Science is Awesome! Why we don’t need to exaggerate health claims about veganism, by Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD
One of the issues complicating vegan activism is the vastness and potential for confusion in the field of nutritional science. Because the modern iteration of veganism is fairly new, there are a lot of conflicting interpretations of what 'veganism' means. To underscore this example, Matt showed a slide of an article on Los Angeles restaurant The Springs, an eatery specializing in gluten/soy/GMO-free organic vegan food, with a back room for colonic irrigation (that's a ten dollar word for an enema). For some people The Springs might be perfectly representational of what 'vegan' looks like, while to others, not at all.
Although we like to tout the health benefits of veganism, the truth is that there are a number of studies that show improved health using what may come across as dubious methods. Here are a few examples:
- Paleo: A body of peer-reviewed research exists that shows that paleo is effective at reducing mean total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides while boosting HDL ("good" cholesterol).
- The Potato Diet: One man survived on nothing but 20 potatoes a day for 60 days. He lost 21 lbs, and his glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides levels dropped.
- The Twinkie Diet: A professor of nutrition did this one, eating twinkies and other junk food over the course of a 10 week trial (although he did supplement with protein shakes). He lowered his LDL cholesterol by 20%; triglycerides by 39%; and BMI by nearly four whole points, from 28.8 to 24.9. At the same time, his HDL cholesterol increased by 20%.
For so many of us, we are driven by the idea that our food is important. The idea that what you eat isn't necessarily effective on your health or body is of great concern to us. As a result, many of us are influenced by our own experiences, a classic folly known as confirmation bias.
At the same time, very little data exists comparing veganism to other supposedly 'healthy' diets, and zero data concerning the differences between vegan and omnivore athletes. The sheer magnitude of variables, both in the study participants and in the foods they eat, mean that it's difficult to point to patterns and nearly impossible to isolate one food. Good research relies on a number of factors in both the execution and the interpretation of studies:
- A large sample group to reduce 'random chance' and interpersonal experiences
- Pointing towards mechanisms that explain the results
- The individual characteristics of participants and how much diversity there is in age, race, and health; as well as the organizations conducting the studies
- Results that show a statistically significant change
- Any other contributing factors- for example, some of the first studies conducted on vegetarianism were conducted in communes in the 1970s. Were there some aspects of communal living that influenced the results?
It may seem, in this light, that the data surrounding veganism is fairly pessimistic. In fact, Matt wanted to remind us at the top of the talk that "I'm on your side!" The key is knowing how to question and interpret data, and also how to find the 'goldilocks' zone of moderation. Vegans are just as susceptible as anyone else to cancer, diabetes, and heart disease- although data supports that incidents of these ailments are lower with a vegan diet, they are not absolutely zero. Vegan does not necessarily translate to healthy, and vice versa. Individual foods offer beneficial components, but they alone won't make the difference. It's about patterns- "what we do most often matters the most." It's not necessarily your Saturday splurge nachos you should be concentrating on; rather, what are you eating the other 20 meals of the week?
Food is a form of activism because everyone needs to eat every day. Vegans are competing against food companies and advertisers who who will spend or say anything to sell you a product. As a result, people who are interested in healthy eating often 'yo yo' between different styles of eating due to disappointment with outlandish claims and a lack of desired results. With this in mind, the most important tool in a vegan's arsenal is pure and simple honesty.