The Evidence for a Vegan Diet

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There's plenty of science to justify a plant-based diet, but the stories of personal transformation—curing diabetes, losing 100 pounds, living an active lifestyle—make the biggest impression.

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Here is a comprehensive list of what I ate, in one form or another, on the day I wrote this:

Kale, mustard greens, carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, quinoa, amaranth, pinto beans, beets, parsnips, turnips, yellow peas, brown rice, kimchi, purple cabbage, butternut squash, blueberries, a banana, hemp seeds, flaxseed oil, snap peas, an apple, cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds, pistachio nuts, garlic, broccoli, raisins, granola, avocado, polenta, salsa, a few saltines, a piece of raisin toast with apricot jam, tofu, coffee, olive oil, harisa, chickpeas, tomatoes, a small handful of chocolate chips, a couple of beers ... and a vitamin.

For the vegans with whom I share breakfast every weekday morning at a Casa de Luz in Austin, Texas, it's a standard daily spread. Forty-three discrete plant foods, a couple of processed items, a little alcohol and caffeine, very few carbs, a B-12 pill. Nutrition is shifty business, but I'm guessing most experts would deem this to be a well-chosen array of grub. I might keel over tomorrow, but for now, at the end of the day, I feel as though I could climb Everest. The food was delicious, too.

I mention this list to offer a personal counter-narrative to the increasingly popular and decidedly dour "I'm a recovering vegan" storyline. Perhaps inspired by Lierre Kieth's The Vegetarian Myth, a book that chronicles the author's losing battle with a plant-based diet, bloggers have clogged foodie networks with angst-ridden accounts of fatigue, sickness, hair loss, anxiety, diminished sex drive, and mental breakdown after quitting animal products. The problem with these accounts, as far as I can tell, is that those who made the vegan leap (and I praise them for doing it) did so without doing due diligence on the details of intelligent veganism. Someone can live on potato chips, pot, and cherry soda and call himself a vegan. Many recidivists have evidently tried to do just that.

For those who want it to be, a plant-based diet is also a potent political comment on our broken food system.

Whether you are convinced by a book such as The China Study or not, there's no disputing the fact that a diet rich in plant-based, unprocessed food is a smart diet. My point here isn't to suggest that a diet including modest amounts of lean meat can't be healthy. It surely can be. Instead, I want to reiterate the equally healthful consequences of a healthy vegan diet. I can brook a million excuses for why a person simply cannot go vegan -- cheese! yogurt! cream in my coffee! -- but the assertion that veganism, when done right, isn't healthy is just plain bunk.

For me, the most persuasive evidence supporting a healthy vegan diet is anecdotal. The vegans who frequent Casa de Luz, my breakfast (and often lunch) destination, are paragons of good health. Many of them are significantly older than I am -- in their 50s, 60s, and 70s -- but they rock on with glowing intensity, looking much younger (in some cases by 20 years) than they are. Every now and then a local vegan hero will drop in -- John Mackey (founder of Whole Foods), Rip Esselstyn (pioneer of the Engine 2 diet), a noted musician who will remain unnamed -- and we'll gawk in admiration. The everyday reality, though, is that a dozen or so ordinary people with whom I eat have done extraordinary things as a direct result of intelligent veganism. They've conquered obesity, chronic disease, depression, and a host of food-related disorders by exclusively eating an exciting diversity of plants. If there's one lesson I've learned by eating with seasoned vegans it is this: the diet empowers.

Beyond anecdotes, of course, there's considerable scientific evidence showing that veganism is a smart way to eat. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that a well-planned vegan (and vegetarian) diet is "healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases." This is a much more cautious assessment, however, than many studies suggest.

According to one study, "vegetarian and vegan diets are effective in treating and preventing several chronic diseases." The adaptation of a low-fat vegan diet can substantially mitigate the impacts of type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and Parkinson's disease. Veganism reduces the risk of colon cancer. Vegans have a better "antioxidant status" than non-vegans. Veganism is more effective at combating obesity than other prescribed diets, such as that promoted by the National Cholesterol Education Program. Veganism has been shown to lower risk factors associated with cardiac disease. As Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health for the Humane Society of the United States, explains, "A plant-based diet is like a one-stop shop against chronic diseases."

I could continue in this scientific vein, but again, it's the stories of personal transformation that make the biggest impression. Writing in the current issue of VegNews, Jasmin Singer, director of Our Hen House, profiles a one-time morbidly obese diabetic who went vegan, lost over a hundred pounds, cured his diabetes, and now preaches the virtues on his website. Singer goes on to relate the experience of Dr. Greger's grandmother, who by her 60s had endured two bypass surgeries and was confined to a wheelchair because of debilitating chest pain. Doctors had effectively given her a death sentence. After adopting a strict plant-based diet, she lost the wheelchair, dramatically improved her health, and lived an active life well into her 90s. Especially poignant is Singer's own story. At 31, her doctor declared her well on the way to early heart disease -- an all too familiar situation for people in their 30s who have never before worried about high cholesterol or spiking triglycerides. Following Dr. Joel Furman's Eat to Live program, she lost 80 pounds and is now a supremely healthy vegan activist helping others avoid the road she once stumbled down.

The transformations initiated by a healthy vegan diet go well beyond physical health. For those who want it to be, a plant-based diet is also a potent political comment on our broken food system. What's so compelling about these personal stories -- besides the inspirational message -- is the fact that we're looking at a diet for which the ultimate beneficiary is the individual. Healthy veganism explicitly serves no corporate or industrial gods. In fact, it counters these interests. I'm routinely told by executives at big food companies (yes, I talk to these people) that they're not the least concerned with the growing interest in local, sustainable, and humanely-raised animal products. After all, they can always co-opt the alternatives if the alternatives begin to cut into market share. Their fear is that people will stop eating animals altogether. It is veganism that keeps them up at night. As long as people keep eating meat, they're happy. (The only time I've ever heard 50 big food executives fall into a stunned, collective silence is when I spoke extensively about the numerous benefits of veganism in a talk I gave to the National Corn Growers Association.)

If the prospect of simultaneously giving corporate food executives nightmares while achieving personal dietary empowerment -- not to mention lowering your carbon footprint and minimizing animal suffering -- has any appeal, then veganism is for you. But here's the thing: You have to do it right, and doing it right means consuming a broad diversity of nutrient-rich plants. A good start toward doing that is available in these books and on these websites: 21-Day Vegan Kickstart; Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet; Vegan for Life: Everything You Need to Know to Be Healthy and Fit on a Plant-Based Diet; VeganHealth.org.

Image: sarsmis/Shutterstock.

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James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

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