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The Vegan way of eating (lifestyle) seems to be a cyclic phenomena that people seem to gravitate to simply because this philosophy and type of diet is often thought to be associated with better health.
The proof is in the pudding (non-dairy) of course.
Indeed other measures of human health are important such as level of morbidity and quality of life…however, mortality rates are king when you want to compare the effectiveness of any diet upon human health outcomes.
Does the vegan diet extend life by positively influencing mortality?
Very recently there has been some new research published which has brought this concept into the media’s attention. Here are many news outlets, websites and press releases discussing this issue. I would like to try and make some sense of this.
The actual study in question was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and was a large observational study designed to follow 73,000 people for 6 years. During this time the type of diet consumed was determined as was the rate of death and cause of death.
The study results indicated that those study subjects who consumed a vegan diet had a 12% decline in overall death rate compared to those not eating a vegan diet. What is interesting is that the subjects consuming a vegan diet had a reduced risk of a chance of dying from heart disease (19% reduced risk) compared to the non-vegan group. Despite the differences in diet, the study groups all had the same risk of developing cancer.
There are a few points to ponder however.
Large observational studies such as this do not prove cause and effect, but provide some patterns or relationships based upon a large sample size. In this study, the vegan group may have had some internal bias associated with it. What I mean is that this selective group have very low rates of smoking, alcohol use and were thinner in comparison to the other people. This could partially account for the difference in mortality rates.
The most compelling issue is however, what is attributed to the differences observed between the study groups?
The researcher in the JAMA study thought that it was the meat consumption which was associated with the major differences between the groups.
However, the development of chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, stroke and mortality rates are sensitive to dietary choices. Diets higher in whole grains, fruit vegetables, plant oils, legumes and soy are very low on the glycemic scale and raise blood sugar and insulin levels modestly. These foods also contain a great deal of nutrients and anti-oxidants which have been shown to fight damage to arteries. Vegans, typically have lower blood pressure, blood fats and levels of internal inflammation. The intake of these foods also has been shown to decrease blood clotting and improve endothelial function within our arteries. This above scenario can account for the decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and the corresponding changes in mortality rates seen in vegans.
Conversely, those people who consume the same amount of calories but choose different types of food may have an entirely different risk pattern. Those people who eat a traditional “western” diet typically eat more meat, sugar, refined carbohydrates and saturated fat. Although this can lead to higher levels of blood fats and insulin resistance, the levels of inflammation will be much higher in this group of people and that is the main difference as to the increased incidence of heart disease as the corresponding damage to the artery wall would be much more prolonged and significant. In comparison, these folks also eat much more trans-fat which is even more harmful to our arteries. If you have a greater chance of developing heart disease, stroke or diabetes as a result of your diet, this will shorten your life in comparative terms.
The fact remains however, that this study opens the doors to meat-bashing which is very unfair.
In my opinion, meats, game, poultry, eggs and dairy that are free-range and organically raised do not impose any harm to human health whatsoever. The consumption of oily fish, although not vegan, has a very beneficial effect upon human mortality and chronic disease incidence as well.
Dr. Kevin. J. McLaughlin
Clinical Director: The Vitality Project