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.
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