Ok, let us start by saying that navigating the world of dietary advice can be so overwhelming! It often seems as if it’s easier for people to agree on cosmological theories than to come to a consensus on what type of nutrition and dietary approach is optimal for our health. The number of published and often contradicting advice offered by newspapers, blogs, documentaries, scientific journals, or books on the subject is beyond challenging to navigate and makes it hard for most people to distinguish the true from the false, the fad from the established, the biased from the objective.
The relationship between body, health, and nutrition is a complex one! It is often oversimplified by the mainstream voices to make it easier for us (average Joe and ordinary Jane) to understand. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel! Over the past decades, a growing consensus has emerged that there is a positive correlation between a plant-based diet and optimal health.
So what exactly is a vegan diet and what’s the difference to a vegetarian one? A vegan diet is one that relies solely on plant-based products, eliminating any type of animal product or byproduct. Unlike a vegetarian diet, a vegan doesn’t consume eggs or dairy products.
Animal Products Heavy Diet & You’re Health
It is a known fact that animal products are filled with bacteria, antibiotics, hormones, dioxins, and other toxins (“bioaccumulation”) that can cause a severe impact on our health. Each time we consume a meal which contains animal products, we are also likely to intake carcinogens, animal product specific bacteria, and other contaminants that over time accumulate in our body.
What are the main problems?
1) Evil Toxins!
Most if not all of the foods we consume will contain certain amounts of toxins. Toxins are those substances which typically act as antigens when introduced into our bodies, usually inducing the formation of antibodies. They can occur naturally as a component of a given organism, they can be produced as biochemical byproducts, or they can be human-made (think of pesticides).
In 2015, research by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans. Also, further studies have analyzed the different ways that meat might cause cancer. Among such causes are compounds called nitrates and nitrites in processed meats, which are used during processing and act as toxins in the colon when digesting these products. Also, other research indicates that cooking methods impact how carcinogenic meat products can be. It appears that, in general, higher temperatures and longer cooking times lead to higher levels of toxins in the meat which the enzymes in our bodies then change into compounds that can damage DNA.
2) Saturated Fats and Cholesterol!
While saturated fats can appear naturally in many foods, a significant source of those fats are animal products such as fatty beef, lamb, pork, poultry with skin, butter, cheese, and other dairy products. Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature (for example, butter, the fat in meat, but also coconut oil). Unsaturated fats are usually liquid (for example, olive oil).
An over-consumption of saturated fats has adverse health effects, and trans fats are to be avoided completely where possible. A link between saturated fats, cholesterol and heart disease seems to be well established. The problem with consuming high amounts of saturated fats is that it usually also increases the level of cholesterol including LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) in the body due to the way our liver works. Besides, some foods such as meat, dairy, or eggs already contain cholesterol naturally. While our body requires a certain amount of cholesterol, an excessive amount of LDL cholesterol can create blockages in arteries in the heart and elsewhere in the body. The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a diet that comprises of 5% to 6% of calories from saturated fat.
Avoiding animal products altogether is an excellent start to manage the intake of saturated fats and the level of cholesterol in our bodies. It should be noted, however, that many baked goods, fried foods as well as some plant-based oils, such as palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil can contain high levels of saturated fats.
Are meat and animal products highly inflammatory? Well, not exactly. Our bodies become more acidic when we eat these products, and this acidity creates a perfect environment for inflammation. And as we know, inflammation in our bodies means a high likelihood of disease.
Avoiding acid-forming foods like meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs and replacing those with alkaline foods such as fruits, nuts, legumes, and vegetables improves health and wellbeing.
Is there such a thing as Lactose Intolerant?
Let’s begin by stating that cow milk (or any other milk other than human) is not created for human consumption. It is genetically designed for baby calves and their optimal development. Just like breastmilk is perfectly designed for a baby’s optimal growth, cow milk was created with a cow’s digestive system in mind.
We have been taught that cow milk is healthy and crucial for our body to thrive, so it is understandable that this notion is a hard one to shake off. But there’s a reason why almost three-quarters of the population is, what is believed to be, lactose intolerant. The fact is that our bodies cannot cope with digesting food that was not designed for our consumption. We simply lack the enzymes to process it and turn into real nourishment.
So, if you eliminate dairy from your diet, what about calcium? Well, we can find plant foods that are considerably higher in calcium than milk. Sesame seeds or bell pepper for example!
Veganism vs Whole-foods Plant-Based Diet
As with many other things in life, there are “good” and “bad” versions of a vegan diet. One can follow a vegan lifestyle and yet be as unhealthy as with other diets. It is absolutely possible to be a vegan and live entirely of processed vegan food or vegan junk food which is likely to contain saturated fats, refined carbohydrates, and other baddies. As a rule of thumb, if one’s aim is to maximize the health benefits of a vegan diet, one should try to maximize the amount of unprocessed, unrefined whole foods and minimize the intake of saturated fats and, definitely, trans fats.
So what are the benefits of adopting a “good” vegan diet?
* Nutritional value: “Good” Vegan diets tend to contain tons of fiber, antioxidants, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C and E. They are packed with essential nutrients. At the same time, it is entirely possible to consume sufficient amounts of proteins in plant-based forms.
* Disease prevention: As already mentioned above, avoiding animal products may greatly benefit our health and also help prevent diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, or type 2 diabetes. Plant-based diets also tend to reduce inflammation in our bodies and are considered by some to increase bone health.
* Fewer ailments: Some vegans report that the change to a vegan diet has significantly helped in reducing migraines and other ailments such as mental fog and fatigue.
* Weight loss: A “good” vegan diet with minimal intake of processed or refined foods can help achieve weight loss, finding one’s natural weight. It needs to be stressed, however, that the range of processed or junky vegan foods available nowadays can quickly neutralize such benefit if overdone. The goal is to aim for whole plant-based foods such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and legumes.
* Athletic Performance: The key here is digestion! For our bodies to be able to perform physical activity at a high level, it needs to have optimal digestion. The consumption of animal products, which takes hours and vast amounts of energy to digest, slows our bodies down and affects our overall athletic performance.
* Longevity: Eating a whole food plant-based diet long term will increase our lifespan! The absence of saturated fats and the amount of nutrients given by all the highly nutritious plant foods will ensure we are living long and healthy years. All this combined with good habits and lifestyle, like managing stress!
- Environment: We know now that eating a plant-based diet is the best thing we can do to help the environment. The most significant amount of food grown on the planet right now (70% of the grain) is meant to feed livestock and not humans. Growing this food takes enormous amounts of resources which could be reduced significantly by eliminating animal products from our diets. Also, when we grow more plants, we are helping clean the air we breathe. When we breed animals for our consumption at the scale that we do, we contribute to greenhouse emissions.
So, are you inspired to take the leap? Adopting a healthy vegan lifestyle is a win win situation! You’ll feel better, look better, feel better about helping alleviating animal suffering and the preservation of our beloved planet.