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Should you consider a vegetarian or vegan diet?

I was reading recipes online for vegan meals and found a comment stream that said that Dijon mustard is not considered an acceptable vegan ingredient (neither is honey, apparently), and I felt like that was taking things too far. I protest. 

Don’t worry, I haven’t turned vegan, but my older brother has (following a couple recent health scares). When God invented vegans, my brother was definitely not what he or she had in mind. Nonetheless, the boy who celebrated every birthday and every major holiday with a slab of prime rib has become the man who won’t eat any animal flesh (or, apparently, any Dijon mustard). 

For those of you who aren’t quite sure what veganism entails, here’s how it was explained to me when I was writing the newsletter for the late, lamented Still Point Farm CSA in Amenia: Susan, the farmer, defined vegan to me as “nothing with a smile.” I’m not sure how honey and Dijon mustard qualify as taboo foods using that definition, so apparently my understanding of the parameters is inadequate.

Many people choose to be vegans for moral and ethical reasons (thus the “smile” definition). Others, like my brother, are trying to eat cleaner as a way to live a long, healthy life. 

The nutritional jury seems to still be out on how much a vegetarian or vegan diet will prolong your lifespan. The National Institutes for Health (NIH) is non-committal, and says that vegans and vegetarians don’t necessarily live longer than meat eaters. People who have a healthy lifestyle, who exercise and don’t eat a lot of junk and don’t smoke, generally live longer. Many of those people are vegetarians and vegans — but it’s hard to know how strictly people adhere to the limitations of those diets and for how many years.

Or how many days, as the case may be. Last year the music industry superstar Beyoncé announced that she and her husband, the rock impresario and rap star Jayzee, were going on a vegan diet. Two days later she released a record album that was apparently all about Jayzee’s infidelity. Perhaps she was inflicting the vegan diet on him as a punishment. Who knows what happens in a marriage. 

But what we do know is that the marriage remains intact and that the couple is no longer on a vegan diet — although they are part owners of a company that sells vegan diet kits, called the 22 Vegan Meal Plan. The idea is that it takes 21 days to break old habits and form new ones; by Day 22 you’re supposedly on the path to veganism. 

Beyoncé is an honest woman, and in interviews she was forthright about her lukewarm embrace of the vegan diet. She told at least one interviewer that she was still eating meat but was “leaning” toward veganism. I’m not sure about the Dijon mustard, but definitely meat is not part of any vegan diet anywhere on planet Earth.

Because of these kinds of blurred lines (to make another pop culture reference), it’s hard to say who is actually vegetarian or vegan. The American Dietetic Association and the Dietitians of Canada released a joint statement in 2003 saying that being a vegetarian is not a bad thing. Their remarks addressed concerns that people who don’t eat milk or dairy products aren’t getting enough nutrition; their conclusion was that it’s possible to get all the nutrition you need, but that sometimes you need to take supplements. 

In the scientific abstract that went with their comments, they estimated that 2.5 percent of American adults and 4 percent of Canadian adults are vegetarians. That seems like a low estimate to me but that just shows again how hard it is to really know who’s doing what.

On the positive side, the two associations say that, “Vegetarian diets offer a number of nutritional benefits, including lower levels of saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein as well as higher levels of carbohydrates, fiber, magnesium, potassium, folate and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and phytochemicals. 

“Vegetarians have been reported to have lower body mass indices than nonvegetarians, as well as lower rates of death from ischemic heart disease; vegetarians also show lower blood cholesterol levels; lower blood pressure; and lower rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and prostate and colon cancer.”

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which runs the Cancer Project website (where you can find some very good and healthy recipes) thinks vegetarian and vegan diets are a good thing. Eating meat can increase your chances of getting colon and rectal cancer, they point out; they also note that drinking alcohol causes all kinds of cancers and that grilled chicken can cause cancer.

Their website also offers a 21-day vegan “kickstart” campaign; if you want to learn more about it, go to www.pcrm.org/health. 

 

I’m inclined to follow the lead of my older brother in all things; he’s generally pretty sensible. But I won’t be turning vegan anytime soon — although who knows what I’ll do if I have a major health scare. If you’re thinking of altering your diet, it might be good to start as a vegetarian and move slowly into the more restrictive vegan diet. The major health organizations I checked online didn’t seem to feel that veganism was that much healthier than the more moderate vegetarian diet from a nutrition standpoint. I think that maybe what veganism offers to some people is a greater sense of control that comes with a very restrictive diet. Eating is one of the most basic human functions; if we can control it to an exquisite degree perhaps we can have more control over our lives. After a rocky 2016, perhaps that seems appealing.