Garden of Vegan
When I read a study last year about how a vegan diet helped diabetics lose weight and better manage their disease, one statistic struck me: Two-thirds of the diabetics assigned to the diet stayed on it for the full six months, compared with just 44 percent of study participants assigned to a more varied, omnivorous diet. I was intrigued.
Of course, it’s no surprise that a veggie-rich, cheeseburger-free diet would prove to be healthy. But could a diet so effective also be easy to follow? I wanted to know. Though I’m not diabetic, I am keen on keeping my weight down and my arteries clear. How would I fare as a vegan? As a fan of fish, meat, eggs, and dairy, I wondered, could I survive without them?
I wasn’t sure, but more and more Americans are managing to do it just fine. Vegans, who refrain from using or eating any animal-based products, number between 2.7 million and 4 million, according to a recent Harris poll. And though it means they don’t eat honey or consume dairy, wear leather, silk, or wool, or use any products that were tested on animals, vegans are now fairly mainstream. That’s partly due to a trend toward more eco- and animal-friendly practices, but it’s also because the medical establishment has acknowledged that following a vegan diet is healthy.
But vegans do need to make a special effort to get nutrients that aren’t found in plant foods, like vitamin B12 and certain omega-3 fatty acids, either through fortified foods or supplements. Also, given the manufacturing boom in vegan junk food—sugar-laden cookies, high-sodium meat substitutes— you can’t eat just any food labeled “vegan” and expect to improve your health or lose weight.
Still, the benefits of a well-planned vegan diet are impressive. In the diabetes study, published in Diabetes Care, 99 participants were randomly assigned to either a low-fat vegan diet—which avoided animal products and added fats but allowed unlimited portions of food—or a diet following the American Diabetes Association guidelines—which included all food groups but limited calories, carbohydrates, and saturated fat. After 22 weeks, 43 percent of the vegan group experienced enough improvement in their blood-sugar levels to decrease their diabetes medication; only 26 percent of the ADA group were able to decrease theirs. Also, the vegan group lost, on average, 14.3 pounds, compared with 6.8 pounds for the ADA group.
“The ADA diet is sensible, but its power is far less than a vegan diet,” says the study’s lead author, Neal Barnard, M.D., an adjunct associate professor of medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine and author of Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes (Rodale, 2006). “Within the first week [of a vegan diet], blood sugar starts to come down; within the first month, blood pressure and total cholesterol start to fall,” he says. Weight loss averages one pound per week. Barnard also believes the diet can benefit everyone— not just diabetics.
Nancy Boughn, one of the study participants, lost 42 pounds in her first 18 months on the vegan diet. As a result, she was able to drastically reduce her medication, and she felt her energy skyrocket. “I don’t have a three o’clock slump anymore, and I’ve lost all of my joint pain,” says Boughn, 66, an executive assistant in Fairfax County, Va., who has had diabetes for 10 years. She’s also found it easy to remain a vegan since the study ended. “You don’t weigh or measure anything,” Boughn says, “and because you’re eating all the right kinds of nutrients, your body stops craving the bad stuff.”
Initially, she says, her biggest challenge was dining out with friends at their usual restaurants, which didn’t really have vegan options. “My friends would be having this wonderful dinner, and I’d be eating steamed vegetables,” she explains. To avoid feeling deprived, Boughn now eats a protein-rich snack, like a peanut butter sandwich or a bean dish, beforehand.