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It’s not quite that simple

by Darcy Rhyno

“I liked eating meat,” says John Van Gurp, a 58-year-old retiree from Halifax. “In fact, I used to have meat days. Every once in a while on a Friday, I’d come home from the store with the ribs and the beef and just barbecue meat with the flames and the smoke. I loved it.”

That was before 2015 when Van Gurp experienced what he describes as a real shock. He knew his cholesterol was high. His doctor even tried him on cholesterol medication, but Van Gurp says he couldn’t tolerate it. Still, he didn’t think of himself at risk of illness. “With walking and bicycling, I always pictured myself as being pretty healthy.”

Then his doctor diagnosed him with arterial blockages. “It was right out of the blue,” says Van Gurp. Heart surgery followed. He walked away with a couple of stents and a whole new mission in life.

“It really upset me. I realized I had to do something,” says Van Gurp. The something he did was to take charge of his own health. “I am not somebody who does things in bits and pieces. I consider something like this a challenge.”

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease.

The vegan mission

Recent events—the success of Beyond Meat and other plant-based meat substitutes, as well as the August release of the United Nation’s Special Report on Climate Change and Land that suggests the world needs to move away from meat to help address climate change—have renewed interest in vegetarian and vegan diets. So, when Van Gurp starting researching, it wasn’t difficult to find resources.

“The first book I read was called Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease  by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. In that book, the whole thrust is to go with a 100 per cent plant-based diet, and no oil either. It’s all based on an anti-inflammatory diet.”

Van Gurp became a vegan. No more Friday meat barbecues. It’s no big deal, he says. “You just learn different cooking techniques. The beauty of it is that it’s so easy to find interesting recipes.”

He considers all the changes he’s made completely positive. “My diet has become far more varied and probably far more nutritionally rich. My palate has changed to enjoy spicy foods like curries. I put chili paste in many things and lots of fresh herbs from our garden.”

When asked specifically what foods are prominent in his vegan diet, Van Gurp says, “We eat a lot of vegetables. We eat a lot of legumes, chickpeas, lentils and various types of beans, whether they’re roasted in a pasta or cold in a salad or turned into a paste that’s the basis of a burger.”

Vegan vs omnivore

It’s not just the health gurus Van Gurp follows that support his belief that a vegan diet leads to better health.

According to the Doctors Nova Scotia website, “Beyond the political choice of going vegan—consuming no animal products at all—there are many known health benefits for cutting out meat in favour of a plant-based diet, including a natural increase in fibre and vitamins, a lower body mass and a decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes.”

When asked if a vegan diet is healthier than an omnivorous diet, Angela Dufour says, “Not necessarily. It really depends on the types of foods you’re choosing.” Dufour is the lead performance dietitian with Team Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee. “A longitudinal study linked consumption of red meats to premature death,” she says. “It suggested that every additional serving of unprocessed red meat increased risks by 13 per cent and every additional serving of processed red meat increased risks by 20 per cent. This caused a big uproar in the media, demonizing red meats.”

“It’s important to note that the findings aren’t duplicated everywhere,” Dufour continues. “Other studies found no link between moderate red meat consumption of less than three ounces a day and premature death, or no link between unprocessed red meats and cardiovascular disease or diabetes.”

Cutting dairy products from the diet is not necessarily a healthier choice “There’s no reason to avoid dairy,” says Dufour, “but if you are worried about saturated fat intake, the healthy components of dairy—16 vitamins and minerals—can also be achieved from a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, with careful planning.”

Not all healthy

Dufour says “many popular junk foods could theoretically be classified as vegan. Don’t be fooled by the word vegan on a food item. Vegan does not necessarily equal healthy. A lot of vegan products marketed as healthy options may have added sugars and salts.” The presence of such additives is one of the criticisms of the new plant-based burgers that are appearing at more and more restaurants.

“There are some nutrients of concern due to an avoidance of dairy and meat,” says Dufour. “Iron needs of vegetarians can be up to 1.8 times greater than those of non-vegetarians. Iron deficiency is especially important in teenagers, during pregnancy and for female endurance athletes.”

Iron from plants is harder to absorb than that from animal sources. Doctors Nova Scotia recommends combining iron-rich leafy greens with foods rich in vitamin C to help the body absorb the iron. Try a stir-fry with Swiss chard and bell peppers or a strawberry smoothie made with a handful of spinach.

“The bottom line,” says Dufour, “is that evidence is lacking in being able to credibly suggest one way of eating over the other. Whether you eat animal products or not, making healthy choices still plays a big part in leading a healthy lifestyle.”

“A lot of people call vegetarianism a diet and veganism a lifestyle. That’s because vegans are mindful of their consumption of any animal-derived products. People may become more mindful about their food choices and portions, start to increase physical activity, and be conscious of how their mental health affects eating patterns.”

John Van Gurp is feeling great these days about his switch to a vegan lifestyle. When he’s out at non-vegan restaurants, there’s almost always a vegan option on the menu. When invited to dinner with family and friends, he says they’re always  accommodating, often preparing a vegan meal just for him. “The last time I went to my cardiologist, he said I don’t need to be followed.”

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