The vegan revolution

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I had a stressful career troubleshooting global networks,” says Sydneysider Ian1. “I smoked, ate appallingly and eventually divorced.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Ian developed severe acid reflux for which his doctor prescribed medication—“a modern day quick fix solution,” Ian says. But after eight years, Ian had been under the knife twice to remove gynaecomastic growths (aka “man boobs”)—a side effect of the medication. He had fatty liver syndrome, was impotent and “stagnating in the obese weight range”. 

The key is to get as much unrefined, whole plant foods onto your plate as possible—on a regular basis.

Ian believes it was divine guidance that led him to a vegan “liver cleansing diet”—maxing out on water, fresh juices, fruit and plant proteins; avoiding sugar and saturated fats. “I lost 20 kilograms in the first four months,” he says. “I’m on my journey towards my ideal weight range. And now I walk on average 7.5 kilometres a day up and down my steep street.”

And the reflux is gone. “I’m no longer on the medication, with my GP’s begrudging consent, and I no longer suffer from fatty liver syndrome.

“I have the heart of a man half my age and the fitness level of an athlete,” enthuses Ian, “and I’ve only been on this vegan diet for six months. And now I have a godly woman in my life.”

Go vegan, get the girl. It’s a formula that’s proving popular, especially among Seventh-day Adventists, with their historical emphasis on health and vegetarianism. In past decades, Adventist “health reform” gained an unfortunate association with religious legalism. “Caffeine is a foretaste of the lake of fire” was the message many Adventists imbibed growing up, intended or not. The response was to either dutifully comply or symbolically reject this negative theology via the barbecue and coffee machine.

But thanks to a return to a more Christ-centred “salvation by faith” theology, the scare tactics are diminishing and Adventists are able to make health choices without feeling they’ve chosen sides. The trend towards a vegan diet—free of meat, dairy and eggs—is apparent amongst homeschoolers, hipsters and everyone in between.

“My husband and I have been trying to go vegan for a while now, and have finally made the change permanently,” says Donna Tonkin, who lives in outback NSW. “Our three kids and us are loving the food—as I’ve taken time to learn how to cook tasty, healthy vegan meals—and we feel so much healthier for it. We hardly ever get sick anymore and our tastebuds have adapted so much that dairy actually tastes bad to us now. I feel that the change has made me much stronger in other areas of life, including my spirituality.” 

As if to underline the mainstreaming of veganism, last year’s release of Adventist Health Study II data found that positive health outcomes increase as the amount of animal products in the diet decrease. Vegans topped out the major longitudinal study of 95,000 Adventists in North America, with a 16 per cent lower cancer risk than meat eaters. Vegans also had a 5-point BMI (body mass index) difference from meat eaters, which translates to 15-20 kilos.2 

But there’s always the other side to the equation. “Going vegan was a bad idea,” says a Facebook post from Greg Davis. “We were vegan for 15 years and our health was the worst it’s ever been.”

“I became a vegetarian when I was 18 years old and maintained that for two years,” says aid worker Josh Moses. “With daily exercise, my weight dropped from 92 to 57 kilos. I felt I was too light and too small (not muscular) so I reintroduced lean chicken and fish and increased my gym time, but eventually reintroduced red meat as well.” 

“My iron got low in February,” says Joy Watts. “My brain got tired and I couldn’t cope.”

A lack of sufficient vitamins and minerals is one of the first concerns of people considering a vegan diet (after their terror of giving up juicy steaks, scrambled eggs and vanilla ice-cream). Iron, calcium and B12 are often mentioned in this context, and Adventist nutritionist Sue Radd says it’s almost possible to go vegan without taking extra vitamins, either as supplements or in fortified foods. The “almost” refers to vitamin B12.

“You will need a supplemental form of vitamin B12 regularly,” she says, “as this is not found in reliable quantities from any modern plant foods unless they are fortified.”

The common perception that leafy green vegetables are particularly rich in iron is wrong. Nutritionists say the best sources of iron for vegans are cereal products, legumes and nuts. They also flag “buyer beware” warnings about claims that products like yeast flakes contain B12 (they don’t, except for one American fortified brand). Products that are fortified with B12 include So Good soymilk and Marmite. 

The level of detail involved in fully understanding the benefits of a vegan diet can be intimidating, and more militant health enthusiasts can overwhelm everyone around them with the minutiae of various scientific (or not-so-scientific) debates. But Sue Radd says getting it right is pretty simple. “The key is to get as much unrefined, whole plant foods onto your plate as possible—on a regular basis. This is just as important, and possibly more, than the potential benefits of eliminating meat and dairy.”

But in regards to veganism, she says the evidence is clear. “If you want optimal health, you should become as much of a vegan as you can stand! If that means being a part-time vegan, and a sometimes lacto-ovo vegetarian or fish eater, then that’s fine if it works for you.”3 

This kind of non-judgemental vegan-ish philosophy is increasingly the norm amongst Adventist health groups around Australia and New Zealand—they’re unwilling to take a hardline approach and appear legalistic or uncompromising, although they’re clearly aware of the growing scientific evidence for the vegan diet.

For decades now, a number of residential health retreats run by independent Adventist groups have included a vegan diet in their programs, benefitting stressed executives and people struggling with chronic illness. In the early years, some Adventists instinctively viewed these approaches as extreme. But these days, they’re not so quick to dismiss veganism as the domain of the “lunatic fringe”. 

The Complete Health Improvement Program (CHIP), once an independent Californian enterprise led by Adventist researcher Hans Diehl, was acquired last year by the Adventist Church’s South Pacific Division (SPD) and has been refreshed and updated by its new Sanitarium management.4 CHIP is essentially vegan, although you’d be hard pressed to get its proponents to admit it—they prefer the broader term “plant-based diet”, which, according to SPD’s Paul Rankin, negates associations the word “vegan” has with radical animal rights and environmental groups. Many Sanitarium products are vegan—an obvious exception is Up&Go, which contains a blend of dairy and plant (soy) protein. Flagship products Weet-Bix, So Good and Marmite are all vitamin-fortified with vegetarians and vegans in mind. Sanitarium has even pursued its quiet revolution within this magazine—recipes containing milk or eggs are few and far between.5 

“For me it was a doco that did it—Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead,” says Josh Moses, who saw unhealthy weight gain and a decrease in motivation after returning to meat. “My wife had been vegan for some time and at home we ate vegan, and I found our food to taste much better than food from restaurants, or fast food. All these factors combined, along with a newfound push into fitness, exercise and strength training, have allowed me to see results in both strength, stamina and appearance—faster than those I work out with who take protein powders and eat meat.

“Another aspect that drives me to maintain this lifestyle is the increased ability to achieve higher levels of discipline,” Josh says. “I’ve found increased strength; I’m now able to discipline so many other areas of my life, including exercise, bed times, balancing desires versus needs, and pursuing to know God better.”
 

1 Ian requested that we not use his full name.

2 For more information on Adventist Health Study II, visit <http://www.llu.edu/public-health/health

3 Visit Sue Radd’s website <http://sueradd.com

4 More information on CHIP is available at <http://chiphealth.org.au> or <http://chip.org.nz>

5 To find out more about Sanitarium Health & Wellbeing’s products and nutrition tips, visit <http://www.sanitarium.com.au> or <http://www.sanitarium.co.nz>. Some of Sanitarium’s most thorough and recent dietary advice is represented in last year’s special edition of the Medical Journal of Australia <www.mja.com.au/open/2012/1/2>
 


Kent Kingston is assistant editor of RECORD.