The health advantages of a vegan diet are well-established by large scientific studies and it's the key therapy in my cardiology clinic. It's also the reason I opened GreenSpace Café, the largest vegan restaurant in the Midwest, with my son Daniel. And with the additional advantages of a vegan diet—in terms of animal compassion and limiting environmental damage—there are more than enough reasons to adopt a plant-based diet. While studies like the Adventist Health Study demonstrate that a vegan diet can prevent chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes better than any other eating style, good health is not guaranteed by eating vegan foods and there are pitfalls that I often see people fall into:
1. The mistake of assuming vegans never get sick
The running world learned a lesson in the 1970s when best-selling author and marathoner Jim Fixx dropped dead of advanced heart blockages in his early 50s. He was known to boast that he could eat anything he wanted to because he ran so many miles. A similar phenomenon can be a trap for vegans. The lower rates of chronic diseases are not the same as no risk. Vegans can get cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and other serious disorders. Most current vegans ate a meat-based diet for many years before they adopted their new plan, which may have initiated silent problems. New vegans and those motivated by ethics may choose a lot of processed foods high in oils, trans fats, sugars, and added salt. Vegans need cancer screening like colonoscopy just like everyone else, comprehensive lab studies, and imaging for silent heart disease to ensure optimal health.
2. The mistake of not adopting a healthy lifestyle
While a vegan diet or plant-based diet is a very healthy choice, they are just one part of an overall plan for optimal health. Pioneering studies by Dean Ornish, M.D., called the Lifestyle Heart Trial, combined a plant-based diet with exercise, stress reduction, yoga, social support and love, and cessation of smoking to reverse advanced heart disease. And vegans need to incorporate these other healthy practices into their life as well. Sleeping seven to eight hours at night reduces the risk of heart disease substantially compared with those sleeping less than five hours. About 20 percent of the American public still smokes and some are vegans who must quit. Trying to eat a perfect vegan diet can be stressful and bring on endless comments from co-workers, family, and friends. A strategy to manage stress, whether it is a breathing practice, yoga, religion, music, or social support is a key to health for all.
3. The mistake of not supplementing
In my advanced preventive cardiology clinic, I measure blood and skin levels of many nutrients that go beyond the usual lab panel. Both omnivores and vegans that I see are frequently low in nutrients. Vegans are often low in B12, vitamin D, omega-3, iodine, vitamin K2, and taurine (as are most omnivores). In my view, obtaining the maximal benefit from a vegan diet requires attention to these nutrients.
There are vegan vitamins that contain proper amounts of these supplements and I recommend them to my patients. If whole food sources are desired, omega-3 can be addressed by 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed daily with greens, walnuts, and chia seeds. Kelp and nori can supply iodine. Mushrooms and plant milks can be rich in vitamin D. Adequate iron can be an issue for vegans but spinach, tofu, beans, lentils, and sunflower seeds are quite good sources. If you want to be sure you're getting proper amounts of these nutrients, ask your health care professional for a blood test.
4. The mistake of eating vegan junk food
A vegan label on a package does not guarantee a healthy choice. A meal of soda, chips, and fried "chicken" nuggets may constitute a tasty vegan lunch, but it's far from the concept of eating for health. A recent player on the vegan scene is jackfruit that has the texture and taste of meat but is a whole food. My restaurant serves jackfruit sliders on a whole grain bun and it is a huge crowd pleaser that retains a healthy profile. Processed grains in cookies, cakes, and breads—as opposed to 100 percent whole grain options—can be a pitfall for vegans. It can be really difficult to find vegan-friendly foods in some places or while traveling, and I always suggest taking a moment to read the ingredients before buying.
The growth of the vegan movement in the last few years—with testimonials by Venus Williams, Dr. Oz, or Franklin Graham, new restaurants, festivals, and new product lines—provides testimony to the growing awareness that veganism is a great path to both a healthy body and planet. And if you avoid the four mistakes described here, it might just be the best decision you ever make.