I’m a little scared about writing this blog I must admit. Writing about diets is always a minefield – for every ‘fact’ you may claim, you can guarentee somebody somewhere can quote you something refuting it. The Bread Diet sits next to The Atkins Diet on bookshelves and both I’m sure claim their own truths. Veganism is even trickier simply because it provokes such strong and (if online forums are anything to go by) visceral reactions from both sides.
So why even delve into this potential Hell from which I may not return? Well simply because Veganism has surged in popularity of late, with Veganism rising in the UK by 360% in the last 10 years  and for the very reasons just stated: in 10 years I have never seen diet adherants defend their position quite so vehemently. Basically, I don’t think it’s an issue that’s going away anytime soon and I wanted to explore as even-handedly as possible both sides of the debate.
At this point, I guess I should confess my own sins: I’m a dyed in the wool lifelong meat eater. But also a huge veggie eater, ensuring I eat at least a pound of fruits and veg a day: less white van man and more caveman I guess – a point that will become important later on. I’m 40 years old, compete in track and field, barely had a day’s sickness in my life and the only operations I’ve ever had have been to remove adenoids and fix broken bones. I feel better now than I did at 25, largely due i feel to quitting smoking 12 years ago and continued improvements in diet and lifestyle.
Nevertheless, all this anti – meat talk was enough to get me twitchy: am I playing Russian Roulette with my long – term health? No spring chicken anymore and with a 5 year old to raise, I decided to explore the issue of Veganism as a genuinely viable lifestyle choice.
The popularity of Veganism seemingly has its origins in the now infamous China Study experiment carried out by T Colin Campbell . This famed study, which is credited with converting Bill Clinton amongst others to Veganism, is credited with giving Veganism a viable and credible claim to being the only way to eat healthily. And at face value, it’s very easy to see why. Campbell used huge numbers over a significant period of time in his study: looking at the diets of individuals in 65 different counties over the course of two years, following up with blood data analysis ten years later, again over a two year period. And the conclusions were clear: individuals who had a higher meat consumption were more likely to die younger and suffer with Western type diseases such as heart disease, whereas those on a plant – based diet suffered no such problems.
With such thorough numbers, it would seem case closed. This was a huge and comprehensive study and Campbell could simply turn to his detractors and say ‘the numbers don’t lie.’ However, whilst they may not lie, it seems they’re not telling the whole truth either.
Chris Masterjohn  is one of many individuals who, whilst not questioning the data, questions the conclusions that Campbell draws. Masterjohn states, and it really is difficult to argue with him, that Campbell often leaps to illogical conclusions that require more than a degree of imagination. Campbell, to his eternal credit, did discover that casein, a dairy protein, could present a higher risk of cancer. However, in the study, he states that ‘casein, and very likely all animal proteins, may be the most relevent cancer causing substances that we consume.’ Aside from the fact he seems to be blissfully ignoring the role of cigarettes in cancer, this is a troublesome statement that makes assumptions about digestion that we simply know to be untrue. Different proteins are digested in different ways by the body and therefore can have different effects. Gluten is a great example of this – known to have very little benefit to humans and can even cause allergic reactions. Also, whey protein – another dairy protein – has been shown to have cancer – preventetive properties. So if two dairy proteins can behave in two contrasting manners, why is Campbell assuming such universality amongst ALL animal proteins?
So, why the results? Truth is that I don’t know. But what I do know is that there have been several other studies, including that by George Mann  that were equally comprehensive, looking at carniverous populations such as Masai and Inuit tribes that showed an extremely low incidence of heart disease. Like I said at the start – for every study there is an equal and opposite study! So what we truly end up with is correlation, not cause – and therein lies the crux of the issue.
A far more recent study – The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer – made the headlines in 2015. It’s chief finding was that ‘each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%’ . Again due to the size and thoroughness of the study, it seemed conclusive. Again, all was not as it seemed.
Zoe Harcombe  was one of the first to spot the flaws in this study, and even your (slightly) less intelligent author found some of the methods and findings dubious. To conclusively prove that something CAUSES something else needs a certain form of testing called a randomised controlled trial. With this format, a single factor is isolated and its effects studied. This study used observational trials in which, instead of isolating a single factor, data is gathered and patterns noted. Harcombe, perhaps a little cynically, points out that no patterns means no funding for study. Either way, they are not a conclusive method of determing the inherant health properties of something.
To qualify that point – remember what I said about myself at the beginning? Well for the purposes of this study, I would be in the ‘eat red meat 3x a week or more’ group. So would someone who eats bacon sandwiches for breakfast, pork pies for lunch, takes no exercise and drinks every day. As far as this study is concerned we are one of the same. And, generally speaking, the population of ‘pork pie man’ is far more heavily prevelant – so we end up with a correlation between high red meat intake and poor health. But to say red meat causes poor health is like saying basketball causes tallness.
The coup – de – grace of Veganism caused a stir earlier this year with the release of the Netflix documentary ‘What the Health?' Again, much like Veganism itself, I believe there is an awful lot that is good about WTH: its exposure of some of the quite frankly disgusting and dangerous farming methods within the meat and dairy industry and the lack of regulation that allows them, is admirable. The expose of the conflict of interests that handcuffs and compromises organisations such as The American Diabetes Association was shocking and I can only hope leads to some form of action. It showed fairly conclusively that a Vegan diet was far superior to a typical Western diet whilst refuting the cliched idea that you can’t get all the nutrients you need from plants – an ignorant and lazy accusation often used by critics of Veganism. In fact I will go on the record as saying that nearly all the Vegans I know are well – nourished, healthy and athletic individuals.
However – WTH seems to suffer from the same ‘Vegan Curse’ – the belief that its way is the only way. It overreaches itself and falls into the trap of bad science and half – truths in an attempt to prove a point that simply isn’t true.
When WTH tries to link high milk consumption with childhood (type 1) diabetes was where I first raised my eyebrows. Their claim that children presenting with type 1 diabetes frequently have high milk consumption is both baffling and irrelevent. Many children have high milk consumption, many children don’t develop type one diabetes. Again correlation, not cause. You may as well blame climbing frames or Pokemon!
Staying on the milk theme is where we first see throwaway, unqualified claims such as ‘60% of African Americans are lactose intolerant’ sitting next to the almost contradictory claim that ‘we haven’t evolved to drink milk’ (if that was the case then why aren’t 100% of humans lactose intolerant?.) We have, by the way, around 10,000 years ago humans developed the lactase enzyme to do just that.
More unqualified claims come in the form of ’40 year old Paleo Crossfitters are dropping dead in gyms around the country.’ Did I miss something here? I couldn’t find a single line anywhere on unusually high death rates amongst Crossfitters anywhere. In fact, if an otherwise young, fit and healthy person suddenly drops down dead in the middle of exercise it usually makes the papers, so if it was happening in swathes I’m sure remaining oblivious would be impossible.
Another frankly baffling claim is that the toxicity of our environment is getting into the crops that animals are fed and therefore into babies via their mother’s breast milk. This confuses me on two fronts – firstly that’s an awful lot of livers and digestive processes for toxic fumes to survive. Secondly, aren’t Vegans at even greater risk by directly eating the plants themselves.
In short, I feel that WTH falls down where Veganism itself falls down. It’s an ironic shame that it could have been so much more: it sets out to expose agendas and corruption in the food industry which it does brilliantly, but undermines itself because it so zealously pushes its own agenda.
And this is where Veganism itself falls down. Vegans – you win the moral and ethical argument. Hopefully, one of the main benefits of the upsurge in Vegan popularity is that it forces the meat and dairy industry to clean up its act. And if you’re reading this in the US – I’d probably go Vegan! What I will say is this – ethics itself is a difficult area: being British I’m fully aware that the only reason I have such a comfortable life is that we once owned a quarter of the globe, and we didn’t exactly ask politely if we could steal someone’s country! But that’s a whole other argument.
What I will say, quite confidently, is that meat itself is not inherantly unhealthy. It contains all 8 essential Amino Acids (no plant does – you need to mix and match), protein, omega 3, iron, selenium, zinc, tryptophan, creatine, folic acid, b vitamins…the list goes on. Nobody can tell me that a product containing this amount of nutrients is inherantly unhealthy. The processes that it goes through may well be harmful in some circumstances but a piece of organic, grass – fed beef is going to do you more good than harm I promise.
So where does this leave us? In short, Veganism IS a healthy way of living and if you’re living in the States it would probably save you a lot of problems due to some of the extremely questionable pracitices. But it’s not the only way and (whisper it) it may not even be the best. Whilst other countries, the UK included, could probably clean up their act a little too, as someone who lives barely a mile from a free range pig farm, I feel confident that if you pay the price you can get a high standard of meat in this country fairly easily.
In short, one of the biggest issues people face when attempting change in their diet is misconceptions and scaremongering. Whilst a Vegan diet is undoubtedly a healthy way to live, if a new client was to ask me whether they should go Vegan for their health I would say ‘no.’ Any diet plan is only as good as its adherance and Veganism excludes an awful lot of foods unnecessarily. Emphasising inclusion and variety to focus on ‘putting in’ rather than ‘taking out’ is vital to long term success and sustainability. And, for now, that will continue to include meat and dairy.
2 ‘The China Study’, T Colin Campbell
4 ‘Diet Heart: End of an Era? George Mann, 1977
7 ‘What The Health?‘ Netflix, 2016