The Healthiest Diet of All
Vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters and live years longer than the general population. No argument, no dispute – these are the simple facts – although you’d be excused for having doubts if you rely on the daily press for your health info.
The better health statistics for vegetarians and vegans aren’t peripheral – a percentage point advantage here or there – but are quite profound. The usual argument put forward to explain these dramatic improvements in health – often by doctors with no nutritional training or by those with a vested interest in the meat industry – is that veggies are puritanical, non-drinking, non-smoking, self-denying, hair-shirt-wearing bores so no wonder they live longer. And who wants to be like that?!
Of course, all good scientific research makes allowances for the differences in people’s life-styles and only compares like with like. And it is this solid, reputable science that will be quoted throughout this guide, much of it obtained from the world’s most authoritative and prestigious health advisory bodies.
Why is diet so important? Well, if you live an average life span of about 72 years, you will scoff your way through an astonishing 30 tonnes of food. It’s the fuel that keeps you going and it’s the nutrients in food that make you what you are. Your heart beats on them, your muscles, kidneys and liver depend upon them. Food keeps you warm, repairs the bits of damage that inevitably occur and it even helps you think. Pretty important stuff is food – but not just any old food.
If you were to eat the same diet as a cat – lots of meat and dairy products and no fresh fruit and veg – you would die and probably quite quickly. Similarly, a cat would be unable to survive on the average vegetarian diet. The reason for the difference is that after millions of years of evolution, all animals have adapted to particular diets and environments. Meat contains no vitamin C so cats have the ability to synthesise it internally. We, on the other hand, are higher apes and have evolved to eat fresh fruit and vegetables, shoots, seeds, nuts and leaves – a diet rich in vitamin C – on a daily basis. Throughout our evolution there was an abundant supply of vitamin C in virtually everything we ate so our bodies have never had to manufacture it.
Those humans who lived in societies that relied heavily on animal products have paid a high price for it. The Inuit (sometimes referred to as Eskimos) traditionally relied largely on meat and fish, obtaining their vitamin C from mosses in the stomachs of dead animals. They rarely lived beyond their early 30s. One major cause of death was bleeding of the brain – cerebral haemorrhage. One possible cause of this is the thinning of the blood – a well known property of fish oils (137).
“But chimps eat meat,” is the usual cry. Chimps’ eating habits have been closely studied over many years and the amount of meat they eat is minuscule – about the size of half-a-pea a day, mostly made up of insects. So little do they eat that their hands and nails, teeth and digestive tract are those of a strictly vegetarian – vegan – animal.
The genetic difference between a chimp and a human is only just over one per cent (138). They are our closest living relative; so close that we share the same haemoglobin (found in our red blood cells). Our digestive tract, hands and teeth are also very similar. Some people claim our teeth are those of a carnivore, which is obvious nonsense and a quick look inside the mouth of a cat or dog will show you why. Our teeth, with their predominantly flat surfaces, are designed to grind and crush tough vegetable matter and are incapable of eating meat unless it’s cooked first. And we haven’t got the canines of a killer – we’d all look like Dracula if we had! Human teeth are not designed for holding or killing prey and they certainly couldn’t bite through the hide of a cow, sheep or pig!
Why does all this matter? Because sensible eating is about distinguishing between healthy and potentially unhealthy foods – for us! Take cats, for instance. No matter how much meat they eat, no matter how fatty it is, their arteries don’t clog up. Ours, on the other hand, do and the damage can start as young as two or three years old. The result is high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes later in life. One in five men and one in six women die from coronary heart disease in the UK – the single most common cause of death. The risks factors for heart disease are almost all diet related – caused by animal products. And some people still claim we’re meant to eat meat!
Professor T. Colin Campbell, of Cornell University, organised a massive piece of dietary research called the China Health Study (see later) – one of the most important ever undertaken. When its findings were published he said: “We’re basically a vegetarian species and should be eating a wide variety of plant foods and minimising our intake of animal foods. Animal foods are not helpful and we need to get away from eating them.” (1)