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Do I need to become a vegan to be healthy?

Amy Richter, MS, RD, LD
Wellness Dietitian, Achieving Your Best

Do I need to become a vegan to be healthy?

Veganism is becoming more and more popular. Restaurants are beginning to offer more vegan options, and there are vegan cookbooks galore. Maybe you’ve started to wonder: “Do I have to become a vegan to be healthy?” If you’ve watched the Netflix documentary “What the Health,” then you saw dozens of vegan doctors answering this question with an adamant “Yes!” The film was produced by animal rights activists Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn. In the documentary, these are their main points:

Animal products are the root cause of all disease.
Following a vegan diet is the only way to prevent and treat chronic disease.

As I was fact-checking the claims made by the documentary, I found so many inaccuracies. I can’t possibly address all of the issues in one blog post, so I’ll focus on just two of the main points below.

First, a study from the World Health Organization (WHO) about processed meat and cancer is referenced. It states that processed meat is a group 1 carcinogen (the same classification as cigarettes) and that consuming processed meat increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer by 18%. This is a true statement, but there’s more to the story. The classification of “group 1” refers to the strength of the evidence, not to the degree of risk. So, no, eating processed meat is not the same as smoking. Secondly, the increase in cancer risk is talking about relative risk, which is confusing unless you are familiar with statistics. Basically, this means that your lifetime risk of developing cancer increases from 5% to 6% if you’re eating processed meat EVERY DAY. This is still an important finding, but it’s not nearly as scary as the media has portrayed it to be. I usually recommend limiting your processed meat intake to once or twice per week. If you want to read more about this study, the WHO has a very helpful Q&A page.

The film also suggests that eating one egg per day is the same as smoking five cigarettes per day. They reference two studies for this. One of the studies never even mentions eggs. Not once. The other reference was an observational study from 2010. Observational studies are common in nutrition research. These types of studies look for correlations between data, but they do not determine causation. The study they referenced looks at the correlation between egg consumption and carotid plaque development, and they compare this to smoking and plaque development. The researchers failed to do one very important thing: they did not record any data about other lifestyle factors. We don’t know how much these participants exercised or what else they ate. In the end, this study just doesn’t tell us much. So, there is not enough information here to say that eating eggs is the same as smoking.

Even with all of the misinformation, the most harmful message from “What the Health” is fear. One of the doctors states that choosing between chicken and beef is like choosing whether you want to be shot or hung. Over and over, animal foods are referred to as “terrifying,” and eating meat is compared to playing Russian roulette. Comparing food choices to life and death situations is overly dramatic and entirely unhelpful. It’s true that food choices impact your health and wellbeing over time, but unless you’re allergic to something, there is no food that will kill you instantly. The stress and anxiety caused by these statements is ultimately more harmful than eating a cheeseburger every once in a while!

Despite all of the problems I had with “What the Health,” I do agree that plant-based are good for overall health and disease prevention. Well-planned vegan diets can be a wonderful way to nourish and fuel your body. On the other hand, plant-based diets that include meat can also be healthy. We have known for a long time that the Mediterranean diet is associated with reduced risk for chronic disease. This diet includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts & seeds, olive oil, fish, eggs, dairy and small amounts of meat. I also agree that the meat industry has a negative impact on our environment, which is why I recommend eating more plants and choosing grass-fed beef and pastured or free-range chicken when it fits your budget.

To sum it all up, no matter what diet you choose to follow, it’s always a good idea to eat more vegetables. And most importantly, enjoy your food!


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