothers, and the elderly. Yet peer-reviewed studies have shown that, for healthy people, incorporating more plant-based foods into the diet can be beneficial for both physical and mental health.

The performance benefits touted by athletes as well as the health benefits published by the scientific community gave me the bump I needed to test out a vegan diet.

Taking the plunge

Resolved to set out on a new journey, I went about savouring the remaining animal products in my fridge and on 5 October 2019, I made my final trips to McDonald’s and Nandos. I also made sure I was well-versed on non-animal sources of protein. 

Living in London meant that I was lucky to have access to an array of alternatives to meat and dairy that made the first few weeks easy to navigate. I was still able to eat my go-to cereal but now topped with plant milk rather than cow’s milk; my favourite snack — Oreo cookies — fortunately happened to be vegan, and I was able to substitute mincemeat for vegan mince when making spaghetti bolognese. I didn’t find myself craving the foods I had previously enjoyed because of the access to alternatives.

I soon learned, however, that with so many corporations jumping on the vegan bandwagon, many of these alternatives are not healthy and can be expensive, so that made me more careful about what to choose when shopping for groceries. I now live in Nairobi, so being vegan is more difficult, but not impossible.

Factory farming 

My resolve to continue with veganism was tested most when I went out to restaurants for meals with friends and family. From the rich, sweet smoke of kebabs to the consuming aroma of freshly baked pastries, I found myself questioning whether it was all worth it. The debate raged in my head for some time until a sharp conclusion upon learning about the treatment of factory farmed animals.

A staggering 99 percent of animals used for food in the US are factory farmed, which means they are bred in confined spaces to maximise the amount of meat or milk extracted at the lowest cost possible. Many would agree that such treatment is appalling. Some animals are never taken outdoors and have almost no room to roam, while infants are separated from mothers at birth, and male animals are castrated without painkillers. Animals are also genetically manipulated to produce more milk and eggs than is natural, while being drugged to grow abnormally large. 

According to animal rights groups, chickens often grow so large that their legs cannot support their outsized bodies, and they suffer from starvation or dehydration when they can’t walk to reach food and water. This unethical treatment calls into question humans’ moral responsibility to their fellow living beings. It’s difficult for me — and many others — to consume such products in the knowledge of the harm being done to animals.

Renewed appetite 

For some, there’s a worry that vegan diets only apply to those who can afford to spend more money on special foods. In my case, I actually found the change to be cheaper. And it’s not just me: a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that a vegan diet could cut monthly spending on food by up to 33 percent.

I also started cooking for myself more than before, which made me more aware of the ingredients I was consuming everyday, giving me a more mindful relationship with food and with the broader environment that nourishes and sustains us all.

Many cultural traditions are centred around food, and being able to participate can sometimes be tricky when vegan. For the most part, I have usually found there to be vegan options on offer at communal gatherings. I’ve also been pleasantly surprised that some of the foods closest to my heart happened to be vegan. The East African fluffy rice pancake vitumbua; the Middle Eastern sweet baklava (made with syrup, not honey); and Thai sticky rice with mango are all guilt-free from an ethical perspective — if not a calorie one!

Some are quick to dismiss veganism as a fad. I too once scoffed at those limiting themselves to plant-based foods and giving up their favourite treats. But the data is backed up by scientific evidence, and after this four-year journey, I feel great and have no plans to go back.

So if you’re interested in a beneficial lifestyle change, consider starting as soon as you’re ready. It doesn't have to be all or nothing — start with ‘meat-free Mondays’ or a ‘flexitarian’ diet and take it from there. You don’t have to deny yourself that biriyani at the next wedding, or the cake and sharbat during Khushiali. Take the first step, and see where it takes you — the planet, and probably your own body, will thank you for it.