I am being asked more and more what I think about being vegan, given the enormous trend going on currently. I have to admit to being a bit torn here. On the one hand, I like the idea of less meat and animal produce being eaten – from both a health and environmental standpoint, plus it seems a ‘kinder’ way to eat. BUT, as a nutritionist, I cannot get past the fact that a vegan diet is nutritionally-deficient – and it is much more than just needing some B12 supplements or fortified foods! But even if it were just that there is no B12, that would be enough for me to advise against it. I’ve seen the very significant consequences of B12 deficiency too often to countenance a diet that puts levels at risk.
In essence, I can’t help feeling that a diet where we HAVE to supplement is not one that we are designed to eat. Sure, we may evolve into not needing supplements if a lot of us were vegan, but that would take hundreds of years for such an evolutionary change to take place. I confess: if I am asked if a patient should go vegan for health issues, I first advise them to consider going almost vegan and keep eggs in. Eggs area little power-pack of protein and many of the nutrients a vegan diet puts at risk. If that’s a no, then I say they need to take a really good supplement regime and not just some B12. Nutrients including DHA, zinc, selenium, protein levels and more are generally deficient in vegan diets unless they are really, REALLY well-planned, which is actually quite tough to do if you’re not using nutrition software! I’ve never seen it done adequately yet. In essence, you need to supplement to be safe. End of.
In fact, here is what one of the co-founders of Veganuary, Ursula Philpot, said when asked in an interview about whether doing Veganuary was healthy:
“Just doing it for a month, you’re not going to run into problems really – even if you eat a pretty poor diet. But, longer than that, it has to be fairly well planned… There are gaps in the diet – things like iron, B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fats.”
The advice I read generally is that you can eat plant sources of most of the deficient nutrients and that seems perfectly good advice on the surface. What it doesn’t take into account is that many plant forms of the at-risk nutrients have to be converted into the active form for the body to use it. The active forms are the ones generally already in animal-based foods. As a clinician, I can tell you that many people have problems – whether genetic or lack of co-factors etc – in making those enzymatic conversions in the body. That’s why vegans are so at risk really. I’d love to agree that you can get everything – except the B12 – from plants. If you are a super-healthy enzymatically and a conversion-strong person, you probably could. But, realistically, that is probably not most people.
I have no problem with people going vegan. In fact, my husband is vegan – for ethical reasons rather than health. It just needs to be done in full knowledge of what the consequences are nutritionally and how to offset the likely issues. Otherwise, I’ll be seeing you in my clinic in a couple of years with conditions like depression, thyroid problems, fatigue etc, which are all related at least in part to the low levels of the ‘at-risk’ nutrients.
Most vegans will use sites like Veganuary as sources of information on how to keep healthy on a vegan diet. Sadly, this is not that great a source it seems. Zoe Harcombe, a renowned nutrition researcher, recently (Jan 20) analysed the info given in blog posts and the recommended diet on the Veganuary website and found some quite stark misleading and contradictory information. You can read her findings in full below.
Note: I’m not against veganism AT ALL, but I am against anything that might cause the type of conditions you need me for later, if you know what I mean. Have a read of the article, take notes and make sure you follow her advice – and I won’t be seeing you soon 😉
Hope that helps!