The vegan diet has gained major popularity in recent times. The diet, often deemed as the healthiest diet in the world, has shown to be able to promote heart health and reduce cancer risk. But some people see beyond the health reasons and instead owe it upon ethical concerns for their dietary preferences.
I first came across the concept of weganism through Tim Ferriss’ Five Bullet Fridays newsletter, who also wrote New York Times bestsellers 4-Hour Workweek and 4-Hour Chef. Here’s how he defines weganism, quoting from his blog post verbatim.
Wegan /ˈwēɡən/ noun. Someone who follows a vegan diet, omitting all animal products except for wild-harvested meats. Put another way, a wegan diet is a vegan diet modified to include only wild-harvested meats. This term was coined by Kuʻulani Muise of Maui Nui Venison, as she, her husband Jake, and their three young children all enjoy a “wegan” diet but struggled to find a simple term to encapsulate it. Hence the invention of this word and “weganism.”
The incorporation of wild game into our daily diet is flourishing as a concept. The wild game industry has risen from almost nothing to a multi-million dollar market.
The constituents of this diet range vastly from the common game, such as elk, bison, deer, wild pheasants, and wild-caught fish, to animals you could hardly imagine in your dining plate — the likes of squirrel, alligator, ostrich, and bear — and wildlife you’ve probably never even heard of in your entire life, such as mouflon (wild sheep) and chamois (a goat-antelope).
In order to gauge it’s footing in our dining plate in place of the more traditional farm-raised meat products or pure untampered veganism, we must address two important questions:
Is wild game healthy?
As an integrant of the natural wilderness, wild game is naturally organic. One of the main concerns with commercial livestock is that it’s typically treated with antibiotics or fed a processed diet. Besides leaving a dirtier carbon footprint, livestock feed isn’t always the most nutritious. Commercially reared animals are cultivated in the most economically efficient method, which means meat quality is often placed behind the financial gain. With wild game and fish, there is no chemical or medical tampering.
Wild animals roam freely, consume natural foods, and live very active lives. As a result, their meat is very lean and contain less fat than domesticated livestock, which usually live on a diet of grain or corn, and lead less active lives.
The higher activity levels and varying natural diets lead to leaner meat with lower fat content. For example, 3 ounces of venison has only 3g of fat, whereas 3 ounces of beef contains 18g of fat. Elk has an even lower fat content at 1.2g. Pork contains 14g of fat for the same serving size. When compared to livestock, game meats have an average of 4.3% fat while their domesticated competitors typically have a fat content of 25–30% (except chicken).
“Fat from wild game contains a higher proportion of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Their nutrition statistics are very similar to a skinless chicken breast, with most cuts having around 110 to 130 calories, 2 grams of fat, and 25 grams of protein for a 3 oz. serving.”, says Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist. “Deer, elk, and antelope have a vitamin and mineral composition similar to beef, so these meats are good sources of iron (5 mg/4 oz), vitamin B12 (3.6 mcg/4 oz), vitamin B6, niacin, and riboflavin.”
Cooking methods matter too. Dr. Jampolis recommends cooking game meats at lower temperatures for a longer period of time to avoid the formation of potentially cancer-causing compounds associated with cooking meats at higher temperatures.
Aside from being lean, wild game is naturally high in Omega-3 fatty acids. These lipid compounds, which are often associated with salmon and other ocean-dwelling creatures, play a vital role in cholesterol levels, digestion, heart health, immunity, and maintenance of skin and bone.
Since wild animals consume a natural food source, anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids are higher and the pro-inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids are lower. The opposite is seen with commercial meat products, such as grain-fed beef.
Besides being high in protein, wild game is packed with key micronutrients such as iron and zinc in even higher doses than commercially raised beef. Zinc augments the immune system, and iron helps with haemoglobin formation, which is critical for oxygen transport in the body. An increase in iron consumption protects against iron-deficiency anaemia, a common problem in pre-menopausal women. Other wild game, like elk & bison, contain even more vitamins and minerals, like vitamin B12 and phosphorus.
Is it healthier than the vegan diet?
Since the vegan diet opposes the consumption of any sort of animal products, supplements need to be consumed to ensure our micronutrient requirements are met.
Vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and calcium, are found only in trace quantities in plants. Vegans who do not plan their diet carefully can miss out on essential nutrients, which may lead to certain deficiencies and pose health risks.
Since weganism allows controlled consumption of meat products, these deficiencies can be naturally avoided.
At this point, it’s important to remember that the majority of your diet with weganism will still be composed of plant-based sources (wild game is only half of the equation). Mindful attention must be paid to selecting high-quality plant-based products such as green, leafy vegetables, fruits, seeds, legumes, and nuts in order to ensure you meet your body’s macro and micronutrient requirements.
Additionally, the high antioxidant content in natural foods suppresses the formation of free radicals in the body, which in the long term can reduce cancer risk. According to Abel James, who writes a blog called Wild Diet, your food composition should be about 65% plant foods and roughly 35% meats, fats, and oil.
Like the Whole-Foods, Plant-Based diet, the wegan diet encourages reducing our consumption of processed foods, many of which are clearly detrimental to health, and instead design our diet around plant-based sources and healthier wild game.
Is it sustainable?
The main concern with the sustainability of commercially reared meat products such as beef is its greenhouse gas emissions and the subsequent impact on nature and the environment.
The reason animal-rearing cause increased greenhouse gas emission is through the agricultural production process and land-use change. Cows emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, and rising beef production requires increasing quantities of land, which is often validated by cutting down trees. Cows are also considered resource-intensive, since rearing them requires a substantial amount of feed. Beef requires 20 times more land and emits 20 times more greenhouse gas emissions per gram of edible protein than common plant proteins, such as beans.
Besides being leaner and lower in fat, wild game boasts a dramatically reduced carbon footprint, being a natural product. Wild animals like squirrel, wild venison, rabbit, and wood pigeon, which all need to be culled to maintain sustainable populations, can be repurposed by introducing them to diets rather than letting them go to waste.
Whether or not culling is an ethical practice is a different matter altogether, a matter which I won’t be discussing in this post. A quote from National Geographic writer Will James on this matter, however, deeply resonated with me.
“If wildlife managers don’t cull, then nature culls, and we will see animals starving [and] habitat types that used to be vibrant and beautiful consisting of highly reduced numbers of species. That’s the specter that frightens wildlife conservationists, whereas I think those with the animal rights perspective feel that, ethically, we lose our souls if we cannot respect the divine spark in every individual animal.”
In some cases, reducing wild animal populations can in fact protect crops and forests. It can also reduce problems for other wildlife, such as the pressure caused by wild boar eating snakes, lizards, and other animals. Wild game hunting both reduces wildlife damage and provides meat to be consumed.
Some people might be inspired to try to incorporate wild game into their diet in place of traditionally reared meat, but are still uncomfortable with the idea of hunting. The good news is that wild game is not just harvested from hunting. In fact, the most sustainable method for harvesting wild game in high volume is through sustainable and highly-organised culling, which addresses some ethical concerns, and also aims at reducing carbon emissions from hunters traveling to harvest wild game. In short, you don’t have to do the hunting. There are highly-regulated and certified organisations that will do it for you.
Prioritising the consumption of local game is also important to maintain sustainability. Unfortunately, this is still rarely the case. Scotland, for example, produces around 3,600 tonnes of venison, almost all from the wild, and exports one-third of it to EU countries. The food miles associated with transporting meat increases its carbon footprint.
If you are struggling with locating your local supply of wild game, Dr. Rob McMorran, who researches land use policy at SRUC, Scotland’s Rural College, gave his advice: “As well as looking for certification schemes and choosing local produce, people wanting to buy wild meat can talk to their butchers. Many do a good range, and this is largely in response to demand. It will only be stocked if people ask for it.”
Besides local suppliers, there is now a growing list of online distributors that focuses on offering high-quality wild game meats, such as D’Artagnan, Broken Arrow Ranch, Fossil Farms, and Maui Nui Venison — Tim Ferriss’ recommendation.
So how can we justify the wegan diet?
The wegan diet is arguably healthier than both the vegan diet and a normal Western diet involving farm-raised meat products. There are certain vitamins and minerals you would otherwise not obtain from a fully vegan diet and certain constituents of reared livestock that are quality-wise inferior to wild game. In terms of sustainability, there is little question to the wegan diet’s superiority to the traditional livestock.
The diet compares with more well-rounded diets such as the Mediterranean diet and Whole-Foods, Plant-Based diet, the latter of which has also been gaining in popularity, though not receiving its fair share of publicity compared to the famed vegan diet.
The premium prices for these “exotic” meats can deter new potential customers, but just like all things, the supply-demand curve will adjust accordingly. In the future, rises in demand for these sustainable animal products will see new players entering the game with more competitive prices.
There is a catch to wild game meat though. Plenty of modern-day literature refers to penned-raised animals, including wild boar, rabbits, pheasants, and elk as “wild game” as a marketing ploy to sell the idea to you. If an animal is raised in a pen, it is not considered wild game. In the end, it will come down to the mindfulness of each paying customer to ensure that they are supporting the right kind of wild game. As an environmental ethicist, Lucy Siegle puts it, “Not all game is fair game.”