Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014

The Evidence for a Vegan Diet

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.

VeganDiet-Post.jpg

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.

Presented by

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.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Health

From This Author

Just In