My Vegan Journey: on the science of nutrition and disease
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I finally decided this year to make the leap and become fully vegan. I had been minimizing the amount of meat I'd eaten for years, and after reading the book The China Study, I learned so many health problems are related to diet.
If you're anything like me, then you've been struggling with your diet for years. Being overweight, I have often fallen into this diet fad - Atkins, low-carb, high protein, you name it I've done it. I've read literally thousands of publications on nutrition, and if anything what I've realized more than anything is what a mess is made of nutritional science.
If you're a layman like me, you may get pulled in by clickbait and you may read articles that are written by people who just don't know what they're talking about. You may also be given contradictory advice by doctors and nutritionists who just don't know any better. Not only are doctors barely given any nutritional information at all, but where the information is coming from is suspect. It's not their fault - but the people who are writing the "rules" on nutrition (FDA guidelines) are also sitting on the board of some very powerful food industry lobbies (meat and dairy industries).
You're probably thinking, oh no, she's one of those guys. Conspiracy theorist. Actually, that couldn't be further from the truth. I am an Engineer and at the core of what makes me tick is one thing - science.
I want to bring this to a bit of a philosophical level first, though. If you think about our bodies, they are complex ecosystems that are made up of cells that each have a job to do. They all work together in collaboration, and these interactions are extremely complex. That's part of the reason why it's so hard to pin down nutrition - because food, itself, is also made up of a complex set of factors. If you take an orange, say, you can't just say that the orange is giving you vitamin C. It's giving you a variety of vitamins and minerals, and the way that your body digests the physical properties of the orange is also important - the flesh of the orange, and the way its cells are broken down.
"Everything in food works together to create health or disease. The more we think that a single chemical characterizes a whole food, the more we stray into idiocy." -- Dr. T Colin Campbell, PhD and Dr. Thomas Campbell, MD - The China Diet
No matter how complex an ecosystem it is, though, there is one fundamental truth that I think everyone can and should take into consideration: the single most important thing we do for our bodies is eat.
Let's really think about this for a second. I mean really, literally, the single most important thing we do for our bodies is eat. This is the only way that our bodies can get new nutrients and fuel for our bodies to grow, move, for us to have energy, for us to think properly, for us to function. No matter how much or how little exercise you get, no matter how much yoga you do or how much you meditate, if you don't eat your body will not work.
Surprisingly, a lot of people don't agree on this very point - that the most important thing we do is eat (and choose what to eat). A lot of people out there think that we can, and should, be able to eat whatever we want, and that our bodies should be able to process everything seamlessly - and if it can't, well, there should be a drug for that.
If eating is the only way that our body gets nutrients and fuel, then it's extremely important that we eat the right things. Doctors and nutritionists do know this - after all, if you have a health issue that's clearly linked (like heart disease for example) your doctor will probably tell you to practice moderation. But how many people know that eating meat protein is linked to cancer? Or Alzheimer's? Even auto-immune diseases like type 1 diabetes and MLS can be affected by what you eat.
Looking at the above diagram, heart disease, cancer, stroke, alzheimer's, diabetes all have links to diet
If we think about cancer as the most prevalent example, then when people think cancer they automatically think that it's a genetic problem and that the only way to treat it is to take chemotherapy and radiation. I'm not suggesting that these treatments aren't very effective, but they are far from perfect and they treat the symptoms of the disease without treating the cause.
Dr. Campbell, who wrote this great book, has been studying the link between nutrition and cancer for over 30 years. He says there are 3 main factors in cancer - let's break them down.
1) Genetics - you need to have a gene that gets activated and when it turns on, cancer cells get created
2) Carcinogens - you are exposed to carcinogens, and when you are they lie dormant in your body until the gene is activated
3) Food - the thing that actually activates the gene.
He did many different studies over the years, including tests on mice as well as heading up the largest studies ever done on nutrition in the world. What he discovered is that with certain types of cancer, you can actually turn on and turn off new cancer growth based on what you eat. In other words, even if you already have cancer, you can stop it growing and sometimes even shrink it just by changing what you eat.
Does that sound revolutionary? Hard to believe? Let me ask you this, then. Even if there's only a small possibility that it's true, why wouldn't you modify your diet anyway? Why, instead, would you inject toxic chemicals into your body and undergo radiation therapy without trying to modify your diet and seeing if it has an affect.
I really think that it's criminal that more people aren't advised about this. How many lives could be saved if people knew?
What about auto-immune diseases? Well in general what happens with auto-immune diseases is that your body mistakes a part of itself as being a foreign invader and attacks it. In general, when we ingest animal proteins, in some cases our bodies treat these as a foreign invader and start attacking them. However, they are in fact so similar to our own proteins that our bodies end up attacking our own, as well. With diabetes, in the case of Type 1 (formerly known as child-onset diabetes) then people are incapable of creating their own insulin at all. In case of Type 2 (formerly known as adult-onset diabetes - it's no longer called this because so many children are obese and getting this at young ages) the ability of the body to create insulin is compromised because of cells in the pancreas being damaged. The insulin itself is also ineffective, not properly doing its job.
When diabetics are put on a vegan diet, in the case of Type 2 diabetics, they can actually go completely off their medication. Dr. James Anderson MD, a scientist studying diet and diabetes, showed that even people with Type 1 diabetes were able to reduce their insulin medication by 40% - which is huge!
If we take heart disease as an example, then Dr. Esselstyn from the Cleveland Clinic did some revolutionary research about treating heart disease with diet. Even though the knowledge of the link between diet and heart disease has been known for over 50 years, he took terminal heart patients (who had already had multiple heart attacks and coronary heart surgeries) and put them on a vegan diet. Patients who had been told they had less than a year to live instead went on to live over 15 years, and in many cases their heart disease was reversed. We actually have the cure for heart disease in hand, and it's not a drug or bypass surgery - it's a carrot. Why would anyone choose to have their body cut open, balloons inflated in their veins, an artery from their leg transferred to their chest - especially when these surgeries are only effective in the short term?
A lot of doctors don't want to even engage in a discussion with their patients about nutrition, and not because they don't think it has an impact - but rather because they think their patients won't go for it. They won't modify their behaviour. To me, this is not giving the patient all the information they need to make an educated decision about their health.
You know how many people who have asked me about my journey to being vegan have said to me, oh, I could never give up meat. I love a good steak! Or, I could never live without cheese!
But to you, if it were a question of life or death, would you still choose to eat that steak or to eat that cheese?
My real response to that is, though, that there are many things in the world that we love. Many foods we love to eat. And chances are, when you go on a vegan diet, yeah you'll probably miss meat and cheese now and again - but you'll also gain a huge variety of new foods into your diet that you never ate before. You'll come to love these new foods just like you loved the old ones.
If you think about that love you have for steak - is it actually the fact that it used to be a cow that you love? Or is it the fact that it tastes good? Physically speaking, it's actually the fat and the salt that our bodies crave. Mentally speaking, it's cultural - it's built into our culture that eating meat is a sign of affluence, and that we are programmed to always eat turkey on Thanksgiving. It would be just as easy in terms of the amount of preparation involved to serve something else - it would certainly be cheaper (my grocery bills have gone down by an average of $40 a week for a single person since going vegan).
So why not, just in case, give it a shot?
That's what I decided to do. Not that I have cancer or heart disease - I'm a 32 year-old, moderately overweight female. But even so, after having been vegan now for about 3 months I can say that I've never felt better. I feel lighter (even though I actually haven't lost any weight). I digest my food easily and predictably (constipation just doesn't happen). I have more energy and have received several compliments on how much better my skin looks.
The remarkable thing about going on a vegan diet is that it doesn't even take very long to see significant results in terms of health. You can see changes in blood pressure and cholesterol levels in as little as a month. Although I would recommend to anyone who wants to try it, give it 2 months.
If you want to try it out, then there are 2 great resources that I highly recommend. Check out Veganuary, a website that started out as a way for people to try out being vegan for one month in January. Even though the event itself takes place in January every year, the website and the blog are packed full of great resources to help you learn more about veganism and the many benefits.
I also highly recommend the 30 Day Vegan Challenge. Colleen Patrick-Goudreau is an amazing guide in how and why to become vegan. If you sign up for the free challenge, then every day you'll get delivered by email a daily message, sometimes videos, sometimes audio messages. She provides great insights and loads of information, and also gives some great recipes (for more of those she has some great cookbooks out there too!).
I have a mission to show other athletes that being a vegan can elevate their performance by nourishing their bodies and minds with living foods. -- Charles Parker, VeganBodyBuilding.com
If you've bought into the myth that you can't be an athlete and build up muscles without animal protein, then check out this article and this article about some famous athletes (and these are just a few). As for myself, I do kickboxing and I actually notice that my energy and endurance is higher after going vegan than it was before.
If you're still wondering about whether being vegan has adequate proof of benefits then ask yourself this - if there are zero side-effects of being vegan, but hundreds of side-effects of treating disease with only drugs, then why wouldn't you try?
The choice is up to you.