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Urology pearls

Impossible meal: Study looks at vegans

Shahar Madjar, MD, Journal columnist

I told you the story of the Geico study: It took place over 18 weeks. It was designed to measure the effect of the vegan diet on weight loss and other health-related variables.

And the results were astonishing. Participants in the vegan diet lost, on average, 4.3 kg (9.5 pounds), while those in the control group lost only 0.08 kg.

The participants in the vegan diet also saw significant improvement in their total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol), and Hemoglobin A1c (a measure of glycemic control in people with diabetes).

Are there similar studies that would support going vegan? And if so, why wouldn’t everyone go vegan?

In New Zealand a group of scientists explored the effect of a vegan diet on a group of 65 patients. The participants were either overweight or obese, and had at least one other medical problem such as type 2 diabetes, ischemic heart disease, hypertension, or high cholesterol levels. They were randomly divided into two groups.

One group serves as a control group. The participants assigned to the vegan group were instructed to eat a low-fat, plant-based diet. There were no restrictions on the amount of calories, and no calorie counting. They ate whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits. They avoided refined oils such as olive or coconut oil. Animal products, including eggs and dairy products were forbidden.

They were asked to attend twice-weekly presentations provided by doctors. A chef gave them cooking lessons. Participants in the vegan arm of the study were also instructed to take vitamin B-12, a supplement lacking in plant-based diets. Nobody was asked to make any change to their exercise routine.

After 6 months, the vegan group had lost an average of 12.1 kg. The control group didn’t lose any significant amount of weight. This difference in weight loss between the two groups remained steady at 12 months. The vegan diet had a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels as well.

The Geico study and the New Zealand study tell the same story: a plant-based diet can lead to significant weight loss and to other beneficial effects on health. The majority of other studies on the subject show similar results–a plant-based diet is better than a “no-dieting diet.”

But shouldn’t the question be “Is a vegan diet better than other diets? Here the evidence is weaker. A study from the University of South Carolina, for example, compared vegan, vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian (fish allowed), semi-vegetarian, and omnivorous diets. At both 2 and 6 months, the vegan group lost the most weight, but the study sample was small, with only 12, or 13 participants in each group.

In yet another study, comparing vegetarian high-protein diet with meat high-protein diets, appetite and weight loss were similar in both groups. But the study lasted for only two weeks and included only 20 participants.

The number of scientific publications about plant-based diets is growing rapidly. The number of Google searches on the subject is exploding. Scientists and other curious individuals learn that the vegan diet works, that it is healthy, that it is better for the environment, that it is the moral thing to do, and some choose to consider the lobster and all other living creatures and go vegan. Yet, in 2015, only 0.4-3.4% of the U.S. population are on a largely plant-based diet. Why?

I thought it had to do with freedom, companionship, and memories of childhood and home. How can I forgo the freedom of choosing from an unlimited menu of flavors and textures? How would it feel to exclude myself from a meal in the company of most other, omnivorous people? Can a vegan meal ever duplicate the experience, the pleasure I draw from a meal made from my grandma’s recipe book?

The other day, after work, I was terribly hungry. Famished. It was COVID-19 era and most restaurants were closed. From afar, I spotted a Burger King neon sign flickering in red, yellow, and blue. I drove through, and immediately noticed the two-for-one deal. I thought, One burger is too little, two are too much. But I felt adventurous. Then curious. So I ordered, “One regular Whopper, and one Impossible Whopper, please.”

The Impossible Whopper, mind you, was completely and entirely vegan. I sat in the parking lot, all by myself, and unpacked the two. I examined the burger patties, and caught a whiff of them.

And I devoured them, a bite from this, a bite from the other, then again. In the end, I thought that I could tell there was a difference, but I couldn’t tell which one was better.

Editor’s note: Dr. Shahar Madjar is a urologist at Aspirus and the author of “Is Life Too Long? Essays about Life, Death and Other Trivial Matters.” Contact him at smadjar@yahoo.com.

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