Matthew Ruby and Tani Khara, in The Psychologist, on the power and status of plant-based diets in different cultural contexts. January 2021.
Despite lots of historically negative media coverage, interest in veganism appears to be growing at a rapid pace. The number of people in the UK who identify as vegan quadrupled between 2014 and 2018, and across the pond in the USA, the number of self-identified vegans increased 600 per cent between 2013 and 2017. On a global level, Google Trends data show a steady rise in relative frequency of ‘vegan’ search queries since 2012. From Pret a Manger to Wagamama and even Burger King and McDonalds, major chains have rapidly expanded their vegan options, and high profile films like The Game Changers are credited with motivating many people to give plant-based diets a go.
But what is veganism, exactly? In 1944, a group of people in the UK proposed the word ‘vegan’ to describe a diet that excluded meat, fish, dairy and eggs. In 1988, the UK Vegan Society further defined veganism as ‘a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose’.
Traditional plant-based diets
Although the word veganism might be relatively new, the ideas behind it are not. Many Eastern philosophies have traditionally favoured plant-based diets. Hinduism has several teachings that advocate ‘ahimsa’ or non-violence towards all living beings, as it is believed that all beings share the same life force and should therefore be shown regard. Taoism and some Buddhist traditions advocate not harming sentient life forms, promoting a vegetarian diet as beneficial for one’s physical and spiritual well-being. Similarly, the concept of ‘Ren’, which is core to Confucianism, emphasises benevolence and highlights that it should be extended to humans and non-humans alike.
Similarly, many traditional cuisines are largely plant-based. For example, numerous traditional Mesoamerican cuisines heavily feature plants like corn, beans, squash, amaranth, and quinoa. In Japan, shōjin ryōri (traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine) makes liberal use of rice, vegetables, seeds, and beans, and the traditional diets of many Mediterranean cultures are built around plant-based foods (albeit usually including moderate amounts of dairy, poultry and fish).