Why Vegans Are Healthier

I’ve neglected this topic for quite a while, but with the current state of diet tribes and misinformation, I feel it’s right that people know the truth about vegan diets.
And I get it, the ideas around veganism are appealing. Eating closer to nature, fresh fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, fermented this, activated that, on top of that you get to call yourself “plant based” which just feels awesome.
Then you’re not eating those “dead caucuses,” those “rotting animals.” Throw on top of this the tribe that will take you in, and the reinforcement from the newsgrab that says that “study says vegans live 10 years longer than meat eaters” or virtually any line from What the Health… 
That last point is the reason for this article. No, it’s not about the many health benefits of eating meat, it’s instead about the headlines surrounding health in general, and a phenomenon in research known as the healthy user bias.  
What is it?
The healthy user bias is a term used in nutritional research to explain that people who engage in one behaviour that is perceived as healthy are more likely to engage in other behaviours that are healthy. For example, those who exercise regularly are more likely to eat healthily. And, those who smoke cigarettes are more likely to drink alcohol.
Another example is with a vegetarian diet. Typically, vegetarians are going to be more health – conscious… They drink less alcohol, are unlikely to smoke, and exercise more (1). You see this in real life as well…  One doesn’t just “go” vegetarian, it’s usually thrown in with a yoga membership and some more health conscious decisions. Now, throw together a population based study of over 10,000 people and the vegetarians are likely going to come up much healthier than their meat eating mates. So was it the kale? Was it the yoga? Was it the positive emotions that went along with avoiding meat? We don’t really know.

 

But that doesn’t stop the headlines of course… Check this one out:

 

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(that’s an actual headline from The Independent in 2016)

What we perceive: Meat bad, vegan good.
Now, digging past the headline we find that this study documented 130, 000 people over 30 years, and divided them up into meat eating and non – meat eating groups. The results of the study found that meat eaters had higher death rates than non meat eaters, so the conclusion that the media drew is that red meat causes an early death, and veggies cause a long life. To their credit, the writers of the article point out the flaws in the epidemiological study further down the page, but this damage had already been done. Our brain loves making connections and leaves us open to confirmation bias. Even when you know there’s probably more to the story, the message has gotten through and we start to form those connections between meat and disease. 
What there’s no discussion of is the healthy user bias. There’s no mention of vegan folk being more likely to exercise, get eight hours of sleep, and eat non processed foods. There’s also no mention of meat eaters being MORE likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and eat more processed foods. It doesn’t make the study obsolete, but there should be questions asked rather than conclusions made.
So the question then becomes, “how do we control these variables and really work out if a vegan diet really does lead to longer lifespans?”
Well, it’s difficult, but researchers really do try to minimise the effect of the healthy user bias. 
This savvy study looked at people who shopped at health food stores. Not the type that sells pre workout, the type with “organic, free range, and bio dynamic” splattered around the place. The same meat and non meat eaters were divided up, and this time there was no significant difference in all cause mortality between vegetarian and omnivore groups. Does this mean an all meat diet is healthier? No, it just means that we need to keep experimenting and asking questions.

 

So what can we agree on?

There’s so much divide and tribalism in nutrition, but we can all agree that we’re trying to be healthy users, and get the best possible information out there. Here’s what we can do:
Avoid processed meats. We can all agree that hot dogs from the supermarket are not in the same category as a grass fed steak. Processed meats are low in nutrients, high in calories, and seem to have correlations with certain cancers (though this is not settled).
Avoid char grilling your meats. When we char the hell out of our steak, we’re not only losing out on taste, we’re also cooking up some unhealthy chemicals. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are formed when we overdo out meats, and they seem to change DNA that can cause cancer. More on that here.
Eat vegetables at every meal. This is a great goal to have. There are some exceptions with certain microbiome conditions, but on the whole, eating vegetables gives you a stack of vitamins, minerals and a whole bunch of funky compounds that are super healthy.
Eat a variety of high quality meats: It gets a bad wrap, but meat is actually packed with quality nutrients. CoQ10, zinc, b vitamins, choline, and certain amino acids are all things you can ONLY find in sufficient quantities in meat. This is without mentioning the protein factor, which shows up time and time again as one of the most important factors in keeping healthy. 
Avoid Big Agriculture and Eat Local: Local is the new organic. It’s like organic but without the fancy tagline. I recommend buying meat from farmers you know and trust. You’re supporting a thriving, sustainable practice and getting a whole lotta health to go with it.
Sun, Sleep and Socialisation: No topic of health deserves mention without considering the three S’s…. It’s like Paleo 2.0. These three factors will help you feel better than any diet will, so let’s get our priorities right before we start dividing ourselves.

Thank you for reading, be well. 
Steve is a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner. He works with clients from around the world to restore health, using fitness, nutrition and lifestyle protocols.
He is currently based in London.
*Disclaimer: This post is for information purposes only, and is not designed to diagnose or treat any disease. Always seek help from a medical professional whenever you undergo any dietary change.
References:
Burkert et al. The association between eating behaviours and various health parameters. 
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088278&type=printable 
Baines, Powers, Brown. (2007). How does the health and well-being of young Australian vegetarian and semi-vegetarian women compare with non-vegetarians?https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17411462/

Key et al. (1996). Dietary habits and mortality in 11,000 vegetarians and health conscious people: results of a 17 year follow up. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8842068

Ioannidis, J. The challenge of Reforming Nutritional Epidemiologic Evidence. JAMA. 2018;320(10):969-970. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.11025