When I was learning about being a vegetarian and then a vegan I collected a lot of information and research, which I have organized here in case it helps you make your own consumption and diet choices. I will continue to add links as I find them.
The following questions are addresses in this document:
- What is vegetarianism?
- What are the health reasons someone would become a vegetarian?
- What evidence supports the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?
- What does it mean to be a vegan?
- What are the benefits of a vegan diet / why is it a healthy choice?
- What are the downsides of eating meat and animal based products?
- Which public health organizations and experts endorse a vegan diet?
- What proof exists that vegan is a healthy diet choice?
- I have heard there are risks with a vegan diet and that it is not healthy?
- How should I structure my eating to make sure my vegan diet provides all the nutrients I require?
- People say that it is unhealthy to avoid meat.
- People say that our ancestors evolved to eat meat and were free of the diseases of civilization so this proves we should be eating meat. Is this true?
- Beyond health, why would someone consider a vegan or vegetarian diet?
What is vegetarianism?
Vegetarians typically eat a diet consisting of no animal meat, but including dairy and eggs and other products from animals.
It is difficult to estimate how many vegetarians there are since there is confusion amongst the population as to what vegetarian actually means. In 2002 TIME Magazine published the following when covering the rise of vegetarianism: “In a survey of 11,000 individuals, 37% of those who responded “Yes, I am a vegetarian” also reported that in the previous 24 hours they had eaten red meat; 60% had eaten meat, poultry or seafood.”
According to Wikipedia the earliest records of vegetarianism come from ancient India and ancient Greece in the 6th century BCE. In both instances the diet was closely connected with the idea of nonviolence towards animals.
To learn more about vegetarianism:
- The Vegetarian Resource Group – http://www.vrg.org/
- ChooseVeg http://www.chooseveg.com/
- VegSource http://www.vegsource.com/
- MeatOut http://www.meatout.org
- Information on Vegetarian and Vegan Diets (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) http://www.pcrm.org/health/veginfo/faq.html
- Vegetarian Starter Kit (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) http://www.pcrm.org/health/veginfo/vsk/index.html
- The Institute for Plant Based Nutrition – http://www.plantbased.org/
- The Vegetarian FAQ (International Vegetarian Union) http://www.ivu.org/faq/
- International Vegetarian Union http://www.ivu.org/history/societies/americanvs.html
- The North American Vegetarian Society http://www.navs-online.org/faq/index.php
- The Timeline (International Vegetarian Union) http://www.ivu.org/history/timeline/ancient.html
- Vegetarianism (Wikipedia) – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism
- The Vegetarian and Vegan Foundation – http://www.vegetarian.org.uk/
- The American Dietetic Association – Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Group http://www.vegetariannutrition.net/
- The National Health Association – http://www.healthscience.org
- The Vegetarian Society http://www.vegsoc.org
What are the health reasons someone would become a vegetarian?
The following health concerns are listed on the GoVeg.com website (http://www.goveg.com/healthconcerns.asp):
Leading health experts agree that going vegetarian is the single-best thing we can do for ourselves and our families. Healthy vegetarian diets support a lifetime of good health and provide protection against numerous diseases, including our country’s three biggest killers: heart disease, cancer, and strokes. The American Dietetic Association states that vegetarians have “lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; … lower blood cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer” and that vegetarians are less likely than meat-eaters to be obese.1 Well-planned vegetarian diets provide us with all the nutrients that we need, minus all the saturated fat, cholesterol, and contaminants found in animal flesh, eggs, and dairy products.
Research has shown that vegetarians are 50 percent less likely to develop heart disease, and they have 40 percent of the cancer rate of meat-eaters.3,4 Plus, meat-eaters are nine times more likely to be obese than vegans are.5
The consumption of meat, eggs, and dairy products has also been strongly linked to osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, asthma, and male impotence. Scientists have also found that vegetarians have stronger immune systems than their meat-eating friends; this means that they are less susceptible to everyday illnesses like the flu.7 Vegetarians and vegans live, on average, six to 10 years longer than meat-eaters.8
A plant-based diet is the best diet for kids, too: Studies have shown that vegetarian kids grow taller and have higher IQs than their classmates, and they are at a reduced risk for heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other diseases in the long run.10,11 Studies have shown that even older people who switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet can prevent and even reverse many chronic ailments.
It is also likely that people that compared to people that consume meat regularly, people that consume a predominantly plant based diet will consume a larger amount of anti-oxidants, and fiber which are linked to countless health benefits.
Eating a vegetarian diet alone does not make one healthy as with any diet, care is still required to ensure a proper balance of nutrients, carbohydrates and proteins. There is also the issue of exposure to pesticides and chemical as well as E. coli bacteria. Eating organic produce may help to reduce exposure to these toxins.
More information on the health benefits of vegetarianism:
- The Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet (The Seventh Day Adventists) http://www.annecollins.com/vegetarian-diet-health-benefits.htm
- Should You Be a Vegetarian (TIME Magazine article) – http://www.time.com/time/covers/1101020715/story.html
- Is Vegetarian Healthier (VegSource article) http://www.vegsource.com/articles/veg_definition.htm
- Cancer, Vegetarianism, and Diet http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/cancer/
- Dr Novick on Saturated Fats vs. vegetarian diet (video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfBKauKVi4M&feature=channel
- John Robbins on how the cultures that live the longest are vegetarian http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylHh87nflwg&feature=channel
- Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/70/3/516S#T7
- Counter view on vegetarianism – The Naïve Vegetarian: http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/vegetarian.html
What evidence supports the health benefits of a vegetarian diet?
Vivausa.org has collected probably the most comprehensive list of evidence to support a vegetarian diet. The following excerpt is taken from the site:
The world’s most important health advisory bodies are now in complete agreement – a vegetarian diet is one of the healthiest possible. And it seems the fewer animal products it contains, such as milk and cheese, the healthier it is. In other words, the closer it is to being vegan, the healthier it becomes. These are some of the health statements that have been made over the past few years. We will expand on each of the terms used later in the guide.
- The British Medical Association (BMA)
The BMA was one of the first to distill the growing volume of research on diet and health in its 1986 report (3). It said: “Vegetarians have lower rates of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, large bowel disorders, cancers and gall stones. Cholesterol levels tend to be lower in vegetarians.” It went on to say that when meat eaters change to a vegetarian diet it can actually lower their cholesterol levels. It concluded by saying that vegetarians obtain all the minerals they need and that folate levels are higher than meateaters.
- The China Study
The initial results of this combined Chinese -U.S. – British study, which began in 1983, were announced in 1989 (4). It was a massive piece of work which looked at the health and eating habits of 6,500 people in real life situations. Its conclusions were accurately summed up a New York Times headline on May 8, 1990: “Huge Study of Diet Indicts Fat and Meat.” In short, it found that the greatest single influence on the growth of degenerative diseases such as coronary heart disease, cancer and diabetes was the amount of animal fat and protein eaten – the more you eat, the greater your risk.It highlighted some extraordinary dietary differences between affluent and not so affluent societies. Animal protein itself raises the risks of cancer and heart disease.These are the two biggest killers in the West but there are others, such as diabetes, strokes, obesity and high blood pressure which are associated with the West’s affluent lifestyle. They are degenerative diseases and the China study found that they increased alarmingly as people changed from a more simple, predominantly vegetarian or vegan diet, to a Western diet based on meat and dairy products.
The study also found that the West’s preoccupation with promoting meat as the main source of iron was wrong. The Chinese diet was predominantly vegetarian and yet adults consumed twice as much iron as an adult in the U.S. The Chinese diet also contained three times more fiber than a U.S. diet but there was no evidence that these high levels interfered with absorption of iron or other essential minerals.
The conclusions were unequivocal – that a plant-based diet is more likely to promote good health and reduce the risk of degenerative diseases.
- The World Health Organization
Next came an even more detailed report from the WHO in 1991. It was interpreted by many as a call for the world to go vegetarian – and that’s precisely what it was (5). It stated that a diet rich in animal products promotes heart disease, cancer and several other diseases. It confirmed the BMA’s and China Study’s list of degenerative diseases and added others – osteoporosis, and kidney failure as being related to meat eating.
It said that diets associated with increases in chronic diseases are those rich in sugar, meat and other animal products, saturated fat and dietary cholesterol, and added: “If such trends continue, the end of this century will see cardiovascular (heart) disease and cancer established as major health problems in every country in the world.” And, of course, its predictions have been proved true.
But it went even further and condemned the years of public urgings by governments to eat animal products. It went on to say that in future: “Policies should be geared to the growing of plant foods, including vegetables and fruits, and to limiting the promotion of fat containing products.”
The large quantities of cheap meat, which have adversely affected health, are only available because of intensive, factory farming and the WHO also had plenty to say about that:
“Farming policies which do not rely on intensive animal production systems would reduce the world demand for cereals. Use of land could be reappraised since cereal consumption by the population is much more efficient and cheaper than dedicating large areas to growing feed for meat production and dairying.” That advice has also been ignored.
In fact, as development takes place in previously undeveloped countries there is a shift towards a more affluent diet, the report says. As a consequence, there is a dramatic increase in the incidence of diet related diseases.
- The Oxford Study
In early 1995, an interim report was issued by Oxford University scientists working on another huge piece of research, commonly known as the Oxford Study (6). It is ongoing and is examining the diets of 11,000 people over a period of 13 years. The interim report confirmed lower rates of cancer and heart disease among vegetarians but added a new twist – 20% lower premature mortality.
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) PCRM is a highly-respected group of 5,000 doctors. It includes William Roberts, editor of the American Journal of Cardiology, as well as the late Benjamin Spock (7). In 1995, PCRM confirmed the lower rates of disease among vegetarians and urged the government to recommend a vegetarian diet to U.S. citizens. Before this, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines had never made any mention of vegetarianism. The following year they did so for the first time, stating:
“…vegetarians enjoy excellent health: Vegetarian diets are consistent with the Dietary Guidelines and can meet Recommended Daily Allowances for nutrients. Protein is not limited in vegetarian diets …” (8).
The PCRM report reviewed over 100 pieces of published work from across the world and was in no doubt about what we should be eating: “The scientific literature supports the use of vegetables, fruits, legumes (peas, beans, chick peas) and grains as staples. Meats, dairy products and added vegetable oils should be considered optional.” It was another clear and unequivocal statement that humans do not need to eat meat and are healthier for not doing so.
- American Dietetic Association
The ADA is probably one of the most respected health bodies in the world and, in its most recent report on vegetarianism, it kicked off with the words: “Studies indicate that vegetarians often have lower morbidity and mortality rates from several chronic diseases than do non vegetarians” (9). It confirmed that vegetarians are less at risk from the major degenerative diseases, including kidney disease and diabetes, and states that a vegetarian diet can arrest coronary artery disease.
The ADA spells out the reason for this by saying that vegetarian diets offer disease protection benefits because of their lower saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein content and often higher concentrations of folate, antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, carotenoids (vitamin A) and phytochemicals (plant nutrients).
The combined conclusions of this huge volume of research from these different sources is overwhelming. Vegetarian diets are the healthiest possible and the most natural for the human race. So why isn’t the fact more widely known? Government silence on the subject speaks volumes about the power and advertising spending of the meat industry and the government cowardice. Politicians are terrified to tackle the vested interests of a huge industry, just as for decades they were terrified to effectively tackle the tobacco industry. You, of course, don’t need anyone’s permission to change your diet.
Also of great importance is the Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) a church community that has practiced vegetarian dietary lifestyle. From the SDA website:
In the 1960s, Loma Linda University, in cooperation with the National Cancer Institute, began to study the health of SDAs. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, data on the Seventh-day Adventist lifestyle was collected and analyzed under contract with the National Institutes of Health.
SDAs in general, have 50% less risk of heart disease, certain types of cancers, strokes, and diabetes. More specifically, recent data suggests that vegetarian men under 40 can expect to live more than eight years longer and women more than seven years longer then the general population. SDA vegetarian men live more than three years longer than SDA men who eat meat.
Researchers believe this added length of life and quality of health is due in particular to the consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables as well as the avoidance of meat, alcohol, coffee and tobacco.
Current evidence demonstrates that the more closely a person follows the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet the lower the risks of major diseases.
BlueZones is also an important research project which has studied cultures that enjoy much higher than average life expectancy and a fraction of the diseases that kill people in other parts of the developed world. What is common to the three “blue zones” studied is that each culture either has a vegetarian diet or a diet in which meat is eaten infrequently.
See also Evidence that vegan diets are healthy, since vegan diets are, by definition vegetarian.
More information on the research supporting a vegetarian diet:
- The Healthiest Diet of All (article at Viva.org) http://www.vivausa.org/guides/healthiestdietofall1.htm
- The Seventh-day Adventist Position Statement on Vegetarian Diets http://www.sdada.org/position.htm
- The Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet (The Seventh Day Adventists) http://www.annecollins.com/vegetarian-diet-health-benefits.htm
- Has it been Proven that a Vegetarian Diet is Really Healthier?http://www.wisegeek.com/has-it-been-proven-that-a-vegetarian-diet-is-really-healthier.htm
- The China Study http://www.thechinastudy.com/about.html
- Blue Zones http://quest.bluezones.com/live-longer-better/
- Disease Rates of Vegetarians and Vegans http://veganhealth.org/articles/dxrates
- Do Vegetarians Live Longer? http://www.oxveg.veggroup.org/articles/1114.html
- Research on Vegetarians and Vegans – http://www.veganhealth.org/#res
- The Vegetarian Health Argument – Vegan Outreach http://www.veganoutreach.org/articles/healthargument.html
- Cornell University professor T. Colin Campbell Phd, presents the overwhelming evidence showing that animal protein is one of the most potent carcinogens people are exposed to. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfsT-qYeqGM&feature=channel
What does it mean to be a vegan?
A vegan eats a diet consisting exclusively of animal based foods. No meat, fish or dairy. By the most strict definition a vegan would also decline to use or wear any animal products and avoid honey, since its production demands the oppression of worker bees.
According to Wikipedia “Various polls have reported vegans to be between 0.2% and 1.3%of the U.S. population, and between 0.25%and 0.4%of the UK population”
The Vegan movement officially began in 1944 with the inception of the Vegan Society in England, but its roots are based earlier in the 20th Century as a non-dairy spinoff from the vegetarian community.
To learn more about veganism:
- The Vegan Society http://www.vegansociety.com/
- The American Vegan Society http://www.americanvegan.org/
- Veganism in a Nutshell/ The Vegetarian Resource Group http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/vegan.htm
- Vegan Means http://www.veganmeans.com/
- Information on Vegetarian and Vegan Diets / Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine http://www.pcrm.org/health/veginfo/
- Vegan Outreach – http://www.veganoutreach.org/whyvegan/health.html
- the Institute for Plant Based Nutrition http://www.plantbased.org
- VeganHealth – http://www.veganhealth.org
- Many of the vegetarian sites listed above also reference Vegan concepts and nutrition.
What are the benefits of a vegan diet / why is it a healthy choice?
Becoming a vegan is essentially taking vegetarianism one step further. In addition to the reasons to become a vegetarian listed above (health benefits, cruelty to animals, the environment, and sustainability, the Vegan diet completely eliminates exposure to the risks associated with eating animals and also reduces the impact on the planet.
Most of the vegetarian benefit studies have indicated that the higher the proportion of plant based food to animal based food that is consumed, the better the health benefits of the vegetarian diet. Or put another way, the less animal based food consumed, the better.
For most vegetarians, becoming a vegan means eliminating dairy. VivaUSA.org has this to say about dairy:
Milk is largely made up of animal fats, animal protein, and lactose – none of which is required by the body. Difficulty in digesting lactose is extremely common throughout the World, and in Africa it can range between 65-100% of the population; in Latin Americans it ranges between 45-94% – and is even higher among Asians. Most people can tolerate small quantities but research is being undertaken into its possible connection with ovarian problems and cataracts (127, 128).
Often the inability to digest lactose goes unnoticed, particularly in children, but can lead to iron deficiency because of the intestinal bleeding it can produce.
In an article published in Good Medicine, the late Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote, “Dairy products contribute to a surprising number of health problems. They can impair a child’s ability to absorb iron and in very small children can even cause subtle blood loss from the digestive tract. Cow’s milk proteins are a common cause of colic, and now the American Academy of Pediatrics has concluded that there is evidence that cow’s milk may well contribute to childhood-onset-diabetes (129).”
It’s worth remembering that there are about 5,000 species of mammals in the world and only humans consume milk after weaning – and that of another species, one whose offspring grow four times faster than children.
…The advice that you must drink milk in order to prevent osteoporosis has more to do with marketing than good dietary advice, because preventing osteoporosis isn’t that simple and some studies have shown eating dairy products did not protect against osteoporosis in women (80). Acid-forming foods cause the body to excrete calcium, while alkaline-forming foods allow the body to conserve calcium. Fruits and vegetables are the foods which are significantly alkaline-forming. A diet containing large amounts of fruits and vegetables should significantly decrease urinary calcium excretion (81). http://www.vivausa.org/guides/healthiestdietofall1.htm
It is important to note that vegetarian and vegan organizations do not endorse simply removing meat and other animal products from the diet without ensuring a well-balanced diet. Protein, vitamins B12 and D, omega-3 fats, calcium, and iodine are important and special care should be taken to make sure these are either in the diet or obtained via supplements.
What are the downsides of eating meat and animal based products?
The majority of meat consumed in the developed world comes from factory like farms which use methods which are have been linked to increased incidence of disease and poor health. It is commonly known that farm animals are fed growth hormones, steroids, antibiotics, chemicals, and toxic food and in many cases consume their own feces due to overcrowding. The meat is also exposed to E. coli bacteria during packaging. These substances remain in the meat when consumed.
There is also evidence that people who eat meat are also shown to have higher incidences of coronary heart disease, clogged arteries, high blood pressure, strokes, cancers, diabetes, gallstones, obesity and osteoporosis.
According to the North American Vegetarian Society’s website:
A number of widely respected health organizations, such as the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, and the World Health Organization – as well as many physicians and health practitioners – recommend reducing the consumption of animal protein and saturated fat (which are abundant in meat), and cholesterol (found only in meat and other animal products). Although illness and disease can be caused by many factors, several health problems have been positively linked to a diet high in animal products. Among these are cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke (which are the leading causes of death for both men and women in the United States), diabetes, and certain cancers.
Any reduction in saturated fat intake is of some benefit, but population studies show that completely eliminating meat and animal products reaps the greatest health benefits. Although different meats have varying amounts of fat, they all contain about the same amount of cholesterol. In addition, diets high in animal protein are associated with high blood cholesterol, thereby raising the risk of heart disease.
All animal products contain considerably more concentrated levels of pesticide residue than either vegetables or grains. Like red meat, poultry and fish contain no beneficial carbohydrates, fiber, or phytochemicals.
While poultry and fish have somewhat less saturated fat than beef and pork, they are still high in animal protein and cholesterol. These foods pose additional health risks. Contaminated chicken is a major source of Salmonella bacteria, which can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections. The United States Department of Agriculture has acknowledged that a significant percentage of all poultry is contaminated with Salmonella, Campylobacter, or Staphylococcus bacteria. Salmonella bacteria are also commonly found in eggs, even those with undamaged shells.
Fish contain substantially more heavy metals (such as lead, mercury, and cadmium) and industrial pollutants (such PCBs, DDT and dioxins) than land animals. Because fish dine on other fish, those that are caught for food show significant toxic buildup. Shellfish also contain high levels of toxins because of their feeding habits. Toxic chemicals in fish may accumulate to several thousand times the levels present in the surrounding water. Farm-raised fish aren’t the answer because these fish often become ill from their overcrowded conditions and are given antibiotics, which are passed along to those who eat them. They also may be given toxic feed; farm-raised fish can contain as much as or more toxins than wild fish. The FDA warns pregnant women against eating too much fish due to risks of birth defects from mercury.
In case this isn’t enough, there is also the possibility that diseases that exist in the animal kingdom such as mad cow-disease and bird flu, pass to humans via consumption.
Eating free range, grass fed animals would reduce the exposure to some of the risks identified above, but there are no studies that test the differences between this kind of meat and the factory farm meat that is eaten by most people.
For more information on possible risks associated with consuming meat and animal products:
- The Healthiest Diet of All – http://www.vivausa.org/guides/healthiestdietofall1.htm
- Vegetarian FAQ (North American Vegetarian Society) – http://www.navs-online.org/faq/index.php
- The Health Risks of Meat by Neal D. Barnard, M.D., – http://www.healthandgoodness.com/article/health-risks-of-meat.html
- Fats and Cholesterol – The Harvard School of Public Health http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-and-cholesterol/
- Cancer and the Vegetarian Diet – Vegsource article http://www.vegsource.com/harris/cancer_vegdiet.htm
- Protein Overload The McDougall Newsletter -http://www.nealhendrickson.com/mcdougall/040100puproteinoverload.htm
- The A to Z of Hidden Nasties in Animal Products – the Vegetarian and Vegan Foundation http://www.vegetarian.org.uk/factsheets/hiddennastiesf_sheet.pdf
- Does low meat consumption increase life expectancy in humans?- http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/abstract/78/3/526S
- Ten Reasons to Avoid Dairy – National Health Association http://www.healthscience.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=194:no-body-needs-milk&catid=37:dos-a-donts&Itemid=81
- Dr Novick on Saturated Fats vs. vegetarian diet (video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfBKauKVi4M&feature=channel
- China Study author and Cornell University professor T. Colin Campbell Phd, presents the overwhelming evidence showing that animal protein is one of the most potent carcinogens people are exposed to (video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfsT-qYeqGM&feature=channel
- John McDougall MD discusses the perils of dairy products (video) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJvrlwnEqbs&feature=channel
- A Prospective Study of Red and Processed Meat Intake in Relation to Cancer Risk http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040325
- Meat raises lung cancer risk, too, study finds http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN1043849120071211
Which public health organizations and experts endorse a vegan diet?
The following organizations support a vegan diet:
- The American Dietetic Association
- “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.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19562864
- The Canadian Dietetic Association
- It is the position of the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12778049
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine
- the National Health Association (formerly American Natural Hygiene Society) “Households should select predominantly plant-based diets rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits, pulses or legumes, and minimally processed starchy staple foods.” http://www.healthscience.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=555:what-should-we-eat&catid=102:jeff-novicks-blog&Itemid=267
- The British Medical Association (BMA)
- “A well-planned, balanced vegetarian or vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate” http://www.nutrition.org.uk/publications/briefingpapers/vegetarian-nutrition
- University of Oxford
- “Overall, the data suggest that the health of Western vegetarians is good and similar to that of comparable non-vegetarians.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16441942
- The World Health Organization
- “Populations should consume nutritionally adequate and varied diets, based primarily on foods of plant origin with small amounts of added flesh foods. Households should select predominantly plant-based diets rich in a variety of vegetables and fruits, pulses or legumes, and minimally processed starchy staple foods. The evidence that such diets will prevent or delay a significant proportion of non-communicable chronic diseases is consistent. A predominantly plant-based diet has a low energy density, which may protect against obesity.” http://www.fao.org/docrep/004/Y2809E/y2809e08.htm#bm08 (via http://www.healthscience.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=555:what-should-we-eat&catid=102:jeff-novicks-blog&Itemid=267)
- Department of Nutrition and Wellness, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, USA.
- 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. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19279075
What proof exists that vegan is a healthy diet choice?
There is no such thing as an absolute in science. Any perspective can be supported by data. This is certainly the case with vegan diets as shown in the following research references:
- Health Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets. – Cancer Research UK Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, Richard Doll Building – “Cross-sectional studies of vegetarians and vegans have shown that on average they have a relatively low BMI (body mass index) and a low plasma cholesterol concentration; recent studies have also shown higher plasma homocysteine concentrations than in non-vegetarians. Cohort studies of vegetarians have shown a moderate reduction in mortality from IHD (ischemic heart disease)” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16441942
- Health effects of vegan diets. – Department of Nutrition and Wellness, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, USA. “Recently, vegetarian diets have experienced an increase in popularity. 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. However, eliminating all animal products from the diet increases the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies. Micronutrients of special concern for the vegan include vitamins B-12 and D, calcium, and long-chain n-3 (omega-3) fatty acids. Unless vegans regularly consume foods that are fortified with these nutrients, appropriate supplements should be consumed. In some cases, iron and zinc status of vegans may also be of concern because of the limited bioavailability of these minerals. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19279075
More information on the evidence that a vegan diet is a superior diet
- The Healthiest Diet of All – http://www.vivausa.org/guides/healthiestdietofall1.htm
- GoVeg – http://www.goveg.com/theissues.asp (cites many articles)
- Is Vegetarian Healthier (VegSource article) http://www.vegsource.com/articles/veg_definition.htm
- Vegan Health Study (ongoing) http://www.vegsource.com/klaper/vegan_study.htm http://www.vegsource.com/klaper/
- Clinical Research covering Vegan Diets – Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine – http://www.pcrm.org/health/clinres/index.html
I have heard there are risks with a vegan diet and that it is not healthy?
One cynical commenter joked that vegetarians don’t live longer they just looked older, however there is limited evidence that a vegetarian diet compromises health as long as the diet is carefully planned.
There were no significant differences between vegetarians and nonvegetarians in mortality from cerebrovascular disease, stomach cancer, colorectal cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, or all other causes combined. – The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition – Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/70/3/516S
People opposed to a vegan diet commonly cite several problems with a vegan diet, including critical iron, protein, B-12, zinc and iodine deficiencies. These are addressed below in an excerpt from vivausa.org
Iron Deficiency Anemia
The myth that you can only get iron from meat has been so prevalent that the public unquestionably believes that you need to it to obtain iron. So successful have they been that it has almost entered the public’s consciousness that to avoid iron deficiency you must eat meat. It’s simply not true. Vegetarian diets which include vegetables, legumes, fruits and grains provide all the iron necessary (89, 90, 91, 92,
Iron deficiency is, however, the biggest nutritional problem facing the world and the WHO estimates that 750 million people have it – most of them women and most of child-bearing age. The cause is therefore fairly obvious – blood loss and not just diet (95). The proportion of Western women who experience it is around 20% – and it occurs with the same frequency in meat eaters and vegetarians!
All the main health bodies – ADA, BMA, WHO, PCRM – agree that vegetarians are no more likely to suffer deficiency than meat eaters. However, that doesn’t alter the fact that it is a problem for many women, and all should ensure they have good sources of iron in their diet, particularly during and shortly after their periods.
A criticism sometimes leveled at vegetarian diets is that plant-based iron (non-heme) is poorly absorbed by the body. It may be more slowly absorbed, but studies show that vegetarians have high intakes of iron and their hemoglobin levels are normal (96). Plant foods rich in vitamin C help absorption and vegetarians tend to eat more of these vital fresh fruit and vegetables. Iron intakes are particularly high in vegetarians and vegans whose staple food is wholemeal bread (97), so this is another reason for sticking to whole products rather than eating processed, mass-produced foods.
So misguided have been the concerns over iron deficiency that they have diverted public attention away from the problems of iron overload, more common and possibly more dangerous (98). If you have too much iron in your diet, the body has no way of getting rid of it. The only control over it is how slowly or quickly it is absorbed from the intestines into the blood (99, 100). Heme iron (from meat) is absorbed quickly and easily, whether the body needs it or not. This encourages iron overload. Non-heme iron (from plants) is absorbed more slowly (101) and as a result, vegetarians’ stores of iron tend to be lower than meat eaters. Meat-based (heme) iron has been linked with heart disease (102, 103) and high iron stores have been linked with cancer (104, 105, 106) and poor responses to infection (107, 108).
This is not a problem for vegetarians. If you eat a variety of foods and enough calories you will automatically obtain enough protein.
You occasionally still see references saying that meat is a complete protein and that plant protein is incomplete. What it means is that meat contains all the necessary amino acids that make up protein, while a vegetarian diet obtains its amino acids from a variety of plant sources. Vegetarians obtain more than enough of all the amino acids and all the world’s health bodies agree on this – it is not necessary to eat specific combinations of foods at the same meal (109).
The real problem is not too little protein but too much, particularly for meat eaters. Animal protein is associated with many of the degenerative diseases while vegetable protein isn’t. Meat protein is also believed to play an important part in causing osteoporosis and kidney disease, according to the WHO.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
This is a very important vitamin – made by bacteria – essential for the development of blood cells and for nerve function. A lack of it can lead to collapse of the nervous system and eventually death. However, the liver can store it for years and only minute traces are needed – two micrograms per day. Vegans should be sure to get a daily supply from fortified foods such as soy milk, mock soy meats (TVP), and breakfast cereals.
B12 – producing bacteria live mainly in the colon, past the point where it can be absorbed (110). However, some may possibly be absorbed and this may be why the incidences of B12 deficiency among vegans who do not supplement with B12 is somewhat rare (111).
Vegetarian diets provide enough zinc even though plants tend to contain less than meat (112). Partly it’s because people on plant-based diets lose less zinc in their urine. (113, 114). Slightly lower levels of zinc in the blood have been identified in vegetarians and vegans and may be due to lower absorption, caused by their higher intake of fiber (115) – but it is unlikely that this has any medical significance. Studies have consistently failed to show that they are any less healthy because of it. According to the ADA, zinc levels in hair, blood and saliva of vegetarians and vegans are all within the normal range. There is strong evidence that people with low zinc intake simply adapt to the situation (116). Zinc can be obtained from rice, corn, oats, peas, potatoes, spinach.
When researchers talk about ‘normal’ levels, it’s important to remember that this is an average range in a meat-eating society. In fact it may well be the vegans who have a normal level and meat eaters whose levels are too high.
Ensuring a vegan consumes all the necessary nutrients is critical and can be accomplished through a structured diet and supplementing.
More information on the common myths associated with a vegan diet and how to ensure a balanced diet:
- Mortality in vegetarians and nonvegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/70/3/516S
- Protein in the Vegan Diet http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/protein.htm
- · Protein Overload – http://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2007nl/apr/dairy.htm
- The Never Ending Protein Myth – http://www.healthscience.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=395:the-never-ending-protein-myth&catid=102:jeff-novicks-blog&Itemid=267
- Protein Availability – http://www.healthscience.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=545:protein-availability&catid=102:jeff-novicks-blog&Itemid=267
- Protein and Vitamin B 12 for Vegans – http://www.plantbased.org/html/b12.html
- The B12 Information Sheet – http://www.vegsoc.org/info/b12.html
- Vegans and the Vitamin B12 Deficiency Myth – http://www.pamrotella.com/health/b12.html
- Frequently Asked Questions – Vegans and Vitamin B12 – http://www.ivu.org/faq/vitaminb12.html
- Peculiar symptoms of even borderline vitamin b12 deficiency – http://www.essortment.com/all/vitaminbdefi_rndj.htm
- Vegan Nutrition Tips – http://www.healthscience.org/
- Vitamin B12 – http://www.healthscience.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=151:vegetarians-vitamin-b12-and-homocysteine&catid=46:vegetarianism&Itemid=101
- Seaweed and B12 – http://www.healthscience.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=508:seaweed-and-b12&catid=102:jeff-novicks-blog&Itemid=267
- Vitamin B-12 Advisory – http://www.healthscience.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=283:vitamin-b-12&catid=27:vitamins-a-minerals&Itemid=80
How should I structure my eating to make sure my vegan diet provides all the nutrients I require?
There are many useful guides:
- Vegan Health – http://www.veganhealth.org/
- Top 10 Vegan Health Tips (Choose Veg) http://www.chooseveg.com/vegan-health-tips.asp
- Vegan Nutrition a Beginner’s Guide (Viva.org ) http://www.viva.org.uk/goingvegan/vegannutrition.html
- The Vegan Society – Nutrition Guide http://www.vegansociety.com/lifestyle/nutrition/
- Vegan Diet Guide http://www.annecollins.com/vegan-diet.htm
- Optimal Vegan Nutrition – http://www.goveg.com/optimal_vegan_nutrition.asp
- John McDougall MD and Joel Fuhrman MD, debate starches versus veggies? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mdxVfi632Xw&feature=channel
- Essential Fatty Acids for Vegetarians http://www.vegetarian-dha-epa.co.uk/
People say that it is unhealthy to avoid meat.
The majority of the population in the developed world enjoys eating meat, so there are plenty of opponents to the vegetarian movement. Some will argue that man is genetically evolved to eat animals and it is simply common sense, while others have complex scientific arguments. Other studies ie. The Blue Zones (www.bluezones.com) show that cultures that avoid meat live longer. It is useful to understand the potential pros and cons of eating meat and draw your own conclusions.
Another good article is The Naïve Vegetarian: http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/vegetarian.html
What does this tell us? You have to decide for yourself?
People say that our ancestors evolved to eat meat and were free of the diseases of civilization so this proves we should be eating meat. Is this true?
There is general consensus that from the paleo era, at least, and onwards humans ate a diet consisting of foods from animal sources (including insects). What do we really know about what our ancestors ate? From the International Vegetarian Union:
Dentition gives us at best only a very rough idea and anthropology provides only possible parallels. Food remains found in the course of archaeological ‘digs’ are a help but tend to be biased to animal products because, in most conditions, bone is far better preserved than highly biodegradable vegetable matter, if we excavated a Kalahari bush camp, abandoned for the sake of argument for 50 years (a tiny span of time in archaeological terms), we would find bones from the occasionally eaten gazelle but would miss almost entirely the staple gongo nuts or the 50 other plants exploited from the desert as food. http://www.ivu.org/history/early/archaeology.html
There is no real debate that we were herbivores. If we were, it was a very long time ago.
“The scientific evidence all indicates that we are omnivores, i.e., we can survive on a wide variety of plant and animal foods.” http://www.ivu.org/history/early/ancestors.html
Another factor to consider when basing our diet on that of our ancestors is the life expectancy they experienced. Somewhere in the range of 35-40 years of age. Even if these are underestimates, our ancestors died long before they could have contracted the diseases of civilization, so how can we know. It is all theory.
And in the end it is academic. We should be studying what works for people to be healthy and strong today and make our choices based on that evidence rather than what man may or may not have eaten millions of years ago which may or may not have made him healthy.
Here in 2010 we have access to unprecedented varieties of food and can select the sources that provide the best nutrients and health benefits.
More information on ancestors here:
- Longevity & health in ancient Paleolithic vs. Neolithic peoples – http://www.beyondveg.com/nicholson-w/angel-1984/angel-1984-1a.shtml
- Life Expectancy in the Paleolithic http://paleodiet.com/life-expectancy.htm
- What Did Our Ancestors Eat – http://www.ivu.org/history/early/ancestors.html
- Humans Are Omnivores – http://www.vrg.org/nutshell/omni.htm
- Humans Are Naturally Plan Eaters http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/natural.html
- American Dietetic Association – Most people throughout world history have eaten a largely vegetarian diet. http://www.eatright.org/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=10279
- Paleofantasies of the perfect diet – Marlene Zuk in NYTimes – http://neuroanthropology.net/2009/01/21/paleofantasies-of-the-perfect-diet-marlene-zuk-in-nytimes/
- GOOD Asks the Experts: Is The “Paleolithic Diet” Really Better? – www.good.is/post/chart-the-paleolithic-diet-vs-the-modern-american-diet/
- Tongue in cheek video explaining the various reasons why humans may be able to eat meat, but have never been engineered to be carnivores http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=05zhL1YUd8Q
Beyond health, why would someone consider a vegan or vegetarian diet?
The site also lists the following additional reasons to become a vegetarian (see http://www.goveg.com/theissues.asp):
Cruelty to Animals – More than 27 billion animals are killed for food every year in the U.S. alone. Animals in factory farms have no legal protection from cruelty that would be illegal if it were inflicted on dogs or cats, including neglect, mutilations, genetic manipulation, drug regimens that cause chronic pain and crippling, transport through all weather extremes, and gruesome and violent slaughter. Farmed animals are no less intelligent or capable of feeling pain than are the dogs and cats we cherish as our companions. They are inquisitive, interesting individuals who value their lives, solve problems, experience fear and pain, and are capable of using tools. According to animal-behavior scientists, chickens begin learning from their mothers while they are still in their shells, pigs can play video games better than some primates can, and fish form social bonds and can remember things that they have learned for the human equivalent of 40 years.
The Environment – America’s meat addiction is poisoning and depleting our potable water, arable land, and clean air. More than half the water used in the United States goes to animal agriculture, and since farmed animals produce 130 times more excrement than the human population does, the run-off from their waste greatly pollutes our waterways.
World Hunger – Raising animals for food is extremely inefficient—for every pound of food that they eat, only a fraction of the calories are returned in the form of edible flesh. If we stopped intensively breeding farmed animals and grew crops to feed humans instead, we would easily be able to feed every human on the planet with healthy and affordable vegetarian foods.
Worker Rights - Human Rights Watch has declared that slaughterhouse workers have “the most dangerous factory job in America.” The industry has refused to do what’s necessary to create safe working conditions for its employees, such as slowing down slaughter lines and supplying workers with appropriate safety gear, because these changes could cut into companies’ bottom lines.
Factory Farms: Poisoning Communities – Factory farms pollute the air and water for many miles in every direction, often spreading contamination and illness to the people who live and work nearby. Chronic sickness, brain damage, poisoned waterways, elevated cancer rates, and even death plague these communities, while the government does nothing to protect citizens or regulate the industry.
Government Negligence - Between 2000 and 2005, agribusinesses funneled more than $140 million to politicians, who more than earned their money by helping to ensure that laws that might protect consumers, animals, and the environment did not pass. The unfortunate truth is that the federal government does very little to protect human health, animal welfare, and our environment from the factory-farming industry’s negligence and excess.
More information on the benefits of vegetarianism:
- Why You Should Consider Adopting a Vegetarian Diet GoVeg.com http://www.goveg.com/theissues.asp
- Vegan Means – http://www.veganmeans.com/why_veganism/index.html
- Earthlings – http://www.earthlings.com
- Food Inc. http://www.foodincmovie.com/ and the American Meat Institute’s response http://www.safefoodinc.org/
- The Meatrix http://www.themeatrix.com/