08 Jul THE VEGAN DIET AND PHYSICAL HEALTH
In the most comprehensive observational study to be conducted into diet and disease, The China Study showed plant-based diets to be associated with decreased risks of developing cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and many other diseases.1 Since the publication of The China Study in 2006, many other studies have shown vegan diets to prevent and treat many of the commonest diseases Australians are facing2, as well as being associated with a lower all-cause mortality (ie. higher life expectancy)3. In 2013, experts recognized this and the Australian Dietary Guidelines were updated to include “vegan diets are healthy and nutritionally adequate… During all stages of the life cycle”, a statement that has remained in subsequent editions of the guidelines.4
“There are two types of cardiologists – vegans, and those who haven’t read the data”
Dr. Kim Williams, MD, president of the American College of Cardiology.
“A bowl of steel cut oats topped with nuts and berries will almost certainly reduce
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) encompasses a large group of health conditions, including ischaemic heart disease (angina and heart attacks), cerebrovascular disease (strokes) and peripheral blood vessel diseases. It is the leading cause of death in Australia5, the second highest burden of disease6 and the consumer of more hospital dollars than any other group of conditions7.
Over the years there have been many medical advances in the treatment of CVD, from medications to surgical options. Similarly, our understanding of how our diet and lifestyle in general counterplays with our heart and blood vessel health has increased too.
Repeated studies have shown time and time again that vegan diets are associated with a lower risk of cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure and CVD, including the Framingham study – the most famous epidemiological study into CVD to be conducted (and still going).8
Furthermore, the implementation of plant-based diets, along with other positive lifestyle change, has been shown to even reverse already established CVD up to 82-95%.9-10
In a time where coronary artery bypass surgery is the alternative, imagine the
In the US there are plant-based clinics that focus on using plant-based regimes to treat and cure CVD. One notable name who had success with this was Bill Clinton, who has publically stated that a vegan diet saved his life.
A plant-based diet has been shown to be more effective at reducing blood sugar levels in Type 2 Diabetics than the diet recommended by national dietary associations.
Barnard ND, Cohen J, Jenkins DJ, Turner-McGrievy G, Gloede L, Green A, et al.
A low-fat vegan diet and a conventional diabetes diet in the treatment of type 2 diabetes: a randomized, controlled, 74-wk clinical trial.
The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2009;89(5):1588s-96s.
Diabetes is a disease in which your body cannot move the sugar from your blood into your cells, and is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease as well as kidney disease, nerve damage and vision loss.
While carbohydrates are generally considered the devil of diabetes, it has now been firmly established in the literature than plant-based diets are associated with the lowest risk of type 2 diabetes (T2DM) compared to diets low in carbohydrates but high in fat.11
Even more exciting, T2DM has been shown to treatable with a plant-based diet – with patients often ceasing to require insulin or other medications altogether.12-14
For a disease otherwise considered to be incurable, these are phenomenal results!
Cancer contributes the highest burden of disease in Australia, with bowel, breast and prostate cancer amongst the most common types.15
In 2015, the World Health Organisation classified processed meat as a class I carcinogen (definite carcinogen) and red meat as a probable carcinogen, most notably for bowel cancer16.
“When 3% of energy for plant-protein is substituted for an equivalent amount of egg-protein the risk of dying from cancer decreases by 21%.”
Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, Willett WC, Longo V, Chan AT, et al.
Animal and plant protein intake and all-cause and cause-specific mortality: results from two prospective US cohort studies. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(10):1453-1463
There are also numerous studies to suggest dairy products increase the risk of hormone-related cancers such as prostate cancer, breast and ovarian cancer, with an increased risk noted with as little as 0.5 servings per day, though more research is needed to determine the details of this association.17
Excitingly, foods generally consumed in large amounts in a plant-based diet (fruits, vegetables and legumes) have shown to be protective against these cancers, especially when combined with other healthful behaviours such as exercise, low alcohol intake and not smoking.18
With the much-famed aging population, we are seeing the rise of certain diseases over others in our population. One of these is osteoporosis, a disease that makes your bones brittle and significantly increases your risk of fractures. Unfortunately, in the elderly population this disease occurs in, a hip fracture and subsequent stay in hospital could be a death sentence.
We know now that laying down bone at every stage of life is important for preventing osteoporosis, and the best ways of doing this is by making sure we have enough calcium, vitamin D and exercise.
“Calcium is important. But milk isn’t the only, or even best, source.”
Calcium and Milk. Harvard School of Public Health.
Despite common myths, the higher the intake of calcium does not equal less fractures later in life. In one of the largest observational studies to be conducted, the Harvard Nurses Study, which followed over 70,000 women for 18 years, those who consumed the most dairy also had the most number of bone fractures. In fact, what this study suggested is that there is little benefit to consuming more than 600mg of calcium per day in regard to bone health, about half of current dietary recommendations, and an amount easily attainable through plant-based dietary sources.19 This is further supported by studies which show that countries that have the highest rates of dairy consumption have the highest rates of osteoporosis.20
Instead of promoting the consumption of dairy and calcium, we should be encouraging plant-based sources of calcium as these foods have other vitamins and minerals important for healthy bone turnover.18 Adequate sunlight exposure, vitamin-D fortified foods (there are few dietary sources of vitamin D) and exercise are all also extremely important, and perhaps even more so than the calcium myth would have us believe.17
Other diseases of aging include those of cognitive decline such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease, and are set to become our society’s next health crisis. There has been some evidence to suggest plant-based diets prevent these neurocognitive diseases, which are currently incurable.21-22
Autoimmune diseases are on the rise in our population, and can be very debilitating for those who suffer from them. Autoimmune diseases have a foundation in abnormal inflammatory reactions in the body, and recent research suggests that anti-inflammatory effects of plant-based diets can help prevent or ease symptoms of certain autoimmune diseases. These include rheumatoid arthritis23, hypothyroidism24, hyperthyroidism25 and multiple sclerosis26.
In the era of antibiotic resistance, more antibiotics are used non-therapeutically in agricultural animals than therapeutically in humans.
Antibiotic resistance in animals. Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.
The kidneys are responsible for filtering the blood, and plant-based diets tend to put less stress on the kidneys due to the components they are made up of. Low-protein diets are a safe and established method of slowing the progression of chronic kidney disease, where the debilitating alternative would be starting dialysis.27
Author: Dr Mehr Gupta
Co-founder and Campaign Director Animal Liberation Tasmania
- Campbell TC, Campbell TM. The China Study. USA: BenBella Books; 2006. 439 p.
- Le LT, Sabate J. Beyond meatless, the health effects of vegan diets: findings from the Adventist cohorts. Nutrients. 2014;6(6):2131-47.
- Bamia C, Trichopoulos D, Ferrari P, Overvad K, Bjerregaard L, Tjonneland A, et al. Dietary patterns and survival of older Europeans: the EPIC-Elderly Study (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition). Public health nutrition. 2007;10(6):590-8.
- Australian Dietary Guidelines. National Health and Medical Research Council. 2013.
- Causes of Death, Australia 2016. Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2017;3303.0.
- Australian Burden of Disease Study: Impact and causes of illness and death in Australian 2011. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2016;3:4.
- Australian Health Expenditure – demographics and diseases: hospital admitted patient expenditure2004-05 to 2012-13. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2017;69(59).
- Craig WJ, Mangels AR. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;10(9):1266-1282.
- Ornish D, Brown SE, Billings JH, Scherwitz LW, Armstrong WT, Ports TA, et al. Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease?: The Lifestyle Heart Trial. The Lancet. 1990;336(8708):129-33.
- Esselstyn Jr MD. Updating a 12-year Experience with Arrest and Reversal Therapy for Coronary Heart Disease. American journal of Cardiology. 1999;84:339-41.
- Tonstad S, Butler T, Yan R, Fraser GE. Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes care. 2009;32(5):791-6.
- Barnard ND, Cohen J, Jenkins DJ, Turner-McGrievy G, Gloede L, Green A, et al. A low-fat vegan diet and a conventional diabetes diet in the treatment of type 2 diabetes: a randomized, controlled, 74-wk clinical trial. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2009;89(5):1588s-96s.
- Barnard ND, Cohen J, Jenkins DJ, Turner-McGrievy G, Gloede L, Jaster B, et al. A low-fat vegan diet improves glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in a randomized clinical trial in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes care. 2006;29(8):1777-83.
- Kahleova H, Tura A, Hill M, Holubkov R, Barnard ND. A plant-based dietary intervention improves beta-cell function and insulin resistance in overweight adults. A 16-week randomized clinical trial. Nutrients. 2018;10:E189.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2017;4364.0.55.002.
- Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton KZ, et al. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. The Lancet Oncology. 2015.
- Health Concerns About Dairy. Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine.
- Craig WJ. Health effects of vegan diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1627S-1633S.
- Feskanich D, Willett WC, Colditz GA. Calcium, vitamin D, milk consumption, and hip fractures: a prospective study among postmenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77(2):504–511.
- Frassetto LA . Worldwide incidence of hip fracture in elderly women: relation to consumption of animal and vegetable foods. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2000 Oct;55(10):M585-92.
- Bernard ND, Bush AI, Ceccarelli A, Cooper J, de Jager CA, Erickson KI. Dietary and lifestyle guidelines for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Neurobiol Aging. 2014;35(2):S74-8.
- Shah SP, Duda JE. Dietary modifications in Parkinson’s disease: A neuroprotective intervention? Medical hypotheses. 2015;85(6):1002-5.
- Foods and Arthritis. Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine.
- Tonstad S, Nathan E, Oda K, Fraser G. Vegan diets and hypothyroidism. Nutrients. 2013;5(11):4642-52.
- Tonstad S, Nathan E, Oda K, Fraser GE. Prevalence of hyperthyroidism according to type of vegetarian diet. Public health nutrition. 2015;18(8):1482-7.
- Yadav V, Marracci G, Kim E, Spain R, Cameron M, Overs S, et al. Low-fat, plant-based diet in multiple sclerosis: A randomized controlled trial. Mult Scler Relat Disord. 2016;9:80-90.
- Rhee CM, Ahmadi SF, Kovesdy CP, Kalantar-Zadeh K. Low-protein diet for conservative management of chronic kidney disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled trials. J Cachexia Sarcopenia Muscle. 2018;9(2):235-245.