Have you noticed how, seemingly overnight, vegan has become a pretty trendy word? Thanks in part to documentaries such as Food, Inc. and Forks Over Knives, increasingly more people are giving Meatless Mondays a try.
But whether you’ve sworn off all animal products, never thought to or merely flirted with the idea of doing so or, the question remains; should Meatless Mondays be taken to the next level? In other words, are there any worthwhile advantages to embracing Meatless Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and so on? Or put even more simply, is a vegan diet, as many proponents argue, superior to an omnivore diet when it comes to longevity and vibrant health?
This innocent question has the potential to spark some pretty intense debates. And if you’re not sure what to make of it all, fear not, as you’re definitely not the only one! But if you’re curious to find out, read on to get the low down on all things vegan and decide for yourself if it’s worth giving it a try.
What is Vegan?
Let’s start with a quick overview of what a vegan diet really entails. Just like vegetarians, vegans do not consume any red meat, poultry or fish. But additionally, vegans also skip all other animal products, including eggs, dairy, gelatin and honey. Basically, anything originating from plants gets a green flag and all that comes from animals is a no-go!
Why Chose to Eat this way?
People may chose to go vegan for various reasons. Some do it for health, some for environmental issues and others for ethical reasons. For brevity purposes, this post will focus solely on the health aspect of veganism. So, without any further ado, let’s dive into it!
Health Benefits Of Going Vegan
A quick google search will yield many articles discussing veganism. Sifting through them, you’ll notice the opinion is pretty split. Die-hard vegans openly boast about the many health benefits it offers you whereas, on the other side of the spectrum, meat-lovers argue that a plant-based diet may not be all it’s cranked up to be. So it’s only natural that most mortals are left wondering whether ditching all meat and associated meat products is really worth pursuing.
As Dr. T. Colin Campbell, biochemist, nutrition researcher and great proponent of plant-based diets puts it in his widely acclaimed book The China Study: “At the end of the day, the strength and consistency of the majority of the evidence is enough to draw valid conclusions. Namely, whole plant-based foods are beneficial, and animal-based foods are not.”
A statement pretty favourable to veganism, right? However, in reality, the picture may not be as clear as this statement makes it seem. For further clarity, let’s go to the source and take a look at the current body of scientific evidence.
Much of the most recent human evidence regarding the benefits of plant-based diets is sourced from two large study groups; the Seventh-day Adventist Health Study (actually split into two sub-groups; the AHS-1 and AHS-2) and the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC). I say “large” because, put together, the participant pool spreads over 11 countries and exceed 600 000 individuals. Many results originating from these study pools compare vegans to similar health-conscious vegetarians, semi-vegetarians, fish eaters and meat eaters. Here are the main findings by disease category.
AHS-2 reports a 15% reduced likelihood of death in vegans compared to similar health-conscious omnivores. Vegetarians (including vegans) seemingly also have a 26% – 68% lower risk of dying from heart disease and stroke compared to their meat-eating counterparts. Interestingly, these results appear significantly robust in men but not in women.
The heart-protecting benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets are further confirmed by EPIC study results which find vegetarians (including vegans) to have lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure and a 32% lower risk of ischemic heart disease than non-vegetarians, even after adjusting for sex, age, body-mass index, smoking and the presence of other risk factors.
What’s more, results from AHS-2 show vegetarians and vegans to respectively benefit from a 55% and 75% lower risk of high blood pressure.
When it comes to the big C-word, vegetarians (including vegans) seem to have a 48% lower risk of dying from breast cancer whereas vegans may specifically benefit from a modest 14% lower risk of developing all types of cancer. Interestingly vegetarians don’t seem to benefit from the same protective effects as vegans, they didn’t have a significantly lower risk of all-cancers compared the meat-eaters in this study.
Results from AHS-2 show show vegetarians to have a 38% – 61% lower chance of developing type II diabetes whereas vegans benefit from an even lower 47% – 78% risk.
EPIC results also show vegetarian and vegan men to have a significant reduced risk of dying from diabetes (58% lower) or renal disease, often a complication brought on by diabetes (52% lower). Yet again, unfortunately for the ladies, the reduction of risk in women was not significant.
This difference between genders may be explained by the fact that men generally consume larger portions of meat than women. This may make the health benefits resulting from the diet shift in men proportionally bigger. However, more studies to examine this effect are needed.
Interestingly, results from AHS-1 suggest that vegetarians have 50% lower risks of arthritis and rheumatism than non-vegetarians.
BODY MASS INDEX & WEIGHT LOSS
One final health benefit of consuming a vegetarian or vegan diet is a lower body-mass index (BMI). Indeed, vegetarians and vegans tend to be considerably leaner than their meat-eating counterparts, specifically by up to 3 and 5 points on the BMI scale, respectively.
Plus, when it comes to weight loss, a review of the current literature shows that individuals following vegetarian diets (especially those following a diet including no animal products) see better results than dieters on other weight-reducing plans including the American Diabetes Association-recommended diet, the diet supported by the National Cholesterol Education Program and the Atkins diet.
By now, it sure sounds pretty advantageous to follow a vegan diet, right? But… (yes there’s always a but) keep in mind that, as positive as these results may be, they come from purely observational studies.
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