The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

There are two great reasons to eat vegan. It is much healthier for you and for the planet.

Let’s start with your health. The key to a healthful and long life is making the right lifestyle choices. While most folks know the importance of not smoking, getting regular exercise, and eating a healthy diet, few really understand what constitutes good food choices. The lack of understanding about what to eat makes sense in light of the millions of dollars spent each year in advertising by the meat, dairy, egg, and junk-food industries. Making matters worse is the lack of nutrition training for healthcare providers. Only 17% of doctors in the US get any nutrition training. So, one can’t expect to get well- informed advice on diet from their doctors.

The good news is that thousands of scientists from around the world study nutrition and public health, and from their work we now know that the best diet is one based upon whole plant foods. A diet of French fries and vodka is vegan, but certainly not healthy. To achieve vegan health, one must eat whole foods including vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, whole grains and mushrooms.

Vegans live longer and healthier lives

The longest lived people on the planet eat whole-food vegan diets. In the US, non-smoking vegans who get regular exercise live on average to the ages of 87 years old for men, and 90 for women, compared to the general population life expectancy of 76 years for men and 81 for women.

The top ten leading causes of death in the US in order are; Heart Disease, Cancer, Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease, Accidents, Stroke, Alzheimer’s Disease, Diabetes, Influenza and Pneumonia, Kidney Disease and Suicide. Studies show that a vegan diet can reduce the incidence of all of these other than accidents. Let’s consider the top two killers, heart disease and cancer.

Coronary artery disease is the blockage of the arteries feeding the heart. This disease begins in childhood and kills about 400,000 people each year. The blockage, or atherosclerotic plaque, comes from deposits of cholesterol, a type of fat found in all animal food, and very rare in the plant kingdom. Vegan populations have essentially no coronary artery disease. The good news for vegans who adopted plant-based eating later in life is that this type of heart disease is reversible! A healthy vegan diet allows the body to clear away the plaque from clogged arteries.

A vegan diet may reduce cancer rates by 30%-50%. For example, vegan women have 34% lower rates of breast, cervical and ovarian cancer. Animal foods contain IFG1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor 1) and cholesterol, both of which promote the growth of malignant tumors. Animal foods also serve as pro-oxidants, creating free-radicals that damage the cell’s genetic material in a way that cause them to become cancerous.

Plant-based diets as health promoting medicine

While it is clear that animal-based diets cause disease by what they contain, it is also important to understand that plant-based diets prevent these diseases by providing health-promoting nutrients. That is, eliminating disease causing animal foods reduces the chance of illness, but realizing full health potential requires a plant-based diet rich in fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, complex carbohydrates, the right fats, and protein. For example, consumption of fiber from whole grains reduces rates of heart disease and cancer and lowers blood pressure. Fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants that protect cells from the ravages of free radicals produced as food is metabolized. The antioxidants also reduce the formation of atherosclerotic plaques. Some plant-foods work wonders, even when taken in small amounts, such as the spice turmeric. This powerful anti-inflammatory agent is associated with lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease. It is also used in treating osteoarthritis, high cholesterol, inflammatory digestive system diseases, and cancers.

Vegans are thinner

About two-thirds of adult Americans are overweight or obese. Carrying extra weight reduces life expectancy, and increases the odds of getting cancer, diabetes and a host of other diseases. The extra pounds also keep many people from enjoying full and active lives. Most people don’t want to be overweight, which is clear from the $66 billion per year paid to the US weight-loss industry. Whole-plant vegan diets are rich in nutrition and low in calories. So it is not surprising that vegans weigh on average about 40 pounds less than those that eat the standard American diet.

To be a healthy vegan

As noted above, eliminating animal food from your diet won’t alone make you healthy. Choose a diet that has daily servings of fruits (1 serving of berries plus 3 others), vegetables (1 in the broccoli group, 2 leafy greens plus 2 others), whole grains (ground flax seeds plus two others), legumes (3), nuts (1), and a good dose of spices (turmeric, pepper, etc). But you MUST also supplement your diet with some vitamin B-12. This vitamin is made by microbes (bacteria and fungi) and not by plants or animals. Since we wash our food and chlorinate our drinking water there aren’t enough microbes in our diet to provide sufficient B-12. A multiple daily vitamin pill or inexpensive B-12 supplement will have all you need. Insufficient B-12 leads to serious diseases including degeneration of the nervous system! And don’t worry about protein; there is more than enough in a healthy vegan diet as described above. Does the tiger ask the bull how it gets its protein? To be as strong as an ox, eat what the ox eats, not the ox.

Eating vegan is good for the planet

With every step up the food chain about 90% of the energy is lost. So a farm that could feed 100 vegans would only support 10 strict meat-eaters. The more people go vegan, the less land will be needed for cultivation, leaving us with more forests and wild areas to enjoy.

The production of meat is a top source of greenhouse gas emission that is driving global climate change. First, meat production uses lots of fossil fuels. It takes 10 times more fossil fuel energy to produce a pound of beef as it does to produce a pound of soy beans. Second, methane produced by cattle as they digest their food is a potent greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere for years. Meat production is responsible for 18% of human-derived greenhouse gas emissions, more than that produced by the transportation sector.

Meat production uses lots of water. It takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, and only 258 gallons to yield one pound of soy beans. And meat production pollutes lots of water. Much of the fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used to grow the crops to feed the animals end up in our lakes, rivers, and ocean. Meat producers also use hormones and antibiotics that pollute the water as well as damage human health. Modern meat, poultry, egg, and dairy production takes place in highly concentrated compounds that emit enormous quantities of water and air pollution. The annual development of the huge dead-zone in the Gulf of Mexico is due in large part to the pollution caused by the meat-industry.

Find the joy in eating

Eating should make you happy! Choose delicious meals and snacks based upon whole plant foods and find the joy of knowing you are doing the best you can for your body and for the planet.

By Benjamin Cuker, Ph.D., Professor of Marine and Environmental Science, Hampton University. Dr. Cuker is a vegan and teaches a course called “Eating for a Healthy You and a Sustainable Planet.”


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