THE GREAT HEALTH DEBATE: IS VEGANISM HEALTHIER THAN AN ANIMAL-BASED DIET?
A quick google search of “is veganism healthy” produces very polarized results from both pro-vegan sites promoting the diet and from personal stories of veganism ruining people’s health. This debate is filled with opinion and fiery passion, many saying veganism will destroy your health, and others claiming it can help in healing our bodies and actually reduce the growth of cancer cells.
But where is the science in all of this? Casting opinions aside, we need to look at the actual studies that have been conducted, and observe the factual results.
Keeping this in mind, this article exists solely to provide scientific facts from a collective of conducted studies. If you try a vegan diet for an extended amount of time and feel that it is not working for you and your body, then eat whatever you feel is best for your body and soul and do not worry about judgement from others if you are doing your best.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND VEGANISM
There are hundreds upon hundreds of studies showing the positive benefits of eating a vegan diet. One of the biggest concerns of these studies is that they often do not show the long term effects of veganism, only the short term.
While many of these studies do conclude that further research is needed to understand the complete effects of a plant based diet, the information already present is substantial enough to consider the validity of these findings. The large amount of studies conducted through different universities, institutions and organizations presents considerable evidence in favor of veganism.
THE CHINA STUDY
Probably the most prominent study on the effects of veganism is known as The China Study. This is an extremely comprehensive study conducted over the span of 20 years by T. Colin Campbell, a biochemist and professor at Cornell University, and a team of researchers. This study examines the correlation between consuming animal products and the development of certain chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and different types of cancer.
The China Study looked at the mortality rates of these diseases from 1973 to 1975 in 65 different countries in rural China. This data was then correlated with dietary surveys and blood work from 100 people in each country 10 years later.
The research showed that each generation, people would live and eat the same way over time. This led to the conclusion that countries that consumed higher amounts of animal based foods were more likely to have higher death rates and presented more “western” diseases. On the other hand, countries that consumed mostly plant based diets had the opposite effect, prolonging longevity and reducing major health issues.
VEGANISM AND CANCER
So far, further research is needed to prove that a vegan diet alone is enough to protect against cancer. However, plant foods have been shown to contain many chemopreventive factors, while animal products such as red meat have been linked to cause certain cancers. A Health Publication from Harvard states this on becoming vegetarian: “Hundreds of studies suggest that eating lots of fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of developing certain cancers, and there’s evidence that vegetarians have a lower incidence of cancer than non-vegetarians do.”
While vegetarianism is not a vegan diet, this study still supports the same data and is a great first step for those who want to transition out of eating animal products. They also note that specifically eliminating red meat from your diet will also significantly reduce your risk factor for developing colon cancer.
Further, data collected from the Adventist Health Study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that people who consume animal products have a substantially higher increased risk of colorectal and prostate cancer. In addition, it noted that those who consumed beef had a higher risk of bladder cancer.
Generally, vegans have to consume more legumes, fruits and vegetables, allium, fiber and vitamin C than omnivores. These foods are filled with nutrients that have protective qualities against diseases like cancer. In addition, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals present in fresh fruits and vegetables have been shown to exhibit protection against various cancers.
Another study called The International Research Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Cancer within the Journal of Nutrition proposed that: “The additive and synergistic effects of phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables are responsible for these potent antioxidant and anticancer activities and that the benefit of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is attributed to the complex mixture of phytochemicals present in whole foods. This explains why no single antioxidant can replace the combination of natural phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables to achieve the health benefits. The evidence suggests that antioxidants or bioactive compounds are best acquired through whole-food consumption, not from expensive dietary supplements.”
This same study suggested that phytochemicals interfere with several cellular processes involved in the progression of cancer. These processes include inhibiting cell proliferation, inhibition of DNA adduct formation and inhibiting oncogene expression, which is a gene that disposes normal cells to transform into cancerous tumor cells. This research also found that red and processed meat is consistently associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Those who consumed large amounts of red meat had elevated risks, ranging from 20% to 60% of liver, lung, colorectal and esophageal cancer.
Another study from The Department of Physiology in University of Kuopio from Finland had results that suggested raw vegan diets causes a decrease in bacterial enzymes and certain toxic products in the body that have implicated the risk of colon cancer.
A selection of research from The University of Florence, University Hospital of Careggi and The Don Carlo Gnocchi Foundation created a meta-analysis, including 86 cross sectional and 10 cohort prospective studies. They saw that significantly reduced levels of BMI, total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol and glucose levels were present in vegetarians and vegans versus omnivores. In conclusion, they stated that a vegan diet significantly reduced the risk of incidence from total cancer by -15%.
VEGANISM AND DIABETES
Veganism has been shown to not only reduce but actually cure type 2 diabetes in individuals. The documentary Simply Raw follows the incredible story of a few people who, through a raw vegan diet, actually reverse and rid diabetes from their bodies. Specifically the individual Kirt, a 26 year old man with type 2 diabetes experienced one of the most drastic changes. He began with a blood sugar level of about 1200, where the average level is about 80 to 100. Throughout his transformation, he was able to fully wean off insulin and end the documentary a completely cured man.
In 2006, a randomized clinical trial published in The Permanente Journal concluded that a low fat vegan diet reduced HbA1c levels by 1.13 points, compared to 0.38 points for those who ate a diet which included animal products. HbA1c refers to glycated haemoglobin, which is produced when haemoglobin, a protein in red cells, joins with glucose in the blood and becomes glycated. People with diabetes need to keep their HbA1c levels low, for the higher these levels get, the greater the risk is of developing diabetes related complications.
Another study showed that in 2008, people who ate animal products were 74% more likely to develop diabetes than people who chose a vegetarian diet. Further, in 2009 a study involving more than 60,000 men and women found that the prevalence of diabetes in those eating a vegan diet was 2.9% compared to 7.6% in those who ate animal products.
VEGANISM AND HEART DISEASE
The Lifestyle Heart Trial was a study that posed the question: Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? They found that after only a year of eating a plant based diet, 82% of the patients who were diagnosed with heart disease had some level of regression of atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is a condition where the arteries become more narrow and hardened due to plaque build up around the artery wall. After 5 years, stenosis (the narrowing of bodily canals, such as arteries) in the experimental group decreased from 37.8% to 34.7%. While this might not seem like a huge difference, the control group had a larger progression of stenosis from 46.1% to 57.9%.
Another study by The Catholic University at São Paulo, Brazil, showed that the plasma total and the LDL cholesterol, also known as the “bad” cholesterol were 32% and 44% lower in vegans than among those who were omnivores.
Research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that vegans, compared to omnivores, generally consume greater amounts of fruit and vegetables, and are thus providing their bodies with more fiber, folic acid, antioxidants and phytochemicals. These are all associated with lower blood cholesterol, lower the chances of having a stroke and lower the mortality from heart disease.
THE CONCERNS WITH VEGANISM
One of the biggest, if not THE biggest concern with going vegan is the lack of certain vitamins and minerals that are more commonly found in animal products. While you can certainly lack the vital nutrients while on a vegan diet, that is more of a personal situation rather than a fault of the diet itself. Many plant based foods are equivalent in nutrients to their meat and dairy counterparts. By simply measuring the amount of each vitamin and mineral in each food before consuming it, you can easily avoid becoming nutritionally deficient.
Going hand in hand with this, one of the main reasons people can have negative results on a vegan diet is because they simply don’t eat enough. The density of a typical hearty meal of a steak, potatoes and some vegetables fills the stomach much more than a simple salad. This is why it’s crucial to first, allow your body to adjust to a new diet and then begin to increase the size of your meals if you feel that’s what your body needs.
B12 is regarded as a crucial vitamin for our diets that is mostly found in animal products, so there is a large concern for those who are on a vegan diet. But, B12 is actually a vitamin produced by bacteria, and can be found in untreated water and soil. Because our modern soil and water are heavily chemically treated and our vegetables can come triple washed, we don’t get the same levels of B12 that we would living out in the wild or even with general farming practices a hundred years ago.
B12, coincidentally is also naturally produced in our own intestines when we have a healthy level of gut flora; but to be safe, a simple solution for vegans who are low on B12 is to simply take some B12 supplements. There are also fortified cereals and bran that contain B12, the same goes for certain nutritional yeasts as well.
The advertising for protein is heavily pushed and funded by the meat and dairy industries. Many people are quick to say they wouldn’t go vegan because of the lack of protein. Typically, an average person needs between 46 to 56 grams of protein a day. There are a plethora of plant based foods that have the same amount, if not more protein than their meat counterparts. Only half a cup, or 100 grams of Hemp seeds equals 31.56 grams of protein for your daily intake. Chia seeds have 17 grams of protein per 100 grams. That amount of those two seeds alone, blended in a large smoothie in the morning is all your daily protein right there.
Not to mention sprouted beans, lentils, peas, kale, mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, brussel sprouts and many other vegetables have a sufficient amount of protein in them. If you were to combine some of these vegetables in a stir fry or salad with beans and lentils, you then have your daily protein and then some.
This protein myth is truly nothing more than that; a myth. If you are only eating say, a small salad every day, then yes, you may be nutritionally deficient to some degree. Veganism requires you to have a bit more of a variety of vegetables, legumes and fruits to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need.
Iron, similar to protein, is easy to get in a variety of plant foods. Things like kidney, black and soybeans, spinach, cashews, cabbage, tomato juice and oatmeal are all rich in iron.
Research from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics stated that: “Although vegetarian adults have lower iron stores than nonvegetarians, their serum ferritin levels are usually within the normal range.”
Calcium is traditionally known to come from dairy such as milk, and has been advertised as solely the best source of it. Numerous studies have shown that milk actually has degenerative effect on bones, and there are more factors than just calcium to keep our bones strong.
This article from The Harvard School of Public Health describes that American’s actually take higher amounts calcium than places like India, Japan and Peru. Residents in those areas can take a low as 300 milligrams per day, which is less than a third of the US recommendation for adults. Even with The United States suggesting high levels of calcium intake, they are also the most affected by osteoporosis, a disease that destroys bone integrity.
Further, they found that individuals who drank one glass of milk (or less) per week were at no more greater of a risk of breaking a hip than those who drank two or more glasses per week. They found no association between the level of calcium intake and the risk of fractures.
Another study also concluded that: “although vegans had lower dietary calcium and protein intakes than omnivores, veganism did not have adverse effect on bone mineral density and did not alter body composition.”
VEGANISM AND CHILDREN
There is a level of controversy surrounding parents who choose a vegan diet for their children. Many claim that this is unfair, or even abusive to a degree as most children are subject to the will of their parents and cannot informatively choose a diet on their own.
First and foremost, if you are a parent, simply ask your child what they want to eat. Keep it open, do not ask leading questions that will sway their answer. If they feel that they want to eat animal products at that time, it is important you do what feels right for them.
This study showed that children on a vegan diet did grow up to be lighter in weight and a bit smaller in stature. Their energy, calcium, and vitamin D levels were shown to be below the recommended amounts but it concluded that with sufficient care, “a vegan diet can support normal growth and development.”
It is important to do what feels right for you and your child, listen to them carefully and do your best to make the right choice. If you see their energy levels are lower or they are continually hungry, making the necessary adjustments to their meal plans will be required.
THE ETHICAL STANDPOINT
Now there is an important ethical reason to being vegan. It is no secret that factory farming not only slaughters animals, but overtly tortures them to an unnecessary extent. There are many videos showing the horrors of factory farming, which includes heinous acts of beating, maiming and killing animals that is not part of the official mandate. If this concept is new to you, we recommend watching the film “Earthlings”, however be warned, it is extremely graphic.
While the term “humanely killing” is an oxymoron itself, it is possible to reduce the suffering of an animal in the process of slaughter. For most commercial farms, this is not the case, and there is an unwarranted amount of rage from the workers towards the animal that can be seen from these undercover videos. We realize that not all farms operate in this way and much of the information out there focuses on the worst of the worst, however the fact remains that the suffering that these animals go through is still more than any being should endure and by reducing your meat consumption you in turn reduce the amount of needless suffering in the world.
Since before recorded human history, humans killed animals to survive in the wild. However, the way in which native tribes would, for example, kill a buffalo, is an entirely different practice. They pray to the spirit of the animal, asking for forgiveness and use every part of the animal. They would take only what they needed and be sure that it was used fully, even a single buffalo is enough to feed a small tribe for an extended amount of time.
This way of life required tribes to eat meat because there wasn’t easy access to plethora of plants available, and in harsh winters the consumption of fatty meat was essential to survival. Now, in our modern society, we don’t need to eat meat in the same way to help us survive, especially compared to somewhere like that of the small villages in the Yukon, living predominantly in freezing winters, who would require dense fats in their diet in order to survive.
It’s important to note that Inuit, Yupik and Inupiat peoples in North America have actually adapted genetically for what is called an arctic diet, displaying a shift in their CPT1A enzyme which regulates the breakdown of stored fats. Yet, this is not necessary for someone living in a moderate climate and within a larger community.
Another factor in this, is that it becomes very easy to disconnect from the spirit of the animal itself when you buy a neatly packaged piece of meat from the store, so far removed from the torture and filthy conditions the animals lived through.
To end this section, ask yourself: Would you kill an animal yourself and eat it? If not, it may be time to reconsider supporting factory farming.
In bringing this discussion to a conclusion, we’d like to reiterate that you need to eat what feels right for you. There is no single body type or diet regimen that you have to follow. Still, there is a large amount of scientific evidence that points towards a plant based diet having significantly more benefits than an animal product based diet.
The most prominent downfall of these studies is the lack of long term evidence of a vegan diet. While there are many vegan body builders and elderly vegans who are incredibly healthy, the specific scientific studies need to continue for long term conclusions to be completely formed.
If you want to try a vegan diet for an extended period of time, allow your body to fully adjust to it, and if you still feel that it’s causing more harm than good to your body, then simply do what you need to do in order to feel healthy.
Eat how you want to eat, but understand the possible consequences and implications of your choices. There is no need for judgement; an informed understanding and spiritual awareness of your actions is all it takes.