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.
THE LOW-DOWN ON OBSERVATIONAL STUDIES
Observational studies can correlate two things, but cannot indicate causation. Sparing you the science mumbo-jumbo, what this means is that, for example, a vegan diet may be linked to a lower BMI but we cannot say, for sure, that the vegan diet is what causes the lower BMI. The latter may be caused by a number of other associated factors; perhaps vegans tend to exercise more, or eat less junk food – none of which have to do with their meat intake.
My favourite illustration of correlation versus causality is the following: popsicle consumption is correlated to the amount of drownings. How? Well, both are more prevalent in the summer! But does this mean that enjoying a popsicle will cause you to drown? I, for one, sure hope not!
The bottom line: Vegetarian and vegan diets are correlated to many health benefits, especially when it comes to living longer and warding off medical conditions such as obesity, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. But this doesn’t mean that eating meat will cause you to be develop these diseases. Neither does this mean that cutting it out of your diet will save you from developing them.
Many other factors (including genetics, physical activity, smoking and stress, to name a few) are involved in this equation. This makes it difficult to look at things in a purely black and white manner. As the saying goes, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and comes in various shades of grey!
What About The China Study?
It’s nearly impossible to have read or heard about veganism without coming across it! The China study is one of the largest comprehensive studies of human nutrition ever conducted. This study looked at 65 countries in China, included 6500 adults and, when completed, yielded more than 8000 statistically significant correlations between lifestyle, diet and disease variables. And with it contributing to Dr. Campbell’s aforementioned conclusions, it’s quite understandable why so many vegans refer to it as ultimate proof of a plant-based diet’s superiority.
However, no matter its size, the China study remains an observational study. Yes, the same kind of study described above, from which there is no way to show that meat (or lack thereof) actually causes (or prevents) various cancers, heart disease, diabetes or even death.
So Does A Plant-Based, Vegan Diet Have No Merit?
Absolutely not! A well-planned vegan diet can be quite positive. For example, vegans tend to consume more fruit and vegetables, which have been been consistently linked to lower risk of cardiovascular disease. A higher fruit and vegetable consumption also leads to a higher consumption of dietary fibre which is linked to health advantages such as cholesterol reduction and decreased risk of diverticular disease.
A diet without any meat or dairy products is also likely to contain a lot less saturated fat and trans-fatty acids which study after study has linked to increased risk of heart disease. In fact, the most effective cholesterol-lowering food components are soluble fibre, plant sterols and stanols, polyunsaturated fats and phytochemicals, all of which are found predominantly (and sometimes even exclusively) in plant foods.
To corroborate this, 24 studies of vegan, vegetarian and non-vegetarian populations conducted between 1978 and 2007 found total blood cholesterol in vegans to average approximately 150mg / dl (3.9mmol/L) – 24% lower than that of vegetarians and 28% lower than non-vegetarians.
In addition to having lower cholesterol levels, vegans also appear to have an increased removal of artery-clogging compounds (such as cholesterol) and reduced cholesterol ester transfer, both of which may help prevent heart disease.
Finally, when bad (a.k.a. LDL) cholesterol becomes oxidized, it can promote plaque formation and hardening of the arteries, reducing their elasticity. In this case, antioxidants (such as vitamins C, E, carotenoids, flavonoids and polyphenolic compounds) come in very handy! They help reduce these negative effects by reducing the chances of LDL oxidation. Where do you find such antioxidants? You may have guessed it… they come primarily from whole plant foods!
The bottom line: Well-planned vegan diets are plentiful in fresh fruits, vegetables and whole (un-processed) foods. These nutrient-rich foods happen to provide the human body many advantages when it comes to health.
To Eat Or Not To Eat Meat (Or Meat Products)?
As we’ve now seen, adopting a vegan diet can put you on the path to brilliant health, as long as you focus on diet quality. Indeed, as boring as this may sound, they key to any nutritionally sound diet is quality. Quality is what helps you get all the nutrients your body needs. When it comes to a vegan diet, nothing is different. You could basically eat potato chips and drink soda all day and still be considered vegan, which, we can probably all agree to note, won’t do much for you health-wise. However, when particular attention is placed on meeting nutrient requirements by, for example, consuming whole foods and supplementing nutrients where needed, a vegan diet can be a pretty healthy one.
Yet, the million dollar question remains…is a vegan diet healthier than eating meat and animal products?
In my professional opinion, not necessarily. At least, based on the current body of scientific evidence, the health benefits of vegetarian (including vegan) diets are not necessarily unique. Modest fish and dairy consumption as well as occasional meat intake have also been associated with reduced risk of heart disease when compared with regular meat-eaters.
One often-cited example is that of the Masai, a semi-nomadic East-African group that maintains a low serum cholesterol and low heart disease despite a long continued diet of exclusively meat and milk.
Same goes for Alaskan Natives who were able to reduce blood pressure, total cholesterol and blood sugar by replacing processed store-bought foods with traditional Eskimo foods including meat from sea and land creatures. In fact, studies on native diets emphasizing marine mammals, fish, game animals, berries and wild greens were shown to result in lower triglycerides, increased good cholesterol and better cardiovascular health despite providing levels of animal fat exceeding those of most governmental recommendations.
One thing to note is that, in addition to removing animal protein, vegan diets also tend to remove refined sugar, refined grains, trans fats and processed foods all known to negatively impact health. That, by itself, is more likely to put you on the path to brilliant health!
The bottom line: From a health perspective (and based on the current scientific evidence) increasing your consumption of fruits and vegetables and decreasing the amount of processed foods ingested is likely to have a larger positive impact than cutting out all animal protein.
Is A Vegan Diet Safe?
Again, this depends on how well-planned your diet is. To reference the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “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”.
What’s more, “well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the lifecycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes”.
How To Get Started?
Interested in transitioning towards a plant-based, animal-product free diet a try? If so, keep the following points in mind.
Firstly (and perhaps most obviously) limit the junk food; vegan or not, processed foods will not help you achieve a vibrant health!
To ensure you meet your nutrient requirements, make sure to chose from a wide variety of whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes. A quick rule of thumb is that, the darker the fruit or vegetable, the more nutrient-rich it is.
Finally, here are some key nutrients to keep a particularly close eye on:
- Protein: the first question most vegans get is “You don’t eat any meat?! But how do you get enough protein?” Meeting your protein requirements is actually not as difficult as one might expect. There are many meat alternatives to chose from such as beans, nuts (and nut butter), seeds, lentils, tempeh, tofu and seitan to name a few. Make sure you integrate an option from this list with every meal and you should have no problem meeting the recommended 0.8g – 1.0g per kg body weight per day!
- Fibre: getting the recommended daily amount of 25g – 35g for adults will help you feel full and keep your food moving along smoothly (if you catch my drift). Although the average american meets less than 50% of this recommendation, fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans and other legumes are all high in fibre, which should help you easily meet this recommendation.
- Calcium: this mineral is essential not only to maintain your bone health, but also to ensure your muscles and blood vessels function properly. Daily calcium recommendations range from 1000mg per day for adults up to 50 years and 1200mg for adults 51 years and older. Opposite to popular belief, skipping the dairy products doesn’t automatically equate to an insufficient calcium intake. Your daily recommendations can easily be met by choosing calcium-fortified dairy alternatives (such as soy, coconut or almond milks and yoghurts) and stacking up on calcium-rich dark green veggies.
- Vitamin D: this vitamin plays multiple roles when it comes to your health. Daily recommendations range from 15µg (600IU) to 20µg (800IU) per day. Interestingly, humans can make this vitamin from direct exposure to sunlight. In the summer, a short exposure to direct sunlight (about half the time it takes for your skin to turn pink) can produce enough vitamin D to meet your weekly requirements. Sufficient sun exposure, however, might be more problematic in the winter, especially depending on where you live. Since vitamin D-rich foods are few and far between in addition to being typically animal-derived, vegans should opt of vitamin-D fortified foods such as margarine, dairy alternatives and fortified cereals. Another simple option is to take a vitamin D3 supplement in the winter months.
- Vitamin B12: this vitamin is critical for proper cell metabolism, which is why adults should aim to consume 2.4µg per day. Similarly to vitamin D, vitamin B12 is usually derived from animal products. To ensure the recommendations are met, vegans should opt for foods fortified in vitamin B12, such as dairy alternatives, soy-based meat substitutes, breakfast cereal and nutritional yeast. If you find it difficult to meet your daily recommendations through food alone, you can also opt for a daily or weekly vitamin B12 supplement. If you so choose, keep in mind that B12 is best absorbed in small amounts, so, the less frequent the dose, the larger it should be. For example, opt for a 10µg daily supplement or a 2000µg weekly supplement to offset the decreased absorption.
- Iron: iron plays an important role in energy production, immunity, oxygenation and DNA synthesis and getting too few can lead you to feel weak and exhausted. It’s recommended that most adult women aim for 18mg iron per day whereas adult men and post-menopausal women should aim for 10mg iron per day. To meet these recommendations, vegans should make sure to include sufficient iron-rich plant foods such as spinach, swiss chard, collard greens, beans, lentils, nuts, dried fruit, whole grains and fortified foods such as tempeh, tofu, dairy alternatives in their daily diets. An important point to keep in mind is that iron from plants (a.k.a. non-heme iron) is more difficult to absorb than iron found in meat products (a.k.a. heme iron). To increase absorption of non-heme iron, make sure you include a source of vitamin C (for example, a glass of orange or grapefruit juice, broccoli, strawberries, or peppers, kale, collard greens or cauliflower), avoid combining tea / coffee with meals and cook food in a cast iron skillet whenever possible.
As anyone opting to skip meat and meat products at (non-vegan) group gatherings can attest to, your diet choice is bound to spark some interesting discussions. But whether or not veganism is for you, one thing we can probably all agree on is that increasing your consumption of unprocessed, whole foods including fruits and vegetables won’t hurt. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject, so, if you feel so inclined, feel free to share them in the comments below!
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