"Why Vegan" Series: Veganism and your Health, the Benefits of Going Vegan or Following a Plant Based DietFeb 02, 2024
Links mentioned in the episode.
- Our online course The Roadmap
- Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Jack Norris on the Basics of Nutrition Research and How to Understand Nutritional Research
- Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Virginia Messina on Why it's Important to Focus on What the Actual Scientific Research Says on Health, Dietary Choices and Nutrition
- The book Vegan for Her by RDN Virginia Messina
- The website Veganhealth.org by registered dietitian nutritionist Jack Norris (constantly being updated with the latest research on nutrition).
- Pan American Health Organization article on the influenza pandemic of 1918
- National Library of Medicine article on Zoonotic Diseases: Etimology, Impact and Control
- The book This is Vegan Propaganda by Ed Winters
One of the most beloved series in our podcast has always surprised me because we cover hard issues, tough topics related to veganism and why so many people are making this change. So many of you have told me that it was precisely this series that motivated you to go vegan, others to take as many steps in this direction as you could. It’s been a very special series made even more special thanks to you sharing your stories and sources of motivation with me.
It’s why in our new podcast we couldn’t leave it out of the picture and we’ve updated it, revamped it, included new information, all in the hopes that it continues to inspire you, or it serves to arm you with information and knowledge on some of these issues, or it serves as a great place to point people to who have questions and want an opener into these topics. We’ll be covering, the reasons why people go vegan when it comes to health (today’s post and episode), the environment, animals, our fellow humans, and an unexpected one that happened at least for me, going vegan and how it brought so many benefits to my relationship with food and body.
Since we’re tackling health today, I want to start this episode off by stating a few things so that you understand where I’m coming from. When I first went vegan over 11 years ago, I went vegan for animals rights reasons, and I had a question about health that helped me frame this way of eating and living in a very positive way for me.
I wanted to go vegan because of what I had seen when it came to the treatment of animals, but I also wanted to know (because there was little information in the mainstream at that point), whether I could get all my nutrient needs met by eating in this way.
In a way I was asking, “is it safe to eat vegan?”, “is it healthy to only eat vegan foods?”. I wanted to know if I could meet all my nutrient needs as a vegan. The answer was a big YES, always with the caveat that one must learn some basics about vegan nutrition to ensure that through your meals and supplementation you can meet those requirements (and this is easy to do once you learn some simple basics), but the question was even more important.
It put me in the place of wanting to make this change, while also putting the focus on making sure all my nutrient bases were covered, without seeing it as this automatic magical diet (no diet is perfect by definition, it’s how you eat within it that determines those nutrition outcomes). It also helped me frame vegan nutrition within an abundance mindset instead of a restrictive mindset, as in, “what can I add to my plate to help me meet all my nutrient needs”, rather than “what needs to be taken out”.
Although improving my health wasn’t my main goal when I first went vegan, as I’ve gotten older I have of course grown more and more aware of the almost perfect and magical miracle of our bodies, our systems, and how important health is, and so I’ve grown more curious as to how to best support it, without it becoming obsessive or a source of worry.
When it comes to the benefits of a well planned vegan diet on your health, we could go from a generalized and simplified view of something science and doctors have known for years: eating more fruits, vegetables whole grains and legumes means great news when it comes to your health, but we can also get much more specific and dig into what the research shows.
In recent years a lot of claims have been made when it comes to either the magical and almost instant effects a plant based diet can have on disease prevention and treatment, or to the dangers of falling short of nutrients on a vegan diet, the dangers of grains or (insert food phobia of the moment here). Based on everything I've read and researched, the truth always lies somewhere in between, and I would love to guide you to the resources of the nutritionists, organizations and specialists that have been following the latest research when it comes to nutrition and health.
Keep in mind that veganism as a more mainstream diet is fairly new, and we need more time and nutritional studies to see the full picture when it comes to health claims and disease statistics, but fortunately we do have a lot of promising research now, that all seems to point to the fact that when it comes to health, plants are king.
It’s hard to determine which studies are the ones to focus on. Just this past year a new study came out on twins that seems very promising but the papers on it are still coming out and need to be peer reviewed.
Other short term studies have come out through the years that people like to point to, but science is such a complex field, and determining which studies are good indicators of disease markers, statistics and dietary habits isn’t easy, not every study passes the test and it’s why among health professionals some studies are mentioned much more than others, and it’s the case of the ones I’ll be sharing and mentioning here.
Understanding which studies to look at is a game of give and take. For example randomized clinical trials are the gold standard when it comes to nutritional research, but because of the expense and difficulty found in designing and applying these studies, they often measure short term changes or are done with a limited amount of participants. Epidemiological studies look at much larger amounts of people, but they lack the control of a clinical trial. Meta studies often come in to look at what the majority of the research is saying, being a kind of overview of many smaller scale studies.
Evidence Based Research on Vegan and Vegetarian Diets, Health and Chronic Diseases
Most of the information I’ll be sharing today comes from two very large scale and comprehensive studies that have followed very large groups of people for years. These are the Adventist Health Study 2, and the Epic Oxford Study.
The EPIC Oxford Study includes 65,000 participants and recruited a very high number of vegetarians and vegans and compares health outcomes to those in omnivores
The Adventist Health Study 2 includes 96,000 participants within a specific population of Seventh Day adventists in which there is a very high number of vegetarians and vegans as this is part of the teachings of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, making it a fantastic population to study the long term effects of these dietary patterns in the health of many individuals.
Here is a brief summary of some of the things we know when it comes to the benefits of following a well-planned vegan diet, and if you'd like to read about these studies more in depth, check statistics or the specifics of each study, I'm providing fantastic summaries and sources below, by our favorite vegan dietitian nutritionists, which you'll hear me mention many times throughout this and many of our posts.
Please remember that any mention of nutritional information or reference to disease prevention and treatment, is meant for informational and educational purposes only, and that nothing should substitute the advice or recommendations of your doctor or health provider.
Is it Healthy or Safe to Eat a Fully Vegan or Plant-Based Diet?
One of the benefits of eating a vegan diet seems to be that people who follow well planned vegan diets have shown to have lower blood markers of inflammation. Inflammation in the body has been associated with conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, infertility, Alzheimer's disease and insulin resistance, so plant based diets could offer protective benefits against these conditions.
In multiple studies vegans have been shown to have lower total cholesterol levels, lower LDL cholesterol (commonly known as bad cholesterol), and lower triglycerides when compared to lacto-ovo vegetarians and non-vegetarians, while having about the same HDL cholesterol (commonly known as good cholesterol) as both of these groups.
Vegans have been shown to have lower rates of high blood pressure than Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians and Non-Vegetarians.
Vegans have a lower BMI and body fat percentage than Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians and Non-Vegetarians, and studies show that people who have been vegan for more than 5 years have the lowest BMI of all diet groups studied.
When looking at heart disease incidence in the EPIC-Oxford Study in 2013: Results showed that vegetarians had a statistically significant, 30% reduced risk of heart disease.
The Lifestyle Heart Trial indicated that a whole foods vegetarian (and in turn a vegan) diet can be effective in the reduction of artherosclerosis and heart disease as part of a lifestyle change.
When looking at the risk for diverticular disease in the Epic. Oxford study in 2011:
"EPIC Oxford found that vegetarians had a 31% lower risk of diverticular disease when compared with meat eaters"
In the EPIC-Oxford Study, 2011:
Vegans appeared to have a 40% lower risk of cataracts than those eating more than 100g of meat per day.
Findings are also very promising when we look into research done on vegan diets and diabetes. Studies show that vegans have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes than non-vegetarians.
I would like to quote registered dietitian nutritionist Jack Norris on this topic:
"The only prospective study measuring rates of diabetes in vegans, the Adventist Health Study 2, found them to have a 60% less chance of developing the disease than non-vegetarians after two years of follow-up. Previously, a cross-sectional report from the Adventist Health Study-2 showed vegans to have a 68% lower rate of diabetes than non-vegetarians. A number of clinical trials have now shown that a vegan, or mostly vegan diet, can lower body weight, reduce blood sugar, and improve other parameters for type 2 diabetes."
He continues on to conclude that:
"A whole foods vegan diet is safe for people who have type 2 diabetes and is as beneficial, if not more so, than a typical ADA diet”, which is the standard American Diebetes Association diet.
Although the link between diets and health markers for cancer prevention is much harder to determine when compared to looking at cardiovascular health markers for determining risk of cardiovascular disease, we do know that many of the dietary habits, foods and healthy lifestyle changes that vegans include, have health promoting benefits that can reduce your risk for certain cancers.
When it comes to cancer risk, plant-based diets could give us a slight edge, as shown by the new guidelines provided by the World Health Organization and the American Institute for Cancer Research in recent years, since vegans not only have a very high intake of fiber (which is associated with protection against certain types of cancers like colorectal cancer) also abstain from certain animal products that have now been classified as known carcinogens.
According to the World Health Organization, every 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18%. Processed meats (i.e. cured meats, ham, deli meats, bacon, sausages and others), have been classified as carcinogenic to humans and were classified as a Group 1 carcinogen.
Some vegan advocates and resources might have you believe that since tobacco and asbestos are also group 1 carcinogens, that having your children eat a bologne sandwich is akin to letting them smoke a cigarette, and I want to take the opportunity to debunk this idea, I think we can be great vegan advocates and still talk about these issues based on the actual scientific evidence, looking into how terms and classifications are defined.
In the case of this group 1 carcinogen classification, all this means is that the parameters for placing one food or product in the same category relied not on the risk it posed to getting the illness, but on the amount of evidence that showed that the agent was a cause of cancer. In other words, this doesn't mean they are both equally dangerous, it just means they had comparable amounts of evidence to suggest that these foods or agents can cause cancer. There's an important difference there in the way this specific classification by the WHO is defined.
However, The IARC Working Group has concluded that there is a strong link between eating processed meat and specifically, colorectal cancer. An association with stomach cancer was also seen, but without conclusive evidence.
When it came to the World Health Organization recommendations and the consumption of red meats, they stated that "the strongest, but still limited, evidence for an association with eating red meat is for colorectal cancer. There is also evidence of links with pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer."
The American Institute for Cancer Research has also stated that choices to reduce cancer risk include a diet rich in whole plant foods and low in red meat, processed foods, sugary drinks, and alcohol.
As you can see, although we still don't have the scientific data to compare rates of cancer in vegans and non vegans conclusively, we can definitely see how a vegan diet might give us an advantage, since it excludes many foods that have been linked with cancer, and it includes the fiber rich plant foods and antioxidants linked with cancer prevention.
There is no evidence to date that a vegan diet is the only healthy way to eat, it doesn't mean that by being vegan you are guaranteed never to get any of these illnesses, it doesn't mean that by just deciding to go vegan your diet will automatically be healthy and complete nutritionally speaking, nor does it mean that if you don't follow a strict vegan diet you are bound to get sick. I think it's important to talk about these issues based on the information we have right now, based on the research. Having said this, as you'll see when you dig into many of these studies, there is no doubt that a nutritionally balanced vegan diet is not only safe but can provide so many health benefits.
I quote registered dietitian Virginia Messina, one of the leading experts in vegan nutrition: "There is no body of evidence to suggest that you have to be vegan in order to be healthy. The evidence does not suggest that every disease in the world is reversible with a low-fat, whole foods plant-based diet. And, yes, it is possible to fall short of nutrients on a vegan diet if you aren’t paying attention to food choices."
What happens when we automatically believe false health claims even when they are putting a vegan diet in a magical positive light? We are causing more harm than good.
What can happen is people fail to learn how to build a balanced plate, people sometimes even fail to get regular blood work done, go to medical checkups, or get required routine medical exams like colo-rectal exams or mammograms that could catch diseases early.
It's important to remember that no diet is by definition perfect, but we can have a very healthful and balanced vegan diet that is not only health promoting as we’ve showed you with what science has shown so far are the many benefits of eating more plants, but that is also more sustainable, helps protect our precious environmental resources, not to mention prevents the unnecessary cruelty we put animals through. To my knowledge there is no other diet that provides so many benefits, which include but go beyond health benefits.
A vegan diet is not only about trying to not consume animal products, but about all the benefits of adding in nutritious plant foods that have health promoting qualities such as an increase in dietary fiber, a reduction in dietary cholesterol and saturated fat, an increase in antioxidants which help protect against certain diseases, etc. It's not only what you're not having, it's the space on the plate that will now be filled with healthy foods that can also be made into your favorite dishes so you don't feel deprived.
Why Go Vegan: Zoonotic Diseases, Epidemics and Pandemics
There’s another area of health that I think is important to discuss when we talk about veganism. I debated whether to discuss it in a post on health or on animals as it intersects the two, but ultimately, and because of the recent pandemic we all went through (which hadn’t occurred when I first created this series), I decided to include it now here.
The raising of animals for food, in closed quarters, under the conditions they are kept in, the large numbers of animals in close contact with humans, the existence of live animal markets and more, are very fertile grounds for the emergence of zoonotic diseases.
Zoonotic diseases are illnesses that begin in animals and eventually get transmitted to humans. Most of the ones we’ve seen in our history have been linked to animal agriculture and selling practices
I’m not going to talk about the terrible pandemic we’ve just lived through because they still haven’t determined the exact origin although one of the two prominent theories is that it is a disease of zoonotic origin, but we can say it definitively for many of COVID’s “predecessors”, prior coronaviruses that caused less of a global impact but that were infectious and deadly as well, mainly the SARS virus, and the MERS virus ( with a mortality rate of 10% for SARS, 35% for MERS, but thankfully a lower rate of transmission than what we saw with COVID 19).
In the case of SARS, a virus that first appeared in bats and then passed to civet cats and finally to humans, its origin has been traced back to the rise of the wildlife trade and the cramped and unhygienic conditions of the growing live animal markets, and MERS, a virus that was passed on to humans by camels as the intermediary hosts, has been traced to the increased number of camels in the Middle East in high density and enclosed systems of farming. Both of these viruses have been categorized as zoonotic diseases, and both originated in environments where humans are manipulating, breeding, enclosing and selling animals. One of the main reasons for the spreading of these viruses in these markets and breeding grounds, slaughterhouses etc., is that the huge amounts of animals are closely packed together and transmission becomes much easier, the close contact between them and humans in these spaces as humans are the ones keeping them enclosed, feeding them, breeding them, killing them if raised for food, makes that zoonotic transmission much more likely.
COVID 19 transformed and changed our world, and yet it didn’t even come close to what happened in the most severe pandemic in our recorded history, a category 5 pandemic (the highest number in the CDC Pandemic Severity index chart) the 1918 influenza pandemic (also known as the Purple death, a zoonotic disease that originated in a military camp in the United States and spread across the world as soldiers went to Europe towards the end of World War I. The history of the influenza pandemic of 1918 is so interesting and tragic and unimaginable that I could write and record a full episode on it alone, I’ll be leaving some great resources if you want to do a bit more digging, especially on how the world’s circumstance was the perfect place and historical moment for it to spread, in a time in which we didn’t even have the transportation, travel and globalization we have now. What’s relevant to our topic today though, is that the influenza virus that caused the 1918 pandemic was a strain of avian influenza, and that most of the types of flu that have pandemic potential (mainly influenza A) first began with the domestication of ducks, and through the domestication of other animals for food, these viruses started to be transmitted to humans. Domesticated farm animals like birds such as ducks and chickens, pigs, also horses, have been strongly linked to zoonotic diseases and especially to the influenza virus.
The World Health Organization states that “Historical data shows that all pandemic influenza occurrences originated from animals. All subtypes of influenza type A virus have zoonotic potential. Pigs are ideal candidates for re-assortment or mutation of influenza viruses.”
In the next few years we will likely learn more about the origin of the pandemic that affected our lives in recent years, but regardless of which of the theories is confirmed, there is no questioning of the fact that zoonotic diseases and pathogens are responsible for most of the epidemics and pandemics we’ve seen in our history, not only the great flue of 1918, but also: tuberculosis, brucellosis, the bubonic plague, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, smallpox, and the many variants of the influenza virus including avian influenza and swine flu (which had a particularly clear path of transmission in and between pig farms and slaughterhouses), Creuftzfeldt-Jakob disease also known as mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the AIDS virus, among countless others.
One of the biggest ways they get transmitted between them and eventually to humans, the manipulation, domestication, feeding and handling of waste in the handling of live animals (in many cases these have originated in live animal markets and farms where animals are raised for meat), eventually becoming an illness that can spread from human to human.
It is estimated that the 1918 influenza pandemic killed anywhere between 20 to 50 million people, some health organizations and research groups giving a much higher figure closer to 100 million. As a comparison based on the pandemic most us have lived through, and although data varies, it is estimated that almost 6.8 million people have died due to COVID 19.
Add to these world changing epidemics and pandemics, other health problems that can arise and stem from the way the animals are bred, raised and kept, and the disposal of the waste from these farms, and here I’d include issues like antibiotic resistance and food borne pathogens. The use of antibiotics in farmed animals far exceeds the use of them for medical care in humans and because of the ways animals are kept, it has become a necessity in these farms to keep them from getting diseased in the closed quarters and conditions, and strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria have already been found time and time again, and the rate of antibiotic resistance in humans continues to rise. This is extremely dangerous for the health of human beings as antibiotics are sometimes the only line of defense against some of these illnesses and when bacteria becomes resistant to it, we are left with no line of defense and no action plan. Antibiotics are also widely used in farms to promote faster growth of the animals to get more meat and have them be more profitable, adding to the problem. Food born pathogens can also be detrimental to our health and often pop up in our food supply because of leaks or spraying of animal waste close to farms that grow fruits and vegetables, and of course on meat itself in the slaughter, rendering and packing process.
There is no question, that the way we treat, enclose, breed animals for food and other purposes, puts our health and our survival at great risk and something needs to change. We’ll explore more on animal agriculture in our upcoming episode on Veganism and the Animals in this series.
A book that you’ll hear me mention in the upcoming installments is the book This is Vegan Propaganda by Ed Winters, which includes a section of the book with an extensive look into the history of infectious and zoonotic diseases, and tons of data on past and present standard practices in animal farming that can affect our health as well as the animals and our environment.
Thankfully, as human beings we have another way. This way, and by this I mean the elimination and even the reduction of animal products in our diets can have so many positive impacts on our health and so many other areas of our lives as you’ll see in the upcoming installments in the series.
What I want to leave you with here is this: plant-based isn’t the only healthy way to eat, nor does it mean that any amounts of animal products in the diet will automatically mean poor health, nor does it negate the fact that certain animal products can be beneficial in terms of their nutrition. There is no evidence to support that you cannot be healthy unless you eat a fully vegan diet. What I do want to emphasize, is that for all the other benefits that eating plants can bring to the animals, our planet, our fellow humans, and yes also to us, we can not only survive but we can thrive on a well planned vegan diet. We also now have growing evidence, that this way of eating can provide added benefits when it comes to the prevention and even in some cases treatment of certain diet related conditions and chronic diseases.
It’s also an important thing to remember that health is determined by so many variables other than the way we eat, it is determined by socioeconomic factors, the presence of a solid community and company, movement, managing of stress levels, access to fresh fruits and vegetables, your sleep patterns, your stress. So taking a step back and looking at all of these factors, not just the way you eat will give you a broader picture and plenty of areas to work on if you can’t do everything in one area.
If you’re thinking, “yes, I know there are benefits to eating a plant based diet, but isn’t it too hard to follow and maintain a vegan diet in the long run? I’d miss my meat and my cheese and fish too much!”. If this has crossed your mind, know that you’re not alone, and that’s precisely why we do what we do at Brownble. We teach you all the basics of what you need to know, how to apply it, how to cook deliciously, and how to transform this way of eating from just another diet, to a lifestyle that will accompany you for the rest of your life and that signifies much more than simply a way of eating.
The studies I’ve mentioned today aren’t by any means the only ones, and with the growth of plant based diets we’ll probably see more evidence coming through in the next few years, but I’ll leave it here for today.
As we move forward to the next cornerstone of why a vegan diet can be so beneficial in our next installment, don't forget to check out all the resources we're linking to, including the remarkable work and easy to understand graphs, articles and summaries by registered dietitians Jack Norris, Virginia Messina, the World Health Organization, the book Vegan for Her and Vegan for Life, and including findings from the Epic Oxford Study and the Adventist Health Study 2.
I hope this post serves you and helps you, that you check out these resources and arm yourself with information so that if you are inspired to make this change, you do so responsibly and learn what you need to learn to ensure your body and mind are both happy, healthy and thriving, with good nutrition and flexibility and balance as well.
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