Could veg*anism become the pathway towards human well-being? In this Project Update, Researcher Network member, Jana Krizanova explores how this question provides the foundation to her research in the area of conscious human nutrition and its relationship with psychological outcomes.
During my work I came across many findings, which, unexpectedly offer contradictory statements. This fact was a wake up call to a deeper need for understanding why veg*ans experience different levels of happiness when committed to a plant-based diet.
As an old saying points out, “we are what we eat”, but this can be also perceived from a transformational perspective “we become what we eat”.
Every day we make hundreds of decisions, from the clothes we put on, the transport we use, and the breakfast, lunch or dinner we eat. All of them contribute to build a bit more of our personality and identity and modify our cells with every energy intake. Yet sometimes we do not appreciate the impact of all of this daily routine has on our overall well-being. And we continue in our life project searching for a piece of long-lasting happiness. Some will succeed, others not.
But could what we do and who we are bring more happiness to our lives? Here veg*anism is the perfect tool for materialization of the above-mentioned questions to contrast my hypothesis. The veg*an way of being not only encloses answers to the questions “who we are” and “what we do” but also provides the very important answer of “why we do what we do”.
Generally, omnivore mainstream culture explains why people eat animals with statements such as "it is a natural thing to do"; "animals serve us"; "meat is a tasty protein source"; "we need to eat meat to be strong"; "real men eat meat"...to name but a few. But if we look deeper at these reasons, we only find a reflection of a strongly rooted dominance culture that had been installed in our education systems for many years for some hidden profitable reasons of a few giant food companies.
On the other hand, some of us at a certain point in our lives receive a wake up call and ask ourselves why we do what we do and if this action really makes our life more meaningful and then, we discover a new reality and a new truth about who we really are or who we want to be. Consequently, we start to live the veg*an transformation. This change of our personal identity through the means of daily food choices becomes a basic pillar of our philosophy, which evolves our belief systems into a new way of life that is more compassionate and gives more value to our own life and the life of other living beings.
In this vein, I develop my PhD research about veg*anism (vegan & vegetarian synergy) from the perspective of its relationship with human happiness because each one of us needs to be happy and each one of us needs to eat.
In my research I define subjective well-being as a multifaceted field of study, widely applied in different areas such as economics, social science and general social discourse. It embraces physical, psychological and emotional health and also aspects of life satisfaction such as human happiness (McMahon, Williams & Tapsell, 2010).
Recently, research about veg*anism is on the rise since it connects food choices with emotional and planetary well-being. Therefore, by the means of veg*anism we could contribute to preserve our identity, environment and achieve the pillars of sustainability (Ruby, 2012).
From an environmental perspective, the positive relationship of veg*anism and collective well-being is clear to appreciate. According to much research, what a person decides to eat at an individual level makes a big difference to the environment and other living beings (Marlow et al., 2009). Consequently, a dietary change would achieve the environmental goals with efficiency of 50% in GHG emissions reduction and extensive land use demand affecting biodiversity, all related to a current omnivore diet. In this vein, veg*anism becomes a feasible solution for a human sustainable diet due to its lack of meat intake (Hallström, Röös & Börjesson, 2015).
On the other hand, from a happiness perspective, the relationship of veg*anism and individual well-being is not that clear to see as recent studies provide contradictory evidence (Rosenfeld, 2018).
As a result, there is a call to investigate veg*anism from a more holistic angle so that it can become not only a sustainable human diet but also the pathway towards increased levels of human happiness and thus, achieve a better introduction among wider spheres of our society.
I differentiate between the effect of veg*an dietary lifestyle on physical and psychological health, and focus on the latter.
Veg*anism and physical well-being/ health
Many people from Western cultures engage in veg*an lifestyles for health motivations because they recognise that an omnivore diet based on the production and consumption of animal products and by-products is harmful (Rothgerber, 2013) Suhc a diet may lead to different types of cancer, heart disease, obesity, reduced longevity, zoonosis, to name a few. Therefore, a well-designed veg*an diet is medically recommended as healthy and nutritious for all stages of life, benefitting from lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, animal protein and providing higher levels of antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, folate, fibre, magnesium, potassium, phytochemicals and carotenoids. As a result, veg*an diets help to prevent heart disease, obesity, atherosclerosis formation, hypertension, renal disease, cholesterol issues, type 2 diabetes and prostate and colon cancer (Alvaro, 2017).
These findings provide rich evidence about the beneficial effects of a well-balanced veg*an diet contributing to increased levels in physical well-being by its vital health-management.
Veg*anism and psychological / subjective well-being:
Through a review of the literature, I identify three perspectives in the relationship of veg*anism and subjective well-being:
Veg*anism as a healthy diet => positive relationship with subjective well-being.
There is a collection of research that suggests a positive link of veg*anism from a perspective of a healthy diet and subjective well-being (Weinstein & Anton, 1982; Conner et al., 2017).
For example, Weinstein and Anton (1982) in their breakfast experiment discovered that meat eaters experience more negative emotions than vegetable eaters and that high-protein diets lead to more aggressive emotions. In a similar vein, Conner and colleagues (2017) demonstrate that increased consumption of fruit and vegetables improves subjective well-being, vitality and motivation.
Veg*anism as identity => negative tendency in the relationship with subjective well-being
Another area of research suggests a negative tendency between veg*an identity and emotional well-being (Michalak, Zhang & Jacobi, 2012; Forestell & Nezlek, 2018; Lavallee et al., 2019) with reduced positive evidence (Link, Hussaini & Jacobson, 2008; Beezhold & Johnston, 2012).
According to many findings, people who identify as veg*ans are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and negative emotions in comparison to their omnivore counterparts. A recent study performed by Lavallee and colleagues (2019) discovered relationship between vegetarianism and anxiety and depression in China. In line with this, Forestell and Nezlek (2018) found out that psychological disorders such as depression often precede the adoption of vegetarianism.
However, there is also a contradictory collection of evidence that suggests that veg*ans enjoy higher levels of subjective well-being. According to findings of Beezhold and Johnston (2012), there is a positive relationship between lacto-ovo vegetarians and improved mood, which might be caused by the nature of a vegetarian diet.
Veg*anism as an eating disorder => negative relationship with subjective well-being
Here we find research that suggests a negative correlation between vegetarianism as an eating disorder and subjective well-being (Worsley & Skrzypiec, 1997; Lindeman, 2002; Timko, Hormes & Chubski, 2012; Zuromski et al., 2015).
For instance, Zuromski and colleagues (2015) demonstrate a relationship between disordered eating and vegetarianism. In this line, Timko and colleagues (2012) link vegetarianism with disordered eating, especially among semi-vegetarian undergraduates. However, the flexibility of semi-vegetarianism is opposed to true veg*anism and it could be argued that this semi-vegetarianism may be more likely related to disordered eating than true veg*anism.
It is important to note that the contradictory evidence arises when we focus on the relationship of veg*anism with psychological well-being and not with physical health. In my work, I contrast the above-mentioned differences in the relationship of veg*anism and subjective well-being with the sample from the Mediterranean area and obtain similar findings to previous results. At first appearance, my findings suggest that following a veg*an dietary pattern and identifying as a veg*an adherent might not be the best strategy to increase levels of subjective well-being. Yet, the story is not yet finished...
Veg*anism and connectedness to nature
If we consider this complex relationship from a different angle, we obtain new results.
Once we introduce the variable of connectedness to nature, we are able to observe some new contributions. As a result, this new introduction of the variable of nature relatedness, transforms the link of veg*anism and happiness into a positive relationship. This perspective brings a deeper understanding of the relationship of veg*ans and their subjective well-being through the means of connectedness to nature. This has been defined as "a subjective sense of connectedness to nature and all other living things" (Nisbet, Zelenski & Murphy, 2011). Consequently, nature related individuals are more likely to engage in veg*anism, humanitarianism, animal defence and environmentalism (Nisbet, Zelenski & Murphy, 2009) and vice versa (Twigg, 1979).
My research therefore suggests that as well as connecting to nature we also require a veg*an commitment philosophy so that an individual may experience even higher levels of subjective well-being. Therefore, embracing our connection with nature makes our lives more meaningful (Nisbet, Zelenski & Murphy, 2011) and committing to veg*anism makes our lives even more happier.
This perspective sheds more light onto the current understanding of the complex relationship veg*anism performs on human happiness since it may bring positive and negative effects on subjective well-being. By connecting to nature,however, veg*ans are able to trade off the initial lower subjective well-being and reach even higher levels of happiness than their omnivore counterparts.
In conclusion, these findings suggest that veg*ans may be happier than omnivores and that veg*anism might constitute a feasible path towards human happiness as long as it is embraced as a way of being connected to others.
‘True happiness is impossible without true health, and true health is impossible without a rigid control of the palate. All the other senses will automatically come under control. And he who has conquered his senses has already conquered the whole world’.
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