A half-century ago, vegetarian and vegan diets were viewed with concern by health professionals. In decades since, these have been the focus of vast amounts of research. Today, a dietary shift in the direction of plant foods is regarded as a very positive step by knowledgeable dietitians, MDs, nutritional scientists and by a growing number of the general public. Why the shift?
Reduced risk of chronic disease: Two areas of well-designed research centred on health-conscious individuals with different dietary patterns, all of whom were in good health at the beginning of the study and who were followed for many years, are shown below. In North America, the Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2) included 96,000 participants. In the UK, the EPIC-Oxford study included 65,000 participants. Compared with health-conscious non-vegetarians (some of whom had meat as little as once a week), below are the rates of disease of a) those who included dairy (lacto) and eggs (ovo) but no flesh foods, and b) vegans who consumed no animal products.
Healthful foods: Plant foods are concentrated sources of fibre, powerfully protective phytochemicals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds consistently linked with favourable health outcomes. Plants provide all the protein, minerals, essential fats and carbohydrates that fuel our brain. The plant world gives us every nutrient we need apart from B12, which always originates from bacteria in anyone’s diet.
When we leave out meat, we eliminate Neu5Gc (linked with cancer) pro-oxidants such as heme iron. We reduce our intake of saturated fat and avoid the carnitine that is transformed into trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), in both cases reducing our risk of cardiovascular disease.
Care about the environment: Until fairly recently, those who viewed themselves as environmentalists entirely ignored the even more potentially effective action of shifting their own dietary choice. However, since the UN’s Environment Programme’s (UNEP) international panel of sustainable resource management and the National Academy of Sciences recommended a global shift to a plant-based diet, many are taking notice and action.
Compassion for animals: Most people would not stand for a dog or a beautiful wild bird being abused. Yet pigs (smarter than dogs) and chickens (even “free-range”) lead lives that would outrage many. By becoming vegetarian, we stop supporting the use of animals as food.
Going plant-based is economical and even delicious: Whether you choose meat-free Mondays or are entirely plant-based all week, you can save some serious cash. Granted, there is a bit of an adjustment time and one needs to explore new sections of the supermarket, learn a few kitchen skills and seek out different restaurants. But because vegan food preparation is a peak interest for many chefs and very tasty plant-based protein sources have been developed, making a change is an inviting adventure. Check out www.happycow.net and search online for plant-based meetups in your area. Have fun with it!
Vesanto Melina is a Vancouver dietitian and co-author of the award-winning Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition and other books.