How a Vegan Diet Affects Your Body’s Ability to Heal Itself

Photo: Patrizia Savarese/Getty Images

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.”

In fact, Barnard argued, a plant-based diet may actually be optimal during the healing process, helping the body regulate levels of inflammation (characterized by the enlargement of blood vessels, the leaking of blood into tissues, and the release of antibodies that occur after injury). While inflammation may be designed to protect the body, it can easily get out of control, Barnard said, adding that veganism may help to keep it in check:. “The closer you get to no animal products at all, the better off you’ll be.”

Still, not everyone agrees that animal products are the greatest culprit in inflammation. Other studies indicate that foods rich in carbohydrates may contribute more strongly. And as Barker’s case illustrates, the anti-inflammatory benefits of a plant-based diet may be counteracted by the fact that vegans do have to be more vigilant about getting enough protein, which research suggests may play a key role in speeding injury recovery. A 1998 study in the Journal of Burn Care and Research, for instance, found that increased protein intake helped burn patients increase both their body weight and muscle strength. Another study, published in 2006 in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, looked at the recovery of adult male rats with bone fractures; five weeks after injury, the animals with the highest-protein diets had the greatest body mass, muscle mass, and bone mineral density.

So how can we define the optimal diet for recovery in the face of such conflicting advice?

The short answer is: Maybe we can’t, at least not yet. Charles Keith Ozaki, director of vascular surgery research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, noted that more research is needed before we fully understand the long-term relationship between what we eat and how we heal.

“However, as a clinician and an active surgeon,” he said, “I believe there are enormous opportunities for lessening complications in surgery by manipulating diet,” even for short periods of time — temporarily adjusting what a person eats may still affect the body’s response to injury. In fact, many studies support the notion of increasing protein intake after an acute injury, as Barker did. (Barker eventually made a full recovery, and returned to his vegan diet upon leaving the hospital.)

“There’s a fascination in America right now about how what you eat impacts your health,” Ozaki said, and the limited knowledge we do have is better than nothing at all: “Short-term interventions could help, even if we have trouble adhering to long-term dietary guidelines.”

How a Vegan Diet Affects Your Body’s Ability to Heal Itself