Former U.S. President Bill Clinton surprised many a few years ago when he announced his decision to become a vegan. In a meat-loving country like the United States, the choice to not only drop all meat from your diet but also eliminate any products that come from animals — milk, eggs, etc. — can almost seem revolutionary.
But he’s not alone. Millions of people have also made the choice to move toward a animal product-free diet — though not without facing some controversy.
It’s no secret that eliminating meat, dairy and other animal-associated products from a person’s diet can reduce the amount of nutrition consumed in a day — hence, health issues could quickly become a concern for a person switching to a vegan diet.
And though some rave about the cost effectiveness of going vegan, others argue that leading a veggie- and fruit-based lifestyle isn’t as inexpensive as some claim.
So, what are the cost implications of becoming a vegan? Are vegans really saving money or are they blowing it all on organic food costs? And what health concerns should be considered before making the switch?
Bill Clinton Adopts Vegan Lifestyle following Health Crisis
Clinton publicly fought a number of health issues a few short years after leaving office.
Following prolonged chest pain and shortness of breath in 2004, tests revealed some of Clinton’s arteries were well over 90 percent blocked. The remedy was a quadruple bypass surgery.
Though the surgery was deemed successful, the former president continued to suffer from health issues. In 2005, he underwent surgery for a partially collapsed lung. And in 2010, he had two coronary stents implanted in his heart after complaining of chest pain.
It was in the same year that Clinton announced he would be adopting a diet of plant-based whole foods, recommended to him by doctors Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn.
Ornish and Esselstyn told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in 2010 that following their recommendations helped Clinton successfully return to his high school weight and reverse his heart disease.
The doctors have also stated that their plant-based, oil-free diet program has worked for other patients. Esselstyn has also stated that individuals who have adopted the program have seen their cholesterol levels, angina symptoms and blood flow improve dramatically.
So what’s in this special diet? Bill Clinton shared in an interview that he lives on “beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit.” More specifically, he said, “I drink a protein supplement every morning — no dairy, I drink almond milk mixed in with fruit and a protein powder so I get the protein for the day when I start the day up.”
Although Clinton stays away from all dairy, chicken or turkey, he says every once in a while he will eat “very little fish.”
What is a Vegan?
Individuals who have watched Bill Clinton’s transformation in both health and appearance might want to consider switching to a vegan diet plan themselves. But many questions come with this lifestyle, including the most basic one: What is the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian?
According to WebMD, a vegetarian is a person who takes on a diet free of meat, fish and fowl. Categories of vegetarianism can include lacto-ovo vegetarians (people who avoid animal flesh but eat eggs and milk products) and pescatarians (people who eat fish and seafood).
Then there are vegans. Vegans are individuals who forgo eating all animal products and animal-based products, including honey, according to WebMD. Among vegans, you can also find raw foodists, who eat fruits, vegetables, legumes, sprouts and nuts.
According to a “Vegetarianism in America” study, published by Vegetarian Times, 3.2 percent of U.S. adults (7.3 million people) follow a vegetarian-based diet. Among that population, 0.5 percent (1 million) are vegans who consume no animal products at all.
So why are people switching to vegan diets?
A study conducted by Peter Cheeke, a professor emeritus of animal sciences at Oregon State University, revealed that people switch to vegetarian and vegan diets in opposition to killing or using animals for food, over concern about chemical and hormonal additives, and even to avoid acquiring mad cow disease.
But some, like Clinton, are simply seeking a healthier lifestyle. Although there seem to be plenty of benefits to adopting this type of diet, are there risks as well?
The Vegan Diet and Its Impact on Health
Most people who plan to switch to a vegan diet expect to see immediate improvements in their health, similar to Clinton. The good news is, for the most part, these improvements do occur for many who make the switch.
According to WebMD, a low-fat diet that is high in fruits, vegetables and nuts can provide major benefits to a person’s health, while reducing (or eliminating) red meat from the diet cuts the risk of heart disease significantly.
But not everyone completely supports the idea of completely eliminating animal-based protein and dairy products from a diet.
Nancy Rodriguez, professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, told the The Wall Street Journal that eliminating these aspects of the diet means eliminating essential nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, protein, vitamin B12, zinc and iron — all of which must then be acquired through other means.
Rodriguez also argued that the commonly accepted idea that animal protein alone causes cancer is untrue. She stated that research shows other factors contribute to cancer, including smoking, alcohol consumption and being overweight.
Another issue in the debate on whether the vegan diet is appropriate for individuals with diabetes. According to WebMD, research shows that individuals with Type 2 diabetes can benefit from a plant-based diet because they lose weight and their insulin sensitivity increases — reducing the need for diabetes medication.
But while individuals with Type 2 diabetes benefit from lower caloric intake, Jack Norris, a registered dietitian and president and co-founder of Vegan Outreach, wrote on his website that Type 1 diabetics wouldn’t benefit as much from this kind of diet.
This doesn’t mean a vegan diet couldn’t help someone with Type 1 diabetes, though.
“I could see that the higher fiber content of a whole foods vegan diet could release carbohydrates more slowly into your blood and result in lower insulin needs, even if the carbohydrates are a higher percentage of your diet,” Norris wrote in a 2009 post on his website.
Is Becoming a Vegan Safe for Seniors?
Although well-known doctors made the recommendation for Clinton to alter his diet at age 63, many wonder whether the switch is safe for other seniors.
AARP says yes.
The senior advocacy organization has promoted the “Vitality Project,” which encourages seniors to switch to healthier lifestyles that include exercising and improving their diets.
According to a Seattle Times story, 69-year-old Leo Aeikens even went as far as switching to a vegan diet that helped him lose 25 pounds in 10 months.
Additional research seems to show that seniors do in fact benefit from a vegan diet.
According to the Vegan Society website, the high fruit and vegetable intake can be beneficial for eyesight. And because vegans tend to be leaner and lighter, they can maintain mobility and suffer less pressure on joints later in life.
Safely Switching to a Vegan Diet
But before seniors switch to a vegan diet, certain factors should be taken into consideration.
Because weight loss tends to be easier for vegans, the Vegan Society strongly recommends that senior vegans maintain a healthy weight (a body mass index of greater than 18 kg/m2) to decrease the risk of osteoporosis.
It is also recommended that individuals switching to a vegan diet consume foods containing all of the essential nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, fatty acids, minerals, etc.) while remaining active to help retain muscle mass and bone health.
Below is a summary of ways seniors can safely switch to a vegan diet, provided by the Vegan Society:
- Maintain a varied vegan diet.
- Keep active (at least 30 minutes of daily exercise).
- Get adequate calcium (for bone health).
- Take vitamin D supplements if there isn’t regular exposure to sunlight.
- Take B12 regularly (bone health).
- Drink six-eight cups of fluid per day (due to thirst sensitivity reduction).
Does Being a Vegan Save Money?
Anyone who tries to purchase fruits and vegetables (especially the organic variety) on a regular basis knows that it’s even harder to save money on groceries if you’re looking for healthy options.
But it has been argued that becoming a vegan does indeed save money in the long-term due to lower health-care costs.
Although this isn’t really a worry for Clinton, millions of seniors on a limited income might need to take a close look at whether the financial benefits of a vegan diet can outweigh the potential costs of purchasing vegan foods.
So, do the benefits of a vegan diet outweigh the costs?
Let’s look at a breakdown of average costs associated with both the vegan and non-vegan diets, provided by USDA data.
As you can see, based on the dietary recommendations and estimated costs of food with a low-cost diet, the vegan diet costs a bit more than the non-vegetarian/non-vegan diet.
But most would argue that with a little creativity, including clipping coupons, visiting farmer’s markets and shopping generic whenever possible, avoiding meat doesn’t have to be expensive.
Do Veggie-Based Dieters Save Money on Health Care?
A study released in 2013 by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that individuals who stick to veggie-based diets might actually be saving money on their health care by making fewer visits to the hospital.
In fact, vegetarians had a 32 percent lower risk of being hospitalized with or dying from ischemic heart disease during an 11-year period, the study revealed.
The reason for the reduced risk of heart troubles was a lower body mass index and lower “bad” (non-HDL) cholesterol and systolic blood pressure readings than meat eaters.
The average cost for an individual to spend one night in a hospital, as of 2010, is $1,625, according to Becker’s Hospital Review. Referencing the figures above, it becomes clear that one night in the emergency room could easily swallow the additional cost of shopping exclusively for vegan food.
Based on the potential health benefits a vegan diet could offer most individuals who make the switch, along with the chance to save money on health care long-term, the initial costs of switching to a vegan diet shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
Keep in mind, however, that different individuals require unique dietary intake based on age, weight, height, gender and level of activity. No one — especially seniors — should switch to a vegan diet without first consulting a physician to determine current health conditions and any potential health risks.
That said, if you’ve visited your physician and have been given the green light, you might find that leading a vegan life not only improves your health, but spares your bank account in the long run.