Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Veganism Versus Non-Veganism: In Terms of Health

Individuals motivated to eliminate livestock agriculture are quick to assert that vegan diets are healthier. Bill Maher often seems to suggest that meat and dairy is the root of our health problems in the U.S.

But is it true? Are vegan diets healthier than non-vegan diets? One who regularly peruses the news might be confused. Studies find one type of cancer higher in vegetarians, another cancer more prevalent in meat eaters. Animal fats obviously can lead to cholesterol problems, but recent evidence suggests that the animal fat - cholesterol link may be exaggerated. Vitamin D deficiency is widespread, but so is obesity.

The answer, I believe, is that it is impossible to legitimately claim that a "vegan diet" is healthier than "non-vegan diets" or vice-versa. The reason is that there is no one single definition of vegan and non-vegan diets. A vegan who does not make a concerted effort to take vitamin D and B supplements is risking their health. A non-vegan who consumes nothing but fried chicken and french fries is doing likewise.

Both vegan and non-vegan diets can be healthy. For the sake of truth, it is necessary to note that a non-vegan who consumes meat and dairy in moderation and large amounts of plant foods is very likely to be healthier than a vegan, because this particular non-vegan diet is ensured to capture all essential nutrients. It is also necessary to note that a smart vegan diet (with supplements) will indeed provide all essential nutrients. It is not a battle for which is better, both win when implemented smartly.

It is difficult to find a good publication on the issue, even in scientific journals. The best article I have encountered is by Joan Sabate, who properly acknowledges the positive and negative aspects of both diets, stating, "Diets largely based on plant foods, such as well-balanced vegetarian diets, could best prevent nutrient deficiencies as well as diet-related chronic diseases. However, restrictive or unbalanced vegetarian diets may lead to nutritional deficiencies, particularly in situations of high metabolic demand."

This author does argue that vegetarian diets are slightly healthier, but what I like is the acknowledgement that meat and dairy based diets have their advantages, and can be healthy. Below is a statistical bell-curve articulating the risk of nutrient deficiency. In the author's view, the vegetarian diet has a lower likelihood of health harm, but harm stemming from a non-vegetarian diet is far from certain. If vegetarian/vegan diets are healthier (and there is an "if"), the improvement is marginal, when both diets are implemented smartly.

Vegan and animal rights groups should temper their claims as to the health harms associated with meat and dairy based diets, lest they be exposed as quixotic crusaders with no personal commitment to honestly.


Sabate, Joan. 2003. "The Contribution Of Vegetarian Diets To Health And Disease: A Paradigm Shift." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 78(3): 502S-507S.