Let’s face it, we all know we could eat healthier but we also want to be able to treat ourselves every now and then. A vegan diet gives you the maximum damage limitation – you can still have cakes, chocolate and creamy sauces but they’re all much better for you than their animal-based counterparts.
A healthy vegan diet is based on fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, pulses (lentils, beans, soya, chickpeas), nuts and seeds (with the obligate addition of vitamin B12 supplement). There are endless combinations, exciting ingredients and flavours as well as your old favourites, and a world of food that will make you feel good and you won’t have to count every spoonful to watch your weight. National and international health institutions such as British and American Dietetic Associations and World Health Organisation agree that a vegan diet is not only healthy but can help prevent and treat a number of diseases.
Vegans fare better than meat-eaters in terms of nutrient intake. In one of the most recent studies, vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pescaterian and omnivore diets were studied and compared (Clarys et al., 2014). Vegans had the healthiest weight among all groups and received the highest score on the healthy eating scale. Among all dietary patterns, vegans are the only diet group that consistently maintains healthy weight due to lower fat intake (especially saturated fat) and high fibre consumption (Craig, 2009; Rizzo et al., 2013). Vegan diets are not based simply on exclusion of animal products but lead to a higher quality diet.
As a result, vegans have a considerably higher intake of foods and nutrients protective against cancer. Compared to omnivores living in the same communities, they have lower cancer rates and longer life expectancy (Fraser, 2009; Huang et al., 2012). A recent study by Oxford University, looking at how diet affects cancer risk, revealed that vegans have a much lower risk of getting the disease (Key et al., 2014). The 15-year-long study followed 60,000 British men and women and found that overall cancer incidence (compared to meat-eaters) was 11 per cent lower in vegetarians and 19 per cent lower in vegans.
An exhaustive review of literature published between 1950 and 2013 on chronic diet-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney and liver disorders and cancer confirmed that plant-based diets are very health-protective (Fardet and Boirie, 2014). Compared to omnivore and even vegetarian diets, vegan diets offer greater health benefits regarding all the above conditions (Le and Sabaté, 2014).
The most common of diet-related chronic diseases – heart disease – can be not only prevented but also treated with a low-fat vegan diet. Vegans have the lowest levels of cholesterol and are by far at the lowest risk of high blood pressure compared to vegetarians and meat-eaters (Appleby et al., 2002; Bradbury et al., 2014; Pettersen et al., 2012). People with heart disease can achieve complete reversal of the condition through diet change. Of the many studies and experts advocating dietary treatment for heart disease, Dr Esslestyn is probably the best known. In one of his latest trials, he put patients on a diet based on wholegrains, pulses, vegetables and fruit with the addition of vitamin B12 and flax seed - for omega-3 fats (Esselstyn et al., 2014). The vast majority of patients who adhered to the diet experienced significant improvements or complete resolution of chest pains (angina) and artery blockages. Meanwhile, more than a half of the non-adherent participants experienced adverse events requiring surgeries or resulting in death.
Type 2 diabetes is another chronic disease responding well to a vegan diet. Many trials have shown that a low-fat vegan diet can significantly reduce the need for medication or completely restore normal health (Barnard et al., 2006; Barnard et al., 2009a; Kahleova et al., 2011). One study specifically focused on sugar metabolism and found that vegans have higher insulin sensitivity and their glucose metabolism is overall more efficient and sensitive than in meat-eaters (Gojda et al., 2013). The usefulness of vegan diets in type 2 diabetes treatment was endorsed even by the American Diabetes Association in their Clinical Practice Guidelines (American Diabetes Association, 2010).
Following a switch to a low-fat vegan diet high in fresh fruit and vegetables, many rheumatoid arthritis sufferers experience relief from joint pain, swelling and stiffness (McDougall, 2002; Müller et al., 2001). And not only that but a plant-based diet can also help prevent the condition from developing (Lahiri et al., 2012).
For people with asthma, a diet based on plant foods and rich in fruit and vegetables can reduce the frequency and severity of attacks (Iikura et al., 2013; Seyedrezazadeh et al., 2014). On the other hand, diets higher in fat, and saturated fat from meat and dairy products in particular, have been directly linked to asthma (Rodríguez- Rodríguez et al., 2014; Seyedrezazadeh et al., 2014).
One of the most obvious effects of diet on the digestive system is the composition of gut bacteria (gut microbiome). There are many different species of bacteria that can live in the intestines and diet strongly influences what species thrive and which are suppressed. Scientific research paints a clear picture - vegan gut microbiome has the highest proportions of health beneficial and protective bacteria. This results in reduced levels of inflammation and may be the key feature linking the vegan diet to its multiple health benefits (Glick-Bauer and Yeh, 2014). Western diets encourage bacteria feasting on fats and bile that produce harmful substances and can cause chronic gut inflammation (Huang et al.,2013).
Contrary to popular belief, we don’t need dairy products to have strong and healthy bones. It is a known fact that countries with the highest dairy intakes also have the highest fracture rates. Animal protein (due to its amino acid composition) is likely to produce considerable amounts of acid in the body. If there's too much acid and calcium from the diet isn't enough to neutralise it, the body needs to draw on its calcium reserves in the muscles and bones. The calcium content in dairy products doesn’t outweigh the negative effects of animal protein.
The results of a study examining vegan health revealed that vegans have more than sufficient calcium intake and their diets are characterised by a virtually neutral acid-alkali balance which is very desirable (Ströhle et al., 2011). High intake of plant foods, and fruit and vegetables in particular, is very important for bone health maintenance due to bone-friendly alkaline salts found in these foods. A project based at Human Nutrition Research, Cambridge, UK is just one of many that found a significant association between fruit and vegetable consumption and good bone health (Ashwell et al., 2008).
Mental health and cognition are affected by countless factors but diet choices can often help achieve a difference or lower the risk. A plant-based diet that’s naturally high in antioxidants, fibre and low in saturated fats seems to be able to lower the risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases, including dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease (Barnard et al., 2014; Eskelinen et al., 2011; Gao et al., 2012).
Recently, a scientific team assessing plant-based diets reached the conclusion that they are cost-effective, low-risk interventions that can reduce body weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels and improve blood sugar control (Tuso et al., 2013). They researchers say that “They [plant-based diets] may also reduce the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases and lower ischemic heart disease mortality rates. Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.”
The human body is adapted to function best and thrive on plant foods. As the vegan movement grows, so does the abundance of foods suitable for vegans and the recognition of the lifestyle by many experts. Here’s to good health!
For more information, see Viva!Health's brand new report on veganism and health: The Incredible Vegan Health Report! You’ll find all the above and much more in it, all science-based and referenced. All you ever wanted to know about vegan diets and your health, this report is a great source of information for you, your family and healthcare professionals alike.
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