Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Vegetarian, Vegan....what are we?

This post is to ramble a bit about the terms vegetarian and vegan as well as the other terms we use to characterize the way we eat.

There are lots of labels around. In addition to these two two there are omnivore, fruitarian, raw foodist, natural hygienist, and a host of others. Joel Fuhrman, M.D. has coined the term nutritarian, which probably best represents my eating style. A nutritarian eats foods that are nutrient dense and low in calories, for the most part. The primary focus is health and flooding our cells each day with the most nutritious foods and avoiding the foods that compromise our immune systems and our overall health.

But let me elaborate. The problem with the terms vegetarian and vegan is that they often mislead people in to thinking that healthful eating equates to simply avoiding animal foods, especially foods from animal flesh. The reality is that many foods that are not derived from animals are also not healthy. Examples of offending vegan foods are refined sugar, processed oils (yes, even vegetable oils), isolated soy protein found in veggie dogs and veggie burgers, overly salted foods like pretzels and potato chips, candy bars, many alcoholic beverages, soft drinks made from either refined sugar or artificial sweetners, and many other unhealthy or foods that are not nutrient dense.

For over 25 years, I considered myself a vegetarian. I ate cheese and other dairy products, including ice cream, but no other animal foods. I consumed lots of vegetable oils, including olive oil, and ate fake meat most every day....veggie dogs and burgers. My weight remained at 20-30 pounds above the ideal even though I am a cyclist and frequently exercised long and hard every week. Both my weight and my blood cholesterol stubbornly remained above 200, although I generally had no health problems. My health was okay, but not ideal.

Over the past two years, I have become convinced that a whole foods plant-based eating style was the healthiest. Reading T. Colin Campbell's The China Study was the turning point for me. This book reports on many years of epidemiological research about the eating styles of healthy populations. Dr. Campbell concludes that a whole foods plant based diet is the healthiest. My own eating style has been continually refined since reading The China Study after my introductions to Joel Fuhrman, M.D. and John McDougall, M.D. They have taught me much about a healthy plant-based diet. For two years I have avoided all animal foods, processed foods, including vegetarian processed foods, refined sugar, processed oils, including olive oil, and most foods high in fat. My diet consists of vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, fresh and dried fruits, whole grains, beans/legumes, nuts/seeds. During the past two years my weight has stabilized 30 pounds lower that during my 'vegetarian' stage. My energy level is consistently higher and my overall health is excellent. I am convinced that this way of eating will greatly increase my odds of leading a longer and healthier life.

Although vegetarian and vegan diets can be healthy, often they are not. A diet that eliminates meat, but loads up on sugar, vegetable oils and high fat/salt processed foods is not healthy. I agree with vegans about the negative environmental and ethical effects of modern animal factory farming, which is one of the reasons I eat no meat/dairy. Drs. Campbell and Fuhrman teach that eating small amounts of meat, less than 10% of total calories, has not been shown to be detrimental to health. The research into populations that are generally healthier and longer-lived than Americans supports the consumption of small amounts of animal food. Even small amounts are not acceptable to me, not only because I do not crave meat/dairy, but because of the ethical and environmental costs of modern factory farming. Also, if animal foods are mostly not healthy, why eat even small amounts?

At a party the other night, the hostess informed me that I was the only 'vegan' she knew that was not either a teenager or a young adult. She had apparently never met a 67 year old vegan. I have met a few other older adults who consume a whole foods, plant-based diet, but not many. The reality is that our society reinforces unhealthy eating, even among vegetarians and vegans. Healthful eating is both simple and very difficult all at the same time. The concept is simple - concentrate on fresh vegetables and fruits, beans/legumes, whole grains, and raw nuts/seeds. The implementation is difficult because it forces us to move away from fast and processed foods, which are mostly inexpensive and very convenient. It leads us also away from some cultural doctrines about eating that are mostly myths, including we need lots of animal protein to build muscle, we need lots of dairy for strong bones, etc. Rather than truths, these are marketing pitches from the food processing industry, but they have become ingrained. Running against society's eating norms is not easy, but the rewards in good health in doing so are enormous.

My hope is that we reach the point where healthy eating is the norm, rather than the exception, and that terms like vegan and vegetarian become obsolete as larger and larger percentages of the population transition into truly healthy (as well as animal and environment friendly) eating.

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