In this second article from our new Wellbeing & Veganism research theme, Researcher Network member, Dr Jana Krizanova, asks if veg*anism is a pathway towards human wellbeing?
Could veg*anism be understood as a pathway towards wellbeing and happiness? This question provides the foundation for my 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 building a bit more of our personality and identity and modify our cells with every energy intake. Yet sometimes we do not appreciate the impact this daily routine has on our overall wellbeing. And we continue with 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 the materialisation of the above-mentioned questions to contrast my hypothesis. The veg*an way of living 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 they eat animals with statements such as it is a natural thing, animals serve us, meat is a tasty protein source, we need to eat meat to be strong, men eat meat, to name 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. 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 things.
In this vein, I developed my PhD research about veg*anism (vegan & vegetarian synergy) from the perspective of its relationship with human happiness because every one of us needs to be happy and every one of us needs to eat. In my research I define subjective wellbeing 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 wellbeing. 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 wellbeing is clear to appreciate. According to a growing body of 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 an efficiency of 50% in GHG emissions reduction and extensive land use demand affecting biodiversity, all related to current omnivore diets. In this vein, veg*anism becomes a feasible solution as a sustainable human diet due to its reduced meat intake (Hallström, Röös & Börjesson, 2015).
On the other hand, from a happiness perspective, the relationship between veg*anism and individual wellbeing 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 wellbeing/ health
Many people from Western cultures engage in veg*an lifestyles for health motivations as omnivore diets based on production and consumption of animal products and by-products are amply harmful (Rothgerber, 2013) causing 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 the lifespan, 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 as well as 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 wellbeing by its vital health management.
Veg*anism and psychological / subjective wellbeing:
Through reviewing the literature, I identified three perspectives in the relationship of veg*anism and subjective wellbeing:
Veg*anism as a healthy diet => positive relationship with subjective wellbeing.
There is a lot of research that suggests a positive link of veg*anism from a perspective of a healthy diet and subjective wellbeing (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 the increased consumption of fruit and vegetables improves subjective wellbeing, vitality and motivation.
Veg*anism as identity => negative tendency in the relationship with subjective wellbeing
Another area of research suggests a negative tendency between veg*an identity and emotional wellbeing (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), for example, discovered a negative relationship between vegetarianism and anxiety and depression in China.
However, there is also evidence to suggest that veg*ans actually may enjoy higher levels of subjective wellbeing. According to findings by 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 wellbeing
Here we find research that suggests a negative correlation between vegetarianism as an eating disorder and subjective wellbeing (Worsley & Skrzypiec, 1997; Lindeman, 2002; Timko, Hormes & Chubski, 2012; Zuromski et al., 2015). Zuromski and colleagues (2015), for example, demonstrate a relationship between disordered eating and vegetarianism. Similarly, Timko and colleagues (2012) link vegetarianism with disordered eating, especially among semi-vegetarian undergraduates.
It is important to note that most of the contradictory evidence arises when we focus on the relationship of veg*anism with psychological wellbeing and not with physical health. In my work, I contrast the above-mentioned differences in the relationship of veg*anism and subjective wellbeing 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 wellbeing. It would be premature, however, to conclude at this point, due to the importance of a very interesting variable: nature connectedness.
Veg*anism and connectedness to nature
Nature relatedness: A subjective sense of connectedness to nature and all other living things (Nisbet, Zelenski & Murphy, 2011).
Once we consider this complex relationship from a different angle, introducing, importantly, the variable of feeling connected to nature, we obtain new results. Our research found that the introduction of the variable of nature relatedness transforms the link between veg*anism and happiness into something positive. Consequently, it has been suggested that 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, echoes these previous findings and suggests that through connecting with nature, a veg*an may experience higher levels of subjective wellbeing than those who do not feel any such connection. This adds weight, therefore, to the suggestion that embracing our connection with nature makes our lives more meaningful (Nisbet, Zelenski & Murphy, 2011) and committing to veg*anism makes our lives even happier.
This perspective sheds more light on the understanding of the complex relationship between veg*anism and human happiness. By connecting to nature, it is suggested that veg*ans may be able to trade-off the initial experience of lower subjective wellbeing and reach even higher levels of sustainable happiness than their omnivore counterparts.
‘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’. Mahatma Gandhi
If you are working or have expertise in the field of wellbeing, happiness, mental health or mindfulness and would like to contribute to our wellbeing and veganism working group then do get in touch with our Research Officer Lorna - we'd love to hear from you!
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