Another reason people turn to vegan diets, in addition to animal ethics and/or environmental stewardship, is simply for their overall health and well-being. Medical research is finding that vegan diets have marked health benefits compared to traditional Western diets. Additionally, more and more information about the harmful impacts of eating animal bodies and byproducts (as well as diets rich in oils and processed foods in general) is being researched and released, and what we’re learning is that the food we eat can greatly reduce or increase, depending on what we consume, our chances for developing common and sometimes deadly ailments including heart disease and some cancers.
By making more compassionate and oftentimes more healthful food choices, we can improve our own health and the lives of animals, and seek to reduce our risk of developing some of the world’s deadliest diseases while still gaining necessary nutrients from plant sources.
Risks for Heart Disease, Some Cancers, and Diabetes from Animal Products
Heart disease is the number one global cause of death, according to an American Heart Association study that looked at data from 190 countries worldwide. Heart disease is caused by plaque buildup and other damage to the coronary arteries from causes linked to, among other things, high cholesterol and the presence of fats in the blood. Diet is a major contributing factor to heart disease, and simply removing meat, dairy, and eggs from your diet can stop and even reverse previous damage done by a diet formerly high in animal-sourced saturated fats and cholesterol.
Cancer is the “second leading cause of death globally,” according to the World Health Organization, who also determined that dietary factors account for up to 20% of all cancers in developing countries. That number jumps up to 30% for western countries. Meat consumption has been linked to higher cancer risk in humans, and the WHO recently warned that red meats and processed meats like bacon are carcinogenic to our bodies. Meat lacks fiber, contains high concentrations of saturated fats, and its fat content contributes to increased hormone production, which can raise the likelihood of developing certain cancers like breast and prostate cancers.
Dairy has also been found to be a contributing factor to some cancers, particularly prostate, breast, and colon cancers. The proteins in milk have been proven to grow IGF-1 levels in some studies, which have links to several cancers as well.
Diabetes is a health epidemic in which the body either cannot produce insulin or cannot use its insulin, a blood sugar regulator. Type 2 Diabetes is the most common form of diabetes, affecting 8.5% of the adult (over 18) global population in 2014. Diabetes can lead to kidney failure, lower limb amputations, and greatly increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. It can also be prevented and treated with lifestyle changes.
A Harvard School of Public Health study suggests reducing saturated fats and specifically red meats and processed meats to better your chances of preventing diabetes from developing, especially if you have a genetic predisposition to it. Other suggestions for prevention are an active lifestyle, and to maintain a healthy body weight. The good news is, you can maintain a healthy body weight and reduce saturated fat intake both by adopting a vegan lifestyle! Of course there are high fat and unhealthful vegan foods out there, but generally speaking, a vegan diet is often higher in carbohydrates which can help reduce weight because carbohydrates are less calorie-dense than fats.
A Note on Poultry & Fish
A lot of dietary information regarding meat and health focuses on the health risks inherent in red and processed meats, but what about poultry and fish? The American Heart Association recommends poultry and fish as part of a heart healthy diet, so what’s the problem with them as alternatives?
One study, highlighted by Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.org, found that the effects of chicken and fish were comparable to beef in regards to their impact on overall body cholesterol. With chicken specifically, Dr. Greger states that this is likely caused by the genetic manipulation chickens have undergone in the past century that has increased their fat content tenfold. Chicken has also been found to rank higher than red meats as a saturated fat source in American diets, as well as second behind eggs as the leading source of dietary cholesterol. Chicken dominates eaters’ diets to the point that, even though it’s lauded as a “healthier” alternative, it’s become a primary source for the health issues that red meat is often vilified for.
Fish is not much better when it comes to cholesterol and saturated fat. Fish contains omega-3 fatty acids which are necessary for our diets, but it is also routinely contaminated with mercury and other harmful substances. There are plenty of great plant sources to get omega-3s from, all with the added bonus of not putting pollutants or saturated fat and cholesterol into your body.
What about Nutrients gained from Animal Products?
One of the great misconceptions about adopting a vegan lifestyle is that you’ll miss out on key nutrients by cutting so many products that we’ve been told (through years of marketing) are the primary or best sources to get necessary nutrients into our diets, like protein or calcium. Yes, in addition to some of the health risks you take when you eat the animal products listed above, you do get vitamins and nutrients that are important for overall health from those products. But why take any risks with your health when you can get a balanced and nutritious amount of the same essential vitamins and minerals (and yes, protein!) from healthy plant sources instead?
Here are some examples of plant sources for some of the major nutrients vegans get asked about the most:
Protein – Tempeh (30g per cup), Lentils (18g per 1 cup cooked), Beans (13-15g per cup), Quinoa (9g per cup), Tofu (9g per 4oz), Peas (9g per cup), Spinach (7g per 1 cup cooked), Kale (5g per 2 cups cooked)
Calcium – Hemp Milk (400mg per cup), Collard Greens (350mg per cup), Fortified Nut Milks (200-300mg per cup), Kale (180 mg per cup), Beans (65-175mg per cup), fruits including Oranges (50-60mg per fruit) and Blackberries (40mg per cup)
Omega-3s – Flax Seeds (6388mg per ounce), Flax Oil (7196 mg per ounce), Chia Seeds (4915mg per ounce), Hemp Seeds (1100 mg per ounce), Spinach (352mg per cup cooked), Blueberries (174mg per cup), Spirulina (58mg per tablespoon), Mangoes (77mg per fruit)
A Note on B12
B12 is necessary for the production of things like red blood cells and DNA, and it must be acquired through food or supplements because our bodies do not make it (like most other vitamins). B12 does not occur in plants, so it’s important to supplement your vegan diet with a vegan source of B12.
Don’t let arguments that we’re meant to eat animals because this necessary vitamin is found in animal bodies and byproducts sway you– farmed animals are also given B12 supplements in their diets because it is not reliably found in soil anymore. Getting your B12 by filtering it through someone else’s body doesn’t make much sense, and comes with other health risks and of course unnecessary death and cruelty. Do your body a favor and go to the source of your nutrients first!
Antibiotics in Animal Products
Not only are animal flesh and byproducts potentially harmful to our bodies for their high fat, cholesterol, and other disease and cancer feeding properties, but also due to the high levels of antibiotics and other drugs pumped into livestock animals during their life cycles. In the United States, 80% of all manufactured antibiotics are sold to animal agriculture. Over time as people ingest drug residuals and contaminants in animal products, antibiotic resistant bacteria can grow rampant. These superbugs are responsible for infecting 2 million people each year in the United States alone, killing 23,000 people annually.
Antibiotics are created to help our bodies fight bacterial infection, but by constantly ingesting them through the bodies of animals who are fed antibiotics on a regular basis to combat the grotesque conditions they’re forced to live in, the effectiveness of these medicines is diminishing. This common practice in animal agriculture is a threat to public health, and part of the reason they’re pumping these animals full of antibiotics is to meet growth and production demands that society is creating for these products. By no longer supporting animal agriculture and choosing a vegan lifestyle, you can vote with your dollar for the world you wish to live in, and for your own health and self-interests.