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Nutrition

Why Vegans Are Healthier

By March 27, 2019 No Comments
I’ve neglected this topic for quite a while, but like a combustion engine, the steam is starting to arise as we see diet tribes form, and an abundance of misinformation spouted from our vegan friends. Now, my issue isn’t with vegans themselves, I sincerely respect ones decision not to contribute to suffering and all of the ethical reasons behind avoiding animal products.

 

And I get it, the images of veganism are appealing. Eating closer to nature, fresh fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, fermented this, activated that, on top of that you get to call yourself “plant based” which just feels awesome. Then you’re not eating those “dead caucuses,” those “rotting animals.” Throw on top of this the tribe that will take you in, and the reinforcement from the newsgrab that says that “study says vegans live 10 years longer than meat eaters” or virtually any line from What the Health.
That last part is the reason for this article. No, it’s not about the many health benefits of eating meat, it’s instead about the headlines surrounding health in general, and a phenomenon in research known as the healthy user bias.  

What is it?
The healthy user bias is a term used in research to explain that people who engage in one behaviour that is perceived as healthy are more likely to engage in other behaviours that are healthy. For example, those who are exercise and more likely to eat healthily. Conversely, those who smoke cigarettes are more likely to drink alcohol.
Another example is with a vegetarian diet. Typically, vegetarians are going to be more health – conscious… They drink less alcohol, are unlikely to smoke, and exercise more (14). You see this in real life as well…  One doesn’t just “go” vegetarian, it’s usually thrown in with a yoga membership and some more health conscious decisions. Now, throw a population based study of over 10,000 people together, and the vegetarians are likely going to come up much healthier than their meat eating mates. So was it the kale? Was it the yoga? Was it the positive emotions that went along with avoiding meat? We don’t really know.

 

But that doesn’t stop the headlines of course… Check this one out:

“Vegans Live Longer Than Those Who Eat Meat or Eggs, Research finds” (that’s an actual headline)

Screen Shot 2018-05-31 at 2.51.43 pm

What we perceive: Meat bad, vegan good.Now, digging past the headline we find that this study documented 130, 000 people over 30 years, and divided them up into meat eating and non – meat eating groups. The results of the study found that meat eaters had higher death rates than non meat eaters, so the conclusion that the media drew is that red meat causes an early death, and veggies cause a long life.

 

Now right here, the damage is done. The brain loves confirmation bias, and even when you know there’s probably more to the story, the message has gotten through and we start to form those connections between meat and disease. 

 

 

What there’s no discussion of is the healthy user bias. There’s no mention of vegan folk being more likely to exercise, get eight hours of sleep, and eat non processed foods. There’s also no mention of meat eaters being MORE likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and eat more processed foods. It doesn’t make the study obsolete, but there should be questions asked rather than conclusions made.

 

So the question then becomes, “how do we control these variables and really work out if a vegan diet really does lead to longer lifespans?” Well, it’s difficult, but researchers really do try to minimise the effect of the healthy user bias. 

 

One savvy study looked at people who shopped at health food stores. And I’m not talking about the joint where old mate gets his pre workout from, I’m talking about the ones with “organic, free range, and bio dynamic” splattered around the place. The same meat and non meat eaters were divided up, and this time there was no significant difference in all cause mortality between vegetarian and omnivore groups. Does this mean an all meat diet is healthier? No, it just means that we need to keep experimenting and asking questions.

 

So what can we agree on?

There’s so much divide and tribalism in nutrition, but most things would be agreed upon by all parties. Here’s what we can do to be a healthy user:

 

Avoid processed meats. Despite many studies weighing them equally, we can all agree that hot dogs from the supermarket are not in the same category as a grass fed steak. Processed meats are low in nutrients, high in calories, and seem to have correlations with certain cancers (though this is not settled).
Avoid char grilling your meats. When we char the hell out of our steak, we’re not only losing out on taste, we’re also cooking up some unhealthy chemicals. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when we overdo out meats, and they seem to change DNA that can cause cancer. More on that here.

 

Eat vegetables at every meal. This is a great goal to have. There are some exceptions with certain microbiome conditions, but on the whole, eating vegetables gives you a stack of vitamins, minerals and a whole bunch of funky compounds that are super healthy.

 

Eat a variety of high quality meats: It gets a bad wrap, but meat is actually packed with quality nutrients. CoQ10, zinc, b vitamins, choline, and certain amino acids are all things you can ONLY find in sufficient quantities in meat. This is without mentioning the protein factor, which shows up time and time again as one of the most important factors in keeping healthy. 

 

Avoid Big Agriculture and Eat Local: Local is the new organic. It’s like organic but without the fancy tagline. I recommend buying meat from farmers you know and trust. You’re supporting a thriving, sustainable practice and getting a whole lotta health to go with it.

 

Sun, Sleep and Socialisation: No topic of health deserves mention without considering the three S’s…. It’s like Paleo 2.0. These three factors will help you feel better than any diet will, so let’s get our priorities right before we start dividing ourselves.

Thank you for reading.

Steve is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner. While based in Bethnal Green,   London E2 , he works with clients around the world to restore health using fitness, nutrition and lifestyle protocols.

*Disclaimer: This post is for information purposes only, and is not designed to diagnose or treat any disease. Always seek help from a medical professional whenever you undergo any dietary change.

References:

Burkert et al. The association between eating behaviours and various health parameters. 
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088278&type=printable 
Baines, Powers, Brown. (2007). How does the health and well-being of young Australian vegetarian and semi-vegetarian women compare with non-vegetarians?https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17411462/

Key et al. (1996). Dietary habits and mortality in 11,000 vegetarians and health conscious people: results of a 17 year follow up. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8842068

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