The power of celebrity is a curious thing. For years, industries such as Big Tobacco took advantage of this fact by inserting cigarettes into the hands of stars of the silver screen. Some famous folks who realize the responsibility of their power have tried to use this influence for good. Take John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s "Give Peace a Chance" movement, which may not have brought an end to war, but at least promoted something positive. Or in more recent years, another pop icon who had a message for the masses—Beyoncé.
Back in 2013, Queen B announced to the world that she and husband Jay Z had taken up a plant-based diet. For approximately 22 short days, Bey and Jay went strictly vegan. The decision may not have lasted long for the couple, but according to recent research could have made a far greater impact on the rest of the world.
According to recent research reported in the Daily Mail, the "short stint was enough to trigger a rise in the trendy movement, potentially encouraging millions to follow suit." This was the conclusion reached by a Finnish doctoral student named Outi Lundahl from the University of Vaasa. "Interest in veganism seemed to explode because of this stint and I became intrigued," Lundahl told the Daily Mail, explaining what sparked her initial interest in the subject.
Lundahl went on to argue through her thesis that Beyoncé—along with fellow celebrities Jared Leto, Gwyneth Paltrow and Mike Tyson—have had an indelible impact on the way impressionable members of society view their relationship to food.
Rise, vegans, rise
"What was particularly interesting about this case was that Beyoncé and Jay Z did not seem to adopt veganism for moral ethos, which would restrict the use of animals and animal byproducts in all aspects of life," said Lundahl, citing the fact that during her brief bout of veganism, Beyoncé continued to wear leather and fur in public. Bey and her fellow celebrities' embrace of veganism seems to have been inspired more by health and weight-loss concerns—a fact, Lundahl argues, that has contributed to a rise in vegan diets.
The numbers certainly seem to corroborate this view. As the Mail article points out, since Beyoncé and co began popularizing the idea, searches for the term "vegan" increased by 32 percent in 2015, and a whopping 90 percent in 2016.
Further figures provided courtesy of the research firm Global Data show that currently 6 percent of Americans identify as vegan, which translates to "19.3 million people—an increase of 600 percent since 2014." Across the pond, veganism has risen in the U.K. by "360 percent in the past ten years." Among all these new converts in the U.K., nearly half are aged 15 to 34, according to a poll conducted by the market research organization Ipsos MORI and the Vegan Society.
What does it all mean?
"Celebrities are role models," Dominika Piasecka, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society told the Daily Mail, adding that "their influence has definitely helped to further the cause of veganism." Based on the numbers, there seems to be little to dispute this fact. The topic that is up for debate is, what implications does this new influence hold for society?
Let's start with the positives. For one, a responsible vegan-based diet offers a number of great health benefits. In particular, a balanced vegan tends to enjoy less saturated fat in her diet, which leads to lower levels of cholesterol and blood pressure, and in turn a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and even cancer.
According to scientists from the University of Ghent in Belgium, replacing dairy with soy products can drastically reduce the risk of cancer. Cases of colon cancer is reduced by "44 percent in women and 40 percent in men," according to the team’s recent research cited by the Daily Mail. The research further revealed that cutting out dairy reduces prostate cancer risk by 30 percent.
And then there’s the impact on the environment. The global livestock sector "contributes more emissions than the transport sector, and also plays a significant role in every major environmental problem from water and air pollution to deforestation and desertification," writes Sangamithra Iyer. Put simply, more vegans in the world means less of a demand for global meat production which should contribute toward a reduction in supply. That means less of a drain on the world's natural resources, from water to forests, as well as a reduction in greenhouse gases.
But for many vegans, a vegan diet is mostly about being compassionate to animals: Vegans avoid being part of the killing of animals for food. By keeping animals off their plates, vegans reduce the overall demand for meat, thereby saving animals. It's a numbers game: If everyone went vegan, slaughterhouses would no longer need to exist.
According to Vegan.com:
The number of lives you can save through being vegan is pretty much limited by the amount of meat, milk, and eggs that one person can eat. That obviously varies by person, but this rigorous estimate calculates that the average vegetarian saves about 25 animals per year. So let’s keep the math simple and say all vegetarians live to 100 and therefore save 2500 animals over their lifetimes.
Plus, vegans have something over vegetarians in the compassion department by not contributing to the torture and ultimate slaughter of dairy animals. Dairy cows endure painful injections, being burned by torches, having their tails cut off, having their horns sawed off, being forcibly impregnated, having their babies taken away and killed for veal, and finally, being killed to make hamburger meat.
That all said, a rise in veganism inspired by celebrities may have downsides. The most obvious relates to how the millions of new vegans are approaching their diets. As experts cited by the Daily Mail point out, a vegan diet "can cause serious health problems if followed incorrectly." By choosing to cut all animal-based products out of their food supply, many people don't take into consideration the important nutrients their body still requires, such as vitamin B12, calcium, zinc and protein. In addition, the fact that younger people are adopting veganism because they want to, say, look like Beyoncé means there's an added risk they may take their new diets to an extreme, developing eating disorders such as orthorexia. So before changing your diet drastically, check with your doctor.
The fact that celebrities are inspiring fans to reconsider their lifestyles for the better is a good thing. In a world saturated with information and messages, it actually takes someone with Beyoncé's sheer cultural capital to help steer public perception in a more positive direction. Of course, celebrity endorsements should not be considered a panacea for all our problems. As they say, you can lead a horse to water....