I was already vegan for ethical reasons when I read a book titled, "The China Study," (BenBella) by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. and Thomas M. Campbell II. I was going through chemotherapy at the time for colorectal cancer, and though I believed that by making this lifestyle change I was saving the lives of many animals, I remained in the dark about how a vegan diet might impact my health. I knew I was doing the right thing, I just didn't know that by doing what I believe is right for the animals, I was doing what was right for myself.
"The China Study" presents the opinion that consuming animal proteins (meat, dairy, eggs, etc.) can promote a number of life-threatening illnesses -- including cancer and heart disease. As someone undergoing treatment for cancer, I wanted to do whatever I could to stop it in its tracks and prevent a recurrence. It turned out that, according to this theory, I had already taken preventive measures by switching to a plant-based diet. I hadn't become vegan in time to affect the development of the cancer (which doctors estimated had begun to grow about seven years prior), but my diet could possibly prevent it from worsening or returning, according to what I read. In fact, when I met with a leader of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center's integrative medicine department, his first recommendation was for me to eat a vegetarian diet. I was pleased to tell him that I already was.
This particular set of data -- and my soul -- told me the same thing: that animals didn't need to suffer for my survival. By not causing pain and suffering to other beings, I was also not causing pain and suffering to myself.
The New York Times' Mark Bittman recently wrote about the benefits of a vegan diet in his blog and earlier this month the UN advised a worldwide shift away from the consumption of animal products to prevent hunger and climate change.
The human race has benefited from a number of individuals who promoted peace and service to others; Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Gandhi. Most of us will not deny their messages of compassion. If we choose to eat animals, it is my belief that we endorse the suffering of living beings -- those who we consume and those who we share the planet with. By doing what is peaceful and compassionate, and eating a plant-based diet, I think we also help ourselves in body and in spirit. If our bodies are our temples, do we really want them built on death and suffering?
Americans seem to have a desperate love affair with protein; one in which the tendency is to think that too much is never enough. I believe that the amount of protein that people generally consume eating an omnivorous diet is detrimental to their health. The lack of protein myth about vegan diets comes from the fact that there are not complete proteins in any one plant-based food. As long as one eats a variety of vegan foods throughout the day, one will consume all of the complete protein that one needs.
It's possible to be unhealthy eating a vegan diet, but the point is that by eating a balanced vegan diet, I believe we can reduce our chances of developing life-threatening illnesses including heart disease and cancer.
The prospect of going vegan was daunting to me at first. I thought of all of the foods I'd miss and wondered what I'd consume if a restaurant had no vegan offerings. I soon began to realize that these fears were worth conquering. Besides, veganism has gained so much popularity in recent years that delectable vegan options are plentiful and readily available.
There are two nutrients vegans should be particularly aware of. The first is vitamin B12, generally not found in plant-based foods. The one plant-based source of it is an old school vegan staple -- nutritional yeast. It is delicious (despite its name) and is great sprinkled on everything from pasta to salad. I usually eat two tablespoons a day. When my B12 levels were last tested by my doctor, my results were absolutely fine.
The other essential nutrient to pay attention to is omega-3 fatty acids. Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson's book "The Face on Your Plate" (W.W. Norton) addresses the benefits of veganism for people and for the animals. The author discusses the importance of consuming long chain omega-3 fatty acids, which many people believe are only found in fish. The truth is that this essential nutrient comes from algae that fish eat. A number of vegan algae-derived supplements are available that fulfill the need for long chain omega-3 fatty acids.
As the years have passed, I've found myself eating fewer processed foods and more whole foods such as grains, fruits, nuts, vegetables and beans. The foods I used to dread being limited to when imagining a plant-based diet have become my favorites -- and I am healthier for it. I have cut sugar (and sweeteners), wheat and caffeine from my diet because of their negative impact on my personal health. It's not always easy, but the benefits have been great.
When I go to vegan events there are often vegan cakes, cookies and appetizers that run the gamut. It's funny to think that I used to be afraid of giving up these treats by going vegan and now I'm tempted by them because I am vegan. I believe that the path I am on now is what is right for me, the animals and the planet. By choosing a vegan diet, I feel that I am preventing disease in my body, and suffering in the world, with every meal.
In addition to "The China Study," the health benefits of a vegan diet are explored at length in John Robbins' books "Diet for a New America" (HJ Kramer) and "The Food Revolution" (Conari Press), as well as the film "Forks Over Knives."
Maya Gottfried is the author of books, essays and articles for children and adults. She has previously written on her experience with cancer for crazysexylife.com. Her autobiographical essay "Untitled" appeared in the book "Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes." Maya's most recent book for children, "Our Farm: By the Animals of Farm Sanctuary," is about the real-life residents of national farm animal protection organization Farm Sanctuary. Read her blog on Red Room.