The real reason to go vegan (hint: it’s not because meat causes cancer)

I want to start with a disclaimer, I don’t have Netflix. I know. But I rarely watch tv these days and when I do, it’s in the form of a Friday night animated movie with my kids. You’ll understand in a minute why this matters to the topic of vegan diets.

But first, let’s clarify what a vegan diet really is. It’s not the same thing as going vegetarian which is simply cutting out some or all animal products. Vegans are hard core. They don’t eat animal containing products of any kind including beef, poultry, seafood, dairy products, eggs, honey and any products containing such ingredients (i.e. whey, casein, lactose, egg white albumen, gelatin, cochineal or carmine, shellac, L-cysteine, animal-derived vitamin D3 and fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids.) Most vegans I have known rely on whole, plant based foods to compose their diets. The bulk of their diet comes from nuts, seeds, beans, fresh fruits and vegetables, rice, potatoes, and occasional dairy substitutes. They typically do not consume processed meat substitutes (that would be a flexitarian), processed junk food, added oils, and sugary drinks/sweets. These are health conscious people that often care about the environment too.

A certain movie on Netflix has been circulating recently about how healthy vegan diets are, suggesting if you follow them, you won’t get cancer, Type 2 diabetes, or heart disease. And highlights how unhealthy eating meat, poultry, processed meat, even fish, and all forms of dairy is. Cancer in a patty with melted diabetes on top, shall we?

As a reader of my stuff, you probably know by now, I have an opinion. But you should also know my opinions are based on quality evidence. I’ve read a thorough review of the movie but my post really isn’t to bash the movie. What I’d prefer to do is shed some light on the real reason you’d want to consider following a vegan diet instead of a bunch of bias and poorly backed reasons of why you shouldn’t eat meat. In the world of nutrition and scientific research, there are very little absolutes. When it comes down to it, nobody really has the answer. If they did, they would be extremely wealthy and these diseases that have become such epidemics would be eradicated by now. One little movie just doesn’t have the miracle answer. Sorry.

So let’s outline some great reasons why a vegan diet would be a great option, sprinkled with a few reasons why it might not be a fit for you:

  1. Vegan diets are nutritious: this really is a no brainer. They are naturally higher in fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, and many phytochemical than the typical western diet (aka standard American diet aka SAD). The fat content is also more unsaturated since there is no allowance for the primary sources it comes from like butter, beef, processed goods and poultry skin. However, there are going to be a few nutrients that will present a challenge and concerted effort to obtain adequate amounts is required. Vitamin B-12 to start with because the best source in the SAD comes from eggs and animal products. There is a product that you may have never heard of unless you circulate in the vegan communities called nutritional yeast, which can be fortified with B-12 (think parmesan cheese). Most solid vegans I know take daily sublingual supplements or bi-weekly injections. Really no way of getting around that one, a B12 deficiency can lead to all kinds of issues including permanent neurological damage, so don’t mess with it. Next ones are vitamin D, calcium, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. These three power house nutrients typically come from canned seafood and dairy products, both off the vegan menu. If flax seed, flax seed oil, and walnuts are a regular part of the diet, omega 3 fatty acids should not be a problem. And there are always vegan omega 3 supplements. It should be noted that the vegan supplements are not as bioavailable as the fish supplements, however. Some green leafy vegetables will provide plenty of calcium if eaten regularly especially kale, broccoli, and watercress. Almonds are also a great source of calcium all things considered. Plant-based dairy alternatives can be a good option too if fortified with vitamin D, B12, and calcium. I talk more about them in this recent post.
  2. There is possibility that vegans are at lower risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes. The research isn’t clear, folks. The movie which shall remain anonymous, gave studies, which to the average person unfamiliar with how research works, might sound compelling, if not downright terrifying. But much of what they cited was based off of dietary recalls and food frequency questionnaires. I did some of my own digging, that’s what I found too here, here, and here. As a dietitian, I’ve completed both myself and obtained thousands of dietary recalls. Can you give me an account of everything you’ve eaten for the past seven days including snacks, drinks, and meals? How about a month? I can’t either. That’s what they are basing their research on and then saying the amount of meat these people ate is linked to their cause of cancer. You can’t buy that. I will note, if these people are professing to be vegans and in two of the studies I linked to, the subjects are seventh day adventists as well, I’m guessing the researchers are taking their word that they don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or consume animal products. So over the 6 and 8 year follow up period these two studies took place, these people never messed up. Not once. Not ever. I’ll let you decide how likely that is. And how truthful people are about that. Especially when it comes to their religion.
  3. You could be thinner. True. Could be. I’m a weight loss expert. I’ve been working with people on weight loss for over ten years. I’ve never been able to adequately help someone lose weight without reducing their carbohydrate intake and increasing their protein intake. Quite opposite of a vegan diet. But certainly, the carbohydrate choices I recommend are fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans/legumes. Really, I’m tired of of the 100-calorie snack packs and 1-point snack cakes filling up the grocery aisles advertised as weight loss foods. They aren’t. And they aren’t part of a vegan diet, that’s a win.

Obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States. Smoking is number one. My mission is to help you lose weight effectively and for good. I don’t buy for one second that eating a piece of bacon or any processed meat is like smoking five cigarettes. This study compared various types of cancer risks relative to habits like smoking history, processed meat, and red meat intake. However, they based their conclusions on food frequency questionnaires and did not take into account BMI or family history of cancer (although they gathered the information.) They did survey close to 500,000 individuals. So I will give it to them that they have numbers on their side. If you’ve ever talked to me about processed meat, you know I don’t like nitrites and nitrates because I do believe that there is strong evidence that they are linked to cancer and there are too many great nitrite-free options to risk it. But that doesn’t mean eliminate them altogether nor does that make a strong case to go vegan. In fact, this study found a reduction in all cause mortality when individuals replaced red meat with unprocessed white meat (chicken, fish, etc). But again, they obtained their evidence from questionnaires. So who really knows.

So far, maybe I haven’t given much compelling reason to go all out vegan. I’m really not anti-vegan at all. In fact, I’ve considered it myself but I live with two meat-lovers  and one-dairy lover so I prefer to keep the peace for now. At first glance, there is some compelling evidence that it’s the miracle diet we’ve been looking for. But then again, other diets are out there showing similar promises. Fact is, we don’t know enough about any of them and I’m not sure if we ever will. I don’t know anyone that has gained weight, could blame their cancer, heart disease, or diabetes on following a vegan diet. Quite opposite in all of the personal encounters I’ve experienced myself. If it’s something you are considering, have a plan, allow for a little flexibility, and incorporate supplements if necessary.

P.S. If you’re looking for online support with like minded moms striving to live a healthier lifestyle, you may be interested in joining my free support group here.

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Jillian McMullen, RDN, CSOWM, LDN

9 thoughts on “The real reason to go vegan (hint: it’s not because meat causes cancer)

  1. Good post! I strongly feel there is no one best diet for everyone, and while I fully support my clients who follow a vegan diet, it’s definitely not for everyone. Thanks for sharing!

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