Lately I’ve been doing some reading on the health benefits of the vegan diet. I personally switched over to the vegan diet for reasons not directly related to my health (although at first I worried about negative impacts on my health from the switch), but I’ve since realized that lots of people make the switch at least partially due to the potential benefits. I thought I would share a brief summary of what I’ve been reading about so far. It’s very interesting and very surprising, especially for those who have grown up hearing that meat and milk is vital for growing because of protein, calcium, etc.
A typical question a non-vegan will ask about the vegan diet is “but wherever will you get your protein?” The answer is: in any way I’d like that doesn’t come from an animal source. There are many different kinds of protein and the vegan diet offers many different ways to go about ensuring one has the necessary amount. It is also worth noting that while many non-vegans fret about the lack of protein in the vegan diet, 1 ¼ cups of tofu contains 50 grams of protein, exactly meeting the daily need. One egg, on the other hand, contains 5.5 grams of protein. This means that a person would need to consume 9 eggs to get the recommended amount for the day.
The best proteins are the ones that are “completed” with amino acids. All of the amino acids that are found in animal protein were derived from the plants that the animal consumed. Humans are just as capable as obtaining amino acids directly from plants as well, therefore ensuring that complete proteins are available within a vegan diet. Both complete and incomplete proteins are essential to the health and wellbeing of every human, and vegans can find protein in many non-animal sources such as: broccoli, quinoa, tofu, tempeh and other “meat substitutes”, soymilk, beans, and even certain mushrooms! This is in no a way a complete list of possible sources of proteins.
Another concern non-vegans commonly have is related to calcium. For generations Americans have been raised on the myth that consuming cow milk is the absolute best method of obtaining calcium. This is simply not true, and it is actually quite illogical to assume so. Humans are the only animals that continue to drink animal milk after infancy and we’re also the only animals that drink another’s milk. Cow milk is intended for calves and it’s meant to be quick nutrition for speedy growth. Therefore, cow milk is very fatty and high in calories. There is also evidence that suggests calcium from cow milk is very difficult or even impossible for our body to fully absorb.
Of course, this is difficult to argue because many people have formed an intense emotional bond with drinking milk—it’s depicted in our culture as necessary and beneficial in numerous ways and it’s hard to expel notions that one has grown up being taught as fact. At any rate, it is more constructive to discuss the benefits of calcium and how it can be obtained from non-animal sources (and be even better for you because of it!). Calcium helps prevent osteoporosis and other bone-related diseases, can reduce risk of heart disease as well as certain cancers, and also plays a role in the health of our teeth. Calcium can be found in kale and other leafy vegetables, soy milk, nuts, oranges, raisins, hummus, carrots, apricots, and lentils. These sources have the added benefit of containing no cholesterol or saturated fat.
This is in no way a comprehensive list of all of the health benefits of a vegan diet. While various studies have shown the benefits of a vegan diet, unfortunately there exists very little funding to truly understand the sheer magnitude of all possible benefits. If veganism were practiced on a very large scale, it is likely that there would be many improvements in the general health of a population. Unfortunately, there is such a vast amount of misinformation relating to the “dangers of the vegan diet.” Calcium myths still abound, for example, and even general practitioners believe that cow milk is the best way to make children grow healthy and strong. I’ve remained at the respectable height of 5’2” for 4-5 years now (coming for a long line of short ancestors) and have had my doctor anxiously ask me every annual exam if I’m drinking at least 1 glass of milk a day. Hopefully, as a society we will move towards more open thinking, but in the meantime I will sit here and enjoy my soy milk and kale chips.
If you are interested in doing more reading, I highly recommend the following books:
Davis, Brenda, R.D., and Vesanto Melina, M.S., R.D. Becoming Vegan: The Complete Guide to Adopting a Healthy Plant-Based Diet. Summertown: Book Publishing Company, 2000. Print.
Saunders, Kerrie K. The Vegan Diet As Chronic Disease Prevention: Evidence Supporting the New Four Food Groups. N.p.: Lantern Books, 2003. Print.