Triple Bottom Line: The meat of the matter

It’s the second installment of my column and time to jump right into the controversial stuff. It’s time to broach a highly debated, heavily memed subject: veganism.

Full disclaimer — I am not and have never been vegan. Throughout college, I’ve gone through phases of experimental vegetarianism, but even when my lactose-intolerant brain screams “no,” I see no reason to turn down a good grilled cheese or a slice of pizza.

While my admittedly short, albeit dedicated vegetarian experience is over (for now), my eating habits have definitely changed. I find myself naturally gravitating toward more plant-based foods instead of meat-heavy meals. A few years ago, I would never have believed that a veggie California burrito just hits different than the classic carne asada (pro tip –– it absolutely does).

While vegetarianism and veganism are growing in popularity, being a conscientious grocery consumer is a privilege, not a right. While society is more accommodating of dietary restrictions than ever, it can still be costly to maintain a balanced and nutritious vegan diet. Many advocates of veganism claim that staples such as pasta, rice, tofu, beans and lentils are cheaper than their animal-product counterparts. You’ll undoubtedly save money not buying meat –– it’s estimated that one fillet of chicken breast is $5 per pound and has about 24 grams of protein per serving, but a can of black beans typically costs around a dollar for the same amount of protein.

The math is simple –– per year, plant-based consumers can save a significant amount of money. However, vegan diets do require dedication. Buying more fresh produce is great for your body, but comparatively, it goes bad much faster than frozen foods or pantry sundries, meaning more quick trips to the grocery store are needed to restock. Many vegans also develop nutritional deficiencies because they commonly lack vitamin B12 and vitamin D3, nutrients that are found almost exclusively in animal-sourced foods and are crucial for nerve and brain function. 

While being vegan can be affordable, this doesn’t offset the fact that some degree of budgetary flexibility is needed to successfully maintain a plant-based diet. It is achievable, but not for all. Kids who are part of school-free and reduced-lunch programs don’t have the luxury of rejecting what is put on their plate. In food deserts like South Central, it can be more difficult (although not impossible) to access a consistent assortment of fresh produce. 

Getting the most food for your dollar means that many aren’t necessarily focused on the nutritional quality of what they’re purchasing –– they’re just trying to make sure their family doesn’t go hungry. Processed foods often have a longer shelf life and are more readily available than fresh fruits, vegetables and pricey vegan-certified and meat-substitute products. 

For those that qualify for the United States Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, it can be extremely hard to align the goals of both healthy and affordable eating. The federal program, often referred to as SNAP, is essentially a food-stamp benefit program designed to “supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food.” 

While its goal is admirable, it’s also extremely vague. There is an educational component of the program that teaches SNAP beneficiaries about the best methods of buying cheap, nutritious foods and leading healthy lives. However, the number of stores that accept SNAP is limited, and beneficiaries are more focused on their primary goal of alleviating hunger than choosing the most nutritious options. Additionally, the maximum monthly SNAP allotment for a family of four is $649, coming out to $36 a person per week, leaving little room for error or experimentation when shopping for the bare essentials.  

Many ways to improve the program and enhance its nutritional impact have been suggested, including increasing the number of places that accept SNAP benefits, expanding to more farmers markets and offering cash incentives to purchase and further subsidize the cost of fresh produce. To fully commit to and execute their goal of achieving healthy lifestyles for all, the process of food accessibility as a whole needs to change.

No one sells the vegan lifestyle like a newly converted vegan. There’s no shortage of celebrities, professional athletes and influencers who are strong proponents of a plant-based diet. Colorful photos of carefully prepared fruits, veggies and grains flood Instagram health accounts, reinforcing the message that veganism is healthy, easy and enjoyable. While these fit, glowing and healthy individuals make veganism look fun and simple, it’s important to consider the divide between Instagram and reality.

Even for the everyday herbivore, dedication, time and research are needed to ensure you are getting all of the supplements and nutrients needed for a healthy diet. A few years ago, LeBron James made headlines for following an extremely strict paleo diet –– cutting out sugar, carbs and dairy entirely and subsisting solely on meat, fish, fruits and vegetables –– and losing a drastic amount of weight. 

The reason LeBron was so successful? He had resources that the average health-conscious consumer does not — private trainers, nutritionists and chefs to provide him with the knowledge and nutrients needed to conduct a drastic diet change and still maintain his superhuman fitness and athleticism. In most instances, it can be extremely unhealthy and unsafe to cut entire food groups out of your diet. Those with underlying health issues, allergies and dietary restrictions and those recovering from eating disorders may not necessarily benefit from a restrictive diet like veganism. 

All this is not to say that being vegan can’t be a healthy, family-friendly diet, but there are several crucial caveats to consider when contemplating a switch to veganism. Having the ability to make choices about what you eat is a privilege in itself. Veganism can be an affordable, eco-friendly and ethical switch –– if you have the resources to do so. 

Montana Denton is a junior writing about environmental issues, sustainability and society. Her column, “Triple Bottom Line,” runs every other Thursday.

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