The Health Benefits of Being Vegan

The Health Benefits of Being Vegan



Not long ago, telling people you were vegan would have elicited a unilaterally hostile response.

There would have been gasps and sighs and maybe even condolences offered, as they mourned the end of your ability (or desire) to tear into a piece of animal flesh or wedge of curdled baby cow's mother's milk.

But now, as the plant-based diet is more popular than ever before, vegans are far more likely to be met with congratulations than commiserations – probably from fellow vegans – and after having been vegan for 10 weeks myself, I can already see why.

I was worried I'd spend Veganuary – where non-vegans commit to going vegan for the entire month of January – plagued by parmesan cravings, and literally dreaming about pizza.

But it turned out that, where once I didn’t think I’d make it past a full day, 10 weeks later I found myself completely plant-based and addicted - not planning to give up going vegan anytime soon.

It turns out that there are a lot more benefits to veganism, or a plant-based diet, than I had previously thought.

Studies have shown that eating the diet of a vegan while focusing on whole foods and fruits and vegetables, lowers your risk of developing heart disease and other ailments.

Eating whole plant-based foods results in lower body mass and blood pressure.

But there are more benefits besides those to one's personal health.

Being vegan is better for the environment

 Many religions mandate vegetarianism or part-time veganism for spiritual gain.

Those who go vegan tend to weigh less and care more. So many benefits.

What's not to like?

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VEGANISM FOR HEALTH

The veganism diet has attracted a lot of interest among people who are interested in its potential benefits for health or weight loss.

Even people who aren't interested in animal welfare and are fine wearing wool and leather, are getting in on the vegan lifestyle for its health benefits, including lowering the risk of heart disease.

Only they call it "plant-based," to avoid the political connotations inherent in the term "vegan."

The term "plant-based" arose from research in the 1980s conducted by, among others, T. Colin Campbell of The China Study.

Campbell sought a non-politically charged word to describe people who didn't eat animal products.

And perhaps he was onto something, though it took a while to gain traction.

Though veganism was viewed as a fringe movement for many years, "plant-based" has taken off in recent years, as a more socially acceptable designation that connotes a commitment to health, if not to general animal welfare.

When Campbell was tapped to join a 13-member committee at the U.S.

National Academy of Sciences, he was one of only two team members who had any expertise in nutrition and cancer - significant because the committee's job was to explore the connections between diet, nutrition and cancer.

At the same time, Campbell served as a member of an NIH panel charged with reviewing research grant applications in a specialty called chemical carcinogenesis.

The committee was evaluating and prioritizing applications for research funding.

During the course of his work on the committee, Campbell was responsible for articulating the then-new information suggesting that nutrition was actually quite important in the development of human cancer.

 "I was not interested in defining this as a vegetarian diet or vegan diet (a word not yet known to me)," Campbell writes on his website.

"The vegetarian idea was widely believed to be mostly ‘outside of normal science.’ I was very much aware of the charged atmosphere whenever that word was mentioned within the scientific community. But my research and that of a few others impressed upon me that nutritional treatment of cancer, if valid, was mostly about consuming low fat, high fiber diets, best achieved by consuming vegetables, fruits and whole grains."

Campbell continues by saying that he wanted to avoid using the existing terms, "vegan," and "vegetarian," because neither actually encapsulated fully the diet that he had found to be most beneficial in cancer prevention. He chose “plant-based diet” for lack of a better word.

"Still today, I avoid the ‘V’ words because most vegetarians consume too much animal based foods (such as dairy and fish) and total fat.

Vegans tend to consume too much processed food and total fat.

I added “whole” to my “plant-based” nomenclature a little later, in order to avoid the idea that isolated nutrients (as in supplements) and/or plant food fragments (refined carbohydrates sugar and white flour) conveyed health.

My considerable experience in court testifying to the inappropriate use of nutrient supplements compelled me to add the word “whole” as in “whole food, plant-based,” he writes.

While it is still very possible to be an unhealthy vegan while avoiding meat, those who self-identify as following a plant-based diet tend to be concerned about health, about eating things that have been grown in the ground, and cooked in a way that preserves as much of the natural nutrients in the food as possible.

There are a lot of plant-based books out there these days that discuss the health benefits of the plant-based diet; specifically, the way such a diet can prevent and even reverse heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other ailments.

Though Campbell says that vegans tend to eat a lot of processed foods, this seems like an overgeneralization.

Additionally, processed or not, it's much easier to convert one's diet to a healthy, whole-foods plant-based diet from a vegan diet, than from an omnivorous diet.

By avoiding meat and dairy, vegan diets automatically cut out a lot of saturated fats.

And in addition to more interested parties trying out fully a plant-based diet, New Scientist reports that there is a growing trend towards part-time veganism.

These people may not be adopting the vegan lifestyle whole-heartedly, there is a growing community trying to change their diets to include more plant-based food for a healthier lifestyle and longer life.

The hashtag #MeatlessMonday has nearly 750,000 associated Instagram posts.

Trendy vegan food restaurants from India to California serve beets instead of beef.

And people who won't turn up their noses at a hot dog are eating part-time vegetarian or part-time vegan.

Supporting this shift towards vegan food is Campbell's famous China study that was conducted by the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine, Cornell University, and the University of Oxford in the 1980s in rural China. It sought to determine whether there were any links between the consumption of animal products and chronic illnesses.

Campbell's book, "The China Study," concludes that people who eat whole food, plant-based diets enjoy better health than those who do not.

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A VEGAN DIET IS RICHER IN CERTAIN NUTRIENTS

If you switch to a vegan diet from a typical Western diet, you'll eliminate meat and animal products.

This will inevitably lead you to rely more heavily on other foods.

In the case of a whole-foods vegan diet, replacements take the form of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds.

Since these foods make up a larger proportion of a vegan diet than a typical Western diet, they can contribute to a higher daily intake of certain beneficial nutrients.

For instance, several studies have reported that vegan diets tend to provide more fiber, antioxidants, and beneficial plant compounds.

They also appear to be richer in potassium, magnesium, folate, and vitamins A, C, and E.

However, not all vegan diets are created equal.

For instance, poorly planned vegan diets may provide insufficient amounts of essential fatty acids, vitamin B12, iron, calcium, iodine or zinc.

That's why it's important to stay away from nutrient-poor, fast-food vegan options. Instead, base your diet around nutrient-rich whole plants and fortified foods. You may also want to consider supplements like iron and vitamin B12.

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HISTORY

The jury is out on whether the earliest humans were vegetarians or vegans.

But archaeologist Dr. Richard Leakey believes that prehistoric humans were vegetarian, repealing the health benefits of the vegan lifestyle.

He has been quoted as saying that the earliest humans did not eat meat.

"You can't tear flesh by hand, you can't tear hide by hand, and we wouldn't have been able to deal with the food sources that required those large canines," Leakey told The Independent.

Using evolution to extrapolate the answer to this query, biology professor Robert Dunn posits that we should look to living creatures whose digestive system is most akin to our own, and see what they are eating to determine what we should eat.

The idea is that animals are more likely to be naturally eating that for which their bodies were built.

For Dunn, this means evaluating the gut and eating habits of the chimpanzee. The chimpanzee will occasionally eat meat but gets the majority of its food from plants and insects.

"I know, what I have shown is not that our ancestors were vegetarians but instead that they tended to eat vegetable matter mostly,"

Dunn wrote. "Here though, I am using the definition of vegetarianism that almost every human uses where someone is a vegetarian if they decline meat in public, but occasionally, when no one is looking, sneak a beef jerky. The modern vegetarian's illicit beef jerky is the ancestral vegetarian's crunchy frog."

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SPIRITUAL BENEFIT

There are a number of religions that abstain from animal products at least some of the time out of a belief that such practice is beneficial to the soul.

Veganism is employed in some of these faiths to help clear the mind of distraction, loose the body from its earthly fetters, and bring the soul closer to God.

What vegan wouldn't like that?

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CHRISTIANITY

Though Donald Watson, founder of The Vegan Society and the man responsible for the word "vegan," has derided religion in general, Christianity in particular, he may not have realized that the vegan diet has ancient spiritual roots in the monastic tradition.

After all, Adam and Eve ate fruit in the Garden of Eden, not animal products.

One of the greatest saints in the Christian faith, Saint John the Baptist, lived on plants and honey in the desert.

Though the Bible says St. John's food was "locusts and honey," Christian tradition and linguists suggest that the word "locusts" actually refers to the seed pods of a carob tree, which is also known as "St. John's Bread" and "locust tree."

St. Anthony, the father of organized Christian monasticism, was a vegetarian.

However, in practice, he was probably more vegan because he was a great ascetic who ate very little at all.

Early Christians fasted from animal products for more than half the year.

As Christianity modernized to suit contemporary desires, the breakaway churches shed their fasting disciplines until they were no longer recognizable (and have entirely disappeared in the Protestant denominations).

However, practicing Orthodox Christians still eat plant-based for part of the year for religious reasons.

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JAINISM

Originally from India, Jainism is a doctrine founded on a pillar of non-violence to all living beings.

Though Jains are not strictly vegan, they do practice vegetarianism.

So concerned are they with the welfare of living creatures that Jain monks are known to sweep the ground in front of them as they walk to avoid stepping on insects.

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BUDDHISM

Buddhism does not explicitly prescribe any diet, though some interpret Buddhist texts to insist on vegetarianism.

Buddhist Mahayana monks, however, are strict vegetarians.

There are various passages in Buddhist texts that seem to require at least a vegetarian diet, if not a life of veganism. For example:

  • "The eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion." - the Mahaparinirvana Sutra: "One is not a great one because one defeats or harms other living beings. One is so-called because one refrains from defeating or harming other living beings." - Dhammapada.
  • "If a man can control his body and mind and thereby refrains from eating animal flesh and wearing animal products, I say he will really be liberated." - Surangama Sutra.
  • "Meat is not agreeable to the wise: it has a nauseating odor, it causes a bad reputation, it is food for the carnivorous; I say this, Mahamati, it is not to be eaten." - Lankavatara Sutra.

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7TH DAY ADVENTISTS

A quasi-Christian religion, the Adventists are a much newer faith than any of the others we've discussed so far.

Though the doctrine does not prescribe any specific diet, nearly one-third of its adherents practice vegetarianism or veganism for health reasons.

Ever heard of Kellogg? Company founders John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Kellogg marketed breakfast cereals as a healthy alternative to fatty daily breakfasts filled with animal products.

Many vegans are as protective of veganism as a lifestyle as devout adherents to any religion.

On January 3, 2020, a British court ruled that veganism should be a protected belief system and that people should not be persecuted because of it.

The case was brought to court by Jordi Casamitjana, who claims to have been fired from his job when he raised objections to investment funds that were part of his retirement plan.

Casamitjana objected to his pension plan investing in companies that he said did testing on animals.

Lawyers for Casamitjana's company argued that he was dismissed because of misconduct, and not because of his stance on animal rights.

The court did not enter a determination on why Casamitjana lost his job, saving that issue for future hearings.

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ANIMAL WELFARE

Many people identify themselves as animal lovers, yet intentionally or not, this rarely extends to the animals we use for food.

There are a lot of misconceptions about how animal products are obtained and we often turn a blind eye towards inhumane animal agricultural practices.

Animal welfare is an issue we like to push out of our minds, even when it’s presented to us in an objective manner.

Factory farming exhibits some of the most severe examples of animal cruelty for food production.

Unfortunately, factory farming offers the most competitive prices and makes the most profit, so it’s difficult and in some cases impossible for smaller establishments to survive without adopting the same principles.

The appalling practices of the meat industry are nothing new - Upton Sinclair wrote about it in The Jungle in 1906 (although Sinclair's book was about the meat packing industry more than the farming industry).

The competition from large corporations has made it extremely difficult for anyone to offer more humane alternatives as it is simply not as profitable.

Factory farming is an absolutely horrifying business, the focus is on production and profit, the well-being of the animals and workers involved is nearly non-existent. It all comes down to money.

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EFFECTS ON THE ENVIRONMENT

Breeding, raising, and feeding animals for food is a tremendously inefficient use of our natural resources.

Animals raised for food production are fed over half of all the world’s crops.

As our population grows, we require more and more agricultural space.

Some 60 percent of worldwide deforestation (including in that global treasure, the Amazon rainforest) results from land being converted for use as agricultural land, much of which is used for grazing cattle.

An estimated 14 percent of the world’s population (over 850 million) suffer from undernourishment while we continue to waste valuable agricultural land and resources to produce animal products, therefore obtaining only a fraction of the potential caloric value.

Continuing this foolish management of our natural resources is simply not sustainable.

Following a vegan lifestyle contributes less air pollution and puts less stress on our natural resources by requiring less land, fossil fuels, and water.

As the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, a vegan lifestyle free of meat, dairy and eggs, makes even more sense.

Did you know that the animal agriculture industry accounts for two-thirds of the world's water consumption? It's true - and you won't believe it.

The beef in a quarter-pound hamburger required 450 gallons of water to produce! For a measly quarter of a pound.

One egg or a cup of milk each require more than 50 gallons.

Vegans save an incredible amount of water without realizing it.

In fact, by eating less meat, you can reduce water usage by up to one-third.

You can reduce it further, more than 50 percent, by replacing meat with fish.

Make the switch to an entirely vegetarian diet and reduce your water consumption by more than half.

It's hard to make the case not to switch when you understand how many benefits are at stake.

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MORE EQUITABLE FOOD DISTRIBUTION

The link between consumption of animals and world hunger is compelling.

A 2012 study from McGill University and the University of Minnesota found that humans produce enough grain to feed the world.

And yet, people are starving. How is this possible?

It's because that grain is being eaten by animals who are being fattened for human consumption.

Why not cut out the middle man and feed the grain directly to the humans?

Our resources will go further if folks stop eating meat.

Roughly 80 percent of the corn and 95 percent of the oats grown in the United States are eaten by livestock.

Studies show that 1.3 billion human beings could be fed by the grain and soybeans that are currently fed to U.S. livestock.

There are many delicious and healthy soy products on the market that those soybeans could be used to make!

When you think about the benefits veganism offers to the world in this area, it becomes even harder to fathom going back to eating meat and dairy.

It's easier to put the burger down if you know starving populations will have more to eat because of your decision to go vegan.

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INTERESTED IN MORE INFORMATION?

Moving towards a vegan lifestyle is the most effective way to reduce pressure on our environment and may be absolutely crucial to our survival as a species.

Still, we know that it can be hard to make the jump.

In the face of societal customs or traditions that revolve around food, it might be even harder to stick to the practice of going vegan than it is to try it out in the first place.

The key to success is community support.

Luckily for you (and me), there is a whole community out there, wanting to help and support you.

If you're interested in more information about the benefits of veganism, there are a number of organizations that can help.

If you'd like to start learning what is being a vegan, to how to go vegan, to more information on how a vegan lifestyle limits consumption of fatty acids and risk of heart disease, there are many vegan lifestyle resources out there.

So that you don't have to search, we've also included each organization's email address below:

The Vegan Society

Website: vegansociety.com

Email address: info@vegansociety.com.

Subscribe to the newsletter.

Veganuary

Website: veganuary.com

Email address: usmedia@veganuary.com for press inquiries; there's also a contact form on the site.

Vegan Kalamazoo

Website: vegankalamazoo.com

Email address: vegankalamazoo@gmail.com

Plant Protein Month

Website: plantproteinmonth.com. This is your go-to source of information on soy products!

If you'd like to contact the organization, you can leave your email address in the comments form.

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Sara Phillipps
A vegan freelance web designer and blog writer based out of Austin, Texas USA.


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