Reduce cholesterol, reverse type 2 diabetes and save the environment. is a plant based diet something you should seriously consider?
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If you are motivated to improve and optimise your personal health and diet choices and if you are growing increasingly worried about our effect on the planet then this article will help you make some informed choices.
Although I have previously written about my personal motivations for moving to a plant based diet I felt that I needed to set out as clearly and as incontrovertibly as possible the case for (and against) this growing movement.
The intent is not to incite a heated debate, rather it is to try and distil only those facts and stories that stand up to counter claims, fake news or accusations of confirmation bias. Our quest is to find some signal amongst the noise. So out of necessity I will attempt to weave the clearest evidence there is into a story that if not persuasive to everyone should at least shed a coherent view on an important set of topics.
The Three Primary Motivations
Anyone considering adopting a plant-based diet and lifestyle is influenced by anyone or all of three primary motivations:
Personal health: the link to ones own health and health consequences
Environmental: the link between livestock and climate change
Ethical: the link to animal welfare
This article will consider the personal health choices.
The Personal Health Challenge
Perhaps the most obvious motivation for someone embarking on a plant-based diet is that which is closest to home. According to the World Health Organisation in 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults aged 18 years and older were overweight. Of these over 650 million adults were obese. 39% of adults aged 18 years and over (39% of men and 40% of women) were overweight. Overall, about 13% of the world’s adult population (11% of men and 15% of women) were obese in 2016. When we double click on countries in the West we find that in the US for example, 39.6 percent of adults and 18.5 percent of children were considered obese in 2015-2016, the most recent period for which National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data were available. These figures represent the highest percentages ever documented.
We have an obesity epidemic in the West and a growing one in rest of the world. This is especially concerning when you consider the massive rising middle class populations of China, India and Indonesia all of whom have been sold the western fantasy of meat consumption as both a status symbol and a key ingredient of proper nutrition.
Switching to a plant based diet can help to reverse the negative effects of this growing health catastrophe. A vegan diet appears to be useful for increasing the intake of protective nutrients and phytochemicals and for minimizing the intake of dietary factors implicated in several chronic diseases. In a recent report, different plant food groups were rated with respect to their metabolic-epidemiologic evidence for influencing chronic disease reduction. According to the evidence criteria of the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization (WHO/FAO), cancer risk reduction associated with a high intake of fruit and vegetables was assessed as probable or possible, risk of Cardio Vascular Disease (CVD) reduction as convincing, whereas lower risk of osteoporosis was assessed as probable. The evidence for a risk-reducing effect of consuming whole grains was assessed as possible for colorectal cancer and probable for type 2 diabetes and CVD. The evidence for a risk-reducing effect of consuming nuts was assessed as probable for CVD. The evidence points towards the net positive effects of a plant based diet however it is important to realise that this still depends on a proper nutrition plan as even vegan diets can increasingly fall into the processed foods trap.
Data from the Adventist Health Study showed that omnivores had a substantially increased risk of both colorectal and prostate cancer than did vegetarians or vegans. In addition, obesity is a significant factor, increasing the risk of cancer at a number of sites and because the mean BMI of vegans is considerably lower than that of non vegetarians it may be an important protective factor for lowering cancer risk.
The sources of protein avoided or consumed by vegans have definite health consequences. Red meat and processed meat consumption are consistently associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Those in the highest quintile of red meat intake had elevated risks, ranging from 20% to 60%, of esophageal, liver, colorectal, and lung cancers than did those in the lowest quintile of red meat intake. In addition, the use of eggs was recently shown to be associated with a higher risk of pancreatic cancer. Vegans also consume substantially more tofu and other soy products than do omnivores. Consumption of isoflavone-containing soy products during childhood and adolescence protects women against the risk of breast cancer later in life, whereas a high childhood dairy intake has been associated with an elevated risk of colorectal cancer in adulthood.
When compared with omnivores, vegans are thinner, have lower total and LDL cholesterol, and modestly lower blood pressure. This is true not only for whites; work by Toohey et al showed that blood lipids and body mass index (BMI; in kg/m2) were significantly lower in African American vegans than in omnivores. Similarly, among Latin Americans, vegetarians had lower plasma lipids than did their omnivore counterparts, with the lowest reported among vegans. In that study, plasma total and LDL cholesterol were 32% and 44% lower among vegans than among omnivores. Because obesity is a significant risk factor for CVD, the substantially lower mean BMI observed in vegans may be an important protective factor for lowering blood lipids and reducing the risk of heart disease.
Vegans, compared with omnivores, consume substantially greater quantities of fruit and vegetables. A higher consumption of fruit and vegetables, which are rich in fiber, folic acid, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, is associated with lower blood cholesterol concentrations, a lower incidence of stroke, and a lower risk of mortality from stroke and ischemic heart disease. Vegans also have a higher consumption of whole grains, soy, and nuts, all of which provide significant cardio protective effects.
Potential nutritional shortfalls
When switching to a plant based diet it is very important to get the balance of your nutrition well organised. As I described in my previous article I was very much a novice and learned the hard way – I would recommend at least doing some preliminary research before making the jump. The potential with all diets for at least some nutritional shortfall remains if one isn’t disciplined, for example, in the EPIC-Oxford study, vegans had the lowest mean intake of vitamin D (0.88 μg/d), a value one-fourth the mean intake of omnivores. For a vegan, vitamin D status depends on both sun exposure and the intake of vitamin D-fortified foods. Those living in areas of the world without fortified foods would potentially need to consume a vitamin D supplement to make up the difference.
Heme iron absorption from animals is also substantially higher than non-heme iron from plant foods. However, haemoglobin concentrations and the risk of iron deficiency anaemia are similar for vegans compared with omnivores and other vegetarians. Vegans also often consume large amounts of vitamin C–rich foods that markedly improve the absorption of the nonheme iron to counter any potential shortfalls.
The importance of self education, discipline and consistency for maintaining a healthy diet is a universal truth that applies across all dietary choices. The advantage for the plant-based consumer comes from the fact that by removing the vast majority of harmful options from your menu of choices you make it easier to stick to a predominately healthy alternative. That said, anyone who is actively aware of the changes they want to make even if it just starts with reducing meat and animal product intake by as little as once a week is already on a more sustainable and healthy path.