I became a vegan 21 years ago, shortly after I stopped breastfeeding my youngest child. (A doctor friend had warned me that breastfeeding while skipping dairy might not be wise. Later, our pediatrician brushed off that concern by pointing out that adult cows don't drink any kind of milk, but have no trouble making it.) At that time and place, I seem to recall having to go to the local food coop to get soy milk, and perhaps even tofu. There were not as many choices in meat, dairy and egg analogues as there are now. So, I happily ate beans, tofu, nuts, seeds, fruits and veggies. I instructed our local Chinese restaurant to leave the chicken broth out of their tofu stir-fry.
The thing that pushed me over into veganism was John Robbins' book Diet for a New America. This influential book convinced me that veganism was right not just for health, but also for ethics (i.e., animal cruelty) and the environment . John Robbins was heir to the Baskin-Robbins fortune, when he embarked on his own vegan discovery. He then turned down any of the proceeds from his father and uncle's business, and began his own business promoting plant based diets. He describes himself as having been a sickly child, and credits veganism for his improved health. He also has described his dad as having suffered health problems later in life, which Robbins attributed to his high saturated fat diet.
A common statistic cited in the vegan literature, is that vegans are thinner and healthier in a variety of ways, than animal food eaters, and it seems to be the case, on average. I, however, have always had a weight problem, and sadly, being vegan has not by itself been enough to change that. I've met quite a few vegans via twitter lately, who confess (some with their twitter handle!) that they, too, are fat vegans.
Vegans are also supposed to have lower cholesterol levels. Up until recently, that was true for me. My cholesterol was consistently in the 150's. However, I have recently had the rude awakening (and embarrassment) of having my LDL creep up of late! My doctor has even threatened to put me on statins!
A lot has changed since I started out in veganism. There are now many fake "meats," fake "cheeses" and gooey vegan desserts. Many of these products contain tropical oils; some contain trans fats (though that is changing.) I've learned to love a wide variety of vegan fried foods, vegan pizza, vegan margarine, even vegan marshmallows. Unfortunately, just because it's vegan doesn't mean it's healthy.
Recent work on obesity has converged on how the food industry in Western society makes food greater in quantity, cheaper, and addictive. The movie Supersize Me , and recent books by David Kessler , Neal Barnard and Michael Moss provide fascinating details on industry practices and brain chemistry. I'm definitely one of those highly sensitive to those enticements, highly addicted to fat, sugar and salt.
I have no intention of going back to eating meat, fish, dairy and eggs, however. Besides the cruelty and environmental concerns, I don't think that would be an improvement health-wise. A growing group of vegan "gurus" - many of them M.D.'s - have been advocating low fat, low refined carbohydrate, vegan diets for years. Among them are Drs. John McDougall , Caldwell Esselstyn, T. Colin Campbell , and Joel Fuhrman . (I recently came across a fascinating video in which they all duke it out over the different emphases that each advocates, within that framework. As far as I know, they all work in their own way.) The only approach missing from this list is the raw vegan diet, which I have tried several times. It always made me feel weak, and craving cooked food, but I always lost weight. This approach is advocated by Dr. Gabriel Cousens .
So, while I don't pretend to be a diet or health expert by any means, my personal experience shows that even veganism requires discipline - in the Western junk food environment - to avoid unhealthy food addictions.