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Veganism and Health: Science-Based Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

If there was a miracle cure that could help terminate animal abuse, counteract climate change and prevent millions of human deaths caused by health diseases, would you want to know about it? This urgently needed solution for today’s main challenges is a PLANT-BASED DIET.

We could stop here. That’s it.
But of course, we also want to explain to you, based on scientific studies and reviews, why and how a plant-based diet is the solution for so many problems at one time!

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In this article, we list the science-based benefits of a plant-based diet.
For more benefits of a plant-based diet check out these articles:

To whom we address this blog post:
In the following, we speak especially to people from nations that boast an abundance of dietary options. We do also address middle-income countries, which are unfortunately largely affected by the standard western diet, including fast food. However, NOT included are people who suffer severe food shortages and are forced to eat whatever is available.

How to prevent 11.5 million deaths

The Lancet EAT commission describes a universal healthy reference diet as a diet that primarily consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, that includes a low to moderate amount of seafood and poultry and includes as least as possible red meat, processed meat, added sugar, and refined grains. (1)

The commission estimated that adopting such a healthy diet could prevent more than 11.5 million deaths or 23.6% of total deaths among adults per year. (1)

Meat

People who eat red meat have higher risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers than people who eat plant sources of protein. The intake of red meat appears to be linearly related to total mortality and risks of other health outcomes in populations that have consumed it for many years. Therefore the optimal intake might be 0 g/day, especially if replaced by plant sources of protein. (1)

The World Health Organization stated that 50g of processed meat a day – less than two slices of baconincreased the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%. (2)

Meat consumption per capita in 2014 (19)

Summarizing, one can say that the current meat consumption is grossly unsustainable from both a health and environmental perspective.

Dairy products

The body needs protein and calcium to build healthy bones.

But the problem is:
As your body digests protein, acids are released into the bloodstream and neutralized by drawing calcium from the bones.

Dairy products have not only a lot of calcium but also a lot of protein and saturated fat.
Hence, consuming a lot of milk products or following a high-protein diet for a long time may weaken your bones.

The World Health Organization stated that regions with low intake of dairy foods have lower fracture rates than areas with high dairy consumption. (3)

Milk and other dairy products are next to the meat, the top sources of saturated fat in the standard western diet. Diets high in fat, especially saturated fat, and cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease.

Additionally, whole milk intake in men contributes to elevated prostate cancer mortality risk. (4) Men who drank more than two glasses of milk a day were almost twice as likely to develop advanced prostate cancer as those who didn’t drink milk at all. (5)

Nowadays, it’s still highly discussed if the cow’s milk growth hormones affect the hormone-producing organs in humans.

High levels of galactose, a sugar released by the digestion of lactose in milk, have been studied as being possibly damaging to the ovaries and leading to ovarian cancer. However, some researchers have hypothesized that modern industrial milk production practices have changed milk’s hormone composition in ways that could increase the risk of ovarian and other hormone-related cancers. (6)

According to that, we should change the source of calcium apparently – from dairy products to plant-based sources.

What are excellent plant-based sources for calcium?

List of  high-quality plant-based sources for calcium:

  • extra firm tofu
  • collards
  • chia seeds
  • fortified plant milk (like soy milk, almond milk, oat milk, etc.)

Eggs

It’s no doubt, eggs are a good source of protein. BUT, and this is a huge “but”, it’s always the question with which package of other nutrients it comes. The overall health score of an egg decreases drastically, because of its high amount of cholesterol and saturated fats, which contributes to arteriosclerosis.

An egg a week might be “okay” for a healthy and fit 20ish guy, but isn’t the goal to eat something”good”? Why should you eat something potentially harmful?

Among US adults, higher consumption of dietary cholesterol or eggs is significantly associated with a higher risk of incident CVD and all-cause mortality. The more dietary cholesterol or eggs you eat, the more your risk of CVD and all-cause mortality will increase. (7)

Food for thought:
Several studies want to convince us that dietary cholesterol is not harmful. Many of those studies are sponsored by the egg industry or an egg-producing company though.

Fish and Poultry

According to the Lancet, a healthy diet includes low to moderate seafood and poultry.

So why do we recommend no seafood and no poultry at all?

We need some essential fatty acids and protein. Fish and chicken are natural sources for these nutrients. This is the reason why they are recommended for a healthy diet.
BUT we have many equivalent plant-based alternatives to get the same essential nutrients.

What speaks against fish and poultry related to health:

On the one hand, many fish are super high in non-essential fats, ocean fish contain rising mounts of plastic, and aquaculture requires high amounts of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals.

Food for thought:
So why keep eating products which may contain either microplastic or antibiotics or is high in unnecessary fats when we know there are equivalent plant-based alternatives without any of these health risks?

Good plant-based alternatives for essential fatty acids are avocado, walnuts, flax/ chia/ hemp/ sesame seeds, leafy greens, and seaweed (spirulina).

On the other hand, poultry is linked to illnesses like infertility in women. For instance, half a chicken breast a day increases the risk of infertility risk of more than 32% for women. (8)

The fact is, poultry is not as unhealthy as red meat, but it also doesn’t bring any benefits, compared to high-quality plant-based sources. Equivalent sources of protein are beans, tofu/ tempeh, peas, quinoa, couscous, lentils, leafy greens, seeds, and soy milk.

The paradox of animal foods

Against common sense, animal products deliver no essential nutrients, which can not be replaced by a plant-based diet, except Vitamin B12. Only a supplementation and/or fortification with Vitamin B12 is recommended, especially but not exclusively for vegan/ plant-based people. (9)

Read more about Vitamin B12 supplementation in our beginner’s guide for a healthy whole-foods plant-based diet.

For decades, we have been taught that we need animal products for our health – milk for bones, meat for muscles, and fish for the heart. Paradoxically it’s absolutely the other way around: many animal products are correlated to major human diseases!

Alarming 66% of the emerging diseases in humans have animal origins, and one or two new diseases emerge every year. (10)

Top ten causes of deaths

The tables which are shown below display important differences in causes of death between low-income and high-income countries.

WHO The top 10 causes of death (11)
WHO The top 10 causes of death (11)

Noncommunicable diseases (NCD) are referred to as “lifestyle” diseases. Almost all of these diseases are preventable.
The most common causes for NCD include drug consumption, physical inactivity, and, last but not least, the standard western diet.

In high-income countries, the intake of processed foods, and animal products like red meat and dairy products is way higher than in low-income countries.

Additionally, the average daily physical activity is less, and the drug consumption like alcohol and cigarettes is higher. (12)

These lifestyle habits remain in a shift of the most prevalent causes of death. At least 7 of 10 leading causes of death in high-income countries (apart of 4, 5, and 6), can be prevented and partially reversed with a whole-foods plant-based diet.

Overall mortality and cardiovascular diseases

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death in the United States.

High saturated and trans fat intake (which elevates LDL like saturated fat) combined is associated with an 8–13% higher mortality. (13)

What contains high saturated fat?

Foods high in saturated fat and therefore to avoid: 

  • beef
  • veal
  • pork
  • dairy products
  • coconut oil
  • palm oil

What contains a lot of trans fats?

Food high in trans fats and therefore to avoid:

  • fast food (pizza, burgers, fries)
  • sausages (salami, ham, bacon, hot dogs)
  • snacks as chips, muesli bars
  • fried foods (e.g. french fries, chips etc.)
  • pastries (croissants, donuts etc.)
  • sauces like mayonnaise
  • convenience food (13)

In contrast, reducing saturated fat and replacing it with complex carbohydrates will reduce total mortality. (13)

Replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA), or high-quality carbohydrates will lower chronic heart diseases (CHD events). (13)

Where can I find PUFA?

Foods high in PUFA and therefore recommended to eat:

  • soybeans
  • walnuts
  • tofu
  • sunflower seeds
  • flax seeds
  • sunflower seeds

Where can I find MUFA?

Foods high in MUFA and therefore recommended to eat:

  • olives
  • peanuts
  • avocados
  • nuts
  • seeds

Diabetes

There is a general consensus that a whole foods plant-based diet is highly beneficial for preventing and treating type 2 diabetes. (14) A study examined vegans having half the rate of type 2 diabetes compared to people on a standard western diet. (15)

Another great study of plant-based eating patterns (with 4.1 million person-years of follow up) in the US showed that those participants who were most adherents to a healthful plant-based diet compared to those least adherents had a 34% lower risk of developing diabetes. These associations were independent of body mass index and other diabetes risk factors. (16)

Cholesterol

Among different plant-based diets (i.e., Lacto-Ovo vegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan), populations following vegan diets had the lowest cholesterol concentrations. It also found that plant-based diets are associated with up to a 35% reduction in serum LDL cholesterol, whereas interventions allowing small amounts of lean meat demonstrated less dramatic reductions in total cholesterol and LDL levels. (17)

3 health-related reasons to switch to a (whole-foods) plant-based diet:

  • fight major human diseases
  • achieve a better quality of life (vitality and longevity)
  • lose weight in a healthy and effective way

The bottom line

The bottom line is that there is a diet that is good for you, good for the animals and good for the planet: a whole-foods plant-based diet.

If you want to know why a whole-foods plant-based diet is good for the animals and good for the planet, you can check out these two blog posts:

  • Veganism and animal welfare: reasons to go plant-based
  • Veganism and climate change: environmental reasons to go plant-based

Read more about plant-based nutrition

Further helpful information

References

(1) Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Willett, Walter et al. The Lancet, Volume 393, Issue 10170, 447 – 492
(2) Véronique Bouvard, Dana Loomis, Kathryn Z Guyton, Yann Grosse, Fatiha El Ghissassi, Lamia Benbrahim-Tallaa, Neela Guha, Heidi Mattock, Kurt Straif. (2015) Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat
(3) WHO The world health report 2003: shaping the future. World Health Organization, Geneva; 2003
(4) Lu, W., Chen, H., Niu, Y., Wu, H., Xia, D., & Wu, Y. (2016). Dairy products intake and cancer mortality risk: a meta-analysis of 11 population-based cohort studies. Nutrition journal, 15(1), 91. doi:10.1186/s12937-016-0210-9
(5) Giovannucci E, Rimm EB, Wolk A, et al. Calcium and fructose intake in relation to risk of prostate cancer. Cancer Res. 1998; 58:442–447.
(6) Ganmaa D, Sato A. The possible role of female sex hormones in milk from pregnant cows in the development of breast, ovarian, and corpus uteri cancers. Med Hypotheses. 2005; 65:1028–37.
(7) Zhong VW, Van Horn L, Cornelis MC, et al. Associations of Dietary Cholesterol or Egg Consumption With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality. JAMA. 2019; 321(11):1081–1095. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.1572
(8) Chavarro, J. E., Rich-Edwards, J. W., Rosner, B. A., & Willett, W. C. (2008). Protein intake and ovulatory infertility. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology, 198(2), 210.e1–210.e2107. doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2007.06.057
(9) Springmann M, Wiebe K, Mason-D’Croz D, et al. Health and nutritional aspects of sustainable diet strategies and their association with environmental impacts: a global modelling analysis with country-level detail. Lancet Planet Health. 2018; 2: e451-e461
(10) Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Sustainability Pathways: Livestock and Landscapes
(11) WHO The top 10 causes of death
(12) WHO Prevalence of insufficient physical activity
(13) A systematic review of the effect of dietary saturated and polyunsaturated fat on heart disease. Clifton, P.M. et al. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, Volume 27, Issue 12, 1060 – 1080
(14) McMacken, M., & Shah, S. (2017). A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. Journal of geriatric cardiology: JGC, 14(5), 342–354. doi:10.11909/j.issn.1671-5411.2017.05.009
(15) Tonstad S, Butler T, Yan R, et al. Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2009;32:791–796.
(16) Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB, et al. Plant-based dietary patterns and incidence of type 2 diabetes in US men and women: results from three prospective cohort studies. PLoS Med. 2016;13:e1002039. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
(17) Ferdowsian HR, Barnard ND. Effects of plant-based diets on plasma lipids. Am J Cardiol. 2009;104:947–956. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
(18) Ornish D. What’s Good for You Is Good for Our Planet. Time

(19) STATISTA Where Meat Consumption Is Highest & Lowest

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