Let me make this very clear: vegans have a lower rate of most chronic diseases.
Switching to a plant-based diet has a large number of benefits; you will be overwhelmed by how much better you feel and how much your health increases when you transition. Heck, you will probably be bewildered when you simply switch to eating whole grains and decrease the amount of processed foods that you eat. You will be delighted when you increase the amount of produce you consume. You will think believe that magic happened when you cut dairy out of your diet and suddenly your skin is clearer.
But nonetheless, being vegan doesn’t mean that you are going to live forever and look like Natalie Portman or Russell Brand. Sorry.
One thing that I wish I could make go away are stretch marks. Unfortunately, even though I have lost 70 pounds (around 32 kg) since starting my health journey, simply eating healthy cannot undo the damage that my skin endured for much of my adolescence and early adult life. I currently have stretch marks on my upper arms, stomach, hips and thighs. While I wish I could do something to make them go away, there isn’t much I can do at the moment. Stretch marks are scars and I have to patiently wait for my skin to heal.
Because most of my weight was stored on my stomach, I also have a tiny belly overhang that I wish I could get rid of. Despite the fact that I am a within a healthy weight range and BMI (according the USDA standards at least), I do not have a flat stomach. This is a result of the enormous amount of weight that I carried. Eventually this will go away as well, and it might go away faster if I lost more weight, but again, there is only so much that I can do right now. There is no magic quick fix to make undesirable appearance traits go away at the drop of a hat.
Discussed in the most recent McDougall newsletter was the case of a pair of twins that suffered from horrible acne. They had been eating vegan their entire lives, and still continue to do so today, but started to develop severe acne. They tried many medications to no avail. While they were able to cure their acne by adopting an extremely low-fat diet, not all are able to do so. One example of this is my fiancé, Rob.
Rob has been eating a plant-based diet for years now but still struggles with acne on his face, chest and back. Just recently through a combination of a new chemical-based skin care regimen and the consumption of certain nutrients (omega-6 fatty acids and vitamin E) he has finally been able to clear his skin. As with my skin, because he has battled his acne for so long, some scarring still remains.
Lower risk doesn’t mean zero risk
While rate of chronic diseases is lower for vegetarians than non-vegetarians, the rate of chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease do not drop down to zero in most cases. Yes, ovo-lacto vegetarians have a lower risk for developing chronic illnesses than non-vegetarians and vegans have a lower risk than ovo-lacto vegetarians.
Yet there are still vegetarians and vegans that suffer from diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Vegans can still die from breast, lung, stomach, etc. cancer. Vegans still develop diabetes. Vegans still die from heart disease and heart attacks. The incidence rate for vegetarians and vegans is lower than non-vegetarians but not zero.
Veganism and vegetariansm doesn’t cancel out lifestyle
In addition, being a vegan or vegetarian doesn’t eliminate risk created by other lifestyle factors that contribute to cancers and chronic diseases.
Whether or not you eat a vegetarian, vegan or plant-based diet, your risk for developing lung cancer will be higher if you use tobacco. Whether or not you eat meat, if you participate in risky skin behavior such as tanning, frequent burning and forgetting to apply sunscreen, you will increase your risk of developing skin cancer. In fact, one study actually showed vegans and vegetarians were MORE at risk to develop breast cancer. This was not caused by higher soy consumption, but because they tend to produce less offspring, which is connected to higher rates of breast cancer.
In order to fend off illness and chronic disease, it is not important to simply eat a vegetarian or vegan diet. These types of diets may be associated with lower risk of illness and disease, however these people tend to be more health conscious. If you are simply vegan but are not health conscious, I suspect you will not receive the full benefits of switching your diet. Because more and more people are switching to a vegan/vegetarian diet for just ethical reasons, plenty of food can be found to suit these consumers that is still unhealthy. Vegan chips, cookies and cakes are more easily found now. Being vegan doesn’t make you automatically healthier.
Eating healthy food— whole, plant-based food —will make you healthier.