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Do Vegans Feel Better Than Meat Eaters?

Dr.Gary Small Gene Stone Default

The fourth of five conversations between brain expert Dr. Gary Small and health writer Gene Stone

Gene Stone: I've been writing about health for more than two decades, but nutrition has become my area of concentration. About six years ago I met a vegan firefighter in Texas named Rip Esselstyn. He convinced me to become vegan, and together we wrote a bestselling book called The Engine 2 Diet. After I wrote the book Forks Over Knives to accompany the documentary of the same name, I worked with Rip on his next book, My Beef with Meat. So a plant-based diet has become very important to me. What do you think of veganism as it relates to health, and specifically, brain health?
Gary Small: Frankly, I think there's a lot to be said for being vegan. Over the last few years I have met many doctors who have switched over to a plant-based, whole foods diet. When I ask them why, they give a mix of answers, related to health and animal rights. But the one thing they all say is that being a vegan makes them feel much better.
Stone: Why do you think that is?
Small: Part of it is an age-related effect. We've been doing some polling with the Gallup Organization and Healthways, and have found that as people age, they are significantly more likely to adopt healthier lifestyles. When you're young, you don't experience many consequences for your lifestyle choices. The older you get, the more you see—and feel—the negative impact of smoking, not exercising, and other unhealthy choices people often make. Our research group has done several studies on the effect of combining healthy nutrition, stress management, mental stimulation, and physical exercise on people with age-associated memory complaints. These investigations show that people with such a healthy lifestyle experience better memory ability, as well as better brain efficiency in the frontal lobe, —a region that controls problem solving and memory—than people who don't have as healthful a lifestyle. We are now planning research that parses out the individual components of healthy lifestyle, such as diet or exercise, which might have the greatest impact on memory and brain health.
Stone: What's your own feeling about health and meat-eating?
Small: I've certainly thought about the relationship between meat and my health—but that's been a recent phenomenon. As I've studied this area and written popular books on healthy aging, I've become impressed by the importance of nutrition. It's hard to study all of these things and not start experimenting on yourself, so I am now eating less meat than when I was younger, and am generally eating in healthier ways than I was two decades ago. But you and I probably don't agree about meat. You consider it harmful.
Stone: My best guess is that animal protein is not good for you.
Small: Whereas I think in moderation dairy and meat are probably not harmful, especially if it's lean meat. But we do know that fruits and vegetables are good for your body and for your brain. They have very high antioxidant value. The average American diet does not have nearly enough fruits and vegetables in it.
Stone: I call that SAD, as in Standard American diet.
Small: I like that acronym, because eating a healthy diet also improves an individual's mood.

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