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Is veganism as good for you as they say?

It’s the wellness industry’s cash cow, and athletes’ latest choice, but scientists caution there’s still much we don’t know about the diet

By David Cox  /  The Observer

A chef looks at her vegan creations in August 2017. Despite the boom in veganism, even the most optimistic scientists caution that there is still much we do not understand about the diet, in particular its long-term consequences and whether it does hold significant advantages over an omnivorous or vegetarian diet.

Photo: AFP

Katharina Wirnitzer was in the midst of training for the Bike Transalp race, one of the world’s toughest endurance events, when she began investigating whether a vegan diet was suitable for athletes.

The year was 2003 and veganism was a long way from the current boom, which has established it as one of the most in-vogue dietary trends. But Wirnitzer, a sports scientist at the University of Innsbruck, had become intrigued by the resurgence of ancient theories linking plant-based diets with improved athletic performance.

“The first athletes on strict plant-based diets were gladiators,” she says. “Roman scripts report that all fighters adhered to gladiatoriam saginam, which was based on plant foods, including large amounts of legumes, pulses and grains, and contained little or no animal protein.”

Now, almost two millennia later, Wirnitzer is one of a handful of researchers trying to get to the bottom of whether veganism could enhance an athlete’s chances of sporting success. Over the past decade, she has led the NURMI study, the broadest initiative so far investigating the effects of a vegan diet in high-performance, ultra-endurance sports.

NURMI is particularly timely because veganism’s association with various health benefits — from weight loss to decreased risk of inflammatory disease — has seen the diet soar in popularity in recent years, both amongst the general public and elite sportsmen. The most recent survey by the Vegan Society estimates that there are around 600,000 vegans in the UK — a fourfold increase over the past five years — while high-profile athletes from Lewis Hamilton to Jermain Defoe have begun experimenting with veganism.

However, despite the boom in veganism, even the most optimistic scientists caution that there is still much we do not understand about the diet. In particular, little is known about the long-term consequences of veganism and whether it does hold significant advantages over an omnivorous or vegetarian diet.

Portrayals of the diet can be partisan: the recent blockbuster Netflix documentary The Game Changers has since been tainted by revelations that the executive producers are cofounders of a vegan food company and that much of the evidence presented in the film is selective, low-quality and anecdotal. Moreover, as with so many dietary interventions, the search for the truth about veganism is often clouded by the potential financial gains — with predictions that the global vegan food market will be worth US$24.3 billion by 2026.

This is perhaps unsurprising. Whether it be the trendy city bars offering vegan wine, or the array of new products launching in supermarkets and health food stores, veganism is the wellness industry’s new cash cow. Market-research experts have already predicted that the value of the global vegan food market will reach US$24.3billion by 2026 . Vegan cheese alone is expected to develop into an industry worth nearly US$4 billion within the next five years.

So what do we really know about veganism and what it can do for our health?

REDUCING CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE

At Sheffield Hallam University, David Rogerson has spent the past decade studying the effects of dietary interventions on physical health. He says that one reason veganism could be good for you is because it can protect against cardiovascular diseases, by reducing obesity and lowering cholesterol. These chronic illnesses cost the UK around nine billion pounds a year; veganism may be the solution.

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