Extreme Dieting: Vegan Edition

31 12 2011

This post is going to catch some flak from a few people I know, and probably from other readers who don’t know me.  That’s fine.  Be offended or deal with it.

I’ve had an unusual number of experiences recently pertaining to the vegan lifestyle.  Some good, mostly bad.  Unfortunately, I have a number of acquaintances—for some reason, it seems that everyone in my graduating high school class applies—who have recently (like, within the past year) gone vegan.  I assume when they say vegan, they mean no animal products at all, ever, no cheating.  The interesting thing is that when I considered my peers in med school, and the other doctors who have taught or worked with us, quite a few are vegetarian, but there is only one vegan.  Just one.  And she was a vegan for animal rights reasons.  Ironic, right?

It also seems that these select individuals have done a ridiculous amount of touting their new=found vegan-ism like the latest Coach purse.  Every post and status update is about how wonderful it is that they don’t eat meat, how much cleaner and healthier they feel, and how they are liberated forever from every health issue from colds to cancer.  Uh-huh.  There actually was a patient recently diagnosed with lung cancer who fully believed that being a vegan would keep her from getting cancer.  Needless to say, it was a horrible awakening for her.

The more I thought about it, the more appalling her line of thinking seemed: First, because I wanted to know what on earth gave this lady the idea that not eating animal by-products would keep her from getting cancer.  Second, the answer to this question was inevitably ‘the internet,’ and I really, really hate the amount of unregulated information on the internet and the stupid choices that it leads people to make (like, for example, not vaccinating their children, or refusing to take antibiotics because they contain dyes).

One of the girls I went to high school with has a sister fighting to recover from (what I gather based on her Facebook posts) lung cancer, and she recently posted about how “maybe now we can convince her to go vegan, too.”  I really want to know where this information is, because what it boils down to for me is this: most of these people are making decisions for themselves, their children, and maybe influencing other family members and friends.  Not many people.  I will be in the position to advise way more people than that, and I don’t want to allow my biases or anyone else’s to potentially harm my future patients.

So I did some research (like, with real resources that doctors use, not Wikipedia).

For lung cancer in particular, there are 3 very vague links to a reduction of lung cancer incidence in vegans.  They are as follows:

  1. Most vegans are vegans for ‘health reasons’ (which is 100% stupid, but will get to that later).  This means that, in general, these people are less likely to smoke.  Smoking is the cause of 90% of lung cancers, the most common cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.  There you go. (Though, bonus for the ethanol enthusiasts, you can still be an alcoholic and get all of those associated cancers while remaining true to the vegan lifestyle.  Score one for plants!)
  2. One of the most common causes of lung cancer is metastasis from other places.  Omnivores are more likely to get colon and breast cancers, which love to metastasize, especially to the lungs.  So yes, this secondarily reduces vegan risk.
  3. The last theory is that vegans eat more anti-oxidants because more of their diet (as in, all of it) is plant-based.  Antioxidants do slightly lower overall cancer risk.  Personally, I think this theory is a load of hooey because any meat eater can eat just as many red peppers as their local vegan in addition to their chicken breast.

That’s fine.  But let’s be really clear here.  There are dozens of things that can help you to prevent cancer, and hundreds of things that may help to prevent cancer.  There is only one thing that will guarantee you a sure-fire, cancer-free future.

Death.

Dying is 100% guaranteed to prevent cancer in any given person.  In order to keep your cells from mutating, you’d have to keep them from dividing.  Period.

Your diets are super important.  Through medical school I’ve taken a particular interest in nutrition, and there are a lot of aspects of life and disease that can be improved by diet, but very, very few diseases can be cured by diet exclusively.  Almost all of the latter are related to obesity or allergies.  Steve Jobs did an excellent job of proving this point. He had pancreatic cancer, which even people not in medicine know is a horribly aggressive disease with 80% dying within a year of diagnosis.  Steve Jobs had the kind that can be excised (prognosis for these  guys is still only 18-36 months), but instead of trying to treat the cancer, he saw a whole bunch of medicine and smoked herbs and drank teas and went vegan to try to cure the cancer.

Moron.  And then the public was stunned when he died.  Realistically, he likely wouldn’t have been cured even if he’d taken the conventional medical treatment, but he could have gained quite a lot of time.

The point of all this is that vegan diets are unhealthy.  Period.  Anybody who tries to tell you that it’s ‘natural, the way we are supposed to live’ is full of crap.  DON’T LISTEN TO THIS GARBAGE!  Why?  Well, there are lots of reasons, but you can fully and completely with this dispute with one point: B12.  Vitamin B12 is necessary for life.  You NEED this stuff for your nerves to work properly, it is required for the synthesis of myelin, a fatty substance that acts as insulation to let your nerves conduct impulses. And it ONLY comes from animal products and synthetic vitamins.

Vegans are also usually deficient in a lot of other things, like calcium and zinc.  These two you can get from plants, but it requires very strict and meticulous monitoring to ensure that you get enough of each in your diets.  It shouldn’t surprise you to know that osteoporosis rates are higher in vegans.  Lack of zinc can cause hair loss, easy bruising, and poor wound healing.

Some of you might say that taking a supplement is no big deal.  In this country, in this day and age, that’s true.  They make vegan vitamins that make adopting the lifestyle and not getting peripheral neuropathy much easier, and the ever-growing trend has made vegan-friendly options more widely available than ever.  Remember when Atkins was huge and low-carb items became a normal thing on every restaurant menu?  This is like that, a response to a consumer demand.  But here’s the thing: just because it’s popular doesn’t make it good for you.

Guys, think about this for a second.  This isn’t natural.  Your bodies are amazing, built to extract absolutely every component needed to survive from the foods that you eat.  Any diet that can provide complete nutrition only via a heavy dependence on synthetic vitamins and fortified foods is not normal, let alone healthy (which, side note, is super ironic because these are the people who often make a huge show of being all-natural, preservative- and dye-free, locally grown and farmer’s market people).

It’s not healthy.  At all.  In fact, if the vegan in question is not intelligent and organized, it’s downright dangerous.

Moral of the story, if you’re going to be a vegan, you have to be smart about it.  And really, REALLY talk to a doctor or nutritionist before you women get preggo or try to raise your kids vegan.  Our bodies aren’t build to handle extremes, and this is an extreme.  If you’re looking to make a truly health-conscious choice, be a vegetarian.  Fish is actually really good for you (and eating 1-2 servings a week of the bigger fish is heart-healthy without the risk of excess mercury), chicken is great when you get the organically raised ones, and even the occasional grass-fed steak won’t kill you.  Everything in moderation, including moderation.

Also, being a vegan is not going to prevent an angry animal from mauling you in the future.  Just something to consider 🙂

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One response

2 01 2012
Emily

You crack me up. I really enjoyed this because I have a lot of friends who are vegetarian or vegan and they don’t seem to be in the know about all of the serious health risks.

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