Sunday, February 26, 2012

THE RACE: Why I Became A Vegan (Part 2): Improved Health and Physical Performance

This is part 2 of a series I wanted to start to explain the various reasons for why I became a vegan. It's taken me awhile to draft part 2 because, honestly, it's a weighty topic, so it takes awhile for me to pull it together.  And this is a lengthy post, so read it when you have time to digest it (pun intended)...

In the first part of this series, I explained that I became a vegetarian to help reduce animal cruelty.  I was a vegetarian for about a year, during which time I started exploring becoming a vegan.  I'd been feeling a bit hypocritical while I was a vegetarian - why did I decide not to eat animals, but then still consume dairy and eggs and use other animal products? And I do not mean to imply that in any way I think that vegetarians are hypocrites - not at all...that's just how I personally felt, and I felt that I could actually do a little better for myself.

Well, that's not really what I had in mind, but I suppose beer nuts are vegan...
I've done lots of research and read books over the years to continue to educate myself on if and how a vegan lifestyle can improve my health and improved physical performance.  It's impossible in a blog to cover every aspect of what I've read or to provide a citation-intensive dissertation of every source that I've used.  So my goal is really to present you with some of the key resources that I've found helpful in explaining why a vegan lifestyle leads to better health.  If you don't have time to read the entire post, I've provided a summary at the end, along with my most recent medical test results so that you can see for yourself that a vegan lifestyle is not only healthy, but as healthy or more healthy than one based on meat/poultry/pork/fish, dairy, and eggs.

And I have to stress the word lifestyle. I don't believe in "diets."  Diets, in my opinion, tend to be short-term changes that someone makes to achieve change.  Often "diets," like Atkins, South Beach, low-carb, etc., aren't sustainable because they result in too much deprivation of a particular substance.  I think that if you want to be healthy, you need to adopt a lifestyle - a long-term commitment - rather than just "going on a diet." 

If nothing else about this blog post sinks in, please make sure that the following is tattooed on your brain:  Your body is a machine and all the parts work together, not in isolation.  Every bit of food you eat affects how that machine functions.  So if you're body isn't working right, if you're gaining weight, if you're fatigued, you're mentally foggy, or you're not getting the most out of your need to look first at your diet.  I like the following analogy provided by Dr. Neal Barnard in the Foreward to Alicia Silverstone's book, The Kind Diet:

"Think of it like changing the fuel you put in your car.  If your car is not accelerating well, it stalls a lot, the ride is rough, and the exhaust looks terrible, you might take a look through your owner's manual.  And suddenly, you discover that your car actually does not take the diesel fuel you've been using; it takes unleaded.  You switch to the right fuel and suddenly, everything starts to get better. The acceleration improves, the ride evens out, and the exhaust opens up.  Your body is the same way.  The wrong foods slow you down.  They interfere with your digestion, your blood circulation, your energy, and every other aspect of your body.  With the right fuel, your whole body works better."  

Here are the key resources that I've found helpful in determining that a vegan or plant-based lifestyle is essential to maximum health:

  1. The Thrive Diet, Thrive Foods, and Thrive Fitness, by vegan Ironman triathlete, Brendan Brazier.  (For what it's worth, I wish Brazier had entitled his book The Thrive Lifestyle rather than The Thrive Diet).  In a nutshell, the goal of Brendan's approach was to reduce stress on the body, so that he could train better and recover faster.  
  2. The Kind Diet and the website The Kind Life, by actress and vegan, Alicia Silverstone.  Alicia focuses on her love of animals, as well as health and environmental concerns for justifying a plant-based lifestyle.  
  3. The documentary Forks Over Knives.  I only recently watched this documentary, but it dovetails so nicely with other resources that I had to include it.  Plus, it's a scientific discussion of "the profound claim that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods."  Forks Over Knives website.   The documentary tracks the work of two doctors: Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn.  Dr. Campbell is a nutritional scientist at Cornell University, who in the 1960's started focusing on research from the Philippines showing that the more affluent children who consumed higher amounts of animal protein were more likely to get liver cancer.  Dr. Campbell also was one of the doctors who conducted The China Study, one of the most comprehensive health-related studies ever performed, which found over 8,000 statistically significant correlations between various dietary factors and disease.  The overall conclusion was that "People who ate the most animal-based foods got the most chronic disease ... People who ate the most plant-based foods were the healthiest and tended to avoid chronic disease. These results could not be ignored."  The China Study.  Dr. Esselstyn was a top surgeon and head of the Breast Cancer Task Force at the Cleveland Clinic.  His research showed that many of the diseases that he typically treated (like heart disease and breast cancer) were virtually unknown in parts of the world where animal products were rarely consumed.  When these two researchers finally joined up, they conducted various studies that led them to conclude that degenerative diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even several forms of cancer, can be prevented - and in some cases even reversed - by eating a whole-food, plant-based diet.   
A.  Why stop eating meat for my health?

To Reduce Uncomplementary Stress

One of the things I found most informative about Brazier's Thrive books is his concept of eating high net-gain, nutrient dense foods to reduce stress on our bodies, thereby leading to better recovery between workouts, and better performance.  Brazier explains that there are three types of stress: 
  1. Uncomplementary stress:  anxiety that produces no benefit.  The Thrive Diet at 20.  It's estimated that as much as 60% of the average American's total stress is uncomplementary, which is comprised of 10% environmental stress, 20% psychological stress, and 70% nutritional stress.  Id. at 22-23.  He defines "nutritional stress" as "the body's stress response to food that is void of nutrition and/or foods that require a large amount of energy to digest and assimilate - refined, unnatural ones."  The Thrive Diet at 6.  Nutritional stress has the same kind of damaging impacts on the body as other types of stress.  Id.  Nutritional stress is more than just eating unhealthy food; it includes not eating the right kinds of foods, and not eating enough high-quality foods.  Id. at 23. Uncomplementary stress should be eliminated.  
  2. Complementary stress:  "the right amount of stress to stimulate renewal and instigate growth within the body."  Id. at 27.  In other words, exercise, which breaks down muscle tissue and regenerates newer, stronger tissue.  
  3. Production stress:  "the stress created when you strive to achieve a goal."  Id. at 29.  
When our bodies are stressed, it impacts our adrenal glands, which react by releasing the hormone cortisol.  "Cortisol is sometimes referred to as the 'stress hormone' for the simple reasons that its release is triggered by stress."  Id. at 9-10.  In response to the release of cortisol, our bodies actually gain energy to get us through the stressful period.  With as much stress as we put on our bodies, "[c]ortisol will eventually 'eat away' at the body by breaking down muscle tissue."  Id. at 11.  Our poor little adrenal glands weren't designed to be used as often as they are today to respond to the constant stress that we're under.  As a result, they become over worked, resulting in exhaustion.  

Stressed out adrenal glands...
Constant levels of elevated cortisol and overworked adrenals, according to Brazier, result in: 
  • the body burning carbohydrate in the form of sugar, rather than burning fat, causing the body to begin to store fat instead of using it for energy.  The carbohydrates are burned because the body is basically being ordered by the cortisol to kick into high gear; 
  • hormonal imbalance.  In other words, the adrenals release lot of hormones, but when they're focused on releasing cortisol in response to stress, they can't release enough of the other vital hormones. Hormonal imbalances can lead to electrolyte deficiency and, thus, dehydration, which can result in muscle cramping and, in the long-term, wrinkled and less elastic skin; and 
  • the inability to sleep soundly. The lack of sleep (another stressor) then results in further increased cortisol levels.  
To Reduce the Risk of Cancer and Other Diseases

Elevated cortisol also is triggered when the body's pH balance is off and your body has created an acidic environment.  As Brazier explains, "[t]he balance of acid and alkaline with the body is referred to as pH. . . . If the body's pH drops, meaning our body has become too acidic, the likelihood of ailments rises sharply.  An acidic environment within the body negatively affects health at the cellular level. . . . People with an acidic environment within their body are also prone to fatigue:  Since acidity is a stressor, cortisol levels rise, impairing sleep."  The Thrive Diet at 47.  "Low-grade metabolic acidosis" results "when cells remain in an overly acidic state because of too many acid-forming foods being eaten or a high-stress lifestyle in general" and "is believed to be a leading cause of several health concerns. . . . "  Id. at 48.   

As both Brazier and Forks Over Knives point out, cold-water fish, venison, and wild game are acid-forming, and beef, pork, poultry, and shellfish are highly acid-forming.  See Thrive Diet at 51; Forks Over Knives documentary.  The acidic environment created by these foods is believed to increase the risk of cancer, particularly breast cancer.  "[I]t is impossible for cancer to develop in an alkaline environment; this shows the importance of alkalinity in disease prevention."  Thrive Diet at 48.  

Numerous studies link meat's contribution to cancer.  See The Cancer Project.  For example, Silverstone points to a 2007 study of more than 35,000 women published in the British Journal of Cancer, which found that women who ate the most meat were more likely to develop breast cancer than those who consumed the least. The Kind Diet at 16-17. 

There are a number of reasons to explain this link.  First, researchers at the University of San Diego have isolated a sugar molecule (called Neu5Gc) that is present in many cancerous tumors.  This molecule isn't produced by the human body, but it's present in red meat.  See The Kind Diet at 17.  

Second, how meat, chicken, pork, and fish is cooked can increase cancer risk.  Meat, chicken, pork, and fish contain compounds called heterocyclic amines ("HCA's").  The longer and hotter those foods are cooked, the more these compounds form.  See The Kind Diet at 17; The Cancer Project.  (Just as an FYI, grilled chicken contains 17 more times the number of these compounds than grilled steak.  See The Kind Diet at 17 (citing Nutrition Scientists with The Cancer Project, Media Report, August 24, 2005, "New Report Names Five Worst Foods to Grill:  Chicken Tops the List with the Most Cancer-Causing Chemicals," The Cancer Project Media Report)).  In addition, "[g]rilling or broiling meat over a direct flame results in fat dropping on the hot fire and the production of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon-containing flames" or PAH's, which are widely believed to play a significant role in human cancers.  The Cancer Project.

Third, meat is hard to digest because it contains absolutely no fiber.  The Cancer Project; The Kind Diet at 17.  That means it gets stuck in your digestive tract, creating a backed-up, acidic environment.  Id.  And we know now what an acidic environment does, right?  Not to mention the fact that it will take more energy (i.e., nutritional stress) to try to break the meat down, thereby adding to your body's stress and producing what?  Cortisol.  (You're catching on).  This could lead not only to colon cancer, but also conditions like colitis and diverticulitis.  The Kind Diet at 17, n.6-8 (citing one study on foods that may influence ulcerative colitis, one discussing diverticulitis, and one linking eating lots of red meat to colon cancer).  

To Reduce or Eliminate My Intake of Antibiotics, Pathogens, and Hormones

So aside from cancer-causing compounds and stress-inducing qualities, what else does meat contain?  How about antibiotics, pathogens, and hormones?  With the exception of meat and chicken that are raised according to humane standards like those certified by the Animal Welfare Approved Program, most animals are raised in confined, dirty environments, so they are given antibiotics as routine preventative measures.  The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 13.5 million pounds of antibiotics are added to animal feed and water.  You think that ingesting additional antibiotics is good for you? Think again.  Eating antibiotics in meat wipes out your own healthy intestinal bacteria, making it harder for you to fight disease.  In addition, the bacteria that the antibiotics are designed to kill eventually morph into stronger "superbugs" that are growing increasingly resistant to antibiotics.  

In addition, because slaughterhouses typically are not the cleanliest of places, meat often contains pathogens like deadly E. coli.  How often?  Well, a 2001 USDA Report found that ground beef is the primary exposure for humans to E. coli.  In fact, from 1993-1998, 72% of E. coli. outbreaks were foodbourne, out of which 45% were attributable to ground beef.  In addition, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, chickens and turkeys are the primary carriers of the Campylobacter bacteria, which is the most common foodbourne cause of diarrhea in the United States.  And as if that weren't enough, when you eat an animal, you're eating everything it ate:  the toxins it couldn't get rid of, and the blood, bone, and viscera of the remains of euthanized cats and dogs that the animal may have been fed.  See The Kind Diet at 19 (citing Mitchell Satchell and Stephen J. Hedges, "The next bad beef scandal?  Cattle feed now contains things like chicken manure and dead cats," US News & World Report, September 1, 1997).  

E coli & hamburger...are you lovin' it?
And finally, again, unless the animal is raised under certified humane conditions, cattle, pigs, and chickens routinely are pumped full of hormones to make them grow muscle. Farmed fish also contain hormones.  And guess who then gets to ingest those hormones?! 

We haven't talked much about fish, so let's do briefly (fish will be covered more in Part 3, the Environmental Concerns)!  According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, nearly all methylmercury exposure in the United States occurs through eating fish and shellfish.  

Because We Do NOT Need to Eat Animals or Fish to Get Adequate Protein

So enough of all the "bad" stuff you get from eating meat, poultry, pork, and fish.  What about "good" stuff?  The most common question I get from people is "Where do you get your protein?"  There is a myth - and it is just that - perpetrated by the meat industry, that animal protein is superior to plant protein.  The notion is that animal protein is a complete protein, whereas plant protein is not.  Well, that's true.  But, it doesn't matter.  Why?  Let's look at what protein is. 

Every cell needs protein and you need protein to help repair and build new cells.  Medline Plus (a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health), explains that when proteins are digested, amino acids are left, which break down food.  "Amino acids are found in animal sources such as meats, milk, fish, soy, and eggs, as well as in plant sources such as beans, legumes, and nut butters. You do not need to eat animal products to get all the protein you need in your diet."  Medline Plus (emphasis added).  "Vegetarians are able to get enough essential amino by eating a variety of plant proteins."  Id.  So it really doesn't matter whether meat is a "complete" protein, particularly where "[a] diet high in meat can contribute to high cholesterol levels or other diseases such as gout.  A high-protein diet may also put a strain on the kidneys."  Id.

I want to note here that I try to stay away from processed protein that involves isolating it.  The isolation of protein "is done by removing the carbohydrate and fat, thereby creating protein isolates."  The Thrive Diet at 53.  The process of isolating protein uses chemicals and high temperatures, which makes the resulting product my acid-forming.  Id.  That means I stay away from soy powders and a lot of "mock meats" that contain soy protein isolate.  

B.  Why stop eating dairy and eggs for my health? 

So I could have just stopped there, right?  Why did I want to also give up the cheese, milk, ice cream, and eggs?  Well, for many of the same reasons.  But before I get to that, do you know that humans are the only species who drinks another species' milk?  Not surprising, most humans can't drink milk from other animals.  Silverstone notes that "[i]n the United States, as many as 80 percent of African Americans, 90 percent of Asian Americans, and 60 percent of Hispanics are lactose-intolerant to some degree."  The Kind Diet at 35 (citing Roberta Larson Duyff, American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide, (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2006), 524).

Plus, cow's milk is designed to turn a baby calf into a 400-pound cow.  It's designed to make the calf fat.  Do you think it's supposed to have a different effect on you?  To stave off the fat and calories from whole cow's milk, the industry processes the milk, fortifies it, etc, to get low-fat and skim milk.  And we've learned what processed foods can do, right?  

But, more importantly, do you really want to buy into a self-serving ad campaign?  Well, if you buy into the "Milk, It does a body good" or "Got Milk?" campaigns, then you're allowing the dairy industry to fund its own self-serving studies to sell you a product.  In 2005, the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine explained that the dairy industry's weight loss campaign was based on two small-scale studies conducted by a researcher out of the University of Tennessee who was funded by the dairy industry.  Between 1989 and 2005, there were 35 clinical trials that explored the relationship between dairy products or calcium supplements and body weight.  Thirty-one studies found no relationship and two studies found that there was actually weight gain.  The only two studies that found weight loss were the two funded by the dairy industry.  Do you want to trust an industry's own self-serving findings? 

For a lot of people, giving up dairy is the hardest part of becoming a vegan.  Why?  Milk is addictive - literally.  As Silverstone explains, milk contains a protein called casein, "which breaks down in the body to become casomorphins, as in 'morphine.' Casomorphins have an opiate effect on our body and - like all good opiates - makes you feel relaxed and happy."  The Kind Diet at 35 (citing Neal D. Barnard, MD, Breaking the Food Seduction (New York: St. Martin's  Griffin, 2004).  Cheese contains even more concentrated levels of casein.  So no wonder it's so hard to give up!  It's like a drug. 

To Reduce Uncomplementary Stress and Risk of Cancer and Disease

Like meats, poultry, and fish, milk (raw, unprocessed) is acid-forming, and butter, cheese, milk (pasteurized), margarine, and whey protein isolate are highly acid-forming.  The Thrive Diet at 51-52.  And you now know what that means.

In addition, The Cancer Project explains that in a Harvard Physicians' Health Study, which included more than 20,000 male physicians, those who consumed more than two dairy servings daily had a 34% increased risk of prostate cancer over men who had consumed no or little dairy.  One explanation for this is that cows are injected with bovine growth hormone, which results in higher levels of the hormone IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1) - a hormone connected to tumor growth.  The Kind Diet at 36 (citing William J. Cromie, "Growth Hormone Raises Cancer Risk," The Harvard University Gazette, April, 1999, President and Fellows of Harvard College,; see also The Cancer Project (discussing other studies showing a link between dairy consumption and prostate cancer).  Plus, another study of 42 countries comparing cancer rates, milk and cheese consumption were linked to the incidence of testicular cancer in men ages 20-39.  Cancer rates were highest in Switzerland and Denmark, where cheese is the national food, but lower in Algeria and other countries with lower dairy consumption.  The Kind Diet at 37 (citing Andrew Weil, M.D., "Does Milk Cause Cancer," citing a Study by Ganmaa Davaasambuu, M.D., Ph.D., Weil Lifestyle, LLC,

Because We Do Not Need to Consume Dairy to Get Calcium

Like the meat/poultry/fish myth about protein, there's also a myth that we need to consume dairy to adequate calcium.  The dairy industry has pumped millions of dollars into convincing Americans that we need milk to get adequate calcium to avoid osteoporosis.  Dr. Campbell's extensive China Study shows otherwise, however.  Most Chinese consume little or no dairy, but yet have about 1/5 of the hip fractures as in the West.  Plus, Dr. Campbell notes that high protein intake, particularly from animal protein, can cause the body to excrete more calcium than it gets and depleting calcium stored in the bones, thereby leading to osteoporosis.  Id. 

But do plant-based foods provide sufficient calcium?  You betcha.  Silverstone includes a chart comparing calcium levels (The Kind Diet at 39):   

Calcium Milligrams (per 100-gram serving)

Whole Milk
Collard Greens
Sesame Seeds
Hijiki sea vegetable

So What About Eggs? 

The incredible edible egg?  Not so much.  As I'm sure you know, an egg is the reproductive cell of a chicken.  So it's an animal product.  And one loaded in cholesterol at that.  One egg contains approximately 200 milligrans of cholesterol.  The Kind Diet at 40.  Several years ago, Americans believed that was a bad thing, until the egg industry (like the meat and dairy industry) pumped millions of dollars into ad campaigns to focus on the other nutritional benefits of eggs - protein, lutein, vitamins, and minerals.  But you can get all of those benefits in plant-based sources, without the added cholesterol.  And to top it off, eggs come from chickens that also have been loaded with antibiotics.


Phew!!  That's a lot of information, so if you got through it, congrats!!

So, to summarize: 
  • too much stress leads to increased cortisol levels Ô fat storage rather than fat burning, hormonal imbalance, lack of sleep Ô more increased cortisol levels Ô nutritional stress = poorer physical performance
  • Acid-forming foods:  cold-water fish, venison, wild game, and milk (raw, unprocessed) Ô pH imbalance Ô hard to digest & additional nutritional stress = conditions that increase risk of cancer and other diseases
  • Highly acid-forming foods:  beef, pork, poultry, shellfish, butter, cheese, milk (pasteurized), margarine, and whey Ô pH imbalance Ô hard to digest & additional nutritional stress Ô conditions that increase risk of cancer and other diseases
  • ingest meat/poultry/fish/dairy/eggs Ô ingest antibiotics, pathogens, and hormones = diseases 
  • nutritional stress Ô poorer recovery between workouts Ô poorer physical performance
If you need some proof of how healthy a vegan lifestyle is, take a look at my own medical results.  Granted, these results may not be typical, but they are achievable:  
  • Hemoglobin:  13.9 (normal range is 12.1-15.1)
  • Blood sugar:  94 (normal range is 74-106)
  • Cholesterol:  139 (it should be under 200)
  • Triglycerides:  57 (it should be under 150)
  • HDL (good cholesterol):  65 (it should be as high as possible and definitely over 40)
  • LDL (bad cholesterol):  63 (it should be under 160)
  • Vitamin B12:  702 (it should be between 180-900 and normal is around 600, so 702 was great)
  • Iron:  63 (should be above 40)
  • Folic acid:  24 (should be above 5.4)
  • Vitamin D:  48 (should be above 30)
Not a single one of my blood levels was insufficient.  In addition to the medical results, I just feel better as a vegan.  I've trained for marathons, triathlons, and Ironman as a vegan.   I agree with Brazier's conclusions that if you reduce the stress level on your body, you'll be able to recover more quickly in between workouts, fuel better for future workouts, and see more improved physical results.  Brazier explores these concepts more fully in Thrive Fitness.  

If you're going to start a vegan lifestyle, you should consult your doctor and a nutritionist.  I'll be doing a future blog on how to transition into a vegan lifestyle, so stay tuned...

Next in the series will be the environmental benefits of a vegan lifestyle...another weighty topic, so that one may take me awhile too! 

If you're a meat/dairy-eater, how much have you thought about how your food choices affect your body?  

What are your reasons for eating meat/dairy/eggs?  

What would prevent you from transitioning to a vegan lifestyle?  

Do you know your bloodwork? 



Anonymous said...


Life Through Endurance said...

Thanks, of the many comments that mom left because she loved me...I know that was a lot for her to read and that she loved her meat, but she read it anyway...

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