Improving health is one of the primary reasons people choose plant-based diets. For Joe Walsh, co-founder of the Asheville Vegan Society and vegan for 22 years, it wasn’t the initial rationale, but it had an impact. “I dropped about 10 pounds, and I was in the best shape I’ve ever been in. People were asking me what I was doing,” he says.
Walsh remembers clearly when he first decided to become a vegetarian. “I was 11,” he says. “I was walking down the street in Brooklyn, and my brother and I saw some animals near a door. I like animals, so I headed inside, and I saw a goat being held with a knife to his neck, and he was bleating frantically. Chickens were being thrown around roughly. The guys inside that Halal slaughterhouse told me to scram.”
He told his father that he wanted to stop eating meat, but his father replied, “You’ve got to have your protein. You can’t do that.” So at age 19, Walsh became a vegetarian. And at 29, he went vegan.
“It wasn’t as easy as it is now, but it wasn’t difficult,” Walsh says. “I gave up dairy products, eggs, cheese and cow’s milk. It took me two weeks to acclimate. ”
Walsh, whose family has a history of heart disease, says he soon saw positive results from eating plant-based. “I have more endurance as a vegan,” he says. “My blood pressure is 110/70, and my heart rate is low. … A few years ago, my brother’s cholesterol was close to 300. My cholesterol is under 150.”
He has also urged others to examine their diets more closely. “I’ve never met [a vegan] with a B12 or protein deficiency,” says Walsh. “However, I’ve known a lot of people who have had heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer and erectile dysfunction, which could be remedied or prevented by a well-balanced vegan diet.”
Walsh still hears questions from doubters. “People ask me, ‘Where do you get your protein?’ I say, ‘The same place as the silver-backed gorilla gets it — plants.’”
A 2014 study by researchers at the University of Southern California found that middle-age people who ate diets rich in animal proteins were four times more likely to die of cancer than people who consume less. Meat consumers were also 74 percent more likely to die of any cause. Evidence such as this suggests that choosing a plant-based diet would lower mortality risk.
Amy Lanou, chair and professor of the health and wellness department at UNC Asheville, was 16 when she became interested in nutrition. “My mom read a book called Sugar Blues, which basically said that sugar was the cause of all evil,” she remembers. “So she cleared all the sweeteners out of our house. I said, ‘I don’t know about all this.’ I went into nutrition to figure out what was right.”
Lanou decided to focus on the use of nutrition to control chronic disease risks while enrolled at the University of California at Davis. At 19, she found out that she had very high cholesterol. She went vegetarian, and her cholesterol dropped 50 points, enough to avoid medications. When she went vegan in 1996, she says, her cholesterol dropped another 50 points, plus she lost weight, and her allergies came under control.
Lanou shows her students how to make good choices in her nutrition classes. “How do you tell if a food is whole?” she asks. “If it still looks like it did originally, it’s probably whole. In a bowl of oatmeal, you still see oats, but in a bowl of Froot Loops, you have no idea what those ingredients are.”
Lanou believes most or all of the foods we eat should be from plant sources. She describes a diabetes prevention study she was involved in. “[The participants] were eating very high-carbohydrate diets and having better glycemic control in their bloodstreams than those who ate much lower carbohydrate diets,” she says.
“In Type 2 diabetes, the cells are resistant to the message from insulin. If you can change the conditions inside the cell so they recognize the glucose and take it in, then you get better control,” she says. “If you have been living with diabetes and you can reverse it, the quality of your existence will change. You won’t be afraid of losing your eyesight or your toes.”
Examples of plant foods include fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. “Find the things that you will eat and enjoy,” Lanou advises. “I love vegetables. I would prefer to get most of my calories from starchy vegetables than from grains.”
Other health benefits abound. “People consuming high-carbohydrate plant-based diets tend to be about 10 percent leaner than their omnivorous counterparts,” Lanou says. “They tend to live longer — anywhere from one to six years — and have reduced risk of a variety of cancers and heart disease. The same diet that can reverse coronary heart disease is the diet that can reduce diabetes.”
The question of protein
Aubri Rote, assistant professor in the health and wellness department at UNC Asheville, doesn’t believe it’s necessary to subsist on plants alone. “Whole foods are the most nutritious way to eat, and ideally, the majority are plants,” Rote says in an email. “I agree with what motivates many individuals who follow a vegan diet. Our food system has many inhumane practices toward animals.”
However, she does express concern about vegans getting enough protein. “If you can follow this way of eating and keep it primarily whole-food while integrating enough protein, awesome. [But] there are sources for eggs and dairy that use humane, sustainable farming practices, and these can be part of a healthy diet also.”
She notes that while there are now many animal protein options available that are pasture-raised, grass-fed, hormone-free and organic, it’s crucial to know what you’re buying. “When purchasing these items, it is important for the consumer to find out what those claims actually mean and how much they are regulated,” she says.
Walsh, however, has seen the evidence in his own life of how eating a completely plant-based diet can improve one’s health. “To me, it’s easy. If I can get by in life and do well without inflicting suffering on anybody and with the added benefit of being healthy with very little effort, then it’s a no-brainer,” he says.