Should you ban meat and dairy from your diet? Here’s why—and why not.
With Bill Clinton looking lean and lively as the newest celebrity vegan, this no-animal-product diet is hotter than ever. It’s true that most people who choose a vegan diet do it for personal beliefs: to avoid supporting factory farming or to cause less environmental harm.
But more and more are approaching it as a simple and cheap way to eat more healthfully and reduce their risk for many kinds of disease, to control their weight or to eat a less “toxic” diet. A vegan diet can be healthy–provided you do it right. But it’s not for everyone, and can be unhealthy if your vegan choices are mostly carbohydrates and sugars. Here are some good reasons to go vegan, and some good reasons not to.
7 Reasons to Go Vegan
- You want to reduce your risk for colon cancer. Research shows that people who eat less than one ounce a day of red meat cut their colon cancer risk by about one-third compared to people who eat five ounces or more a day. Grilling or curing red meat creates toxins that promote pre-cancerous changes in the cells lining the colon. Plus, the fiber and antioxidants in a vegan diet fight all types of cancer.
- You want to avoid or even reverse heart disease. Dr. Dean Ornish proved years ago that making big, sustainable changes to your diet (a “pound of cure”) can begin to reverse decades of artery-clogging damage. A vegan diet, properly followed, fits that bill. It contains no cholesterol and is low in saturated fat. However, you will want to keep an eye on two vegan sources of saturated fat: coconut milk and palm oil.
- You’re tired of being constipated. The fiber content in a vegan diet is about double that of a meat-based diet, so you really are getting the recommended 30 grams of fiber a day. As long as you are also drinking plenty of fluids, you can count on being “regular.”
- You want to lose weight without having to eat less or count calories. As long as you do it right, you can count on a vegan diet to fill you up without filling you out, says registered dietitian Barbara Rolls, author of Volumetrics: Feel Full on Fewer Calories. “A vegan diet can be high in fiber and low in calorie-dense foods, and will tend to fill you up without a lot of calories, especially if you eat beans,” she says. You still will need to limit fatty and sugary foods, though.
- You have ulcerative colitis or some other inflammatory bowel disease. Research shows that a diet high in animal protein increases hydrogen sulfur in the intestines, which has a direct toxic effect on intestinal mucosa. People with ulcerative colitis who eat a lot of animal protein have more than triple the rate of relapse than people who restrict animal protein intake. “People with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases may also do better on a vegan diet because they are avoiding foods to which they may be intolerant, such as dairy,” says registered dietitian Jack Norris, co-author of Vegan for Life.
- You’re at risk for kidney disease. If you have kidney disease, or are at risk for kidney disease because you have diabetes, keeping your protein intake low helps the remaining kidney cells function longer, since one of their main jobs is removing toxic protein wastes from the blood. People with kidney disease who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet go longer before they have renal failure and need dialysis, Norris says. “Plant proteins are just plain easier on the kidneys than animal proteins,” he explains.
- You want to do something drastic to improve your diet. “Especially if they have some life-threatening health problem, like heart disease, some people can stick with a program better when they go all-out and see quick results,” Norris says. For others, though, gradual changes are more tolerable.