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Biology 103
2005 Second Paper
On Serendip

Health benefits and risks of veganism

Stephanie Hunt

As Americans, we probably take our food for granted and rarely spend time thinking about its production. When we eat a hamburger we probably don't think about the energy put into growing food for the cow, raising the cow and we certainly avoid thinking about the slaughter of the cow. The U.S. Department of Commerce and Interior stated that a third of all raw materials consumed are in the production of animal based foods (1). Now, I know this sounds a lot what your parents used to say when you didn't eat your lima beans at dinner, but there are people all over the world who would kill for the food we have. By eating vegan, which is to cut out all animal products from one's diet, we can indirectly minimize our consumption. I would like to point out before delving into the controversy surrounding the topic of vegan diets that I am not vegan or vegetarian, but I do make a conscious effort to eat as little meat and dairy as possible. Although there are many reasons that a person might become vegan, such as environmental reasons or simply a concern for animals, many people become vegan because of the health benefits. The more I explore this topic, the more controversy I have found, particularly in the area of raising vegan children. As I was researching, I kept the mindset that what I was should be either trying to persuade me to become vegan or not to become vegan, so I will outline the arguments that I found to be most persuasive.

Surprisingly, (or maybe not surprisingly), most sources about vegan health focused on what needs to be done in order to make a vegan diet healthy instead of why a vegan diet can be intrinsically healthy. This suggests to the skeptic of veganism that a vegan diet in and of itself is not healthy as it needs to be supplemented with numerous other vitamins and minerals and meals need to be planned in such a careful way. There are however, some benefits to eating no meat and lots of veggies. Heart disease is strongly correlated with high cholesterol, which is found for the most part in meat products (1) and eggs (5). Eating vegetarian can reduce a person's risk of heart disease by 30% (4). This may be helpful for a person with high cholesterol who is at risk for heart disease. Also, it has been found that even just reducing 5% of the saturated fats from dairy products and replacing them with unsaturated fats lowers the risk of heart attack and death from heart disease by 40% in women (3). Although the study mentions nothing of its generalizability to men, I would be hesitant to make such a generalization, based on the idea that men and women store fat differently. Eating vegetarian is also claimed to have the following benefits: reduce your risk of "certain cancers" (source is unclear as to what cancers in particular) by 40%, kidney and gallstones, diet-related diabetes, high blood pressure and health problems related to obesity (4). The consumption of animal fats has been linked to numerous health problems: heart disease, colon and lung cancer, osteoporosis, diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension and obesity (among others) (5). This again is correlational data and does not imply that animal fats cause these conditions, but it may be helpful for people who are prone to developing one or more of these conditions to change their diet to include fewer animal fats. Antibiotics, hormones and other toxins are used in the production of meat products. In many cases, these accumulate in the animal fat and people then consume them. Futhermore, excessive protein intake can lead to colon cancer and osteoporosis (1).

Thus far, the health benefits of "veganism" seem to be consistent with those of vegetarianism. There seems to be nothing in particular about veganism that makes it healthier than simply cutting out or even reducing meat products. Vegan foods tend to be low in fat and high in fiber and nutrients (5). This could be particularly beneficial to people on specialized diets. There are some vitamins and minerals that come from particular plants. Iodine is best received from plant products; selenium comes from Brazil nuts; D2 from shitake mushrooms, Omega-3 fatty acids from flaxseed oil (2). These are foods that a vegan may be more likely to eat than a non-vegan, but still gives no argument for eating a solely vegan diet. Also, it seems as though many of the benefits come from eating organic foods: whole grains, strongly colored vegetables, avoidance of over-processed foods containing hydrogenating vegetable oils (2).

Vegans must make sure to get all of their daily dosages of vitamins and minerals. This requires supplementation. The most common supplement among vegans is vitamin B-12 as well as other B-vitamins (1). B-12 is important because it regulates the levels of homocysteine in the blood. Without B-12, a person can suffer from sever irreversible brain damage and with a slighter deficiency of the vitamin, one can suffer from unusual fatigue, faulty digestion, nausea, loss of appetite and amenorrhea (6). B-12 can be found in vegan foods such as nutritional yeast, inactive yeast and in foods like soy-milk which can come fortified with B-12 (6). The health benefits of eating vegan can be achieved just as easily by eating a vegetarian diet, and all the necessary nutrients can be included in a vegetarian diet without supplementation, although vegetarians must also monitor their intake of B-vitamins to be sure that they are consuming enough (1).

In addition to B-vitamins, vegans may also lack iron, protein, zinc and calcium, of which meat and dairy products are the typical sources. However, it is possible to get iron and zinc from whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Protein is found in low levels in most plant foods: lower levels in fruits and higher levels in legumes. Calcium is found in spring greens, kale, mustard greens or Chinese cabbage and calcium-enriched soy milk can easily be purchased at an organic market (2). Calcium can also be better retained in the body by adding a tablespoon of salt to your diet daily or by adding potassium (3). These vitamin and mineral sources demonstrate the careful planning aspect of veganism. It is important to know what vitamins and minerals come from what foods and to plan meals accordingly without eating a monotonous, non-varied diet. For most people, this is a difficult and impractical task and if they eat only vegan foods, their health could suffer as a result.

As I mentioned previously, the most debate in the health aspect of veganism is whether or not it is healthy for children. Anecdotally, there have been claims made that mothers can have healthy children even if they are vegan during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. Pregnant women who eat a varied vegan diet with a reliable source of B-12 will have a healthy baby (7). Also, claims have been made that infants and children can be healthy following a vegan diet (1). Cow's milk may contain too much fat and protein for infants, as it is intended naturally for baby calves (5), meaning breastmilk is the healthier option for young babies. A benefit of a breastfeeding vegan mother is that her breastmilk will not have the toxins and pesticides that a meat-eating mother's breastmilk will have (7). However, there is contradictory evidence showing that vegan mothers suffer from a vitamin deficiency and their breastfeeding children are likely to suffer from disorders such as vitamin B-12 deficient anemia, dystrophy, weakness, muscular atrophy, loss of tendon reflexes, psychomotor regression, and haematological abnormalities (1).

It is possible for children to safely follow a vegan diet, as long as proper supplements are available. Some people even claim that children who are vegan are healthier because they eat more fruits and vegetables. They get sick less often and have fewer food allergies (7). Infants who have passed the breastfeeding stage tend to eat primarily vegan anyway: mashed fruits and vegetables (7). On the other hand, a vegan child may have low volumetric stomach capacity and it has been found that vegan parents tend to limit the number of meals and snacks, as well as the caloric intake of their children (1). Recently, a couple was charged with neglect of their four children because the enforced a strict raw foods diet. This was a case taken to the extreme, as the refrigerator was locked and the children were taught that cooked foods are "evil" (8). The case does show, however, that vegan parents need to be careful to make sure that their children are receiving proper nutrition while they are developing.

There was little compelling evidence that eating vegan is a particularly healthy diet and can be, in fact, very dangerous for those who do not know exactly what they are doing. Meals must be well planned to include all the proper nutritional elements. There are however, some health benefits to avoiding meat products and eating more vegetables, but one does not necessarily have to be vegan to do so. It seems to me that diet is a very individualized topic: some people may be healthier when eating less meat some people may be healthier eating no meat and some people may be healthier eating fewer vegetables. A diet will probably work best when individual differences such as how active a person is and what diseases they may be predisposed to are taken into account, but one thing is certain for all diets: they need to be balanced to ensure proper nutrition. I guess there actually was some importance to the ever-changing food pyramid that every child learned in fifth grade health class.

WWW Sources
1)The Good, The Bad and The Vegan
2)The Vegan Society: Nutrition
3)The Vegan Society: Dairy products and health
4)The Food Doctor
5)Vegan Action: About veganism
6)Mid-Hudson Vegetarian Society. B-12: The misunderstood vitamin
7)VegFamily: Raising children vegan.
8)Vegan couple cleared of starving child, guilty of child neglect.

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