Is a vegan diet the healthiest diet? Before I write another word, let me clarify something: vegans and vegans ALONE consume a vegan diet. A vegan lives by the philosophy that killing animals and allowing them to suffer is unethical. I titled the article as I did because I know most people are going to search “veganism” or “vegan diet” when they really mean “plant-based diet.”
Vegans consume a plant-based diet. They also don’t wear clothes made out of fabric made from animal-based fibers, use products that have been tested on animals, or believe it’s okay to breed pets. Vegans object to the existence of zoos, aquariums, and circuses. Many object to the use of service animals, such as using dogs to guide the blind or horses as transportation.
If you don’t mind about any of those things, but eat a plant-based diet, then you eat a plant-based diet, not a vegan diet. Only vegans eat a vegan diet. That said, let’s address the question at hand: is a plant-based diet the healthiest diet?
There are two main camps of health-conscious people. One insists that you cannot be healthy without consuming at least some animal products every day. The other insists that including animal products in your diet, especially the non-swimming animals, will eventually take a toll on your health. Is it any wonder people are confused about what constitutes a truly healthy diet?
Let me bring some clarification to the table by giving you some direct quotes from the book Vegan For Life by Jack Norris and Virginia Messina. Quote number one: “One analysis of five large studies showed that the risk of dying from heart disease was 24% lower for vegetarians compared with meat-eaters.”
If you hang out with the Paleo or Weston A. Price crowd for any length of time, you’ll hear claims that eating foods high in cholesterol can actually help to bring your blood cholesterol down. Besides the fact that that doesn’t even make sense, the numbers tell a different story. The National Cholesterol Education Program has found that both the total cholesterol and the levels of LDL cholesterol are notably lower for vegans than even for pescatarians, or people who consume a plant-based diet that includes fish and seafood.
Omnivores, on the other hand, have the highest levels of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. And research bears out the fact that the lower your blood cholesterol level, the lower your rate of developing heart disease.
Study after study about high blood pressure has shown that vegans who eat healthy foods (as opposed to junk food vegans) have lower blood pressure and a greatly reduced risk of developing hypertension than meat-eaters. Research also reveals that people who refrain from consuming animal products have an overall lower body mass index than even semi-vegetarians, not to mention daily consumers of meat.
In addition, a recent study of Seventh Day Adventists shows that, and here I quote from the book again, “vegans were less than half as likely to have diabetes when compared with meat eaters.”
Vegans are less likely than meat-eaters to develop gallstones, renal stones, or intestinal problems. And vegetarians – not necessarily vegans – are less likely to develop dementia as they age.
What about cancer? For decades, vegans have enjoyed blaming the disease on meat. But is there hard evidence of that fact? Nope. Another quote from Vegan For Life: “A few studies have found that vegetarians have lower cancer rates compared to omnivores, but most haven’t shown any difference between the two groups.”
But don’t start celebrating yet, you Paleo and traditional foods eaters. Red and processed meats have been linked to a higher risk for colon and stomach cancer. Some studies suggest that teenage girls who eat meat have a higher risk of developing breast cancer later in life.
Although definitive evidence that vegans are much less likely to develop cancer than non-vegans has yet to be found, cancer experts have come to the conclusion that eating more fruits and vegetables and reducing animal fat in your diet are major elements that protect against the disease. Health-conscious vegans already have the advantage here.
In general, then, it would seem that a plant-based diet – a healthy, nutrient-dense plant-based diet, that is – is, indeed, superior to a diet that includes any kind of animal products. But while I am convinced of the health benefits of replacing animal products with nutritious plant foods, and myself consume a vegan diet, I need to play devil’s advocate for a minute.
I think it’s safe to say that most vegans are health-conscious people, and so do not consume much processed food. It’s also safe to say that most people who eat meat and eggs and drink milk are not all that health-conscious. I say that based on my own observations. Paleo and Weston A. Price enthusiasts, who tend to avoid processed foods and aim to eat more nutrient-dense foods than average, do not constitute the majority of the meat-eating population.
So, that leaves a huge, important question: all those studies that show that vegans have healthier hearts and a lower risk for a variety of diseases, is it really because they don’t eat meat, or is it because most meat-eaters eat potato chips instead of apples and canned corn instead of leafy green vegetables? In other words, could it be that the difference is not whether or not meat is in the diet, but whether or not the rest of the diet is healthy and nutrient-dense? Now, that’s a game changer.
Except for that one guy who sent Paleo diet guru Robb Wolf an e-mail which Wolf read on his podcast. Basically, the e-mailer said, “I’m doing everything right, not eating grains or processed foods and eating several pounds of meat a day. But I just got my blood work done and my cholesterol levels are through the roof!”
Robb Wolf, I am sad to say and to the detriment of his deceived listener, blew the whole thing off. “Gee, maybe your cholesterol levels are naturally supposed to be 350.” Other meat advocates would laugh it off, saying, “It was just that one guy.”
No, it wasn’t. There is nothing new under the sun, and if a high meat, high-cholesterol, high-saturated fat diet deteriorates the health of one person, it is deteriorating the health of many. Not all, necessarily, but enough. Too many. And the scary thing is, many people who get enthusiastic about a particular kind of eating lifestyle will never bother to have their blood work done because the guru said it was healthy, so it must be true.
Still, what are we to do with the question of whether eating meat per se is the cause of heart disease and other conditions of ill health? Is a plant-based diet the healthiest diet, or not?
Ethics aside, my personal opinion is that if you otherwise eat a nutrient-dense diet and choose to eat a few eggs a week or three ounces of lean meat a day, your body can probably handle it. The key is getting all the nutrition your body needs, and to do that you have to make sure you leave room for an abundance of nutrient-dense foods.
The Paleo and Weston A. Price people can talk until they’re blue in the face, but the fact is that most meat-eaters, health conscious or not, are going to eat the not-nutrient-dense muscle meat most, if not all, of the time. They are going to avoid the nutritious organ meats like the plague.
As to determining the healthiest diet, it will be one which greatly lowers the risk of developing all manner of disease. For the moment, all we have to go on are imperfect studies (because no study is flawless), and the studies are on the side of not just a mostly plant-based, but a 100% plant-based diet.