At 31 years old, I transitioned to a fully plant-based diet. I also saw my first grandparent buried after a long battle with cancer. I use the word ‘battle’ lightly as it was one-sided, but armed with the right information early enough, perhaps it didn’t have to be.
My grandad had diabetes as well as cancer. His wife, my nana, is also diabetic, has high blood-pressure, and a form of cancer. My maternal grandma also has diabetes, and this is a disturbingly common trend among people of African-Caribbean heritage over 40. Alongside this condition, it seems to be acknowledged that my demographic has a disproportionate number of cancer sufferers for both sexes, and we can no longer really put an age expectation onto that.
My dad recently told me about his frustration with his doctors, and having to join another practice, just to get a pre-emptive screening for cancer. He was mystified that the medical profession seemed unaware of the statistics of our demographic, and appeared reluctant to screen him unless symptoms were shown. While it is true about the disproportionate statistics and likelihood of both cancer and diabetes in black people, it seemed strange to me to think that it’s completely down to our genetics, and that there’s nothing we can do to help prevent some dire, unescapable fate.
My paternal grandparents weren’t big drinkers. None of my grandparents were smokers, and neither were other people I knew who had suffered some form of cancer. There are, of course, many factors that determine the risk of developing cancer, but what the people in my life did all have in common was their diet. This included meat, often processed, along with other foods, where low price was the priority. I’m not going to claim that veganism is some sort of panacea that will solve all our ailments, but we do now have access to a lot of information about the importance of diet in preventing disease. While processed meats and dairy don’t have the same warning that comes with smoking and drinking to excess, the link between this consumption and the risk of cancer has been established. A large part of the problem is that we are unaware of how meat, or any other food we consume, has been treated, and that price and our habits usually win out.
Rather than it being all about biology, then, perhaps a more telling link between black communities and these diseases is socio-economic. We are an ethnic minority, so there are proportionally less of us compared to white Britons; and the economic gulf between black and non-black communities is sizeable in the West. In addition, I know from experience that processed meat and unhealthy food are more widely consumed by those on the lowest incomes. It’s no coincidence that nutritional education is also at its lowest in the least affluent communities, and you’re far more likely to find a chippy or fried-chicken takeaway on most corners and high streets than you would a green grocer. Our habits start to form at a young age with milk in schools, fatty foods on offer every day for school meals, junk food as a ‘treat’, and advertising for the same junk targeted at children. A media study I did as a college student showed that a mixed class of Year three children recognised Ronald McDonald, Captain Birdseye and Coco Monkey, but did not recognise their prime minister or other more notable figures.
For many people I speak with, nutritional education is seen as a luxury, and healthy eating associated with the middle-classes. Dispelling that dangerous assumption is critical in creating a step-change in cultural eating habits, and it’s with access to the right information on the food we consume that black communities can take preventative action against the increasingly common diseases associated with unhealthy eating, such as diabetes and heart-disease. Eating cheaply doesn’t have to be associated with an animal-based diet. Many people on plant-based diets, including me, will tell you that they actually save far more that way.
When I first told my grandparents that I was vegetarian almost two years ago, I was met with perplexed expressions all round, as though I had just announced I was quitting my job to go and live feral in the wilderness. To them, and many from my community, the thought of not eating meat or drinking milk is anathema. How can you possibly be strong and healthy without it? It’s also true that many of the best-known and best-loved Caribbean dishes are associated with meat, which makes it difficult to tell people that something that’s a part of their cultural identity may not be good for them. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, a conversation I can really get into with that generation of my family.
My own journey to veganism wasn’t an immediate one – it was gradual. I grew up in a family of hardcore meat and dairy consumers. When you’ve lived a certain way your whole life, making a change is difficult. If you had asked me two years ago if I could ever go vegan I would have laughed. That’s why I’m writing to tell people who have the same mindset to approach their diets with an open mind. If you know that you and your families can have a chance of a greater quality of life just by adding more veggie meals into your rotation and cutting back on processed foods, you must act. Take the time to research what you eat, what your body really needs and where you can get it from. Look into the effects of our current consumption habits on our bodies, on the planet, and on other communities around the world – often the poorest regions of the world. Ultimately, the question to ask yourself is whether our habits are worth any of that, and then take it from there.