Monday, January 7, 2013

He who lives by the cucumber ...

I was watching a lecture on the merits of a vegetarian lifestyle. I then followed the links to lectures on vegan diets and discussions on the value of the entire vegan lifestyle. I heard well presented material backed by solid data, extolling the tremendous health benefits over alternate diet plans, specifically those that were animal protein based (i.e., those that included red meat, chicken, and depending on the lecture, even those that included milk and eggs).

My next step was to search online for the keywords of vegan, vegetarian, heart disease, cancer and more. And what I found was a great deal of conflicting information on the benefits (and risks) of plant based diet plans.

I think this is a perfect example, once again, of the tremendous confusion that faces anyone and everyone trying to make proper food and lifestyle choices.

First of all, and this is very important, when trying to compare the benefits of one diet plan to another, you have to be VERY specific in what you are actually comparing. Let's say we want to compare the typical Western diet to a non-animal protein diet. Well, this is still actually very vague. Just as I noted above, does "non-animal protein" exclude milk and eggs as well ? There is a MAJOR difference between "vegan" and the sometimes more loosely used term "vegetarian". As such, if I find a study that shows the benefits of certain diet, I need to know exactly what the diet includes. Otherwise, I literally would be mixing apples and oranges (and broccoli and celery and ...)

Secondly, you must always be careful when people compare any diet to the typical Western diet. If "typical Western" includes regular visits to the fast food chains in the neighborhood and is almost entirely based on processed foods, then it actually would NOT be hard to prove that ANY diet is better.

There are questions whose answers could help clear up at least some of the confusion. For example:

  • if I eat meat BUT i also eat fish and vegetables on a regular basis, is that enough to give me all the protection of a plant based diet ? People tend to assume that eating meat and other animal proteins is SO bad for you, that there is no minimal safe amount. And they quote the benefits of a more vegetable based diet as proof. However, it could very well be that people who eat lots of meat tend to ignore fruits and vegetables. So the real question is, is meat SO bad, or are vegetables SO good. And if the answer is that vegetables are SO good, then the key is to get people to eat their steaks and fish and eggs and milk with a side order of a big salad. This might very well be the way to "have it all".
  • is the diet plan I am investigating good for me at all stages of my life including youth, middle age, old age, pregnancy, post menopause, when I am ill or when I am VERY ill ?  Young people clearly have special nutritional needs because of their speed of growth. An older person might suffer from a poor appetite and as such, might need calorically dense food in order not to become malnourished. And when someone is ill, they may simply not be able to tolerate certain foods. So, for all of these states, one must have specific answers about all of the various diets.
  • are there special issues if I will follow the given diet plan, such as having to watch out for certain nutritional deficiencies ? If a person refuses to eat ANYTHING from the fruit and vegetable groups of foods, they could suffer certain vitamin deficiencies. And the same holds true for those who will eat no animal-based foods. These issues are not insurmountable. But you need to know very specifically what effect each diet will have on your overall health, definitely not just on your weight.
I know vegetarians who are well into their 70's and look great. And i know meat-eaters who are just as vibrant. To really know which lifestyle is better, you need to do careful studies on large groups over long periods of time. But these are hard to do, OR when you do collect such data, are still are often open to interpretation. 

I would dare say that there is not one answer for all people. Some people will respond well to certain diets and others will react badly to them. Mixing and matching has its benefits and there is a lot to be said for people who eat a bit from column A and then some from column B. Your doctor can also help guide you by letting you know how your diet plan is affecting your blood work.

For myself, my low carb (not zero carb) diet includes fruits and vegetables alongside my fish and meat. This works for me, both in terms of my general sense of well being and my test results. You will need to explore and try different things and come to your own conclusions. While this sounds tiresome, the reward is finally finding a diet plan that works for you. And once you have this, you may very well never need to ask all of these tricky questions again.

Thanks for listening

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