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Does It Pay to Be Vegan?

Check out another great post for our Doctor’s Corner series by Dr. Sal Tirrito of XOOD and Pima Heart. As always, thanks to Sal for contributing!

Does it pay to be Vegan?

By Salvatore J. Tirrito M.D., F.A.C.C.

First, let us go over some terminology. A vegetarian diet is one that excludes meat (poultry, pork, beef etc…). A vegan diet is one that, in addition to excluding meat, also excludes dairy (milk, cheese, & eggs). This seems to be the path that most people who identified themselves as vegetarian or vegan tend to follow. However, if you want to be technical about it, a true vegetarian in addition to not eating meat does not eat seafood and a true vegan, in addition to not eating meat and dairy does not eat seafood or honey (Bees are people too). For the purposes of this article we will define a vegetarian as someone who does not eat meat and a vegan as someone who does not eat meat or dairy.

In 21st century America it is easy to be a vegetarian. There is an abundance of meatless options available that will satisfy just about anyone’s taste buds (perhaps, with the exception of the most devout carnivore). The problem with being a vegetarian is that it may not be as healthy as you think. Many vegetarian diets can be extremely rich in dairy. As a cardiologist this creates a dilemma for me. Do I eat a turkey patty (low fat, low carbohydrate & high protein) or a vegetarian three-cheese lasagna (high fat, high carbohydrate & low protein)? From a moral point of view, I definitely feel better about milking a cow than cutting a turkey’s head off. From a health point of view, the turkey patty is clearly a better choice (sorry turkey).

Since I was already a vegetarian (99.9% of the time), but faced with these facts I decided the only choice I had was to go vegan. The problem is that it is not easy to be vegan. Poorly planned vegan diets can be deficient in calories, low protein and lacking important vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iodine, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. This may become even more of an issue if you are a teenager (and still growing), an expectant/nursing mother or an athlete.

I thought I was doing a decent job at following a vegan diet. Not eating dairy was easier than I thought it would be. I cut out eggs, drink soy milk instead of cow’s milk and eat soy cheese instead of cow’s (regular) cheese. However, as I sat there munching on my son’s favorite cookies reading the ingredient label on the box I realized that dairy or a derivative of it is in almost everything. Then I went out to a restaurant and my favorite pasta dish was off limits. The sauce had a cream (milk) base and it was covered with cheese. All of a sudden, my culinary options were rapidly diminishing. I felt the world closing in around me. I had to make a choice. Was I never going to eat out again realizing how hard it was to get a truly vegan meal? Was I going to angrily throw my Caf Macchiato back at my local barista’s head because she used cow’s milk instead of soymilk? Was I going to obsess about the tiny amount of milk powder in the cookie I was eating? No I was not.

I obsess about enough things and I did not feel like adding to the list. So what did I do? I came up with a plan that works for me. I don’t eat meat, but if the soup or noodles I am eating was made with a chicken broth instead of a vegetable broth, I deal with it. I stay away from dairy but if my favorite energy bar is made with egg protein instead of soy protein, again, I deal with it.

This is my rationale. I adapted a vegetarian lifestyle primarily for animal right’s reasons. I choose or try to be as vegan as possible for health reasons. As I alluded to earlier the health advantages to following a vegan diet are substantial. There is very compelling evidence to support that populations whose protein intake primarily comes from plant sources (as opposed to animal sources) clearly have a lower incidence of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, autoimmune disease and cancer. So what are animal sources of protein? If you have not figured it out already, it is meat and dairy. So people who limit or eliminate animal sources of protein tend to lead healthier lives.

Do we see an advantage to veganism in the rest of the animal kingdom? Let’s take a look, but first, if it has been a long time since elementary school, let me refresh your memory on a few terms.

Carnivore- diet consists only of animals

Herbivore- diet consists only of plants

Omnivore- diet consists of both animals and plants

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Looking at the above table, it is clear that herbivores win when compared to carnivores. Even dolphins whose diet consists of nothing but fish do not live nearly as long as humans do. When it comes to life span we are only bested by a few animals such as the Galapagos Land Tortoise (up to a whopping 200 years) and strangely enough several species of parrots (so choose your pet carefully otherwise you might have to bequeath it to someone in your will). However, of all the land mammals, humans, of which the bulk of them are omnivores, have the longest lifespan (some whales are thought to live for over 200 years but this has not been conclusively proven).

Although there clearly are health advantages to leading a vegan lifestyle, I must admit that this does not necessarily equate to living longer. There are really no studies to support that vegetarians or vegans live longer than your average omnivore. But then again, what is the goal of life? To live as long as possible? Or to live a meaningful life, surround yourself with good people and be happy and healthy? For me the answer is easy. I see way too many people suffering from chronic diseases every day and if the answer is adopting more of a vegan lifestyle, I am all for it.

So what should you do? Here are my recommendations:

  • Don’t smoke. This has nothing to do with this article but can never be mentioned enough.
  • Maintain an appropriate body weight. There is nothing worse then a fat vegan. Being overweight is a risk factor for many diseases regardless of whether you are vegetarian or vegan. On the flipside do not become a vegan or vegetarian to control your weight. It’s bad form. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of young men and women choose the vegetarian or vegan lifestyle not for animal right’s or for health reasons but for body image issues.
  • Get a lot of good quality aerobic exercise. Do not mistake eating a healthy diet with being healthy. I know some vegans and vegetarians who can’t walk up a flight of steps without getting short of breath. Eating a healthy diet without engaging in regular aerobic exercise is like quitting when the job is only halfway done. Your body is a temple. Treat it well and it will treat you well.
  • Eat a diet that is more plant based than animal based. This means limiting your intake of meat and dairy. Most importantly, educate yourself. Make good food choices. Make sure you are getting the appropriate amount of calories, protein, vitamins and minerals that you need to stay healthy. Don’t give those carnivores a chance to say: ‘See what happens when you don’t eat meat.’
  • Don’t stress. If you follow a vegan diet for health reasons and find out that your significant other’s mother baked you cookies using cow’s milk instead of soymilk, eat them. If you are a vegan for animal right’s reasons, don’t look down those who are trying to live a more vegan lifestyle but occasionally slip up. It’s obnoxious and at least they are trying.
  • Be Happy. Remember we are all here trying to do our part to make the world a better place (at least most of us are).

By the way, my local barista happily remade my caf macchiato with soymilk.

Salvatore J. Tirrito M.D., F.A.C.C.

Pima Heart Associates

HeartWise Fitness & Nutrition Inc- President/CEO

Proud maker of XOOD Natural Healthy Endurance Drinks

www.xoodhealth.com

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1 comment

1 reggie { 09.13.09 at 8:05 pm }

i love this….i use to grow my own food and was not eating fish for about 11 years on my 30 b-day i start eating fish..i am a cyclist and triathlete ..i find my recovery was taking to long..but like you say maybe i was not doing it right as a athlete.

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