He writes health columns twice a month, a practicing cardiologist, clinical professor at Wayne State University School of Medicine and founder of the Cannes Center for Cardiac Longevity at Bingham Farms. He is an author and has appeared on national television, including “The Doctor of Oz” and “The Doctors Show”.
By Joel Kahn
Many people start the new year with healthy resolutions, such as following a vegan, vegetarian diet. The commitment to avoid animal products at the beginning of the year is called vegetarianism.
In fact, an increasing number of people are turning to vegetarianism by avoiding meat, poultry, fish, cheese, eggs, honey, and gelatin for reasons of health, empathy, or environmental concerns. Avoiding protein-rich food sources raises concerns, sometimes legitimate, that need to be addressed.
So what are some of the biggest myths — good and bad — about vegetarians?
1. Vegetarians never get sick
Several large nutrition studies report lower rates of chronic disease among people who follow a vegan diet, compared to binge eaters. But vegetarians can still develop cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and other serious disorders.
I see patients who have been on a vegan diet, usually for only a few months or years, who have significant heart disease. Most vegans ate a largely animal-based diet for many years before becoming only vegetarians. New vegetarians and those motivated by ethics may choose lots of processed foods that are high in oils, trans fats, sugars, and added salt.
Vegetarians need to be screened for cancer, like a colonoscopy, just like everyone else. They are also required to have comprehensive lab studies and silent cardiology imaging to ensure optimal health.
Health outcomes over 25 years were recently compared from a large database from the Harvard School of Public Health in subjects eating a healthy diet (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, tea, coffee, and vegetable oils) versus those eating a healthy diet (juices, sweetened drinks, cereals, etc.). Sweets, French fries). It is not certain how many participants were on an entirely plant-based diet. During the study, 8,631 people developed coronary heart disease. Adhering to a plant-based diet reduced the risk of heart disease by about 8 percent overall, but this association was much stronger for those following the healthy pattern. These participants had a strong 25 percent reduction in the risk of coronary heart disease, while those who ate unhealthy plant foods increased their risk by up to 30 percent. The bottom line is that a healthy vegan diet is a whole food vegan diet – the WFP, in short – not a fast food approach.
2. All health needs is a vegan diet
In the 1970s, sports author Jim Fix made the mistake of believing that exercise protected him from all diseases and dieting increased the risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, he died tragically at the age of 52 of a heart attack, despite his long time.
While a plant-based diet can be a very wise choice, it is just one part of an overall plan for optimal health. Dean Ornish’s groundbreaking studies, called the Heart Lifestyle Experiment, combined a plant-based diet with exercise, stress reduction, yoga, social support and love, and smoking cessation to reverse advanced heart disease. I advise vegetarians to incorporate these other healthy practices into their lives as well.
Sleeping seven to eight hours a night significantly reduces the risk of heart disease, compared to those who sleep less than five hours. About 20 percent of the American public still smokes, and some are vegetarians who should quit. A stress management strategy, whether it’s breathing exercise, yoga, religion, music, or social support, is key to health for everyone. Loneliness is a burden to health, which is one of the reasons I co-founded a large vegan health support group in Detroit.
3. All phytonutrients come from plants
Surely the WFP Colors of the Rainbow Diet provides all the nutrients for optimal health? In fact, in my Preventive Cardiology clinic, I measure blood and skin levels of several important nutrients, often low for omnivores and vegetarians.
Vegetarians in particular are often low in vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3, iodine, vitamin K2 and taurine (as are most omnivores). Getting the most health benefit from a plant-based diet requires attention to these nutrients. A plant-based multivitamin provides the right amounts.
At a minimum, all vegetarians should take vitamin B12. If whole food sources are desired, omega-3s can be taken with two tablespoons of ground flaxseeds daily along with greens, walnuts, and chia seeds. Kelp and kelp can provide iodine. Mushrooms and plant milks can be rich in vitamin D. Adequate iron can be a problem for vegetarians, but spinach, tofu, beans, lentils, and sunflower seeds are very good sources.
I’ve eaten a vegan diet for 45 years, choosing WFP options for all of those roughly 40,000+ meals. I strongly support – as does the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – the WFP’s vegan diet to improve health for all readers – including those who are prenatal or pregnant, those who feed children, as well as the elderly.
Healthier vegetarians understand the myths surrounding a vegan diet and avoid the pitfalls.