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The Health of a Vegan Texan

Guest Column David A. Carpenter

I've grown accustomed to folks doing a double-take. People I meet generally aren't very surprised to learn that I come from Texas: If the drawl doesn't give me away, my Texas T-shirts, my affinity for country music, or the Lone Star flag proudly hanging in my dorm room do. However, most people are usually astonished to discover that I follow a low-fat vegan diet. How can that be possible? Don't real Texans eat chicken-fried steak, chili, and barbecue, and then finish it all off with two big scoops of Blue Bell ice cream?

I did eat that way at one time, and I probably would have continued to follow the traditional culinary habits of my fellow Texans had my grandfather not suffered a heart attack and endured subsequent septuple-bypass surgery. This event made me realize that if I did not make some healthful changes, I stood a good chance of suffering some of these same problems later in my life. Last December I became a dietary vegan, and I have become convinced that it is the single most beneficial decision that I have ever made.

There is an abundance of evidence to support my decision. Perhaps the most convincing data come from Professor T. Colin Campbell of Cornell University and his China-Cornell-Oxford Project. It is the largest epidemiological study ever undertaken to relate diet to the risk of developing disease. A quick browse through the web site for this study (http://www.human.cornell.edu/DNS/ ChinaProject) reveals some remarkable results. Among the rural Chinese, rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis were all far lower than those in the United States. On average, rural Chinese were found to consume 30% more calories than Americans, yet their incidence of obesity was far less. These data are attributed to the low-fat, high-fiber, primarily vegan diet of the rural Chinese. Their diet contains about a third of the fat of American diets and more than twice as much plant starch.

On the other hand, urban Chinese consumed more food from animal sources, and they exhibited significantly higher disease rates. Why is this? This study says that animal protein may have a generally toxic effect on health. This finding directly supports veganism over lacto-ovo vegetarianism or meat-based Western diets.

Finally, one of the major conclusions of this study states, "Data from this study in rural China suggest that the highly sought after reduction in chronic degenerative disease incidence induced by [contemporary U.S. dietary guidelines] is not likely to come true. Instead, the findings strongly indicate that a substantial change in American dietary patterns from animal based foods to plant based foods must occur for there to be a substantial change in disease incidence patterns."

The role of diet in causing or preventing disease is further demonstrated in landmark studies by Dr. Dean Ornish, M.D. (a Texan, by the way), now president and director of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California.

Prior to Ornish's and subsequent studies, heart disease was thought to be treatable only with drugs or invasive surgery. Few believed that its progression could be halted, only slowed, and not reversed. However, Ornish showed that a group of patients with advanced heart disease could not only stop but reverse the progress of their illness by making fundamental changes in their lifestyles.

His experimental group switched to a very low-fat vegetarian diet (ten percent of calories from fat), stopped smoking, began a moderate exercise program, and meditated daily. This group showed not only a slowing of their disease, but actual reversal in most cases. However, the control group, which followed the American Heart Association's 30% fat diet, got worse. As an added bonus, the experimental group lost an average of twenty-two pounds during the first year of the study even though they were eating more food, and more often, than before. These results point to a low-fat vegetarian diet as an effective means of improving overall health and well-being. These studies demonstrate that dramatically reducing or eliminating the amount of animal foods in our diets can have significant positive effects on our health.

I had to overcome a certain amount of pride in making my transition from a largely meat-based diet to a plant-based one. After all, what Texan would voluntarily give up meat? However, it has proven to be a very effective decision for me, as I have discovered a significant increase in energy and a decrease in my sleep requirement, both of which are good attributes for the MIT experience. So, if you've never eaten a meatless meal, I'd recommend that you give it a try - if this kid from Texas can do it, certainly you can. If you are worried about nutrition, read and educate yourself on the matter. Dr. Dean Ornish, M.D. and Dr. John McDougall, M.D. have both written several fantastic books outlining the health and appearance benefits of a low-fat vegetarian diet. You might be surprised to learn that vegetarians get enough protein without making complicated combinations of food.

Do you choose particular foods because they really make you feel well or because you have been trained to eat them? Changing to a vegetarian diet is a positive long-term lifestyle change. It will provide tremendous payoffs, not only immediately, but many years down the road.