More and more evidence is accumulating in recent years about the effectiveness of a vegan diet in the prevention and treatment of a variety of typical western diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and more. Does medicine replace drugs with veganism?

By: Orit Ofir Clinical Dietitian (B. Sc) Publication date: 10/31/2013

The saying ‘Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food’, could not be more true. It is known that our choices when it comes to food can prevent diseases such as: heart disease , diabetes and cancer and even treat them.

Furthermore, more and more studies in recent years have found that a plant-based and vegan diet can protect against these diseases, which are most common in the Western world. In all the studies, factors that could bias the findings such as smoking, being overweight, etc. were neutralized. In 2009, the American Nutrition Association ADA issued a position paper based on an in-depth analysis of hundreds of studies in the field.

The publication of the conclusions states that a properly planned vegetarian diet, including a vegan diet, is not only considered but also meets the nutritional requirements and is able to provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.

Veganism and cancer

Evidence shows that the cancer incidence rate among vegans and vegetarians is indeed lower than in the general population (especially prostate cancer and colon cancer which are among the most common in Israel).

These data are not surprising, since the consumption of red meat and processed meat has been found to be associated with an increase in the risk of colon cancer and probably also breast cancer . Also, the consumption of processed meat is associated with an increase in the risk of stomach cancer .

Leading health organizations emphasize the importance of a plant-based diet in cancer prevention. In 2012, the American Cancer Society (ACS) issued updated nutritional guidelines for cancer prevention, in which the recommendations are to maintain a balanced diet, including an emphasis on plant-based foods and to reduce the consumption of processed meat and red meat.

The document also stated that the consumption of traditional soy foods such as tofu can probably reduce the risk of breast, prostate and endometrial cancer.

Veganism and diabetes

As with cancer, it was found that vegans and vegetarians have a lower risk of getting diabetes. Some studies even show a 2-fold decrease in risk.

There is a relationship between the consumption of red meat and processed meat and an increase in the risk of diabetes, and in contrast, the consumption of legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans, etc.) is associated with a decrease in the risk of diabetes.

Beyond the ability to prevent, it turns out that veganism also helps in the treatment of diabetes. A 2006 study found that a low-fat, vegan diet reduced the dosage of diabetes medications among 43% of patients. This is a significant improvement compared to that achieved with the diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association.

Veganism and cardiovascular disease

Vegetarians have a lower risk of heart disease than omnivores. Vegans have an even lower risk than vegetarians. It was also found that vegetarians and vegans have lower blood pressure and LDL (“bad cholesterol”) values.

A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that a vegan, or nearly vegan, diet is as effective in lowering blood LDL levels as taking statin drugs and a diet low in saturated fat.

Fat veganism

Vegetarians tend to be thinner than meat eaters, and vegans tend to be thinner than vegetarians (but still at a normal weight).

Is it possible without dairy products?

In the nutrition guidelines issued at the end of 2011, Harvard University recommended reducing the consumption of dairy products to 1-2 servings a day. This is compared to the current recommendation of consuming 3 dairy products a day.

This is due to the discovery that a high consumption of dairy products is probably associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer and possibly ovarian cancer as well.

Harvard is one of the bodies leading the strong call to increase the place of plant-based foods in the diet, and recommends filling half of the plate with vegetables and fruits, as well as limiting the consumption of red meat and avoiding processed meat, since its consumption, even in small amounts on a daily basis, increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes , colon cancer and weight gain.

How can these findings be explained?

One of the conclusions emerging from the studies is that a balanced vegan diet meets the nutritional requirements and is not lacking in components such as protein , iron and calcium . On the other hand, compared to an omnivorous diet, and even a vegetarian diet – it contains greater amounts of folic acid , potassium , magnesium and dietary fiber.

Dietary fibers are found only in the plant world, and they are known, among other things, for giving a feeling of satiety and helping to balance blood sugar and cholesterol levels. In contrast, a vegan diet contains no cholesterol at all (found only in animal products) and is low in saturated fat – two components that contribute to an increase in blood cholesterol levels.

In addition to high cholesterol levels, another factor in the development of atherosclerosis is the oxidation of LDL (‘bad cholesterol’). Oxidation is a natural process in the body, but when it occurs in excess it is a significant factor in the development of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and more.

A vegan diet is richer in antioxidants, including vitamin C and E , flavonoids and carotenoids. Animal food, on the other hand, contains a negligible amount of antioxidants and, on the other hand, a high amount of oxidants, including iron.

The body knows how to regulate the absorption of iron from plants according to its needs, but cannot do this with iron from animals (HEME iron), so it is possible to reach a state of excess iron, and as a result – increased oxidation processes, which are associated with an increase in the risk of heart disease and colon cancer.

In conclusion, it is expected that in the future we will hear more and more bodies that fully recommend a plant-based diet as a strategy for the prevention and treatment of diseases.

A recent imitation model is the American health insurance fund – Kaiser Permanente, which this year issued instructions to its doctors that:

“Healthy eating is probably best achieved in a plant-based diet – a diet that encourages the consumption of whole foods from plants and encourages the avoidance of meat, dairy products and eggs as well as refined or processed foods.

Doctors should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially to those with hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or obesity.”

By: Orit Ophir , clinical dietician ( B. Sc ), naturopath ( ND ) and Pilates instructor

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