Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why Vegan? part one - for human health

The beef industry has contributed to more American deaths than all the wars of this century, all natural disasters, and all automobile accidents combined. If beef is your idea of “real food for real people,” you’d better live real close to a real good hospital.

—Neal D. Barnard, MD, President, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

I was raised on a meat and potatoes diet, by WWII era parents who knew how to stretch a dollar and waste-not-want-not.  We ate meat daily: pot roast, liver and onions, steak and kidney pies and puddings, the occasional sweetbreads (brains) and tongues, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, traditional holiday turkeys and hams.  Preparing for rural Alberta winters we stocked the freezer with cows and sheep and baby pigs from the neighbouring Hutterites.  We didn’t indulge in junk food or sodapop, our “food” was always fresh, never processed, and it was all considered very normal.  When we talked about it we were never accused of preaching, or trying to convert anyone, it was just conversation.

At college, with perpetual acne and with weight that fluctuated by 10 lbs (which I’d heard is unhealthy), I began to question this tradition.  I was studying (among other things) human health, and I was active in the Green Future Club. We had organized a Rainforest Awareness Week and one of our guests spoke about the benefits of a plant based diet.

I didn’t think he was trying to convert us, nor did I consider his words preachy.  He was Michael Klaper M.D., and he had information backed up by science and common sense. I was inspired to radically change my food intake and become vegetarian.  It was a transition, I’ll admit I cheated periodically through the next decade, but I felt that I was on the right path.  My environmental footprint was significantly reduced, my emotional highs and lows leveled out, and those ten pounds simply disappeared.

Twelve years ago I became vegan in exchange for space in a shared living environment.  If I had known how significant the shift from veggie to vegan would be, I’d have done it years sooner.  I’ve learned a ton, I feel better physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  My acne is finally gone, and my food conversations have, understandably, shifted gears.  In the wrong crowd I’m sometimes accused of being preachy.  Veganism is, apparently, considered a religious cult.  Why?  Because our food talk is different than your food talk?  You know what?  I don’t care.  I am so absolutely convinced that the vegan lifestyle is the most powerful choice we can make to save our personal health, our environmental health, and move us towards a world of peace and compassion, I refuse to shut up about it.  If you’re open-minded and open-hearted enough to care why I believe that, read on.  Much of my research is US-based, but I’ll bet it’s similar in Canada.

Veganism for human health

The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.                                                              Thomas Edison.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Americans each ate about 120 lbs of meat and 294 lbs of dairy products annually. By the mid-2000s, those figures had risen to about 222 lbs of meat and 605 lbs of dairy annually per capita.1  

In the 60s, doctors and researchers noticed that coronary artery disease began to increase.  Heart disease is caused by an excess of dietary cholesterol (a fatty substance found in animal products) in the blood stream which builds up and restricts blood flow to the heart. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) reports that dairy products “are the number one source of saturated fat in the diet,” and contribute significant amounts of cholesterol which can lead to heart disease, and hypertension.2  

Over 500,000 Americans go under the knife annually for heart bypass surgery (where a vein is taken from the leg and stitched on the heart’s blocked artery) costing around $100,000 each, about 50 billion dollars in total.1 

According to the World Health Organization, cardiovascular disease is now the leading cause of death and disability throughout the world.  In 2010, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, it took 597,689 lives.3

Comparatively the traditional diet of Japanese and Chinese people is primarily plant based and, in the early 1970s, the risk for heart disease in rural China was 12 times lower than it was in the US.1
“You need to drink milk to get calcium and prevent osteoporosis” is a common myth perpetrated by the industry.  Where do you think the large herbivores - the cows, pigs, horses, elephants etc - get their calcium?  Not from consuming another species’ milk.  

There’s actually research connecting the consumption of cow’s milk to overall calcium loss from the bones. Milk (and other forms of animal protein) acidifies the body’s natural pH.  This causes the body to respond to correct the imbalance.  Because calcium is an excellent acid neutralizer, it is pulled from bones to escort digested animal protein as it travels through the body. Since the average American’s diet is protein-heavy, some experts say that eating lots of dairy foods may actually cause people to lose calcium. “When you eat a protein food, such as milk, you may be swallowing calcium, but you turn around and excrete calcium in your urine,” says Donna Herlock, MD, spokeswoman for PCRM.4 

In fact, “clinical research shows that dairy products have little or no benefit for bones.”2  A 2012 report published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, based on a study from Harvard University, tracked fracture rates in 6,712 adolescents. “The results showed that active children who consumed the largest quantities of milk actually had more bone fractures than those who consumed less.”5

In addition to negatively impacting heart and bone health, the PCRM advise that prostate, breast, and ovarian cancers have been linked to the consumption of dairy products.  For example in 1958 there were only 18 proven autopsy deaths from prostate cancer in Japan.  In the same year, with about twice the population, the number of prostate cancer deaths exceeded 14,000 in the USA.1

Insulin-dependent (type 1 or childhood-onset) diabetes is also linked to consumption of dairy products.  Then there are the connections between milk and rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, and acne. Milk also contains contaminants including recombinant bovine growth hormone which increases the amount of milk a cow will produce.  Treated cows, producing more milk than nature intended, may contract mastitis, an inflammation of the mammary glands.  When they’re treated with antibiotics, those enter the milk supply along with pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins, which are cancer causing contaminants.2

You may argue that the human life span, overall, is longer than in previous generations, so what’s the problem?  It’s true that there are a lot of medications out there, a lot of surgeries, that extend life.  But surgeries are kinda radical, invasive and expensive, and prescription drugs have side effects of their own. One popular pill that’s prescribed treats erectile dysfunction. It takes care of the problem, right?  Well, actually, no.  Erectile dysfunction is an early warning sign that the arteries aren’t working.  Drugs treat the symptoms, but not the cause.  Locally, you can read Alan Cassels’ regular column in Common Ground magazine to learn more about the dangers associated with prescription drugs.

What about fish?  Well, because of environmental pollution and disasters like the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, fish (even wild fish) contain increasing amounts of mercury in addition to dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Fish consumption influences clinical neurologic outcomes in adults including ischemic stroke, cognitive decline and dementia, depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders.6  

A study conducted by the American Medical Association in 2003 explains:
Methylmercury is formed through microbial action from inorganic mercury that has deposited in aquatic environments and bioaccumulates through the food chain … Exposure occurs primarily through consumption of seafood, freshwater fish, and shellfish. Methylmercury exposure is of particular concern because it is a well-established human neurotoxin [a poison that acts on the nervous system] and the developing fetus is most sensitive to its adverse effects.7

You may not know, if you’re not vegan, that many alcoholic beverages (especially wine) often contain shellfish.  WTF, right?! There’s a website – – where you can inform yourself about what booze is vegan and what’s not. 

Decades of research and data collection has inspired many researchers and doctors to explore the benefits of a whole food, plant based diet.  The fact is, we vegans have lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure, making us 32 per cent less likely to die or be hospitalized with a heart condition, according to new research from Oxford University which spanned 11.5 years and analyzed almost 45,000 people.3  

Doesn’t all this beg the question:  why aren’t the enormous heart and cancer charities advocating a shift to a plant-based diet? 
Not only are vegans less likely to burden the collective with increased hospitalization costs, we’ve also got solutions for the global climate crisis and world hunger. And, of course, there’s the animal rights component. Stay tuned for more on all that.  And please, consider that when we dare speak with passion about our lifestyle, it’s only because we care.  From there, it’s up to you.

Janine Bandcroft founded the Victoria Street Newz, where this article first appeared, in 2004.