Me, Give Up Meat? Vegan Diets Surging in Popularity

The pros (and a few cons) of choosing a vegan diet

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Former President Bill Clinton had a legendary appetite: Hamburgers and steaks. Barbeque. Chicken enchiladas. But after having two stents inserted in 2010—on top of quadruple bypass surgery six years earlier—he radically changed his diet in the name of saving his health. Now a vegan, the strictest type of vegetarian, he has cut out meat, dairy, eggs, and most oils in favor of a super-low-fat diet that revolves around whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. It appears to be working: He has said he's dropped more than 20 pounds and has never been healthier. In a televised interview with film producer Harvey Weinstein in June, Clinton explained that he'd decided he wanted to live to be a grandfather. "So I just went all the way. Getting rid of the dairy was great, getting rid of the meat was—I just don't miss it."

Vegan diets have lately been surging in popularity, thanks in part to the example of celebrities who are publicly forswearing all animal products (Michelle Pfeiffer, Carrie Underwood, Russell Brand, and Ozzy Osbourne, to name a few others). Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi have announced plans to open a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles. Vegan-centric books have been flying off the shelf, including Alicia Silverstone's The Kind Diet and The Engine 2 Diet by Texas firefighter and triathlete Rip Esselstyn, son of retired Cleveland Clinic physician Caldwell Esselstyn, whose research on the merits of plant-based eating inspired Bill Clinton. Vegan food trucks are making the rounds, schools are instituting meat-free days, and colleges are opening vegan dining halls.

While many vegans still take the stand because they believe in animal rights, a growing number are swayed by mounting research showing a profound impact on health. "It's dramatic," says Neal Barnard, a nutrition researcher and adjunct professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit group that promotes preventive medicine. "We've seen people whose chest pain has gone away within weeks, while their weight melts off, blood pressure goes down, and cholesterol plummets." Barnard's 2011 book 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart is a three-week introduction to the case for and how-tos of the vegan life. The panel of 22 experts who analyzed 25 diets for U.S. News's ratings of the best eating plans overall—as well as the best for weight loss, heart health, and diabetes management and prevention—are not universally sold on absolute meatlessness. But without a doubt, the heavily plant-based plans tend to rise to the top of the U.S. News lists.

Exactly how you shape a vegan meal plan is up to you, but you'll typically aim for six servings of grains from bread and calcium-fortified cereal, for example; five servings of protein-rich foods such as legumes, nuts, peanut butter, chickpeas, tofu, potatoes, and soy milk; and four servings of veggies, two of fruit, and two of healthy fats like avocado, coconut oil, and olive oil. (Both of the Esselstyns advocate avoiding all oils, too.) There's no need to give up dessert, although you'll be baking without butter or eggs.

It should come as no surprise that becoming a serious vegan is apt to help you lose weight. By loading up on fruits, veggies, and whole grains, vegans tend to feel full on fewer calories, and indeed they tend to weigh less and have a lower body mass index than their meat-eating peers. In a 2006 study coauthored by Barnard, 99 people with type 2 diabetes followed either a vegan diet or a standard diet based on American Diabetes Association guidelines. After 22 weeks, the vegans lost an average of 13 pounds, compared to 9 in the ADA group. Both groups' control of their blood sugar levels also improved.

The cardiac case. A meatless diet's power against heart disease also is well documented. "It's an exceptionally healthy diet, especially when it comes to cardiac health," says Michael Davidson, director of preventive cardiology at the University of Chicago Medical Center. He notes that cutting way back on saturated fat and eliminating cholesterol is just part of the equation; also key is piling on "cardiac protective" fruits, vegetables, and grains, packed with antioxidants and other phytochemicals that protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. The soluble fiber found in plant protein also helps to lower cholesterol. In the 2006 Diabetes Care report, LDL cholesterol dropped 21.2 percent in the vegan group after 22 weeks, compared with 10.7 percent in the group following the meat-allowing guidelines. Triglycerides fell from 140.3 mg/dL to 118.2. In an earlier 12-year study that compared 6,000 vegetarians and vegans with 5,000 meat-eaters, researchers found that vegans had a 57 percent lower risk of ischemic heart disease—reduced heart pumping due to coronary artery disease, which often leads to heart failure—than the meat-eaters. Vegetarians had a 24 percent lower risk.