Vegan for Health

Veganism is becoming increasingly popular, yet there is a lot of conflicting information on the web.  I will be the first to tell you a lot of this information is biased – both against veganism and for it.  As a vegan, I clearly have an agenda here, but I will be as rational and scientific as possible.  I’m not interested in spreading misinformation; the case for veganism is strong enough that we don’t need rumors about regrowing your hair or creating an immunity to cancer.  Plenty of studies (and the millions of us living this way) show that veganism can be extremely healthy and healing.

I am not a nutritionist.  For this article, I spent time researching veganism by reading studies and sites written by the experts.  And of course it is possible to be unhealthy on a plant-based diet – just like it’s possible to be unhealthy on any diet.  However, despite what the pro-meat bloggers say, it is actually simple to stay healthy on a whole-foods vegan diet, and you will see below that the true experts agree on this.

Can Vegan Diets be Healthy?

doctor-1228629_960_720The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states:

Are vegetarian and vegan diets healthy?  The answer is yes.  If appropriately planned, vegetarian or vegan diets can be healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”[1] (emphasis added)

From WebMD:

“There’s no question that a balanced, well-planned vegan diet can be healthy.”[2]

In addition, the Mayo Clinic says:

“…With a little planning a vegetarian diet can meet the needs of people of all ages, including children, teenagers, and pregnant or breast-feeding women. The key is to be aware of your nutritional needs so that you plan a diet that meets them.” The article then goes on to explain the variations of vegetarian diets, including vegan.[3]

The American Dietetic Association says this about a vegan diet:

“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.[4] [Emphasis added]

Did you read that last sentence?  ALL stages of the life cycle, including pregancy, infancy, childhood, and adolescence…The list goes on.

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Note that there is a common theme among these statements about the importance of a “well-planned” vegan diet being appropriate for any life stage.  There are nutritional considerations to take into account when you stop eating animal products, which you can read about here and here. While we’re at it though, remember that a typical American diet has multiple nutritional deficiencies (there’s a reason there are vitamin aisles in every Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and supermarket), so don’t let the words “well-planned” scare you. With a plant-based lifestyle, you’ll know the few vitamins and minerals you need to pay attention to, so in many ways it is easier to get all the right nutrients.  Living vegan is easy; it’s only changing habits that takes some effort. 

Disease Prevention and Causes

Eating meat directly causes or contributes to many of our common diseases.  Studies show that consuming meat and other animal products is directly related to diseases like heart disease (our #1 killer), type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and obesityTo be sure, there are vegans that suffer from these diseases as well, but the numbers are significantly lower.  Eating a plant-based diet can actually REVERSE some cases of heart disease and the symptoms of diabetesAmong other benefits.
[5] [6] [7]

The World Health Organization came out in late 2015 with a conclusion from their metastudy (that’s a large review of multiple health studies on the same subject) that eating red and processed meats increases cancer risk.[8]  There was the anticipated backlash from the animal factory industry, but everyone fights back when their ideologies and pockets are threatened, right?

If you research this controversy yourself, please remember who in this scenario benefits from you continuing to eat red and processed meats.  Just because something is status quo doesn’t mean it isn’t biased (I think Colleen Patrick-Goudreau said that).  The animal agriculture industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on advertising and lobbying; really start to pay attention and you might be surprised how ubiquitous it is.  How many advertisements for animal products can you count during a single sitcom?

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There is more information coming out regularly about the dangers of eating too much meat:

According to Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health:

“Americans are now among the top per capita meat consumers in the world; the average American eats more than three times the global average.  A growing body of evidence suggests Americans’ taste for meat and animal products is putting them at greater risk for a range of health problems.

“The majority of the protein foods consumed in the U.S. are meat and animal products, which are often high in saturated fat and cholesterol, as opposed to the more nutrient-dense and health-promoting plant-based options (e.g., beans, peas, lentils, soy products, nuts and seeds). Typical American diets also fall significantly short of meeting recommendations for vegetables, fruits, and whole grains..Diets high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans can help prevent these diseases and promote health in a variety of ways.[9]

But I Need Protein

Did you know Americans are eating 1.5 times the necessary amount of protein?   Protein is the single biggest myth about veganism: Vegans have LOTS of options for great protein sources.  Before they can be used, the body breaks down all proteins into their basic amino acids, regardless of source.  All 8 essential amino acids are found in plant foods, and our bodies synthesize the remaining 12 amino acids from the essential 8.  Extra protein gets turned into (gasp!) carbohydrates in a process that is tough on the kidneys and liver.[10]  Find some great vegan protein sources here.

Some people point to the grains we feed animals as a cause of the health issues involved in eating them, stating that eating grass-fed beef, for example, is perfectly healthy. I’m pretty sure they are right – it is healthier than the 97% of beef from animals raised on factory farms in our country. Animals raised in factory farms eat a very unnatural diet, including grains, soy, plastic pellets, and chicken excrement.[11]  But healthier does not mean healthy, and it certainly doesn’t mean essential.

In addition, note that eating grass-fed beef and other more “humanely” raised animals – if you can trust the labels at all – does not overcome the issues mentioned above from Johns Hopkins, nor the issues of environmental sustainability, nor the ethical issues involved in eating animals.

Why a Vegan Lifestyle?

We’ve looked at some of the health implications from eating a lot of meat and other animal products, but what are the benefits of eating a vegan diet?

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

cereal-898073_960_720“A vegetarian diet is associated with many health benefits because of its higher content of fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, and many phytochemicals and a fat content that is more unsaturated. Compared with other vegetarian diets, vegan diets tend to contain less saturated fat and cholesterol and more dietary fiber. Vegans tend to be thinner, have lower serum cholesterol, and lower blood pressure, reducing their risk of heart disease.[12] (Emphasis added)

According to an article in the Permanente Journal, a peer-reviewed medical journal:

“Research shows that plant-based diets are cost-effective, low-risk interventions that may lower body mass index, blood pressure, HbA1C, and cholesterol levels. They may also reduce the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases and lower ischemic heart disease mortality rates. Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.”[13]

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also published the following:

“Compared with other vegetarians, vegans are thinner, have lower total and LDL cholesterol, and modestly lower blood pressure…Vegans, compared with omnivores, consume substantially greater quantities of fruit and vegetables. A higher consumption of fruit and vegetables, which are rich in fiber, folic acid, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, is associated with lower blood cholesterol concentrations, a lower incidence of stroke, and a lower risk of mortality from stroke and ischemic heart disease. Vegans also have a higher consumption of whole grains, soy, and nuts, all of which provide significant cardioprotective effects.”[14]

In addition:

“…Nonvegetarians had a substantially increased risk of both colorectal and prostate cancer than did vegetarians. A vegetarian diet provides a variety of cancer-protective dietary factors. In addition, obesity is a significant factor, increasing the risk of cancer at a number of sites. Because the mean BMI of vegans is considerably lower than that of nonvegetarian, it may be an important protective factor for lowering cancer risk.”[15]

In other words, studies reviewed by one of the foremost expert organizations in nutrition found that veganism had positive impacts on the following:

  • High cholesterol
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Prostate cancer
  • Obesity
  • Other types of cancer

Also, according to the American Diabetes Association, “…In individuals with type 2 diabetes participating in a 22-week clinical trial, both a low-fat vegan diet and a diet following ADA guidelines improved glycemic control; however, the changes were greater in the vegan group.”[16] So in addition to the above listed diseases, type 2 diabetes also responds well to and improves with a vegan diet. Changing to a plant-based diet allows many diabetes sufferers to reduce or completely stop their medications.

Do Vegans Live Longer?

I once read that the goal of healthy aging is to live as long as possible in a state of health and decline quickly at the end of your life, rather than dealing with chronic diseases and living in poor health for a significant portion of your life.  I think we’ve shown that a vegan diet can help us do this, but what about longevity in general?  Can eating less meat help us live longer?  The answer is an exciting, well, “maybe”.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined six studies to review the impact of a vegetarian/vegan diet on longevity. Note that the studies may have defined “vegetarian” in different ways, and these studies were not specifically based on veganism. They did find that a “A very low meat intake was associated with significant decrease in risk of death in 4 studies.” The other two studies showed either a nonsignficant decrease or no correlation. Two of the studies that showed a decrease in the risk of death “indicatrunner-888016_960_720ed that a longer duration…of adherence to this diet contributed to a significant decrease in mortality risk…”[17]

In other words, regardless of whether or not being vegan will help you live longer, the earlier in life you adopt a whole-foods, plant-based diet, the healthier you will be in your old age.  So now is the time to start if you haven’t already.

For an example of this, take a look at this interview from heart surgeon Ellsworth Wareham. He became vegan at a young age and was healthy enough to continue performing heart surgery into his mid-NINETIES. Can you imagine being that healthy in your 10th decade? This is just one example of how it is possible to thrive long-term on a vegan diet.

http://www.cnn.com/videos/health/2015/04/08/exp-human-factor-dr-ellsworth-wareham.cnn

In Conclusion…

There are many other benefits of living a vegan lifestyle beyond those listed here. Honestly, out of the three main arguments for veganism, which include health, the environment, and ethics, in my opinion health is the weakest of all three.

But, as someone who has suffered from asthma since childhood, several bouts of clinical depression, adult acne, and was overweight until recently, I can tell you that my health has significantly improved, and I feel fantastic on a plant-based diet. But that’s just my experience. I invite you to begin your own journey to a healthy, whole-foods vegan diet and see for yourself. Go here to learn more about nutritional considerations when making the switch. Thank you for reading!

References/For Further Reading

1 http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/nutrition/vegetarian-and-special-diets/building-a-healthy-vegetarian-meal-myths-and-facts

2 http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/the-vegan-myth

3 http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/vegetarian-diet/art-20046446

4 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19562864

5 http://www.obesity.org/news/press-releases/plant-based

6 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4315380

7 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2677007/

8 http://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/

9 http://www.jhsph.edu/research/centers-and-institutes/johns-hopkins-center-for-a-livable-future/projects/meatless_monday/resources/meat_consumption.html

10 http://www.vitalitysci.com/knowledge-base/amino-acids-and-protein-a-primer/

11 http://consumerist.com/2015/08/24/how-safe-is-your-ground-beef/

12 http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/89/5/1627S.full

13 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23704846

14 http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/89/5/1627S.full

15 http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/89/5/1627S.full

16 http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/29/8/1777.full

17 http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/526S.full&post=-13043632_658?related-urls=yes&legid=ajcn;78/3/526S

http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/move-over-mediterranean-a-vegetarian-diet-is-equally-good-for-health-201306056352

http://www.vegsource.com/news/2013/06/dont-go-vegetarian-or-vegan-for-health-benefits.html

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