More Australians are saying ‘no’ to meat

29th June 2018 2:44 PM
Premium Content Subscriber only

EATING meat and dairy is part of Emilia Hristov's Bulgarian heritage - it's a culture that gave the world yoghurt and continues to supply much of its lamb.

But like a growing number of Australians, the 23-year-old Sydney actor has decided in the last year to avoid animal products after two decades of eating them.

"I was a normal meat-eater but I always prided myself on being an animal lover," she says. "I was ignorant about the meat and dairy industry. I mean, I knew we were eating animals, but I couldn't really associate it because I believed they roamed free on farms and would die semi-humanely."

Australia is the third-fastest growing market for veganism in the world. 

She now thinks there's no such thing as killing an animal "semi-humanely" and after educating herself about the health, ethical and environmental benefits to removing meat and dairy, she was prepared to go against her family and culture and make the shift.

"I knew I couldn't just jump straight into it, so I cut red meat first, then poultry, and then I was pescetarian for a month or two, then vegetarian for a month.

"It was step by step. It definitely helped because when you know something your entire life, it's kind of hard to switch off from it completely."

The number of Australians who have removed meat, or meat and dairy, from their diets is not clear. But Roy Morgan Research found adults whose diets were entirely or "almost" vegetarian rose from 1.7 million, or 9.7 per cent of the population, to 2.1 million, or 11.2 per cent of the population, from 2012 to 2016.

With more than 460,000 followers, Sydney Instagram star Bonny Rebecca is the embodiment of a new generation of Australians adopting a meat and dairy-free lifestyle for better health.

Her social media accounts are a gallery of sun-kissed snaps featuring vibrant plant foods and a trim, beach-ready physique.

"I was just in this constant love-hate relationship with food … it was the worst," Rebecca says of her lifestyle before converting to veganism.

"I wasn't eating a diet that made me feel amazing and I was always left wanting more."

After being stuck in a cycle of eating junk food, she began asking herself "Am I always going to feel this way?"


Instagram star and vegan Bonny Rebecca. Source: Instagram
Instagram star and vegan Bonny Rebecca. Source: Instagram


Actor and non-meat eater Emilia Hristov at Heart & Soul Cafe in Cronulla.
Actor and non-meat eater Emilia Hristov at Heart & Soul Cafe in Cronulla.


People who have given up meat and dairy products and gone vegan have made Australia the third-fastest growing market for veganism in the world.

According to Euromonitor research, Australia sits only behind the United Arab Emirates and China.

Supermarket giant Coles backs up the research and says demand has grown significantly for meat and dairy-free products in the past 12 months. "There has been double-digit growth in areas that cater to vegetarians and vegans," a Coles spokesman tells Saturday Extra.

In addition, the supermarket is testing new products to cater to those who want to stick to the taste and experience of eating meat.

The Beyond Meat burger is now available in Victorian stores and, if successful, will be rolled out nationally.

The American product is an alternative protein patty and marketed as tasting and smelling like a beef patty - it even "bleeds" like a real meat burger from beetroot. But this development has raised the hackles of the meat industry.

Alternatives such as the Beyond Meat beef patty and others that imitate lamb, chicken, fish and eggs are to be targeted in a new campaign.

Red Meat Advisory Council chair Don Mackay says he isn't concerned about the competition from alternative protein products, but he does object to them hijacking meat terms.

"What I do have a concern about, and the industry does, is people selling something as meat when it's not meat," he says.

"Meat is pretty simple. It's the product that comes from an animal slaughtered for human consumption."


Don Mackay, the chairman of the Red Meat Advisory Council.
Don Mackay, the chairman of the Red Meat Advisory Council.


Sydney GP and nutrition expert Dr Andrew Pennington.
Sydney GP and nutrition expert Dr Andrew Pennington.


He says competition "comes and goes" but the industry doesn't want people believing alternative brands are, in fact, meat.

"(We) are already commencing discussions with the federal and state governments and other authorities to ensure that people don't mislead consumers. So we will be pushing very hard for governments to deal with this issue," he says.

"To date, it's flown under the radar a little bit. We want to make sure it doesn't.

"We will be talking with the pork and chicken industry as well because we are all in the same boat here."

Producer-led market research company Meat & Livestock Australia found that although plant-based proteins were not new, they were now being consumed in about 15 per cent of Australian households each week.


The Beyond Meat vegetable protein pattie looks like real meat.
The Beyond Meat vegetable protein pattie looks like real meat.


"Beef and lamb remain extremely popular as they deliver on a wide range of benefits, including taste, texture, versatility and nutrients," MLA spokeswoman Lisa Sharp says.

"Australian beef and lamb is currently enjoyed by more than 80 per cent of Australian households every week."

Mackay says the industry is aware of the growth in vegans and vegetarians, but puts it down to people moving "in and out of fads".

"But I think the reality is the health authorities in this country still strongly recommend an appropriate consumption of red meat, 450g or of that nature (a week)."

According to the federal Department of Health, over a week a maximum of about seven serves of lean red meat is "recommended", stressing a variety of food from protein sources.

A slew of medical studies from the past 30 years, however, supports a wholefood plant-based diet for optimum health.

Most recently, new data presented at the American Society for Nutrition's annual meeting in Boston earlier this month bolstered the claims.

The Rotterdam Study, based on 5905 participants, found "a high plant protein intake at the expense of either animal protein or saturated fat is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease".

Cardiovascular diseases remain Australia's biggest killers and in the latest NSW Budget, the government announced $150 million over the next 10 years to address the critical health crisis.

Upper north shore GP Dr Andrew Pennington specialises in treating those with cardiovascular disease and other illnesses such as type-two diabetes through a primarily whole food plant-based diet.

He says he not only supports patients who don't eat meat and animal products, but also advocates for the dietary move.

"I've always had an understanding that plant-based diets were helpful but I think I probably became a bit more convinced of the medicinal benefits of it about four or five years ago, through the Adventist Health Studies.

"The Adventist Health Studies were quite interesting because Adventists have a similar lifestyle outside of diet. They generally don't smoke and not too many are drinkers so you can control some of those factors.

"About 50 per cent are omnivorous and the other 50 per cent are varying levels of plant-based, while about 10 per cent are vegan.

"You can actually have a look at them from that perspective, epidemiologically, and what they found in most cases was the Adventists who were vegan had the best health outcomes when it came to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancers."


High profile vegetarian, singer Sia Furler. Pic: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP.
High profile vegetarian, singer Sia Furler. Pic: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP.


Director James Cameron believes in having a plant-based diet.
Director James Cameron believes in having a plant-based diet.


He says science is now "catching up" with studies after the medical fraternity was able to see the benefits for chronic diseases both at a preventive and treatment level.

"Societies have become much more unhealthy over the last 50 years," he says.

"The chronic disease burden is increasing dramatically with diabetes and cardiovascular disease so it probably wasn't as necessary to be promoting this stuff, because years ago the problems weren't as severe.

"If I could turn 90 per cent of the world's population vegan, we would do a lot of good things, and one of those things would be to improve chronic health problems."

He says meat and dairy should, at most, be a "sideshow" on the plate, rather than the traditional "huge steak and vegies on the side that Australians have grown up with".


Australia is a nation that prides itself on its barbecues.
Australia is a nation that prides itself on its barbecues.


Further health improvements he witnessed in patients included a dramatic drop in cholesterol, mood and energy improvements, reduction in swelling and point pain, blood sugar control and even better erectile function.

"It's quite remarkable what a wholefood plant-based diet can do."

Another new study suggests a move away from meat and dairy will help decrease pressure on global resources and the environment.

Published in the journal Science, the study "Reducing food's environmental impacts through producers and consumers" found avoiding meat and dairy was the single biggest way of lowering carbon footprints.

The cattle industries, it found, are responsible for 60 per cent of agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions, and used up 83 per cent of farmland. Reducing global farmland by more than three- quarters would still provide enough food for the world's population.


Vegetarian and animal rights campaigner Matt Stellino.
Vegetarian and animal rights campaigner Matt Stellino.


Global activist group Anonymous for the Voiceless (AV) promotes the triad of benefits - health, ethics and the environment - a meat and dairy-free lifestyle has, but with a particular focus on animal liberation.

Matt Stellino heads the Sydney chapter of AV and as a former hunter and infantry soldier his involvement in the movement is surprising.

He is now a staunch vegan and activist after having a "light bulb" moment about his lifestyle.

"My mentality flipped when I realised the animals I was harming were sentient individuals who valued their lives. They went from 'something' to 'someone' almost in an instant," he says.

"Also what spurred me into activism was knowing that without activists, animals have almost zero chance of ever seeing an end to the hell they endure. Being part of creating that change is something I felt a calling towards but also feel as though it's partly my penance for all the suffering I was responsible for."

He says the satisfaction he got from hunting left him after he realised the animals were "outgunned". "I considered myself as someone who would stop an act of cruelty upon an animal if ever I saw it, but I wasn't seeing my own actions for what they were; a deliberate choice to harm animals when I don't need to."