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New Study Suggests Vegan Diet Protects Against Pollution

By Michael Greger M.D.
August 4, 2010
File under: Health Concerns, Pollution, Vegan


Dioxins are a class of industrial pollutants that accumulate in the fatty tissues of humans and food animals consumed by humans.  It is generally believed that the most significant exposure to DLCs [dioxin-like compounds such as PCBs] is from the dietary intake of animal and fish products.”1 But which animal products pose the greatest risk?

Every five years, the U.S. government measures the amount of toxic waste in our food supply and according to recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the consumption of eggs are second only to fish in levels of PCBs.2 This may explain the findings of a recent study, which found egg consumption to be associated with increased risk of numerous cancers, including of cancer of the upper digestive tract, colon, lung, breast, prostate, and bladder, among others. 3

Of all forms of cancer, egg consumption was most closely correlated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Those eating more than one-half egg a day were found to have nearly 3 times the risk of breast cancer as compared to those who avoid eggs entirely.

The industrial toxins found in animal products don’t just contribute to cancer risk.  According to recent commentary in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, there is increasing evidence to suggest that maternal exposure to toxic chemical compounds may be associated with a number of conditions, including congenital [birth] defects and pediatric problems, childhood cancers, as well as reproductive and endocrine dysfunction in later life.

The author concludes: “I anticipate that future generations of scientists will look back with disbelief at a medical culture that permitted poisoning of reproductive aged women and ignored ramifications to unborn children.”4

What if one chooses to avoid meat, fish, dairy or eggs? A recent study was published in the British Journal of Nutrition by an international team of scientists entitled, Impact of Adopting a Vegan Diet…on Plasma Organochlorine Concentrations.  Organochlorines (OC) are chemicals widely used after World War II as insecticides.

In the 1960s, their adverse effects became apparent and by the 1970s were banned in most industrialized countries. Because OCs are slow to degrade, they are still present, worldwide. Humans are at the top of the food chain and are exposed through food, in infancy from breast milk and later from animal products.

The investigators note that studies show that OC concentrations in the breast milk and fat tissue of vegetarians is lower than in omnivores, but no studies of vegans had been undertaken, until now. The vegan diet avoids all animal products, including eggs and dairy. Testing a wide range of carcinogenic industrial toxins and pesticides, the researchers  “found that vegans, were significantly less polluted, then omnivores….”

What surprised the research team was that vegans had as much toxic exposure as non-vegans. Vegans breast-fed as infants would be exposed to OC through the mother. Most vegans aren’t vegan from birth. These lifestyle choices are often made in adulthood.  In order to decrease exposure in an increasingly polluted world, the best choice is a plant-based diet.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author and Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.  Dr. Greger’s DVDs

More from ecomii:

1. US Dept of Agriculture. 2009. Dioxins and Dioxin-Like Compounds in the U.S. Domestic Meat and Poultry Supply.

2. Lorber M, Patterson D, Huwe J, Kahn H. Evaluation of background exposures of Americans to dioxin-like compounds in the 1990s and the 2000s. Chemosphere. 2009 Oct;77(5):640-51.

3. Aune D, De Stefani E, Ronco AL, et al. 2009. Egg consumption and the risk of cancer: a multisite case-control study in Uruguay. Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention 10(5):869-76.

4. Genuis SJ. 2009. Nowhere to hide: Chemical toxicants and the unborn child. Reproductive Toxicology 28(1):115-6.

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