“Vegan? What, do you want to live forever?” “We all die anyway…I’m going to enjoy my life” If you eat a majority plant-based diet or follow a vegan diet, you probably have heard these comments, plus plenty more. If you eat a plant-based diet, people equate such with needless, vain self-denial.
Frequently, they laugh, tell you how delicious their meat laden diets are…talk about “moderation” (as if Americans know what that is), then walk off with an air of worldly wisdom. Silly vegan, as if diet really can make a difference in your ultimate quality of life. Eat this, don’t eat this, we all end up the same in the end.
Except…we don’t. Yes, we all die, but the quality of the days, months, and years between now and death are heavily impacted by our daily choices. This includes especially diet–after all, what we eat is converted into the very tissues that make us–us!
“What difference does it make?”
I get it, I was like that myself. Working in healthcare, I hear the same from the patients and healthcare providers alike. However, working in healthcare, I also get to witness firsthand the end result of lives lived in (often unknowing) excess.
To be fair, not all adverse health outcomes are preventable…there are genetic illnesses such as Huntington’s disease which are horrible and not preventable currently. Trauma is another source of disability, such as car accidents. The VAST majority of the illnesses and disabilities I see in my work, however, have strong ties to diet and lifestyle patterns which have progressively damaged the body over time. The research indicates many health-related horrors people experience can be reduced in severity, delayed–or often, avoided altogether.
How good is that steak? How much pleasure do you gain from that American lifestyle?
It’s funny till its you…or someone you love. Or in my case, when I see the effects on people just like you and I daily. Every day in my work, I witness any combination of the following: excruciating pain due to arterial ulcers caused when blood vessels become choked-off by years of fatty accumulations and inflammation. Nerve damage from diabetes leading to persons losing control of their bowel function and bladder function. Strokes and heart attacks leading to crippling and often permanent disability. Dependence on others for something as simple as getting from the bed to a chair. Lungs filling with fluid due to damaged hearts. Dialysis where you depend on a machine three days per week to clean your blood due to failed kidneys.
Fatigue from apnea due to obesity, joints frozen from searing pain and inflammation. Fear, anger, pain, sorrow, day after day, and…costs!!! How much money is spent for that care? For those pills? For those tests?
Plant-based diets reduce blood pressure, reduce blood sugar levels, reduce cholesterol levels, reduce heart disease risk, improve kidney function in those that have diabetes, reduce cancer risk for a number of specific cancers, reduce medication dependency in those with diabetes and reduce inflammation. Diets that are plant-based appear to improve mood and reduce the severity and frequency of anxiety and depression. Plant-based diets reduce obesity rates and may improve sleep quality–(peer reviewed science journal references are found in the linked posts). But…who wants all that? Steak, cheese, chicken, eggs, and burgers are just so yummy.
Our “moderation” is costing the U.S. $3.5 trillion per year: $10,739 per person
Next time someone touts “moderation” to you as the answer for all health-related ailments, take a look at their waistline. The good Lord knows we all have faults, this is not about “fat-shaming” or moral judgement–rather, my interest is on tackling faulty assumptions and harmful socially-sanctioned thought patterns. I am interested specifically in health outcomes, quality of life, and the prevention of unnecessary suffering.
The truth is, if this conversation is occurring in the U.S., chances are that those uttering the merits of moderation are overweight or obese. According to a report on the CDC.gov website, obesity rates have reached 42.8% in middle-aged adults, 35.7% in young adults, and 20.6% in adolescents (Hales, Carroll, Fryar, & Ogden, 2017). This trend has been on a continuous climb, with an approximate 10% increase in prevalence since even as recently as the year 2000! When you factor in overweight adults who are heavy but not yet obese, the number rises to approximately 66% of all adults in the U.S.!!! (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.).
Risks of diabetes, cancer, heart disease, early death and stroke occur at higher rates among those that are obese. Costs the U.S. for medical complications attributed to obesity exceed $148 billion annually (in 2008 dollars!) (CDC.gov, 2018). Obesity adds approximately $1429.00 annual medical costs per person versus normal weight persons.
One final note, much of America’s escalating healthcare costs are blamed on a lack of healthcare access. As a healthcare worker, I applaud efforts to ensure people get the services they need when they need them. However, to think that access to healthcare is the sole answer to our nation’s problem is to ignore the research. According to the “National Academy of Medicine,” access to clinical care and the quality of that care only accounts for 20% of a person’s health outcomes in life (Magnan, 2017).
Eating a plant-based diet drastically reduces the prevalence of being overweight or obese, AND reduces the associated health complications
Cost is a big deal, as the U.S. spends approximately $10,739 per person per year on healthcare, or $3.5 trillion annually (CMS.gov, n.d.). What’s this have to do with eating plant-based? Research has demonstrated that as animal foods increase in the diet, so does the waistline (Pilis, Stec, Zych, & Pilis, 2014). Meat-eating omnivores had the highest body-mass indexes, vegetarians had significantly lower rates of being overweight and obese, with vegans having the lowest rates (Pilis et al., 2014).
Try getting (or staying overweight/ obese) on a natural, whole food, water-rich, high fiber diet exclusively containing foods such as sweet potatoes, beans, legumes, whole grains, generous servings of vegetables, fruits and nuts…”oh it happens!” Really? My argument is for whole, minimally processed plant based foods, not bags of vegan potato chips.
Those that switch to plant-based diets are often surprised with the results on their health and appearance. Research strongly supports the Mediterranean Diet in reducing both obesity and a variety of obesity related health complications (Mollaioli et al., 2020). The Mediterranean Diet is heavily plant-based and rich in the foods I just described (Mollaioli et al., 2020). In fact, the group “Physicians for Responsible Medicine” dive into the research on the Mediterranean Diet and note the positive effects are found due to the plant-based components of the diet.
Those that ate the most poultry, fish, eggs and dairy while following the “Mediterranean Diet” had the worst outcomes!! Those within the studies on the Mediterranean Diet following a mostly or exclusively plant-based version of the diet were responsible for the positive findings of the studies on the Mediterranean Diet. The fascinating analysis can be found by clicking here and scrolling down to the video on the web page.
Eating plant-based is about living better & feeling better…Now!!
Eating an exclusively or mostly plant-based diet is about living good and feeling good now! It’s not about living to be 1,000 years old, we all have to die. But why not feel the best you can, live the best you can, now?
Better sex: Lower dysfunction, higher testosterone
Sexual dysfunction in women (as manifested by pain/ discomfort, dissatisfaction, and lack of arousal) and men (as manifested by erectile dysfunction and low desire) is more prevalent in those with higher waist circumferences, those with diabetes or glucose intolerance, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood pressure and/ or heavier body weight (Mollaioli et al., 2020). Conversely, losing weight and adopting a Mediterranean diet described as rich in legumes, vegetables, whole grains, fruit and nuts while cutting back on dairy and meat improved erection quality and boosted testosterone. Losing weight and following a plant-heavy Mediterranean diet reduced prevalence of sexual dysfunction for both men and women (Mollaioli et al., 2020).
Its not just about losing weight. Eating a plant-dominant diet reduces inflammation, reduces blood lipids, improves arterial health, improves mood, boosts antioxidant activities in the body, improves insulin sensitivity and is believed to boost nitric oxide flow to penile arteries (Mollaioli et al., 2020). Sorry keto diet, the same can’t be said about you.
So, better erections? Check. Better sexual satisfaction. Check. Improved performance? Check. Sounds pretty good to me! But maybe great sex and sexual performance throughout the lifespan is not your thing…I mean, burger, eggs, poultry are tasty, after all…
Athleticism: Strength, endurance, and enhanced recovery
I’m lousy at sports. That’s not going to change now that I am over forty. However, I still enjoy exercising and weight training. A fear that many people have is that their strength or physical performance in sports-related activities will suffer when they go plant-based. Gotta have that protein, right? Grab the protein shakes, chicken breasts, Greek yogurts, egg whites, look out world!
Except, vegans are excelling and at times, dominating in sports. Olympic strength athlete Kendrick Farris has been a vegan since 2014 (Rodio, n.d.). He holds the current American record for the most weight used during the difficult snatch and clean and jerk lifts. Farris reports since switching to a vegan diet, he feels that his body recovers more quickly from his workouts. He feels his mind is more clear and that he has improved focus.
An article in Business Insider reviews various elite, professional athletes who subscribe to a vegan diet and lifestyle. Bodybuilders, tennis players, ultra-marathoners, boxers, soccer stars, weightlifters, race car drivers…vegan athletes are a growing presence in the world of elite athletes and athletic performance (Dawson, 2018). Athletes cite an interest in improved recovery rates, as well as interest in improvements to long term health.
In 2014, Barny du Plessis returned to the bodybuilding world after going vegan to claim the title of “Mr. Universe.” He reported being plagued with prior health concerns leading for him to retire from the bodybuilding world, only to return after seeing improvements in his health following a vegan diet. Men’s Health provides a similar article showcasing vegan athletes here.
Research into sports performance for both strength-based and endurance-based athletic pursuits is still in early phases (Lynch, Johnston, & Wharton, 2018). However, this currently growing body of research shows that switching to a plant-based diet, including a vegan diet, does not impede athletic performance in strength or endurance-based activities. The research does not confirm superior athletic performance for plant-based athletes at this time, but also demonstrates no decline in performance when going plant-based (Lynch et al., 2018).
The researchers acknowledge that overall health status is improved by following plant-based diets (Lynch et al., 2018). As such, the plant-based diet athlete gets to have their (vegan) cake and eat it too–strength, endurance, preserved performance and enhanced long-term health benefits simultaneously. It must be noted that some of the vegan participants in the research supplemented with a very low dose of creatine, 1 gram, to make up for a lack of dietary intake of creatine from animal sources (Lynch et al., 2018). One gram is a tiny dose, with typical supplemental doses ranging around 5 grams daily.
A happier, healthier life now…and later
A popular argument used by critics of plant-based diets (i.e.- most people you probably know) is that if you opt to omit meat, eggs, yogurt, butter, etc. from your diet, you are somehow “missing out” on the joys of life. “I’m going to live my life!” “Life is too short to eat healthy ALL the time…” “You earned it…” And of course, “all things in moderation…” As if eating a whole foods, plant-based diet is some kind of awful existence, serving only to possibly prolong a life of little fun and lots of self-denial.
It’s true that changing a lifestyle may feel uncomfortable, uncertain, and awkward at first. “What DO I make for breakfast, lunch, and supper if I am going to now eat plant-based?” “I really want that piece of pizza…” etc. However, making the transition is easier than most people realize. Turns out, whole grain pasta loaded with beans, tomato sauce, and veggies is pretty darn good. So are plant-based chili dishes, rice/ quinoa combinations with beans, hummus, guacamole, salsa, peanut butter and nut butters, nuts, fruit, vegan chocolate, and a HUGE variety of vegan combinations readily available on the internet–Bluezones.com is a great place to start!
Lower rates of depression and anxiety: Growing research demonstrates reductions in depression and anxiety severity and frequency when people switch from poor quality diets to plant-dominant diets (see article here for references and a deeper dive). Diets high in fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, beans, and legumes improve intake of magnesium, antioxidants and other nutrients. Additionally, anti-inflammatory effects are believed to improve brain function and sense of well-being. Plant-based diets appear protective over time against future occurrences of depression and anxiety.
Improved quality of life and improved sense of well-being: A meta-analysis analyzing 11 total research studies, with 9 controlled research trials, 7 which were the “gold standard” randomized-controlled trials found that diabetics who adopted vegan diets significantly improved their quality of life compared to those following omnivore diets (eating meat, dairy). Further, those following vegan diets experienced a quality of life that was superior even to those diabetics that followed currently recommended diabetic diets (Toumpanakis, Turnbull, & Alba-Barba, 2018). Participants reported significantly lower rates of depression, reductions in nerve pain, and improved overall sense of psychological well-being compared against the various control groups.
Athletes following plant-based diets reported an equally high quality of life compared to athletes that ate meat (Mollaioli et al., 2020). When analyzed for satisfaction with social relationships, psychological well-being, sense of physical health and other factors, plant-based athletes versus those following other diets scored high regardless of their diet choices. In other words, there was no sense of “missing out” for vegan or vegetarian athletes versus meat eaters. For those with health complications such as diabetes, plant-based diets can significantly boost satisfaction with life.
It is simply a myth that you need meat to be happy with your life. People act as if going plant-based consigns you to a bland life consisting of rice cakes and sadness. Better sex, reduced risks for various cancers, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and related illnesses, preserved and possibly enhanced athletic performance, highly rated reports on quality of life and psychological satisfaction per research..where is the downside? “What, do you want to live forever?” Yes, but that’s a separate topic. Do I want to live well now? Absolutely. Do I wish to delay or prevent altogether many of the sad, painful and debilitating conditions I encounter daily in my work…of course! Plant-based diets are a researched-backed best bet!!! Silly vegan…
Thanks for reading!! I hope you enjoyed this post! Feel free to share, sign-up to receive email notifications of new posts, and/ or leave a comment!! Sincerely, Donovan
CDC.gov. (2018). Adult obesity facts. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
CMS.gov. (n.d.). National health expenditures 2017 highlights [Pdf]. Retrieved from https://www.cms.gov/Research-Statistics-Data-and-Systems/Statistics-Trends-and-Reports/NationalHealthExpendData/Downloads/highlights.pdf
Dawson, A. (2018). These 19 elite athletes are vegan — here’s what made them switch their diet. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/vegan-athletes-and-why-they-changed-their-diet-11
Hales, C. M., Carroll, M. D., Fryar, C. D., & Ogden, C. L. (2017). Prevalence of obesity among adults and youth: United States, 2015–2016. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db288.pdf
Lynch, H., Johnston, C., & Wharton, C. (2018). Plant-Based Diets: Considerations for Environmental Impact, Protein Quality, and Exercise Performance. Nutrients, 10(12), 1841. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10121841
Magnan, S. (2017). Social determinants of health 101 for health care: Five plus five. Retrieved from https://nam.edu/social-determinants-of-health-101-for-health-care-five-plus-five/
Mollaioli, D., Ciocca, G., Limoncin, E., Sante, S. D., Gravina, G. L., Carosa, E. L., Lenzi, A., & Jannini, E. A. F. (2020). Lifestyles and sexuality in men and women: the gender perspective in sexual medicine. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, 18(10). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12958-019-0557-9
Pilis, W., Stec, K., Zych, M., & Pilis, A. (2014). Health benefits and risk associated with adopting a vegetarian diet. Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Hygieni, 65(1), 9-14. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24964573
Rodio, M. (n.d.). The vegan diet of American Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris. Retrieved from https://www.mensjournal.com/food-drink/vegan-diet-american-olympic-weightlifter-kendrick-farris/
Toumpanakis, A., Turnbull, T., & Alba-Barba, I. (2018). Effectiveness of plant-based diets in promoting well-being in the management of type 2 diabetes: A systematic review. BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care, 6. e000534. doi: 10.1136/bmjdrc-2018-000534
U .S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d). Overweight & obesity statistics. Retrieved 2/22/2020 from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/overweight-obesity