5 Reasons to Go Vegan
Despite being a developed country with access to advanced medical technologies, the United States has the 46th highest life expectancy in the world. This means that it trails Chile, the Czech Republic, Singapore, South Korea, Greece, Italy, Taiwan, and Guam… just to name a few. The leading causes of death in the United States are largely preventable: heart disease and cancer are number one and two, respectively; strokes are number five; and diabetes takes the number seven spot. While type 1 diabetes is widely believed to be genetically linked, type 2 diabetes (the preventable type) affects about 90-95 percent of diabetes sufferers in the United States, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. If you’re one of the millions of individuals in the US or worldwide who suffers from heart disease, cancer, or type 2 diabetes, you know how hard it is to manage, and how frightening it can be to live with.
But what does any of this have to do with going vegan? Despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s yearly dietary guidelines, which are heavy on animal products, researchers are increasingly finding critical health benefits associated with a plant-based diet.
Type 2 Diabetes Prevention
While the jury is still out on whether or not eating vegan can improve active type 2 diabetes, evidence is clear that a plant-based diet can help prevent it. A 2018 randomized-control study by Dr. Hana Kahleova et al. concluded that a plant-based diet significantly improved beta-cell function and reduced insulin resistance in the group eating a plant-based diet. Of the members of this group, about one-third had been diagnosed pre-diabetic. This means that they demonstrated some insulin resistance; their blood glucose levels were higher than normal, but not yet high enough to indicate type 2 diabetes. Of this third, most were able to achieve remission while eating a low-fat plant-based diet.
What does all of this mean? There appears to be a clear and relatively easy way to prevent type 2 diabetes through diet alone.
An article in Everyday Health from 2019 quotes the Cleveland Clinic’s manager of wellness nutrition services, Dr. Kristin Kirkpatrick, stating, “Even starting small can help.” This means that even if you aren’t ready to commit to eliminating all animal products from your weekly menu, the more you are able to eliminate, and the more nutrients you’re able to obtain from natural, plant-based sources, the better.
It’s true – some types of cancer carry a strong genetic link. What’s not true is that if your family has a history of breast or colon cancer, you’re doomed to the same fate. While most of us were raised believing that processed meats like deli slices, sausage, or salami are not unhealthy, research has shown that these foods actually increase the risk of cancer. The World Health Organization has categorized red meat (on their website, red meat is defined as “all mammalian muscle meat, including, beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.”) as a group 1 carcinogen. While the primary cancer linked to consumption of red meat is colon cancer, there’s also evidence of links to prostate and pancreatic cancer. Processed meats (like salami or deli slices) also have a potential link to stomach cancer, according to WHO, but this hasn’t yet been proven. So, how much red meat is safe to eat? The WHO states that “…the data available for evaluation did not permit a conclusion about whether a safe level exists.” In other words, the WHO doesn’t know. This could be a case where, if you’re concerned about the carcinogenic effects of red meat, abstaining altogether is a good bet.
But chicken and turkey have to be safe, right? Unfortunately, a 2013 study in Cancer Causes & Control found that poultry consumption also increased the risk of breast cancer in the women studied. Ditto on those dairy products: the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine states that studies have linked dairy products with an increased risk of breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers.
While plant-based diets help you steer clear of food products that can increase your chances of cancer, these diets are also rich in fiber. This means they go the extra mile to help you prevent colon cancer and other unpleasant digestive conditions by keeping your gut healthy.
Heart Disease Prevention
Let’s face it – we all love cheese. It’s a guilty pleasure for some, and a dietary staple for others. Unfortunately, along with milk and other dairy products, it’s one of the leading sources of saturated fat in American diets. Saturated fat and cholesterol are those pesky molecules that can lead to clogged arteries, causing heart disease and increased risk of stroke. Meat products are also high in saturated fat, and a diet with a high amount of both can be a deadly combination. A 2019 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that eating a plant-based or vegan diet reduced the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 16 percent, and the risk of dying from the disease by 31 percent.
Those suffering from high blood pressure aren’t left out either. Multiple studies, including a meta-analysis of 39 previous studies, done in 2014 by JAMA Internal Medicine, found that people who eliminated meat from their diets had lower blood pressure on average than those who didn’t.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, increases the risk of stroke by putting added pressure on the vessels delivering blood to the brain. This added pressure can cause weakness in the vessel walls or blockages, both of which can lead to a stroke. Since strokes landed at number five on our leading cause-of-death list, their prevention is something to take seriously.
As mentioned in the earlier section, a multitude of studies have demonstrated that plant-based diets decrease the risk of hypertension. This in turn decreases the risk of stroke or other severe health events. Your risk for having a stroke also increases if you’re overweight or have diabetes or heart disease. As we’ve learned, a plant-based diet can lead to lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, eliminating some of the risk factors for a stroke. Vegan diets can also help individuals lose weight, by eliminating excess sources of fat in the diet.
Inflammation is natural. it’s a part of the body’s immune system working against pathogens and protecting areas of the body it perceives as injured. However, Harvard Medical School reported that “chronic inflammation plays a central role in some of the most challenging diseases of our time, including rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and even Alzheimer’s (disease).” Those who suffer from these or other inflammatory conditions such as ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, or Crohn’s disease can tell you how unpleasant living with them can be.
Luckily, there’s a way to reduce inflammation and improve the outcome or lower the risk of developing some of these conditions. You can probably guess: it’s a plant-based diet. Harvard’s health website shares a list of pro-inflammatory foods – these are foods that cause inflammation. On this list are refined carbohydrates, fried foods, red meat, margarine, shortening and lard. They also share a list of anti-inflammatory foods: green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, olive oil, nuts, and fruit all make the cut. The reason? Protective compounds found in plants, such as polyphenols and antioxidants help reduce inflammation (and chronic disease along with them).
Things to Consider
For many, adopting a fully vegan diet is a pretty drastic change. Whether cultural traditions get in the way, or you just can’t bear the thought of removing all your favorite foods from your menu, that’s okay. Many of the experts seem to agree: Any movement in the right direction is good. Harvard Health recommends the Mediterranean diet, which includes fish and minimal dairy, and other experts recommend similarly compromising diets. Fish isn’t mentioned here, simply because many debate the health of both farmed and wild-caught fish and seafood.
The bottom line: if you’re interested in protecting or improving your health, but this all feels drastic, take small steps to eliminating animal products from your diet.
•Change the way you plan meals, and talk to your doctor or a dietician about how you can get all the right nutrients with less animal products.
•Try some meat and cheese substitutes once in a while when you’d typically make the real thing. Stay away from the processed fake meat in the freezer aisle, and try products like organic tofu or tempeh, or look up recipes for homemade falafel or seitan.
•Add color, and push your plate to be over half produce at every meal.
•Try to avoid meat and dairy incrementally: first three days a week, and then four, and so on.
•If you decide to go all the way, lean on vegan communities for support!
•Don’t think your meals have to be uninspired: there are hundreds of thousands of incredible vegan recipes out there online, many of which consider different budgets and access levels. You don’t have to say goodbye to burgers for good!
While any step in the right direction is, well, a step in the right direction, the experts agree that the best diet to prevent these conditions is a fully plant-based diet.
This article is based on scientific studies and the recommendations of experts, but in no way is substitute for medical advice.