The VEGAN OPTION

From Dr Duncan Carmichael’s new book ‘Younger for Longer’

This chapter wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the growing vegan trend around the world. The difference between a vegetarian and a vegan is that a vegetarian will eat fruit, grains and vegetables, and will also eat eggs and dairy. A vegan however will eat only fruit, grains and vegetables, but will not eat any animal product.  After years of feeling guilty about eating meat, Einstein reportedly became a vegetarian and famously said: “Nothing will benefit health or increase chances of survival on earth as the evolution of a vegetarian diet.”

Veganism has trended upwards in recent times and according to one report, between 2014 and 2017 the number of Americans claiming to be vegan grew from 1% to 6% of the population. There are even more people eating vegetarian diets. There are various reasons that people have chosen to shun their inner carnivore:

  • Ethics – With the world population now topping 7 billion people, feedlots have become commonplace to provide meat on the table. These can be cruel places and many people quite rightly won’t eat meat for ethical farming reasons. 
  • Hormone toxins –There is a growing body of research that suggests that toxins, or ‘obesogens’ are directly linked to our burgeoning obesity crisis. The particular concern with meat is the hormones that are often used to accelerate growth of the animals. Those endocrine disruptors end up affecting us. 
  • Health – The third big reason for being vegan are concerns that eating meat might be dangerous: 
  • According to a WHO study, processed meat has been clearly shown to cause colorectal cancer. 
  • As we have seen in the nutrition chapter there is concern that excessive red meat could cause colon cancer, but the evidence is mixed. However, many vegans have decided for themselves and have ditched meat.
  • Studies suggest that people who eat a vegetarian diet live longer than the rest of the population.

If we were to look at these three reasons for vegetarianism, I completely understand the ethical reasons for not eating meat.

However, on the toxin argument, there is a real danger that by ditching meat and eating more vegetables, one could well be swapping one set of toxins for another. The pesticides and herbicides that rain down on our plants are equally toxic to our bodies. We need to source organic vegetables. Lastly, regarding the health reason, vegetarians tend not only to eat healthily, but also tend to exercise, drink less alcohol and tend not to smoke. So one would expect that vegetarians would live longer than the average Joe for this reason. However, when vegetarians were compared to meat eaters who made similar healthy lifestyle choices, both groups lived equally healthy, long lives. 

As far as I am concerned, vegetarianism is a healthy choice, but there are 3 big issues that people need to be aware of: 

  • Sugar: with no meat in the diet, the tendency can be for vegans to eat excessive starchy carbohydrates, leading to insulin resistance. 
  • Vitamins: It is difficult for vegans to get enough of the very important fat-soluble vitamin D and vitamin A in their diet. Vitamin D in particular is estimated as being 74% lower in vegans than in meat eaters. These needs to be supplemented. Vitamin B12 is the third vitamin that often needs supplementation.
  • Fish oil: we saw in the nutrition chapter thatEPA and DHA are essential fatty acids that are acquired from fish. Vegans often take flaxseed oil to get these fatty acids, but the conversion rate to EPA and DHA is poor. Vegans generally have a 50% lower level of these protective oils than fish eaters do. Algae is a better source than flaxseed of these essential fatty acids.

As far as I am concerned, the decision to be a vegan or a meat-eater is a very personal one and both have merits. Meat-eaters need to avoid processed meat and choose meat that is grass-fed and organic (no hormones added). Vegetarians should avoid eating excessive starch, supplement vitamins A, D and B12 and take algae oil instead of flax seed for essential fatty acid support. 

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Dr Duncan Carmichael’s new book ‘Younger for Longer’ is available at IHASA or online https://amzn.to/2PwAxvY