Most people associate vegan diets with people who don't want to harm animals or lessen their impact on the environment, but increasingly people are turning to eating a plant-based diet for health reasons.

Local vegan and vegetarian resources

The Charleston Plant is a printed and online guide to vegan and vegetarian dining in the greater Charleston metro area.

The Charleston Veggies and Vegans Facebook page has nearly 1,300 members.

The Charleston Veggie Meetup group, which has nearly 400 members, offers several regular and special events every month.

Regular Charleston Veggie Meetups include the Vegan Potluck at 7 p.m. on the first Wednesdays of the month at Earth Fare and the Third Thursday Dinner at Dell'z Uptown at 6:30 p.m. on the third Thursday of every month.

Among the events this week are Vegan Holiday Baking with Sabrina at 6 p.m. today (Tuesday) at Whole Foods Market in Mount Pleasant; a screening of "Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead" at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Cinebarre in Mount Pleasant; and the Vegan Potluck at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Earth Fare.

The newest vegan restaurant to open in Charleston is Motobar, at 487 King Street.

One of the foremost local authorities on veganism in the area is Sarah Swingle, who writes the blog "What I Vegan" and makes regular appearances on Channel 4's "Lowcountry Live!" show. The blog offers an array of recommended resources for following a vegan lifestyle.

Charleston vegan organizer Stacy Shepanek recommends the following cookbooks: "Oh She Glows," "Happy Herbivore Everyday," "The Joy of Vegan Baking," and "Thug Kitchen."

And those actions are supported by a recently published study by the University of South Carolina that showed a vegan diet is more effective for losing weight than a vegetarian diet, semi-vegetarian or "flexitarian" diet, a vegetarian diet that included fish, or an omnivorous diet that includes red meat.

Myra Winterburn started eating a vegan diet, which excludes all meats and animal products, such as dairy and eggs, four years ago due to severe allergies. She had to take shots and excessive amounts of Alavert to control her symptoms.

"I was a cheese-aholic," recalls the 41-year-old Hanahan resident.

After the change, her symptoms not only started to fade but her high cholesterol levels and blood pressure starting dropping.

"It was so high that when I was 28 or 29 years old, a doctor warned me that if it didn't come down, I'd have to take medication for that, too," recalls Winterburn, adding that since going vegan, she's never had to worry about her weight or calorie counting.

Her partner, Jim Aske, joined her in following a vegan diet and saw similar results. The 44-year-old grew up in a "meat and potatoes" house, but starting having doubts about the health of meat and milk products while working at a dairy in high school.

"I saw what the industry looked like from the inside: from the feed to the open sores and antibiotics," says Aske.

But instead of going vegan, Aske decided to hunt for his meat, killing deer, elk, pheasant and duck as his meat sources.

"I met Myra and converted 'whole turkey' to a vegan diet," says Aske, of the decision made the spring of 2013.

Aske's eczema cleared and he dropped 30 pounds off his 5-foot-11 frame.

"I was pushing 200 pounds," says Aske, noting that his weight has stabilized around 178.

Medical University of South Carolina student Cory Andrus, 25, went vegan as a proactive step to guard against a medical issue with family history: breast cancer.

Andrus, whose mother died of breast cancer at age 51 when Andrus was just 13, took a test to see if she had the BRCA gene but neither she, nor her sisters, have the gene. Still, the experience spurred her to do research and she feels that a plant-based vegan diet is another defense she can put up against the disease.

Since switching to a vegan diet, her weight dropped and stabilized from 138 to 128 on her 5-foot-7 frame.

Andrus, who is studying to be a physician's assistant, plans to incorporate what she's learned from evidence-based studies about vegan diets into her future practice.

Vegan for weight loss?

Andrus and other medical professionals have more evidence of the health benefits, specifically weight loss, after the publication of the study by USC's Arnold School of Public Health.

The study, "Comparative effectiveness of plant-based diets for weight loss," was published in The International Journal of Applied and Basic Nutritional Sciences on Oct. 17.

Study participants, who were overweight or obese, volunteered for it not knowing which of the diet groups they would get into, according to Dr. Gabrielle "Brie" Turner-McGrievy, the study's lead author and a faculty member at USC's Arnold School of Public Health,

Those in the omnivorous diet could eat any meat. The semi-vegetarian diet allowed some meat. The pesco-vegetarian diet excluded all meat except seafood. The vegetarian diet banned meat but allowed animal products such as cheese and eggs.

Participants in vegan diet were allowed to eat only plant-based foods, which included whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, but were allowed to eat as much as possible, she says.

About 12 or 13 people were in each diet group and everybody in the study had access to the support groups, extensive diet education for two months and the healthy recipes.

At the end of six months, the participants on the vegan diet lost more weight than the other groups by an average of 4.3 percent, or 16.5 pounds.

Turner-McGrievy wasn't surprised that the vegan diet had the most weight loss and theorizes that the plant-based diet was lower in fat intake but higher in fiber, which helped make participants feel full.

To find out more, she hopes to do a larger study and that the findings will be enough evidence for the National Institutes of Health to fund a larger study, with at least 50 people per group.

How do you get protein?

In a protein-obsessed country, Turner-McGrievy says she has found studies showing that Americans eat more protein than they need. She adds that carbohydrates are "not the devil in the diet" that so many make them out to be, particularly when people understand good carbs versus bad ones.

Turner-McGrievy adds vegans should considered taking a B-12 vitamin or at least consume foods, such as plant-based "milks" and cereals fortified with the vitamin.

Meanwhile, some local diet professionals still underscore the need for protein.

"One issue with vegan diets is it takes a little thought to maintain adequate protein intake, but the subjects in that (study) group were apparently able to do so," says Dr. Patrick O'Neil, director of the Medical University of South Carolina Weight Management Center and former Obesity Society president.

"Many people have followed vegan diets for long periods of time and are quite able to get all their nutrients."

Registered dietitian Catherine Holly, director of H2U at Trident Health, says if a vegan diet fits an individual's lifestyle, he or she need to understand the importance of pairing plant-based proteins to get all of the needed amino acids.

"It's very possible (to do so), but takes a little time and research," says Holly, who is a vegetarian.

Holly describes the vegan diet as a "very healthy diet (that) provides all the nutrients you need for chronic disease prevention," but that it's basically an "elimination diet."

"You are still eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and grains. What you aren't eating is pizza, steak, grits made with cream, fried chicken, and the like," says Holly.

"I'm sure if someone eliminated those foods from their diet, they would also lose weight. As a country, we have a hard time with moderation. If a diet spells it out in black-and-white, no animal products, it's cut and dried. "

Perfectionism unneeded

O'Neil says the study was intriguing but also too small for people to make "sweeping diet changes solely based on it."

Yet he was impressed that both the vegan and vegetarian groups lost more than six percent of the original body weight without any prescribed calorie limit.

He noted, too, that the vegan group was consuming about 900 fewer calories per day at the six-month mark than they were before treatment.

"There may also be a lesson in this study for dietary perfectionists. At the end of the study, most of the people in each of the groups did not meet criteria for adherence to their assigned diets.

"Still, all the groups cut their calories and lost weight, especially in the vegan and vegetarian groups. So you can make meaningful differences in your diet and health by making some changes in your diet, even if you don't follow a specific plan 100 percent."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.