Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
Chloe Coscarelli (“Chef Chloe”) is a well-known vegan chef and a dear family friend. It’s remarkable what a following she has developed. Some seven million adult Americans have currently adopted a vegan diet. Are there really any additional health benefits to a completely plant-based diet? What about risks? Is it a fad, or is there a scientific basis for undertaking a vegan diet?
Veganism is a way of living that attempts to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, whether for food, clothing, or any other purpose. A vegan diet eliminates meat and poultry, fish and seafood, dairy, eggs, bee products, and animal-based ingredients like whey, casein, lactose, egg white albumen, and gelatin. It’s certainly not easy! Motivations for becoming a vegan vary. They may relate to ethics or environmental concerns, or come from a desire to improve one’s health.
What are the health benefits of adopting a vegan diet?
■ It is often accompanied by weight loss, as a result of the much lower fat content in vegetables, fruits and grains, as compared to meat and dairy. After exercise is controlled for, the vegan diet seems to result in more weight loss then the American Diabetic Association diet, the American Heart Association diet, or the National Education Program diet. Even more interesting, researchers found that participants on vegan diets lose more weight than participants in calorie-restricted diets, even when the vegans are allowed to eat until they feel full.
■ A vegan diet may help to keep blood sugar levels down, to raise insulin sensitivity, and to significantly lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, even when compared to the three diets mentioned above. This is likely due to the high fiber content.
■ A vegan diet helps to keep the heart healthy; studies show that vegans may have a far lower risk of developing high blood pressure as well as a lower risk of dying from heart disease. Vegan diets are effective at reducing blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and total cholesterol.
■ There may be a host of other benefits. Studies are investigating claims that a vegan diet reduces arthritis pain, maintains kidney function, slows the progression of memory loss in Alzheimer’s dementia, and may lower the risk of dying from many cancers.
What are the health risks and disadvantages of a vegan diet?
The vegan diet may lead to low blood levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D, long-chain omega-3, iodine, iron, calcium, and zinc. Eating mostly nutrient-rich plant foods, eating fortified foods, and adding supplements will lower this risk significantly.
Going on a vegan diet can become even more complicated if you already have dietary restrictions, such as a gluten free diet, a renal or diabetic diet, a nut allergy, etc.
A vegan diet may involve a lot of forethought in order to get adequate nutrition, as does a diabetic diet. While ultimately diabetics can bring their sugar into much better control with a vegan diet, it does involve careful meal planning. This also pertains to patients with osteoporosis, who require adequate intake of calcium and vitamin D.
Food shopping and dining out will be limited. As the vegan diet becomes more common, this is becoming a bit easier.
According to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a diet that excludes meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy could prevent 8.1 million deaths annually across the planet. Of course, following a vegan diet does not automatically lead to good health. Health is improved by a balance of diet, exercise, and lifestyle.
Still, it is clear that a plant-based diet cannot only significantly improve the health of those who practice it, but also benefit our planet.
Have I chosen a vegan diet for myself? No, not yet…but I have seriously considered it. If you should make that decision, be ready to plan and prepare wisely, consider supplements, and discuss it with your physician.