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A well-planned vegan diet is appropriate for all individuals during all stages of the life cycle. (1)  Photo: Delicious vegan dining at Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary’s annual Vegan Thanksliving.  

For its potential to impact global suffering, there is no misconception in more dire need of correction than the myth that a vegan diet is nutritionally inadequate, or inferior to a diet that includes animal products. The consumption of meat, dairy and eggs has been unequivocally linked to the leading causes of death in the U.S. and globally, with more diet-related diseases than communicable now killing humans worldwide. (2)  An additional 1 billion people suffer from malnourishment, and 6 million children starve to death every year. Feeding half the world’s grain crop (3) to animals raised for food instead of directly to humans is not only grossly inefficient, but a disastrous waste of natural resources, requiring 50% of all the freshwater supply in the U.S. (4), as well as massive amounts of fossil fuels and land. Animal agriculture is the single greatest contributor of methane gases to global warming, and the number one source of nitrogen pollution to freshwater rivers. (5) In addition to this vast web of human suffering and ecocide, our addiction to meat, dairy and eggs causes unnecessary misery and death for nearly 60 billion land animals every year. This is not a niche issue– which is why the United Nations has called for a global shift to a vegan diet as the most effective way to combat climate change, world hunger, and ecological devastation. (6)

Thankfully, vegan diets aren’t just better for the environment, they’re better for human health. There is now a large body of scientific evidence that irrefutably demonstrates the power of plant-based diets for preventing, managing and even reversing some of the most serious diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.  Over the last two decades, the American Dietetic Association — the oldest and largest organization of nutrition professionals on the planet — conducted a meta-analysis of all the studies that have ever been done on diet and disease.  In 2009, based on their findings (that vegetarians have consistently lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer and obesity than meat-eaters), the ADA published their official position paper on plant-based diets, in which they conclude that vegetarian and vegan diets are appropriate for all people during all stages of life, including infancy and pregnancy. (7)

So What’s the Beef with Eating Meat?

For the first time in human history, largely preventable lifestyle diseases kill more people globally than communicable diseases.  Of the 57 million global deaths in 2008, 36 million, or 63%, were attributed to noncommunicable diseases. (8) The top four killers are cardiovascular diseases, cancers, respiratory diseases and diabetes, with all but respiratory disease consistently linked with diets high in saturated fats, and consumption of meat and animal products. (9)  Additionally, nearly 3 million adults die each year as a result of being overweight or obese: 44% of deaths from diabetes, 23% of coronary heart disease deaths and between 7% and 41% of certain cancers are attributable to overweight and obesity. (10)

In March of 2012, Harvard School of Public Health released their findings from a decades long study of over 100,000 men and women who were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer at the beginning of the study.  Of the nearly 24,000 documented deaths, approximately 6,000 were from cardiovascular disease and 10,000 were from cancer.  The study found that one daily serving of unprocessed red meat (about the size of a deck of cards) was associated with an 18% increased risk of cardiovascular mortality and a 10% increased risk of cancer mortality, and one daily serving of processed red meat (one hot dog or two slices of bacon) was associated with a 21% increased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality and a 16% increased risk of cancer mortality. (11)

Don’t Go Breaking Your Heart

The leading cause of death of both men and women in the United States is heart disease.(12)  Every day, nearly 2,600 Americans die of some type of cardiovascular disease (13), the most common of which is coronary heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease or atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis occurs when hard layers of plaque, usually cholesterol deposits, accumulate in major arteries and begin constricting flow of blood and oxygen to the heart.

plaque deposit from fatal arterial blockage

Cholesterol is a soft, waxy fat produced naturally in the bodies of all animals and used for the formation of cell membranes, some hormones, and Vitamin D. (14) But when excess levels of cholesterol occur in the blood, arterial plaque begins to deposit. When plaque completely blocks blood flow, this results in heart attack, or in the fatal rhythm disturbance known as cardiac arrest.  Arterial plaque is also a leading cause of stroke, the fourth greatest killer of Americans each year. 85% of all strokes occur from blockage of blood flow to the brain by arterial plaque or blood clot. (15)

While other factors affect cholesterol levels and heart disease (including smoking, exercise, blood pressure, and body weight) one of the single most significant causes of coronary heart disease is dietary cholesterol intake.  Since our bodies make all the cholesterol we need, consuming animal products contributes excessive levels. While cholesterol is not present in plant-based foods, it is found in all foods that come from animals: red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, and every other meat and dairy product. Choosing lean meat is not helpful as cholesterol is concentrated in the lean portion. Chicken contains as much cholesterol as beef (100 milligrams per four-ounce serving), and most shellfish are very high in cholesterol as well. (16) Animal products are also loaded with saturated fats, which, unlike unsaturated fats, cause the liver to produce more cholesterol.

Fortunately, for most people, preventing coronary heart disease is as simple as eliminating animal products, adopting a healthy plant-based diet, getting a moderate amount of exercise, and avoiding cigarette smoking.  But beyond prevention, a plant-based diet is the only treatment that has been scientifically proven to reverse heart disease. Over two decades ago, Dr. Dean Ornish selected patients who had moderate to severe arterial plaques and prescribed a vegetarian diet in which less than 10 percent of calories were contributed by fat, as well as a program of modest exercise. After one year, 82 percent of the patients who followed Dr. Ornish’s program showed not only dramatically lower cholesterol levels, but measurable reversal of their coronary artery blockages–actual dissolution of years of accumulated plaques. (17)

Vegan diets have also repeatedly shown to reduce levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol.  According to a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology, comparing the effects of plant-based diets on LDL cholesterol levels, a low-fat vegetarian diet reduces LDL by 16 percent, but a high-nutrient, vegan diet including daily servings of nuts and seeds reduces LDL cholesterol by 33 percent. So while a vegetarian diet will have beneficial effects on cholesterol, a nutrient-dense, vegan diet high in greens, beans, seeds and nuts will be more efficient at preventing or reversing heart disease. (18) The high fiber content of plant-based diets also helps to slow the absorption of cholesterol. Oats, barley, beans, and some fruits and vegetables are all good sources of soluble fiber, but animal products contain no fiber.

Cancer

Dietary factors account for at least 30 percent of all cancers in Western countries and up to 20 percent in developing countries. Two themes consistently emerge from studies of cancer and diet: vegetables and fruits reduce risk, while meat, animal products, and other fatty foods are frequently shown to increase risk. Consumption of dietary fat triggers production of hormones, which, in turn, promotes growth of cancer cells in hormone-sensitive organs such as the breast and prostate. Meat has none of the protective effects of fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, or other helpful nutrients, and it contains high levels of saturated fat and potentially carcinogenic substances (see below), which are associated with increased risk for several different kinds of cancer. (19)

Carcinogenic Compounds in Cooked Meat

Heterocyclic Amines

HCAs are mutagenic compounds produced during the cooking process of many animal products, including chicken, beef, pork, and fish. The longer and hotter the meat is cooked, the more these compounds form, but even meat cooked under normal grilling, frying, or oven-broiling conditions has been shown to contain significant quantities of HCAs. In some studies, grilled chicken has accrued higher concentrations of these carcinogens than other types of cooked meat. Consumption of well-done meat has been associated with increased risk of breast cancer and colon cancer, and a recent case-control study at the University of Utah found that men and women with the highest consumption of processed or well-cooked meat had an increased risk of rectal cancer. (20)

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons

Grilling or broiling meat over a direct flame results in fat dropping on the hot fire and the production of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon-containing flames. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) adhere to the surface of food, and the more intense the heat, the more PAHs there are. PAHs are widely believed to cause certain human cancers. A persistent association between grilled or broiled, but not fried, meat consumption and stomach cancer suggests that dietary exposure to PAHs may play a role in the development of stomach cancer in humans. (21)

Vegetarian diets and diets rich in high-fiber plant foods such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits offer some protection against cancers. Fiber is key for two important reasons: it greatly accelerates the passage of food through the colon, removing carcinogens; and, fiber changes the type of bacteria that is present in the intestine, reducing production of carcinogenic secondary bile acids. Plant foods are also naturally low in fat and rich in antioxidants and other anti-cancer compounds. Consistently across studies, vegetarians present the lowest risk for cancer and show a significantly reduced risk compared to meat-eaters. (22)

Read more on cancer’s link to consumption of meat, eggs and dairy:

Cancers, all
Prostate
Breast
Colon

Diet and Diabetes

(reprinted from Food Empowerment Project)

Type 2 diabetes was originally known as “adult-onset diabetes” because it was almost unheard of among people under 40 years old only two decades ago. However, today type 2 diabetes is being diagnosed in adolescents at a rate 10 times higher than in the previous decade, constituting just under one-third of new pediatric diabetes cases. Medical experts estimate that type 2 diabetes accounts for 90 to 95 percent of all diagnosed cases of diabetes.

There is a strong correlation between type 2 diabetes and excess body weight, with about 80 percent of people who develop the disease being obese. This is because the body’s ability to balance blood sugar with insulin decreases as weight increases beyond a healthy level, making the cells more resistant to insulin. Higher levels of dietary saturated and trans fats therefore increase the risk for both heart disease and diabetes. In the US, nearly 65 percent of those with diabetes will die from heart disease, and diabetics often suffer serious health complications such as kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, and reduced blood flow to the lower extremities that can require amputation of the feet or legs.

Dietary improvements, weight loss and exercise are all essential to preventing the onset of full-blown diabetes that occurs for 11 percent of diagnosed pre-diabetics each year. The good news is that diabetics and pre-diabetics can effectively avert, manage or even reverse diabetes through diet. This can be done by eliminating highly-refined, processed “white” foods, sugar laden snacks, and trans fats while increasing fiber-rich plant-based foods like whole grains, vegetables, and nuts which are low in saturated fats and naturally cholesterol-free.

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Drink Cow’s Milk

There’s a very good reason that infants are weaned from breast milk after a few years of nursing.  Mothers’ milk is a specialized (and species specific) superfood that provides a custom ratio of fats and nutrients designed to promote rapid growth in the babies of mammals. By the time humans reach infancy, their growth has slowed to a rate where mothers’ milk provides too much of certain nutrients, and not enough of others–which is why solid foods are introduced. Yet, while we accept as common knowledge that humans do not drink breast milk past infancy, we rarely question the bizarre practice of consuming the breast milk from mothers of other species—milk that these mothers produce for their own babies, babies that we force them to become pregnant with, then cruelly tear from them shortly after birth so we can drink the bereft mother’s milk. Given that cow’s milk is only nature’s perfect food if you’re a baby cow, it makes sense that human consumption of cow milk contributes to a host of serious illnesses, including asthma, osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and several cancers. Please learn about the extensive health problems and myths associated with dairy consumption at our Milk Myths page.

For more on the health benefits of a vegan diet, please visit the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

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(1) Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Dietetic Association’s official position on vegan diets.
(2) World Health Organization, “NCD Mortality and Morbidity”
(3) The Humane Society, “The Impact of Industrialized Animal Agriculture on World Hunger”
(4) US Geological Survey, “Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2000.”
(5) PEW Environment Group, “Animal Agriculture and Water Pollution”
(6) The Guardian, “UN Urges Global Move To Meat and Dairy Free Diet”
(7) Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Dietetic Association’s official position on vegan diets.
(8) World Health Organization, “NCD Mortality and Morbidity”
(9) World Health Organization, “NCD Mortality and Morbidity”
(10) World Health Organization, Obesity and Overweight
(11) Harvard School of Public Health, “Red Meat Consumption Linked to Increased Risk of Total, Cardiovascular, and Cancer Mortality”
(12) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Heart Disease Facts”
(13) Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “Cholesterol and Heart Disease”
(14) National Stroke Association, “Controllable Risk Factors: Cholesterol”
(15) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Types of Stroke”
(16) Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, “Cholesterol and Heart Disease”
(17) T. Colin Campbell, “Cholesterol and Heart Disease”
(18) Joel Fuhrman, M.D., “Heart Health: How You Can Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease”
(19, 20)Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine, Cancer Facts: Meat Consumption and Cancer Risk
(21, 22) Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine,  Cancer Facts: Meat Consumption and Cancer Risk