Growing awareness of the negative impact of animal products and animal agriculture on human health and the natural environment motivates an increasing number of people in developed countries to use fewer animal products.
The number of people eliminating them fully from their diet is also on the rise. In 2018, vegans made about 2% of the population in Finland.
Based on several studies, Piia Jallinoja, a Professor of Health Sociology at the University of Tampere, found that the number of Vegans in Finland has almost quadrupled between 2014 and 2018, while the number of vegetarians and those who eliminated red meat also increased significantly.
Popularity of vegetarian diets in Finland. Graphic source: Versuslehti.fi
Interestingly, the main reasons for people to go vegan differ between the continents.
While in America and Australia adopting a plant-based diet is a health-promoting trend, in Europe it is driven more widely by animal rights and the concern for the environment.
"Finns are not that much into health veganism," says Karla Loppi, a public health nurse and a board member of Finland's Vegan Association (Vegaaniliito), a non-profit that promotes vegan lifestyle and healthy, plant-based nutrition.
"Vegaaniliitto's nutritionists seldom get questions on how to optimize one's health with a vegan diet and there aren't many bloggers on that subject either. It doesn't come up often even in vegan sports-oriented groups," she explains.
The less healthy, the better
Many Finnish vegans tend to focus more on the taste and pleasure in food. Vegan fast food is a kind of fetish. The less healthy, the better. The most popular Finnish vegan group on Facebook is Chips and Beer Vegans (Sipsikaljavegaanit) with over 59,000 members, in which advertising anything except junk food is strictly prohibited.
But Finns want to "do it correctly", Loppi observes. Vegaaniliito's nutritionists often get very detailed questions on "how much and from where should I take this or that nutrient".
She herself is "a rather care-free vegan" but with a good sense of how much vitamin D, B12 and iodine she and her child need. "We are such 'law-obeying' people", she jokes.
Ethics (with good taste)
Outi, a specialist in psychiatry from Helsinki in her late 30s, has been a vegan for 3,5 years and plans to raise her baby on plant-based nutrition.
"I just don't need meat or dairy, so why should I support an industry that abuses animals?," she asks.
Outi is health-aware but not in an obsessive way and she does also like to give in to the taste: "I eat sweet stuff, could cut down some more on salt", she admits.
But she exercises regularly, eats a variety of vegetables, takes daily supplements and keeps her protein intake around 1 gram per kilogram of body weight.
With a baby, unfortunately, diet goes easily to toast with oil or peanut butter. "Those days I compensate for lack of proper meals with a smoothie with protein powder (not a balanced choice, but better than without)".
Nowadays she tries to eat more pancakes (healthy version). "500 grams of bread is already the whole daily intake of salt".
Discovering substitutes for animal products in meals often takes effort and time; it is common to experience intense hunger and craving and easy to slip into eating a lot of processed junk.
Wolfgang, a Principal Consultant from Lohja in his mid-50s, had no health concerns when he wanted to shift from vegetarian to vegan 9 years ago but he was addicted to cheeses and there weren't many plant-based alternatives on the market.
He managed to ditch the dairy on a vacation trip with his former partner who was already vegan then.
"Nobody knew what vegan means. After explaining it for 15 minutes I just couldn't do it again for a vegetarian so I'd just say 'same for me'. After 6 weeks, dairy-free became my new normal," he recalls.
Healthy vegan options weren't widely available 9 years ago but French fries and beer were, and when the scale went up so did Wolfgang's concerns for his health.
More products for a rising demand
Over the past few years, the transition to a vegan diet was made much easier with new refined products appearing every day to address the rising demand.
Majority of those packaged products are full of additives to keep them 'fresh' and many initial ingredients are processed several times.
They promote excessive weight gain because they are not just high in calories and trans fats that our body turns into body fat, but are also devoid of essential nutrients which makes us want to eat more as the body is trying to get nutrients that it needs.
According to Michael A. Klaper, American physician and vegan health educator, too much salt is a toxic substance.
"Uncontrolled intake, which unavoidably happens when we eat refined products, stiffens our arteries and increases the risk for autoimmune disease," he explains.
Oil injures the inner linings of the artery walls, increasing the risk of blood vessel disease. The blood is thicker, more viscous because the oil coats the blood cells and makes them stick together. "We should see that no other animal pores liquid fat over their food", reminds Dr Klaper.
Refined sugar is more addictive than cocaine and extremely poisonous. "When we eat a piece of cake", Dr Klaper explains, "it floods our body with sugar that sticks to proteins, stiffens them and oxidises them, causing ageing in our tissues". The studies show that it is also related to depression and unhealthy mood states.
Go (vegan) junk-free
Wolfgang was also unhappy with his weight. "My partner was studying online to become a vegan nutritionist so I also read all the books".
Now he eats almost exclusively whole foods and follows Dr Greger's 'Daily Dozen'.
"For instance, you should have your portion of cruciferous vegetables every day, enough fruits, beans, and daily berries. Do daily exercises and half an hour each day in the sun. If you eat everything on the list during the day, there is little space left for anything else," he says.