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Why Vegan? >  For Your Health

If you care about your health, there`s lots you should know about meat and dairy products! Click on a link or scroll down the page. All the following information has been taken from the Viva! guide The Healthiest Diet of All

Coronary Heart Disease

Now the leading cause of death in Europe with Britain at the top of the league table. It kills one in five men and one in six women (9).

Just about every large-scale study of people and their day-to-day living (epidemiological studies) have found vegetarians to be considerably less at risk of heart disease. The percentage by which the risk drops varies from study to study but many estimate it between 25 and 50 per cent (12, 13, 14). Recent estimates put a figure of 25 per cent lower mortality (death rate) from heart disease in vegetarians (15).

All the main researchers are in agreement, that animal products are the principal cause of degenerative diseases.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a type of lipid (fat) called a sterol, made by the liver and present in every cell in an animal?s body, including human animals. Cholesterol is only found in foods of animal origin - meat, dairy, eggs, fish, shrimps, prawns and shellfish. Plant foods contain none. As our liver makes all the cholesterol we need there is no dietary need for cholesterol at all (WHO) and vegetarians have much lower levels than meat eaters (17, 18, 19, 20).

Cholesterol is a well-known risk factor for heart disease and exists in two forms. So-called bad cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins or LDL) is dumped on the artery wall, reduces blood flow and causes heart attacks and strokes. Good cholesterol (high-density lipoproteins or HDL) is carried to the liver so the body can get rid of it. Around 70 per cent of the UK have been shown to have bad cholesterol levels above the recommended levels (21). Saturated fats, found mainly in animal fats and many processed foods, raise cholesterol levels in the body. This type of fat is found principally in the fatty portion of meat, eggs and milk products.

The process through which cholesterol damages arteries is thought to be caused by oxidation - the action of molecules called free radicals (see p15). They can only be destroyed by other molecules called antioxidants (also see p16), found largely in fruit and vegetables. Taking vitamin supplements and looking for magic cures to counter high cholesterol levels hasn?t worked. According to Dr Lori Mosca of Michigan University (and many other researchers): "The best scientific evidence we have is that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is protective against heart disease" (24).

Clogged Arteries

The official name is atherosclerosis. It can begin in childhood and starts when certain white blood cells stick to the lining of the artery. Gradually they make their way through the outer covering of the artery wall and become established there. Over time they grow and form what?s called plaques by collecting droplets of fatty substances, in particular tiny particles of cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins). The more cholesterol in the blood, the faster the plaques grow. As they swell they protrude into the artery restricting the flow of blood.

If the surface of the swelling cracks, a blood clot may form over it (thrombus) and block the already narrowed artery causing a heart attack or it may break away and cause a blockage elsewhere (thrombosis). The fibrous top of the swelling may itself become detached and be carried away in the blood stream, also causing an artery blockage (embolism).

As with all heart-related diseases, vegetarians suffer less than meat eaters and the more meat you eat, the more likely you are to end up with clogged arteries. It?s a very serious condition but fortunately, recent research shows that an animal-free diet can actually heal some of the damage done to the arteries. A low-fat, vegetarian diet eaten for just a year can actually reverse blockages, resulting in an improved blood flow (29).

If you still doubt that simple fruit and veg can have such a dramatic effect, it?s worth listening to William C. Roberts, distinguished editor-in-chief of the prestigious American Journal of Cardiology:

"Although human beings eat meat we are not natural carnivores. No matter how much fat carnivores eat they do not develop atherosclerosis. When we kill animals to eat them, they end up by killing us because their flesh, which contains cholesterol and saturated fat, was never intended for human beings who are natural herbivores" (30).

High Blood Pressure

The scientific term is hypertension and the condition is directly linked to heart disease and clogged arteries - the higher the pressure the greater the risk. Many people don?t even realise they have high blood pressure - hence the term ?silent killer?. In the 2003 Health Survey for England almost one in three men and women had hypertension (142).

Blood pressure is measured both when the heart is actually beating (systolic) and between beats - the resting rate (diastolic) - and hence is always quoted as two figures, eg 120:80.

Blood pressure rises as we get older but some people defy this seemingly inevitable development. Good physical activity, maintaining a stable weight, low levels of animal fat in the diet and limiting the amount of salt eaten all have an effect.

But even allowing for all that, the blood pressure of vegetarians does not increase in the same way as meat eaters - in fact it goes up little with age. It?s not surprising, then, that a vegetarian diet can be used to treat high blood pressure (31).

There is an inescapable link with meat and a Californian study as long ago as 1926 showed this. The blood pressure of vegetarians was raised by 10 per cent simply by feeding them meat - and it happened in only two weeks (32).

Strokes

Constant high blood pressure has the ability to weaken blood vessels, which can eventually rupture and haemorrhage (aneurysm) and this can kill nerve cells in the brain. Similarly, a blood clot (thrombus) or the detached fibrous cap of an arterial plaque (embolism) may cause a blockage in the brain. The outcome can be loss of speech, memory or movement or, frequently, death. The higher the blood pressure the higher the risk of strokes, and pressures at the top of the range can increase that risk ten-fold (WHO). All the advantages of a vegetarian diet in reducing blood pressure apply equally to reducing the risk of strokes. Just eating five or more servings of fresh fruit and veg a day reduces the risk of stroke by 26 per cent (149).

Cancer

There are three separate factors which contribute to causing cancer - heredity (by far the least important factor), environmental pollution and diet. A poor diet is second only to smoking as one of the largest preventable risk factors for cancer. The Department of Health estimates that such a diet may be responsible for up to one-third of all cancer deaths (143). Dr Michael Greger, writer and presenter of Stopping Cancer Before It Starts, estimates that 70 per cent of cancers could be prevented by diet (146).

Figures which illustrate how diet is crucial are those for colon cancer. Americans are four times more likely to develop it than Japanese. But when researchers looked at Japanese people who had moved to the US they found that their risk of colon cancer shot up to near that of Americans. The main difference between the two groups was identified as diet - a traditional Japanese diet being low in animal products while a typical US diet was extremely high in them. Japanese Americans tended to adopt the US style of eating once they moved to that country (42).

It is now known that people who eat two or more portions of red meat a day increase their risk of bowel cancer by one-third. And researchers have discovered the mechanism. Published in Cancer Research in 2006, this study took cells from meat eaters and vegetarians and found those eating red meat had a higher rate of DNA mutation, increasing the likelihood of cancer. It seems this damage is caused by N-nitrosocompounds, which form in the large bowel after eating red meat (148).

The WHO has produced a list of dietary pluses and minuses which affect cancer. Fat, it says, plays a part in breast, colon, prostate and rectum cancer while fruit and vegetables offer protection from lung, colon, bladder, rectum, oral cavity, stomach, cervix and oesophagus cancers. On breast cancer it says there is a direct association between the numbers who die and the intake of high quantities of calories and dietary fats such as milk and beef. This has been confirmed by two very recent studies which have found that breast cancer risk is increased with the amount of saturated animal fat in the diet (22, 23).

The top 12 cancer fighting foods are: Greens (eg beet, mustard, turnip, bok choi, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, chard, kale, watercress); Oats and other Wholegrains (eg wheat, rye, millet, quinoa); Berries (eg cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries); Garlic; Yams and Sweet Potatoes; Beans, Peas and Lentils of every kind; B12 fortified foods (see page 15); Flax seeds - ground up and oil; Miso and tofu and other soya products (not the highly refined ones such as mock meats).

Diabetes

Diabetes mellitus is a condition in which the mechanism that turns sugar into energy no longer functions properly. The outcome is that the body can?t control the amount of sugar in the blood. In virtually every developing country in the world, diseases associated with affluence are becoming the new health problem. As processed and fat-rich animal foods are increasingly seen as desirable foods so the diseases develop. And they follow a pattern according to the WHO. One of the first to show itself is diabetes, followed several decades later by heart disease and gallstones, then cancer and finally chronic disorders of the gastrointestinal tract.

Diabetics can benefit from a high-fibre, vegetarian diet and people who are already eating this kind diet have a 45 per cent reduced chance of developing the disease. Heavy meat eaters on the other hand - those who eat meat six or more times a week - are nearly four times as likely to develop diabetes (54). The ADA states that diabetes is much less likely to be a cause of death in vegetarians than it is in meat eaters and puts it down to vegetarians? higher intake of complex carbohydrates (starchy foods) and the fact that they tend to be lighter. Again, the science is consistent, that diabetes is up to 90 per cent higher in meat eating men and 40 per cent higher in women. Even allowing for the fact that vegetarians tend to be lighter than meat eaters, they still face less risk (55, 56, 57).

Gallstones

Gallstones are formed when bile becomes saturated with cholesterol - they are, in fact, composed of cholesterol crystals. They can go undetected for years but can also lead to serious conditions - infection, inflammation, colic, peritonitis and even gangrene. They are much more common in women than in men.

The WHO states that the condition affects meat eaters considerably more than it does vegetarians. A study of 800 women established that meat eaters are two-and-a-half to four times more likely to have gallstones than vegetarians (63).

Obesity

It isn?t just a question of being overweight; obesity is linked with many diseases, according to the WHO. It is, in fact, the same string of degenerative conditions associated with meat eating. Obese women face an increased risk of cancers of the gallbladder, breast and uterus - in men the cancer risk increases in the prostate and kidneys. Most worrying of all is when fat is deposited around the abdomen. It seems that ?beer guts? are a bit more serious than simply not looking good.

Obesity is much less common amongst vegetarians than it is amongst meat eaters (64, 65). In fact, vegetarians tend to be approximately 10 per cent leaner (66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72) and most overweight people shed pounds when they change to a veggie diet (73, 74), although doctors still rarely recommend such a course, which speaks volumes about doctors? lack of nutritional training.

In Britain, there is now an epidemic of the condition, and almost two-thirds of the English population are either overweight or obese. In 1999, the then health minister Tessa Jowell said: "There are many reasons why obesity is on the increase, including lack of understanding of what constitutes a balanced diet, poverty, limited access to fresh fruit and vegetables and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle" (75). (See VVF Globesity report and V-Plan Diet online at www.vegetarian.org.uk.)

Osteoporosis

All kinds of names have been given to this condition, including widows? stoop and brittle bones. It is, in fact, the loss of bone mass - essentially calcium - leading to more fragile bones. It is a very serious disease and accounts for more deaths - mostly from fractured hips - than cancers of the cervix, breast and uterus combined (76).

Meat is not a source of calcium so the amount taken in by vegetarians tends to be similar or greater than in meat eaters. The slogan ?drink more milk? in order to avoid osteoporosis has almost certainly got more to do with marketing than good dietary advice because preventing osteoporosis isn?t that simple. Milk contains protein and the more protein you consume - animal protein - the more your body loses calcium.

Animal protein produces an acid overload which the body tries to neutralise by calling on its calcium stores in the bones, which are then urinated out of the body. (Not surprisingly, vegans urinate less calcium than meat eaters.) The process happens through a complex series of reactions involving the body?s hormonal balance, which is why osteoporosis is often associated with post-menopausal women when the hormonal balance is readjusted.

The ideal scenario for calcium consumption is to have a good intake and minimal loss - although no one is quite sure what the ideal intake should be. On the intake side, calcium is found in most green leafy vegetables (the darker the better) and the amount available from these sources is equal to or better than milk (77, 78, 79, 80).

Nuts (especially almonds) and seeds (especially sesame seeds) as well as pulses of all types such as beans, lentils and soya are also good sources. Of course, these vegetable sources also provide other important minerals, antioxidants and complex carbohydrates.

Iron Deficiency Anaemia

More nonsensical and inaccurate claims have been made about this condition than any other. So successful have they been that it has almost entered the public?s consciousness that to avoid iron deficiency you must eat meat. It?s simply not true. Vegetarian diets which include vegetables, legumes, fruits and grains provide all the iron necessary (85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90).

Iron deficiency is, however, the biggest nutritional problem facing the world and the WHO estimates that 750 million people have it - most of them women and most of child-bearing age. The real causes of iron deficiency are poor iron absorption and blood loss - not just diet (91).

All the main health advisory bodies - ADA, BMA, WHO, PCRM - agree that iron deficiency anaemia is no more common in vegetarians than it is amongst meat eaters. However, that doesn?t alter the fact that it is a problem for many women and all should ensure they have good sources of iron in their diet, particularly during and shortly after their periods. Iron-rich foods in a vegetarian diet include pulses, dark green leafy vegetables, wholegrains and dried fruits.

In a study of 33,883 meat eaters, 18,840 vegetarians and 2,956 vegans in the UK, vegans were found to have the highest daily intake of iron (147).

Protein Deficiency

This is not a problem for vegetarians - in fact we defy you to find a recorded case amongst vegetarians anywhere in the Western world. If you don?t starve yourself you will automatically obtain enough protein.

You occasionally still see references to ?first class? and ?second class? protein - meat being first class and vegetable sources being second. What it really means is that meat contains all the essential amino acids that we need in our diet, which make up protein while a vegetarian diet provides amino acids from a variety of plant sources. Vegetarians obtain more than enough of all the amino acids. So forget about always having to eat certain types of foods together at the same meal (combining) - it?s unnecessary (105). Although you will do this naturally in a healthy veggie diet, such as pulses (eg chick peas in hummus or baked beans) with wholegrains (eg wholemeal bread) and so on. Soya is now considered as nutritionally equivalent to meat in that it contains all the eight essential amino acids necessary for health in the one plant food. Foods high in protein include peas, beans, lentils, wholegrains, nuts and seeds.

The real problem is not too little protein but too much, particularly for meat eaters. Animal protein is associated with many of the degenerative diseases (including heart disease and cancer) while vegetable protein isn?t. Meat protein is also believed to play an important part in causing osteoporosis and kidney disease according to the WHO. It goes without saying that diets which emphasise excessive amounts of animal protein over carbohydrates are a recipe for disaster as far as health is concerned and should be avoided at all costs.

Vitamin B12

This is a very important vitamin - made by bacteria in the soil - essential for the development of blood cells and for nerve function. A lack of it can lead to collapse of the nervous system and eventually death. The liver has stores of vitamin B12 for up to three years. Vegetarians get sufficient B12 from free-range eggs and dairy products. Vegans are amply supplied by the use of B12-fortified foods such as soya milk, mock soya meats (TVP), many breakfast cereals, margarines and yeast extracts such as Marmite, Vecon and Vegemite. It is now thought that vitamin B12 from fortified foods is better absorbed by the body than the vitamin B12 from meat, poultry and fish (106).

Rickets

A disease in children where softening of the bones is caused by a deficiency of vitamin D. Humans make vitamin D from the action of sunlight on the skin. It has been calculated that exposure of hands and face to sunlight for 10 to 15 minutes a day is enough to prevent rickets (136). The liver then stores the vitamin so ensuring an adequate source throughout the winter. Many everyday foods are now fortified with vitamin D - margarines, breakfast cereals and most brands of soya milk.

Saturated Fats

More accurately, saturated fatty acids and their main source in the UK diet is animal products! They have a direct and major impact on blood cholesterol and therefore promote heart disease. Saturated fats have also been linked with cancers of the colon and breast, according to the WHO, who state that they contain no essential ingredients and don?t need to be included in the diet.

Free Radicals

They weren?t discovered until the early 1980s, they?re thought to play a part in causing some 60 diseases and are capable of wreaking havoc on healthy cells.

Free radicals are unstable molecules, a product of oxidation and in a sense the rust of the body. In stable molecules, electrons normally associate in pairs, providing a balance. Everyday functions such as simply breathing, digesting food or moving about can remove one electron from a molecule, creating a free radical. This now unstable molecule tries to regain an electron by snatching one from another molecule. When it succeeds, another free radical is created and a chain reaction is set up in which the DNA, the body?s vital genetic information, may be damaged.

When the damaged DNA divides to reproduce, it can produce cancer or other disease-causing cells. As well as bodily functions, cigarette smoke, pollution, ultraviolet light and stress can create free radicals but so can cooking - in particular meat. Researchers in the US cooked beef burgers, bacon and soya-based burgers and found that both the beef burgers and bacon produced significant amounts of the most damaging free radicals while the soya burger produced none (116).

The remedy for free radicals are molecules called antioxidants.

Antioxidants

All the world?s health advisory bodies agree that antioxidants are part of the body?s vital self-protection mechanism which actually defend you against 60 or more diseases, including the big killers of heart disease and cancer. They were almost unknown until comparatively recently and knowledge is still growing.

The three big saviours are vitamins - the beta-carotene form of vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E. None of them is found abundantly in meat, but the number of different plant foods which contain them is enormous. A recent discovery has added another powerful group of antioxidants to the list - flavonoids. They, too, are not found in meat but in predominantly red, purple or black fruit and vegetables.

Folate

The importance of folate in the diet is beginning to be appreciated, particularly by pregnant women. Lack of folate has been linked with serious birth defects but it is also associated with increased levels of cancer and heart disease. Folate also has an essential role in the formation of DNA and in manufacturing blood cells and it contributes to the formation of haem - the iron constituent of haemoglobin. It?s pretty important stuff!

The major sources of folate are all plant-based and so most vegetarians have considerably higher intakes than meat eaters (117, 118). In fact, some studies show that only vegetarians and vegans achieve the recommended daily intake of this vitamin (119).

As explained above folate is one of the three key B-vitamins that is now known to play a part in lowering levels of homocysteine in the body - a major risk factor for heart disease.

Fibre

Fibre is the substance that makes up the cell walls of plants and passes through the body without being digested. It provides the bulk that ensures food is processed quickly through the bowels and because of the nature of their diet, vegetarians have a higher fibre intake than meat eaters. The fact that fibre speeds waste products through the body reduces the time that noxious agents - possibly cancer forming agents - spend in the intestines. It also affects the rate at which glucose (sugar) is released and absorbed and so helps reduce the chance of diabetes. Fibre also reduces the urge to eat and so it helps with appetite control - according to the WHO. Not surprisingly, diets high in fibre give a lower risk of heart disease and some cancers.

Dairy

Cow?s milk is largely made up of animal fats, animal protein and lactose - none of which is required by the body. Difficulty in digesting lactose - the sugar found in cow?s milk - is extremely common right across the world. A staggering 75 per cent of the population worldwide is thought to be lactose intolerant (107). Most people can tolerate small quantities but research has been undertaken regarding its possible connection with ovarian problems and cataracts (122, 123).

Often the inability to digest cow?s milk goes unnoticed, particularly in children, but can lead to iron deficiency because of the intestinal bleeding it can cause (114).

Cow?s milk is loaded with 35 different hormones and 11 growth factors and there is considerable concern about its oestrogen and IGF1 (insulin-like growth factor) content (144). This is because cows are now milked seven months into their nine month pregnancy, which means that hormone levels are markedly high. Early evidence suggests that increased exposure to cow?s oestrogen and IGF1 raises the risk of certain cancers (particularly breast and prostate).

It?s worth remembering that there are about 5,000 species of mammals in the world but only humans consume milk after weaning. We are also the only one to drink the milk of another species, cows! Their milk is designed for calves who grow four times faster than human babies. (See VVF White Lies report online at www.vegetarian.org.uk.)

Fish

Fish is seemingly promoted as the new penicillin - the magic bullet for our health that will banish all our ills! All fish, it is claimed, are healthy but the oily fish such as salmon and mackerel are especially healthy containing, as they do, the good or omega-3 fats the body can?t live without. These omega-3 fats certainly help protect the heart but plant oils, not fish oils, are the true wonder foods here. According to the UK government?s own surveys, all fish contain toxic poisons such as mercury, PCBs and dioxins. Irresponsible human activity has polluted the world?s oceans and fish are literally swimming in a sea of human waste. To expect healthy food to come from an unhealthy environment is little short of madness! And over-fishing has virtually decimated fish stocks worldwide. But what of the claim that fish oils protect the heart?

Plant oils are twice as effective in lowering the risks of heart attack in high risk patients than fish oils! Where people are already eating a heart-friendly diet - one low in saturated fat, for example, typical of many vegetarian and vegan diets - adding fish to the diet will produce no additional benefit to the heart. Seeds, nuts, beans and their oils are the richest known sources of the essential good fats we need in the diet. Green vegetables are also a source. Walnuts, linseed (flax) and rapeseed oil are all exceptionally rich in omega-3 fats and are all easily available in supermarkets and healthfood shops. (See VVF Fishing For Facts report online at www.vegetarian.org.uk.)

Mothers & Babies

The VVF is continually receiving reports of poor medical advice in pregnancy, particularly from GPs - although fortunately they are getting less frequent. Often women are told they should eat some meat during their pregnancy. This poor advice possibly reflects the fact that most GPs receive almost no nutritional education throughout the whole of their training nor subsequently.

Fruits, wholegrains, vegetables and legumes provide all the nutrients necessary for a healthy pregnancy (124). In fact, vegetarian mothers, very importantly, have reduced levels of contaminants in their breast milk (125, 126). One of the most worrying of these is the residue from pesticides. The ADA has no doubts that vegetarian diets are suitable for every stage of the life cycle, including pregnancy and lactation. There is currently some concern that there may be a link between the proteins in cow?s milk and other dairy products and diabetes in the newborn baby. A review of the clinical evidence suggests that children with type 1 diabetes are more likely to have been breast fed for less than three months and to have been exposed to cow?s milk protein before four months of age (145).

All pregnant women and mothers should carefully watch their intake of iron and vitamin B12, increasing their intake of foods which contain them - particularly vegan women. It is vital for vegan mothers to eat a good supply of B12-fortified foods and if they don?t like those, to take vitamin B12 supplements. B12 is needed for the developing foetus and after giving birth, if mum breast feeds, the baby relies on her to supply B12 in her breast milk. (See page 15 and Viva!/VVF Vegetarian and Vegan Mother & Baby Guide at www.viva.org.uk/guides/motherandbaby or call 0117 944 1000 for a copy for 1.50.)

Children

Something deeply depressing is happening to the diet of our children. For many, fresh fruit and vegetables are completely alien, fibre is almost unknown and the consumption of denatured processed foods is a daily event. We are deep into the burger, chips and sweets culture and obesity is booming. Effectively, children?s consumption of sugar and fat - much of it animal fat - is out of control.

Some estimates claim that as many as 40 per cent of all UK children are eating three times the recommended levels of both. These diets are far worse than those their parents ate and so the prognosis for future cases of cancer and heart disease, already at epidemic proportions, is extremely worrying. The first signs of atherosclerosis have already been identified in children (120). In this context, the doom-laden warnings that some journalists give to teenagers about the risks of a vegetarian diet are nothing short of laughable. Many, if not most, young people eat an extremely poor diet. Of course, anyone can eat a poor diet, including vegetarian children, but the science shows that giving up meat and animal fats is one of the healthiest moves anyone can make, regardless of their age.

Vegetarian children grow and develop in exactly the way they should (127, 128) and developmental tests show their mental age to be over a year in advance of their chronological age (129), and they have a higher IQ (150). There is also evidence that they enter puberty later, which has shown to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer later in life (130, 131).

Studies done in the 1940s, shortly after the war when little meat and dairy was available, showed that children grow and develop quite normally on a diet consisting of plenty of bread and vegetables with minimal amounts of milk and meat (132). In fact, a whole string of studies has shown that vegetarian and vegan children develop healthily and normally (121, 133).

The BMA considers that a vegetarian diet contains all the necessary nutrients and is suitable for infants. The ADA agrees that infants, children and adolescents all grow and develop normally and that vegetarian diets can be healthy and satisfy all their nutritional needs. A scientific review published recently in the Journal of Pediatric Health Care backed this, stating: "Nurse practitioners... can reassure parents, children, and adolescents that a well-planned vegetarian diet is a healthy choice that promotes growth and decreases the risk for diabetes, heart disease and cancer,"(141). (See VVF Veggie Health for Kids guide for more information on bringing up children on a vegetarian or vegan diet at www.vegetarian.org.uk/guides/vhfk01 or call 0117 970 5190 for a copy for 1.50.)

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