Following a vegan diet improves your health and the environment

by Jack on March 2010

If you had told me 2.5 years ago that I would be following a vegan diet now, I might have said that you were crazy. At the time, meat, cheese and eggs were staples of my daily meals, I never read the labels of foods that I ate, and I weighed in at 215 lbs on a 5′ 11″ frame. I knew that fruits were healthy and prepared fruit based smoothies regularly. I used soy milk on cereal and in smoothies because I didn’t like the aftertaste of cows’ milk, but that was about the healthiest I got. Even with a lot of fruit smoothies I couldn’t seem to reduce my weight. Being tired and not wanting to cook at dinner time invariably led to a lot of meat-based restaurant foods including hamburgers and steaks, and I drank several cups of coffee with cream and sugar daily.

Eventually, frustration with my unhealthy habits and the way I felt led me to read Eat to Live by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and to switch to a plant-based whole foods diet. (Sometimes a vegan diet is called this to distinguish it from a strict vegan lifestyle which also includes no leather, wool, or other animal-derived products.) It’s true that you could eat potato chips and drink cola all day, and you would be technically eating as a vegan. But you probably guessed that since the goal is improving long-term health, this isn’t part of the plan. :)

The way that I currently aim to eat is practically summarized by Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He writes: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” A vegan just takes “mostly plants” a little further and makes it “only plants”. Not that big a difference, really. In his suggestion to eat “food”, he means real, natural foods, that our great-grandparents would have recognized, as opposed to industrial, processed products. This means a focus on leafy greens, colorful vegetables, fruit, cooked beans, some whole grains, and some plant foods containing “good fats” such as avocado, coconut, nuts, and seeds.

The following are some reasons why you might consider test driving a vegan diet – a mix of both personal health concerns and global concerns.

Energy and vigor. After switching to a plant-based whole foods diet I found that my usual baseline requirement of 7-8 hours of sleep per night dropped to 5-6 hours, although it’s still more comfortable to sleep 7 hours. I’ve been sick much less often, and when I do catch a cold, it’s generally much less severe. I haven’t had a sinus infection since becoming vegan, whereas I typically used to have a painful dose of bacterial sinusitis once a year or so.

Reaching your optimal body weight. You may need to gain or lose weight, or your body may be at its exact healthy weight. Regardless, your body will naturally reach a healthy equilibrium when you eat whole, plant-based foods. When I first switched to a nutrient-rich vegan diet in order to reach a correct body weight and permanently reverse post-college weight gain, my body weight dropped by 30 lbs over three months during the first attempt. This first experiment didn’t quite take hold, and I returned to an omnivore diet, although I regained only about 5-7 lbs. After a few more months of omnivorous eating, I returned to my vegan diet and reached my current, equilibrium weight, dropping a total of 45 lbs down from my peak weight. As a vegan, I’ve been eating in a completely unconstrained manner (i.e. not “dieting” at all) for over a year, and my weight typically fluctuates a maximum of two pounds up or down around its usual value.

Toxicity. Live animal bodies (our own included) filter out and accumulate the heavy metals and fat soluble toxins in the environment. When someone eats the flesh of an animal, they are eating the accumulated metals and toxins that the animal ate over its entire lifetime. This is especially serious in the case of large predatory ocean fish such as tuna, which eat many smaller predatory fish over their lifetimes. As the top predator in the ocean food chain, we humans are privileged to ingest more mercury over our lifetimes than any of the fish that we eat. Shark fin soup doesn’t feel like so much of a delicacy now, huh? I still love seafood – just give me a seaweed salad or some nori-wrapped avocado sushi. :)

Heart disease. Vegan eating habits are some of the most heart-healthy practices that you can introduce into your lifestyle. Studies suggest that vegetarians have lower blood cholesterol levels than omnivores, and vegans have lower blood cholesterol levels than vegetarians who eat dairy products and eggs. When you replace animal foods high in saturated fats with high fiber plant based foods, you counteract blood cholesterol in two ways – reduced saturated fat, and increased soluble fiber.

Cancer. Large scale epidemiological studies in China (also see this page) and other areas worldwide suggest that animal protein is a significant contributing factor in the formation of many cancers. This implies that changing to skinless chicken, lean beef, non-fat milk, and other reduced fat animal-derived products to be “healthier” is missing the point – it’s the animal protein that encourages the growth of cancer, and no one sells a “reduced protein” version of any animal based foods. These large-scale results are corroborated by various other studies.

Type II Diabetes. The situation with type II diabetes is often connected to heart disease and obesity. As such, vegan eating habits can counteract these conditions that often coexist with diabetes. Additionally, a vegan diet can directly reduce blood sugar and reduce patients’ dependency on diabetes medicines. Generally speaking, whole plant foods, including vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and some grains, have a relatively low-glycemic (GI) index and do not cause blood sugar to spike; also, they lack the adverse side effects of other low-carb / low-GI foods such as meats and cheeses.

Environment. In addition to concentrating toxins, eating high on the food chain consumes vastly more natural resources than when we eat lower on the food chain. Research suggests that:

  • animal agriculture uses 7x more agricultural land per kilogram of product than plant agriculture
  • meat uses 10-20x more energy than plants per kilogram of product
  • meat uses 100x the amount of fresh water per kilogram of product

The carbon footprint of animal product consumption is undeniable. One study concludes that “[a] kilogram of beef is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution than driving for 3 hours while leaving all the lights on back home”. There has been a gradual awareness and push toward “Meatless Monday” as a way to reduce the environmental impact of meat production and consumption, although this is only a small and gradual step. Furthermore, around half of worldwide grain production is fed to livestock rather than being consumed directly by humans, suggesting that the concept of “world hunger” is more a problem of food distribution and politics than one of capacity.

Antibiotics and resistance. Most antibiotics used worldwide (70%) aren’t used for human infections but in feed for factory farm animals that are either killed for their meat or used for their egg and milk production. Antibiotic resistance is a serious problem in human and veterinary health care. Because factory farmed animals are perpetually sick, living as they do in overcrowded and filthy conditions, massive antibiotic usage is the only way to make this a feasible business model.

Caring for animals. Yeah, the animal rights card. This was pretty much the last item on my list, truth be told. I started on this journey because of how I felt and what I saw in the mirror. My BMI was in excess of 30, and for someone who used to run half-marathons in college, this was a hard reality to face. Later on, though, I feel like I’ve grown into this identity. I feel good that I don’t contribute to the death of billions of food animals each year. I feel good that I don’t contribute to an industry that uses unpleasant and inhumane practices such as debeaking of chickens, or removing the tails of pigs (without anesthetic).

If all of these factors encourage you to consider a vegan diet, great! However, before you get started, be sure to educate yourself in what to expect. There are so many free educational resources available online that learning about how to replace animal products with vegan alternatives is very straightforward. The key nutritional concerns are to make sure that you are getting enough vitamin D and vitamin B-12.

If all your daily meals are now meat-based, you can expect a bit of unfamiliarity (I transitioned from a situation where two of three meals were already mostly vegan or vegetarian, so it was a shorter distance to travel). There may also be some detox and / or digestive symptoms as your body adjusts to running on the correct fuel after burning toxic sludge for so many years. :)

Overall, my vegan journey has been a great one. I’ve enjoyed the past year and a half of plant-based eating, and can hardly imagine going back to omnivorous eating. I feel more energetic, healthier, and need less sleep, and I feel very positive about the environmental and animal rights impact that happen as a side effect. The benefits are great, and after it became a habit, I noticed no downsides. Now, it’s simply effortless.

--


If you enjoyed reading this article...

1. Please get my premium personal development tips here, featuring special content not published on the blog.

2. Please follow the thirtytwothousanddays RSS feed here for up-to-date, practical, and inspiring resources that will put you on the fast track to personal growth and happiness.

3. Please follow me on Twitter here.

4. Please share this article with a friend, or anyone else you think could use a little extra peace and happiness today! :) Share/Bookmark

Thank you!

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Abby March 10, 2010 at 13:02

Preaching the Gospel of Pollan one person at a time!!

I’ll second the physical, mental and emotional changes that occur when switching to a healthier way of eating (weight-loss, energy levels, general health, etc…). While I still eat eggs and the occasional landlocked salmon (caught and gutted myself, thank you very much) the biggest change I noticed was in my skin. I used to always be breaking out and chalked it up to hormones. Once I cut dairy out of my diet, my skin cleared right up. It was an unexpected and great “side-effect.”

Reply

Jack March 10, 2010 at 16:07

Abby, I have heard that about dairy products from a few different people. I’m not sure what the exact cause is, but it has affected enough of my friends to be more than just a strange coincidence. (The list of reasons to avoid dairy products is already pretty deep, ranging from casomorphin addictiveness, to the red herring of calcium intake and osteoporosis.)

Reply

Denis Andrejew March 11, 2010 at 06:23

Yeah, I can totally second that thing about the skin, it’s the same thing for me! I also sometimes still eat small quantities of dairy products (mostly as part of a meal someone else has cooked ;) ) and when I overdo that I pretty much immediately notice the effects on my skin… so that’s quite a good indicator one could use to become more aware of the amount of dairy products one consumes and its effects on the body… :)

Like your post & style, keep sharing, Jack!

Reply

Jack March 16, 2010 at 12:11

Thanks Denis,
The dairy phenomenon seems to be common – I’ve heard that from a few different people. I notice slightly oily skin when I eat a really large amount of nuts or avocado, but other than that, the vegan approach has been really helpful for my skin as well.

Reply

Elizabeth Jarrard September 29, 2010 at 18:01

I switched to a vegan diet 2 years ago for many of the same reasons (animal rights, while an added plus, wasn’t my #1). Since switching i have more energy, sleep less, am able to accomplish more athletic goals (2nd marathon in 2 weeks!), and my skin definitely improved! I love living a plant-based diet, and while I don’t preach it, I try to live so that it’s strengths are exposed!

Reply

Jack September 30, 2010 at 07:30

Good luck on the marathon! I agree that preaching turns people off. I prefer to represent by example as well. :)

Reply

Jenna Taylor, M.D. December 28, 2010 at 05:14

Great post. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad I stumbled across your blog tonight! I’m also a physician who advocates a plant-based diet. Again, thank you for your post, it’s one of the best and most interesting I’ve read in a while. Kind Regards, Jenna (www.theplantrx.com)

Reply

Erin April 1, 2011 at 00:05

Just found this post and found it really interesting, thanks! Are you still following a vegan diet? Also, I’d love to hear what you think of the Paleo diet.

Reply

Jack April 1, 2011 at 11:24

Hi Erin, thanks for checking this out. I’ve continued to eat vegan and still enjoy it.

I think paleo has a lot of common ground with vegan eating so I find it surprising that there seems to be a certain amount of sniping between the different groups. Both paleo and “healthy” vegan philosophies support the mindful approach to eating – knowing where your food comes from and making deliberate choices about it. Both are aligned with good habits like eating lots of leafy greens and other vegetables, and moderate amounts of nuts, seeds, etc and reducing or removing high GI simple carbs. And they are agreed on limiting or eliminating dairy.

I’ve been curious about experimenting with a paleo-vegan diet although I haven’t taken the plunge yet. I think that would be far more restrictive in social and restaurant contexts, and would constrain one’s options a lot.

Reply

Charlotte April 12, 2011 at 08:12

2rSVOv Good point. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way. :)

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post:

Share/Bookmark