Does a vegan diet affect your ability to heal?

Story highlights

  • Research seems to suggest that a plant-based diet hinders the body's ability to heal
  • One expert sees "enormous opportunities ... in surgery by manipulating diet"

On September 19, 2008, just before midnight, two pilots attempted to abort their takeoff from the Columbia Metropolitan Airport in South Carolina. The pilots, who thought that they had blown a tire, were unable to stop the plane on the remaining runway they had left.

Four people died in the resulting fiery crash, including both pilots. Only two people survived: celebrity disc jockey DJ AM and Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker.
    Travis Barker, a vegan at the time, suffered second- and third-degree burns over his torso and lower body. He was taken to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia, where, he told the Guardian in an interview several weeks after the crash, he had to eat 6,000 calories a day in order to speed his recovery.
      "Obviously, they didn't have a vegan chef for me," Barker told the paper, "so I had to eat whatever. I ended up eating a lot of beef jerky." Giving up veganism, in this case, came with an added health benefit: Early in his hospital stay, his doctors reportedly had trouble getting his skin grafts to take, which Barker said in interviews was due to his low levels of protein; after a while on his new high-calorie diet, they had more success.
      Was his vegan regimen really to blame, though? Whether or not a plant-based diet hinders the body's ability to healing is a matter of ongoing debate, but some research seems to suggest that it does. One 2013 review in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, for example, found milk protein is better able to support muscle-protein synthesis after exercise than soy protein. Researchers speculated that this may be because milk proteins contains more of the 20 amino acids (compounds that help the body create new proteins) that humans need.
      But Neal Barnard, an adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University and the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, calls this argument "really old-fashioned thinking."
      Barnard, who extolled the virtues of a low-fat, plant-based diet, acknowledged the importance of protein to recovery. But "the amount of protein that is in vegetables and beans and grains is much more than enough," he said, pointing to animals like bulls, stallions, elephants, and giraffes -- all of which are vegan, and all of which "build their massive bodies and repair them every day entirely from plant-based foods."