Veganism is everywhere these days, and its supporters are quick to highlight its many benefits – as well as the drawbacks of non-vegan diets. But how much of it is fiction versus fact? Here, we address the top four myths about this increasingly popular lifestyle.
MYTH 1: Meat causes cancer.
Cancer is a complex disease that doesn’t have one single cause and can be influenced by many different factors. Vegans are not immune to cancer – and still get cancer. It’s also likely, from a dietary perspective, that your risk of cancer depends on your diet as a whole, rather than the inclusion or exclusion of meat. This was reflected in the EPIC-Oxford study of cancer rates in vegetarians and non-vegetarians (all of whom were quite healthy).
They found a small reduction in the risk of all cancers in vegetarians, but a higher risk of colorectal cancer. The overall risk of cancer in both groups was very low, thus supporting the idea that there is more than one factor at play, and that your modifiable risk of cancer is as much about other lifestyle factors like cigarettes, alcohol, sedentary behaviour, and limited vegetable intake.
MYTH 2: Eating dairy leaches calcium from your bones.
A common criticism of dairy products is that they contribute to the development of osteoporosis, a type of bone disease. People who promote this myth say that this occurs due to milk being ‘acidic’ and causing calcium to leak out of your bones to neutralise the threat, thus making them weaker. This theory doesn’t hold up for a number of reasons. Firstly, it ignores the bone-friendly profile of dairy foods, such as how rich they are in calcium, protein, and minerals – all of which are essential for good bone health. Controlled trials also show beneficial effects, whereby eating dairy leads to improved bone health.
Secondly, this theory does not acknowledge the role that your kidneys play in maintaining blood pH. Your kidneys filter out any acidic compounds and you pass them out in your urine – your bones aren’t involved in the process at all. Overall, there are many factors at play in bone health, including physical activity, diet, age, and hormones. The onus is on you to make an informed decision, and if you choose to avoid dairy, please do get in touch with a practitioner who can ensure your diet is balanced to make up for the omission.
MYTH 3: Eating eggs is as harmful as smoking.
If you watched the recent Netflix documentary What the Health, then you would have heard the following statement: “Eating a single egg could decrease your lifespan as much as five cigarettes would.” This is most definitely a myth! Eggs always had a bad reputation thanks to the high cholesterol content in its yolks. However, we now know that dietary cholesterol has very little impact on our blood cholesterol levels.
The Netflix statement is a case of people cherry-picking research studies. It seems to be drawn from an observational study stating that eating egg yolks was associated with an increased build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries. A few things to note with regards to this particular study:
- The researchers never reported an exact amount with regards to eggs and cigarettes, but said that both followed a similar linear pattern.
- The subjects in the study did not have heart disease and, apart from smoking, other aspects of their diet and lifestyle were not measured – meaning the link could’ve been caused by any of the other factors.
- We already know from other observational studies and intervention studies that eggs are a healthy choice for many, so don’t be afraid to include eggs in your diet.
MYTH 4: A vegan diet is the healthiest diet.
One study that included 11,000 people over a 17-year period showed that the likelihood of dying in a set time frame was halved if you were health-seeking – choosing more whole foods, engaging in daily movement, avoiding vices like smoking, etc. Interestingly, whether you ate meat or not made no difference. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be vegan. You should, however, make an informed choice.
Vegan food isn’t the only way to improve health markers like cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose control. In fact, dietary patterns that emphasise plants, such as the Mediterranean diet, provide similar benefits. Do remember that we humans are able to thrive on a multitude of different foods and styles of eating. It’s not the label that makes your diet healthy, but rather your dietary habits over weeks, months, and years that will make a difference. So, yes, a vegan diet can be healthy, but so can other diets that stress plant-based foods.