I’ve always considered myself an animal lover—but that hasn’t stopped me from cooking and eating them. For the last decade, I’ve worked as a food editor and writer, helping readers get the most from their chicken breasts and budget steaks. I trained at a French culinary school, where I earned top marks for cutting up chickens, filleting fish and making sausage by hand. I even worked in the pastry kitchen at a restaurant where the chef served “whole pig” dinners that used all parts of the animal, and where I specialized in making treats like bacon brittle for dessert. So you’ll forgive me for being skeptical about a vegan diet. No meat? No eggs? No milk? No butter? No cheese? You may as well ask me to cook with one hand tied behind my back.
But when I started to dig into the subject—and spent a recent vacation on a weeklong vegan cruise—I discovered a new realm of health possibilities, along with surprisingly hearty textures and vivid flavors. I began to ask around, to experiment with some new meatless, cheeseless recipes. And one day, as I tucked into a black bean burrito with avocado and salsa (not a shred of cheese or pork on the plate), I had a revelation: I could do this. I should do this. Moreover, I would do this—at least part of the time. Here’s why.
Like many food-loving Americans, I assumed I needed to eat meat, eggs and dairy to stay healthy. I was convinced by the conventional wisdom that you need at least some animal products to get the protein, iron and calcium you need. Turns out, you don’t. “You get plenty of protein and calcium with a plant-based diet,” says Neal Barnard, M.D., founder and president of the health advocacy group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). As for iron, vegans are no more likely to be anemic than the rest of the population, says Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D., nutritional adviser to The Vegetarian Resource Group.
But you don’t just cover your bases on a vegan diet—you optimize your health on nearly every level. “Every chronic disease risk can be decreased with a plant-based, vegan diet,” says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., L.D.N, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and author of The Flexitarian Diet (McGraw-Hill). Vegans on average weigh less than meat-eaters. They also have lower rates of heart disease and diabetes, thanks to a diet that is high in fiber, generally low in fat, cholesterol-free and rich in disease-fighting antioxidants. Plus, their risk of cancer is greatly reduced.
Turns out the consumption of animal proteins is directly related to the development of cancer. T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D., professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University and co-author of The China Study (Benbella Books), spent decades doing laboratory and field research into the dietary causes of cancer. He observed that as lab rats were fed more animal-based protein, cancer rates went up, but when they nibbled less, cancer rates plummeted. “In the lab, we could literally turn cancer cells on and off by adjusting the level of animal protein in the diet,” Campbell explains. Plant proteins, by contrast, did not promote cancer—even when consumed at higher levels.