The 40-day period of Lent is a time of self-examination and reflection for Christians, inspired by the 40 days that Jesus is said to have spent in the wilderness, preparing for his ministry.
During Lent, Christians are encouraged to give service to others, and to give up something that they ordinarily enjoy in order to focus on their spiritual development.
As the spiritual leader to 1.2 billion Catholics around the world and inspirational figure to many others, adopting a vegan diet for Lent (and hopefully, beyond!) would allow Pope Francis to make a powerful statement about how we humans can fight environmental problems including climate change and deforestation, reduce the suffering of animals used for food production, address global food insecurity, and promote our own health.
However, concerns have been raised from some quarters about whether a vegan diet is healthy for older adults such as Pope Francis, who is currently 82.
While uninformed opinions on this issue abound in the blogosphere, as always, it’s best to look to the published science to answer this question.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) is the professional body representing registered dietitians and other food and nutrition professionals. Its position statement on vegetarian diets, which draws on almost 120 references from the scientific literature, clearly states that:
‘Appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.’
And it doesn’t appear to be that hard to construct an ‘appropriately planned’ plant-based diet. According to AND:
“Nutrient intakes of older vegetarians appear to be similar to or better than those of older nonvegetarians.”
So, according to the most up-to-date nutritional science, not only does a well-constructed vegan diet provide all the nutrients that older people need – including protein, calcium, iron and zinc – it also helps to prevent and treat chronic diseases that we become more prone to as we get older, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cancer of the colon and prostate.
- Vegans have the lowest risk of becoming overweight or obese of any dietary subgroup – vegetarians, pescatarians, flexitarians and omnivores – while adopting a plant-based diet helps those who are already overweight to reach a healthy body weight.
- A vegan diet slashes the risk of cardiovascular disease, by far the leading cause of death in people over 45, and is the only diet ever shown to reverse it – even in people who were told they needed a heart bypass or angioplasty!
- Plant-based diets reduce blood pressure and drop cholesterol and related substances, especially the ‘bad’ kind such as LDL cholesterol and apolipoprotein B.
- People who eat a 100 per cent plant-based diet halve their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, while adopting a vegan diet can help those already diagnosed with type 2 diabetes to manage their condition better, and in many cases, even reverse it.
- Vegans have the lowest risk of cancer overall, while eating a vegan diet slashes the risk of developing prostate cancer by 35 per cent in white men.
Even chronic low back pain, such as sciatica which plagues Pope Francis, may be prevented and treated with a plant-based diet.
When we eat animal products, atherosclerotic plaque – a witch’s brew of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances found in the blood – builds up on the inner lining of our blood vessels. Over time, this plaque build-up narrows and hardens the arteries, causing the condition known as atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis results in reduced blood flow to the tissues ‘downstream’ of the plaque. Depending on the location of the plaque, a person could suffer a variety of different symptoms including:
- When the arteries supplying the heart itself are affected by atherosclerosis, angina – chest pain that’s brought on by exertion or stress – and heart attack can occur.
- Atherosclerosis in the blood vessels supplying the brain results in cognitive decline, transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs, or ‘mini strokes’), and stroke.
- Peripheral vascular disease results from atherosclerosis in blood vessels outside the heart and brain. It causes pain and fatigue – especially during exercise – in the legs and arms, and can also affect the kidneys, stomach and intestines.
- Erectile dysfunction, or impotence, occurs when the arteries supplying a man’s penis are occluded (partially or completely blocked) by atherosclerotic plaque.
- And finally, atherosclerotic plaques that occlude the spinal arteries cause degeneration and eventually herniation of the discs that act like shock absorbers between each vertebra in our spines, as well as damage to the spinal nerves. Damaged discs and spinal nerves lead in turn to sciatica – a severe type of low back and leg pain that can occur anywhere along the course of the sciatic nerve, from the lumbar spine to the foot. People with the highest serum cholesterol levels – strongly linked to eating more animal products – have a greater risk of suffering back pain from herniated discs. And those with arteries partially or completely blocked by atherosclerotic plaque are more than eight times as likely to suffer from chronic low back pain, which is now a leading cause of disability in the western world.
As you can see, older people can reap multiple benefits from adopting a plant-based diet. But are there any risks?
Let’s take a look:
- The ability to absorb vitamin B12 declines with age, due to a condition called ‘atrophic gastritis’ which affects between 10 per cent and 30 per cent of older adults. Consequently, the US Institute of Medicine recommends that everyone over the age of 50 should take a vitamin B12 supplement. Vitamin B12 supplementation is a must-do for everyone eating a vegan diet, and elderly people may require a higher dose than younger people.
- As we age, our energy (kilojoule/calorie) requirement drops, while our need for micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants goes up. It’s vital for older people to choose nutrient-dense plant foods such as green leafy vegetables, other colourful vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains, with a moderate intake of nuts and seeds, rather than filling up on foods with lower nutrient density such as bread and pasta.
- Older people are often on multiple medications for conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and hypothyroidism. A plant-based diet may reduce the requirement for many of these medications, and may make some of them completely unnecessary. Older people should inform their doctor that they have changed their diet so that they can be closely monitored, and their medication dosage promptly adjusted to avoid excessively low blood pressure, hypoglycaemia, hyperthyroid symptoms, and other adverse consequences of over-medication.
- A sudden increase in fibre from unprocessed plant foods – especially legumes (beans, peas and lentils), which are key sources of protein and micronutrients in a plant-based diet – may cause bloating and abdominal discomfort, especially in those who’ve been eating a low-fibre diet for decades. Gradually ramping up intake of high-fibre foods will prevent this, as it allows the gut microbiota, which play a huge role in handling fibre and other indigestible carbohydrates from plant foods, time to adjust to the change in diet.
There are so many health benefits of adopting a plant-based diet at any age, and by going vegan for Lent, all you are ‘giving up’ is animal cruelty and a greater risk of ill health!Get the Vegan Starter Kit
Robyn Chuter is a vegan nutritionist in New South Wales, Australia who specialises in helping people reverse serious and chronic illnesses such as autoimmune conditions, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as emotional eating and food addiction, using a plant-based diet. The founder of Empower Total Health, Robyn was recently among the first Australian health practitioners to gain certification as a Lifestyle Medicine Practitioner from the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine.
Image from Plant Based News via Vegetarian for Life