The Benefits Of A Vegan Diet

By Dr. William Harris
Interviewed by Rasa Fournier
Wednesday - August 03, 2011
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Can you give a short overview of your medical background?

I graduated from medical school at the University of California at San Francisco in 1963, then I worked for the next 35 years as an emergency and urgent care doctor, most recently at Kaiser Permanente. I retired from Kaiser in 1998.

How many years were you director of the Kaiser Permanente Vegetarian Lifestyle Clinic?

During my last two years at Kaiser, I ran a volunteer effort to try to teach people how to go vegan so that they would get rid of most of their diseases. The ones who could follow the advice did make big improvements, and I documented them. Blood pressure came down, weight came down, blood sugars came down and cholesterol came down.

What is your role with the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii?

I was one of three founding members back in 1990. I’m now the secretary and the video coordinator. We have about 150 videos on our website ( We’ve had the top experts in the field of nutrition: John McDougall, Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn, Joel Fuhrman, Howard Lyman. Lyman is the “Mad Cowboy,” who got himself in major trouble on Oprah’s show after Oprah said, “I’ll never eat another hamburger.” The cattle ranchers sued and Howard helped defend Oprah. The suit was finally thrown out. The appellate court said you can’t censor what people say.

Being a doctor, you’re savvy to health concerns. A vegetarian since 1950 and vegan since 1964 what made you make those dietary changes?

I didn’t know anything about nutrition when I became a vegetarian. And I didn’t bother learning because I figured they’d teach me everything I needed to know when I got to medical school. But they didn’t. When I switched over, both times, it was for ethical reasons. We devastate our ethical framework by killing animals it’s a violent thing to do and totally unnecessary.

What are the health benefits of a plant-based diet?

The benefit is that you don’t eat any animal food.

An active octogenarian, Dr. Harris has skydived more than 1,206 times. This jump marks no. 1,000 at age 77. Photo from Dr. William Harris

What’s bad about an animal-based diet?

First, animal food has no fiber because animals cannot metabolize cellulose, which is the main ingredient in fiber. Secondly, it’s always going to have cholesterol because unlike plants, animals use cholesterol as a reinforcing substance in the cell membrane. And animals also use cholesterol as a building block for all of their steroid hormones, which include the sex hormones and things like cortisone. And animal foods have a lot of saturated fat, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

How does a person get enough protein and nutrients from a plant-based diet?

What is protein? Most people don’t know. It’s a co-polymer of amino acids. A polymer is identical molecules bound together by chemical bonds, and a copolymer is similar, but not identical, molecules strung together by chemical bonds. All of the essential amino acids are synthesized only by plants. None of them are synthesized by animals. You get them from animals, but you’re getting them secondhand because the animals didn’t make them. All of the essential, organic nutrients required for humans are synthesized only by plants and microorganisms.

Some people have tried a vegetarian diet but feel it’s not for them ... what next?

A lot of people don’t seem to cotton to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Psychology Today made the claim that there are three times as many former vegetarians as current vegetarians. Their first reason was poor health. The second reason was vegetarianism is a hassle. Third is that people crave animal products and four is it disrupts your social life.

I made my own list of why people give up being vegetarians and in my list social cause is the greatest. That’s the hardest thing because you’re making yourself a one-man or woman minority. I was the only vegetarian I knew for my first year as a vegetarian. Diet shopping is another one. People jump from one diet to another to try to find the right one. They go from vegetarianism to Atkins to Sears, the blood-type diet or whatever.

Third on my list is that they crave animal products, and among the ones they crave the most is cheese. Mammalian mothers have casein in their breast milk - both cows and women. Women have a lot less, but once casein gets into the baby’s gut, it breaks into casomorphins. When you concentrate milk down and make cheese, it becomes a powerfully addictive substance. People have a hell of a time getting off of cheese because it’s an opioid that’s there for good evolutionary reasons. It addicts the baby to the mother and it keeps the mother from running away from the baby. The mother incidentally gets a kick the sucking action stimulates the release of the hormone oxytocin. So the baby gets addicted to the mother, the mother gets addicted to the baby, and then you concentrate the stuff down into cheese and it’s a triple whammy.

The fourth reason for giving up a vegetarian diet, I think, is that a lot of people have been given bum advice in the form of “high carbs and low fat.” It’s bad enough to tell them to give up animal food, and then some diet docs tell them they can’t eat raw nuts, seeds or avocados because they’re too high in fat. They are high-fat but they’ve got lots of fiber.

There’s no big mystery to a vegan diet: Just don’t eat anything that doesn’t have fiber. That’s not because fiber is a nutrient it doesn’t get absorbed but it’s a very good marker for healthy food. If you take all of the fiber out, it’s either animal food or processed plant food like white sugar or vegetable oil, which is a disaster. Those are the things I recommend people give up.

Is there such thing as an unhealthy vegetarian?

You can turn yourself into an unhealthy vegan/vegetarian really quick. Follow some cult system that’s put out by someone who doesn’t know much about science or nutrition And they can lead you astray big time.

Where can people find resources for a well-rounded diet?

That’s why we have the Vegetarian Society. Our website is a good source of information, particularly the videos. Basically, if man made it, don’t eat it. People are in the food business to make a profit, and the way they do that is to make food taste better than it is so you eat more than you should and they get more profit than they deserve.

Dr. Harris also has made his book, “The Scientific Basis of Vegetarianism,” available for free at ents.htm.


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