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Is veganism the optimum nutrition of the future?

Healthy veganism has never been so comparatively good for you, so easily available, so delicious and so popular.

The Vegan Society have seen a massive rise in popularity during their Diamond Jubilee as they celebrate 60 years since Donald Watson first created the word vegan (from the beginning and end of vegetarian) and founded the educational charity.

Books such as The Animal Free Shopper and Plant Based Nutrition and Health have been published, new studies commissioned, new initiatives for chefs started, new products such as vegan fishless smoked salmon created and there’s been celebrations at events all over the world.

The national newspapers, particularly the Guardian have featured stories warning about the unsustainability of the present system of things. Not only are modern meat and dairy production methods threatening human health they are threatening the planet with devastating consequences. If the emerging cultures follow in our footsteps the results will be catastrophic.

Looking at The Facts

The American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada agree that well planned vegan diets are a great idea. They issued a report to clarify their position on Vegetarian and Vegan diets in June 2003.* J Am Diet Assoc. 2003;103:748-765.

The paper reviewed the latest scientific data related to key nutrients for vegetarians, including protein, iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B-12, vitamin A, n-3 fatty acids, and iodine. They concluded ‘A vegetarian, including vegan, diet can meet current recommendations for all of these nutrients. In some cases, use of fortified foods or supplements can be helpful in meeting recommendations for individual nutrients.’

‘Well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate, and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals. Vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than non-vegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.’

Their advice to Health professionals is “Dietetics professionals have a responsibility to support and encourage those who express an interest in consuming a vegetarian diet.”

So what attracts people to veganism?

The ADA found that “Common reasons for choosing a vegetarian diet include health considerations, concern for the environment, and animal welfare factors. “ Also “economic reasons, ethical considerations, world hunger issues, and religious beliefs.”

The Vegetarian Society experience is that the biggest percentage (over 40%) say they were vegetarian for health reasons. With the rest divided between animal welfare and the environment – a minority cited not liking the taste of meat as a reason.

This is somewhat ironic considering many vegetarians merely substitute meat with other saturated fat rich animal products such as cheese. Many meals are based around starchy simple carbohydrates rather than complex carbs and are often protein poor.

Amongst members of The Vegan Society a much higher percentage cite animal welfare and the environment for adopting a purely plant based diet. Health is more often a secondary concern rather than a primary one for vegans. Many vegans typically benefit from a reduction in saturated fats from animal products such as dairy and increased intake of phyto-nutrients from plant foods. However they often still consume undesirable amounts of hydrogenated fats from convenience vegan foods (such as the infamous Holland & Barrett vegan porkless pie) or inhibit their intake of essential Omega 3 by consuming too much Omega 6 rich sunflower oil found in vegan staples such as shop bought hummus. Like the vegetarians many vegans also typically consume white pasta/rice high simple carbohydrate meals with some kind of sauce on vegetables. There are also a surprising number of vegans who smoke and drink heavily

Despite these often less than optimum diets, in dietary analysis studies vegans are always at least comparable to healthy eaters and vegetarians and many studies suggest they are healthier.

The Vegan Society maintains that providing Vegans ensure adequate sources of complete protein, green leafy vegetables, vitamin B12 and maintain a balance of EFA’s there is no reason why they can’t avoid many of the major killers of the 21st century identified by The World Health Organisation.

Nutritious and delicious

In her new cookbook Vegan by Hamlyn (ISBN 0600609154) city-based nutrition therapist Yvonne Bishop-Weston BSc Dip ION MBANT says ‘Far from being difficult or extreme, veganism is easy, straightforward and delicious – a great way to achieve optimum health and a clearer conscience.’ She clarifies all the important vegan sources of all the nutrients that you need to earn you above average health.

‘People are taking meat and dairy out of their diets without fully understanding what they need to replace them with so from a health perspective that’s what we have focused on.” However she’s quick to point out “it’s not a preachy health book”

Extra ten years of healthy living?

In Plant Based Nutrition and Health (ISBN 0907337279) by Stephen Walsh PhD he gets far deeper into veganism with recommendations backed up with over 50 pages of references based on human studies. “No use has been made of any information obtained by harming animals and I regard such procedures as both unethical and irrelevant to recommendations for humans.” He claims that the full potential of plant foods is largely untapped and the right choices can add ten years of healthy living to your life.

New breed of vegans

Books such as these and better choice in the shops and in restaurants have attracted new people to veganism who are attracted by the health benefits rather than just the ethics.

These new vegans refuse to settle for second best – they want flavour, value for money and they are not prepared to compromise their family’s health for their beliefs. They have looked at the facts and won’t be brushed off with a dismissive misinformed health professional telling them that they need to have cow’s milk to get calcium or meat to get iron and protein.

Even the growing number of ‘Flexitarians’ who have mainly vegan diets but occasionally eat a little organic meat or fish mean that GP’s and dieticians will need to keep abreast of all the latest facts rather than just settling comfortably for what they read in advertorials and food industry sponsored literature.

To help Doctors keep fully informed there is a health section on www.world veganday.com with all the latest health news. The Vegan Society think the Government is spot on to encourage the eating of more fruit and vegetables in their “Just Eat More (fruit and veg) “ Campaign that kicks off this Autumn. “We’ve been encouraging people to eat more fruit and vegetables for 60 years” says one spokesman.

Treat the Cause not the Symptom

Almost every day now there is another report that verifies the route to optimum health may be not in expensive designer drugs but in better, more nutritious diets.

A study published in BMC Medicine suggests that cannabis could protect against viruses that lie dormant in the body and cause cancer. (The Times 15/09/2004)

A carotenoid found abundantly in spinach could help the body fight prostate cancer, according to new findings on neoxanthin from scientists in Japan. (http://www.foodproductiondaily.com 09/09/2004)
Scientists from the US department for agriculture led by Agnes Rimando suggested that eating blueberries might help prevent clogged arteries, heart disease and obesity.(The Guardian 24/8)

In a study of middle-aged men, high intake of linoleic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid found in certain plants and vegetables, seemed to lower the risk of prostate and other cancers, Finnish researchers report. (Reuters 24/8)

New trials in the pipeline to test curcumin on humans for treating symptoms of cystic fibrosis and grapefruit extract (the great anti candida treatment) being used to destroy MRSA. (BMJ.com 17/8)

Scientists in Israel have found that pomegranate juice slows down the damage caused by cholesterol, reduces blood pressure and more than doubles the levels of antioxidants in the blood. According to the American Association for Cancer research, pomegranate extract helps to fight skin cancer and scientists in Holland have tested pure pomegranate seed oil on breast cancer patients. It is also claimed that drinking a daily glass of pomegranate juice can help to protect unborn babies, as it contains the recommended daily allowance of folic acid. (Daily Mirror 29/7)

A two-year study in Denmark has found that drinking two glasses of soy milk a day could protect post-menopausal women suffering from osteoporosis from developing lumbar spine bone loss. The researchers say that many women have been looking for alternative treatments following adverse press coverage of HRT. (Daily Mail 27/7)

(Maverick) Professor Jane Plant says there is strong evidence that dairy products promote breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. Speaking at a lecture on diet and cancer, she said: "My advice is don't have any dairy products in any form whatsoever. Just cut them out completely." (Press Association 17/3)

With headlines like these it’s no wonder more and more people are being drawn to veganism and clear that health professionals need to be very sure of their facts before just repeating what they hear from the British Nutrition Foundation and using the BNF’s “balanced plate” as a gospel guide to optimum health.

Tony Bishop-Weston


 
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