Vegan Diets: As Healthy As We are Told?
DISCLAIMER: I actually wrote this as a facebook post over a year ago, but in the wake of the Gamechanger obsession I figured why not!)
The fitness industry is still, sadly, an industry of trends. Diets gain rapid popularity, then wane, then suddenly out of nowhere become popular again. One trend I've noticed regaining popularity is the vegan diet.
And lately I’ve received some emails from current and potential clients asking questions about whether or not vegan is healthy and if they should give up meat and/or animal products.
Diets, and dieting, can seem complicated, especially because information is both conflicting and abundant. Sadly one downfall in the abundance of information out there is that MOST of it is unreliable and isn't backed by science in any way. And, when a dietary approach is popular, the vast majority of "information" on it, trends in its favor. Think about when Paleo was new. Most of the information on the internet was staunchly in it's favor. As the diet fell under scrutiny, suddenly conflicting evidence cropped up and now you can find all sorts of information AGAINST the Paleo diet.
When it comes to dieting, as a coach, one key component I like to focus on, regardless, is keeping nutrition balanced and keeping food sources abundant. By this I mean I like to see my clients eat diets including not just appropriate amounts of all three macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) but to also be consuming a wide variety of food sources, both plant AND animal based.
So in short, I'm NOT a big fan of vegan diets despite the trend. Nor do I consider them as healthy as some claim them to be. And here's why:
1. Vegan diets are extremely unhealthy for your digestive system. Humans aren't herbivores any more than we are carnivores. Just as we shouldn't consume a diet of just meat, we ALSO shouldn't consume a diet void of any animal products. We are omnivores, designed to consume a wide variety of food sources.
The most edible part of a plant is called cellulose and it isn't even able to be digested by our bodies. We lack the gut bacteria for it. And we can only eat grains and beans and seeds after grinding, soaking, and cooking, because unlike birds and rodents who are adapted to eat them, they’re poisonous and problematic to humans in their natural state. So a lot of popular vegan products, dishes and foods wind up resulting in all sorts of digestive issues. This causes inflammation.
The enzymes in our body (pepsin, trypsin, chymotrypsin, and other proteases) can efficiently break down protein, and bile salts and lipase can break down fat, but our bodies don't break down sugar, starch or fiber (found in grains, beans and vegetables) the same way.
Think about it- what makes you fart? What makes you bloat? What comes out in your stool sometimes un-digested? Beans, starches and veggies.
Since 70% of your immune system is in your gut, when it becomes chronically inflamed or ill you can imagine the impact that has on your energy, focus, strength, weight management and overall sense of wellbeing.
2. Vegan diets often rely too heavily on soy. Excessive consumption of soy is like laying out the welcome mat for hormonal issues. And while the dangers of soy are much more widely accepted and understood now than they were 10 years ago, a lot of vegan diets still unfortunately incorporate a lot of soy products like soy milk, yogurt, soy protein powder, soy protein bars, soy cereals, tofu and tempeh.
Thousands of studies link soy to malnutrition, digestive distress, immune system breakdown, thyroid dysfunction, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders and infertility — even cancer and heart disease.
The primary concern with consuming soy in any form is the phytoestrogen content. Phytoestrogens mimic estrogen in the body, causing a chain reaction of hormone imbalances.
Soy also contains Trypsin inhibitors which interfere with protein digestion and may cause pancreatic disorders.
Goitrogens are potent agents that block your synthesis of thyroid hormones and can cause hypothyroidism and thyroid cancer. In infants, consumption of soy formula has been linked with autoimmune thyroid disease. Goitrogens also interfere with iodine metabolism.
Another issue is the protein denaturing with soy. Fragile proteins are denatured during high temperature processing to make soy protein isolate and textured vegetable protein (TVP). Chemical processing of soy protein results in the formation of toxic lysinoalanine and highly carcinogenic nitrosamines.
And lastly, soy contains high concentrations of phytic acid which reduces assimilation of calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and zinc. Phytic acid in soy is not neutralized by ordinary preparation methods such as soaking or sprouting but only with long fermentation. And high-phytate diets have been linked to growth problems in children.
3. Vegan diets have been shown to have several glaring vitamin/mineral deficiencies like B12, Iron, K2, and the fat soluble vitamins A and D.
I'll start with Vitamin A and D- both of which are important for immune regulation and hormonal balance. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t get vitamin A from carrots. Vegetables provide carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, while only animal sources provide true vitamin A. Many people believe that carotene can be converted into vitamin A, but this conversion is usually insignificant. First, it takes a huge amount of carotene to convert to a moderate amount of vitamin A. Second, when there is poor thyroid function, impaired digestion or a lack of healthy fats in the diet, this conversion won’t happen.
In the same way, useable vitamin D (vitamin D3) is only found in animal products such as pastured eggs and wild caught salmon. And the vegan claim that you can obtain vitamin D from mushrooms is malarkey. Mushrooms contain vitamin D2, which is extremely poorly absorbed, NOT vitamin D3.
Vitamin K2 is the shuttle that transports calcium into your bones. You can eat as much calcium as you want but it won’t strengthen your bones unless it is accompanied by vitamin K2. And you can't get it from plants. Like other fat-soluble vitamins, K2 is found fatty sources as in from pastured eggs, milk and cheese from grassfed animals, beef, and chicken.
And the readily-absorbed form of vitamin B12 and iron is found only in animal sources (seeing a pattern here?). Testing shows that 83% of vegans are B12 deficient, compared to 5% of omnivores.
Chris Kessler has some great info on vitamin deficiencies and vegans and in his one post he says: "A common myth amongst vegetarians and vegans is that it’s possible to get B12 from plant sources like seaweed, fermented soy, spirulina and brewers yeast. But plant foods said to contain B12 actually contain B12 analogs called cobamides that block the intake of, and increase the need for, true B12."
Chris also discusses iron in the same post. While plants such as lentils and leafy greens do provide some iron, it is not as well-absorbed as animal-based iron. "Vegetarians and vegans have lower iron stores than omnivores, and vegetarian diets have been shown to reduce non-heme iron absorption by 70% and total iron absorption by 85%."
4. Vegan diets include way too much "faux" food. How in the heck do you think you can create cheese, bacon, milk and yogurt without cheese, bacon, milk or yogurt? With a whole myriad of faux foods including stabilizers, gums, thickeners and highly processed protein extracts. Yum.
Using Earth Balance, a non-dairy butter often used in vegan diets as an example, the ingredients include: Palm fruit oil, canola oil, safflower oil, flax oil, olive oil, salt, natural flavor, pea protein, sunflower lecithin, lactic acid, annatto color.
Ingredients in butter: butter.
We have been eating butter for thousands of years, but we only started producing canola oil in the last century. Butter is real food, but canola oil is arguable. The other ingredients are as well. Pea protein is highly processed. Even the term "natural flavors". Do you know what that means? I don't.
Two other examples?
Ingredients in "tofurkey": tofu (water, organic soybeans, magnesium chloride, calcium chloride), vital wheat gluten, expeller pressed non-GMO canola oil, water, shoyu soy sauce (water, non-GMO soybeans, wheat, salt, culture), soy flour, sundried tomatoes, basil, granulated garlic, sea salt, spices and on and on we go.
Ingredients used in vegan "cheese?" Well, to get the taste and texture right the profile could include any (hell maybe ALL) of the following: soy protein,solidified vegetable oil, nutritional yeast, thickening agar flakes, nuts, plant starches or flours or gums, natural enzymes, vegetable glycerin, bacterial cultures, arrowroot, pea protein and varying emulsifiers and thickeners.
If it doesn’t sound healthy, it’s because it’s not.
BOTTOM LINE: Ultimately- it is my personal position that the best dietary approaches blend consumption of plant and animal foods. Does this mean I do not help my clients go vegan if they desire? Of course not. Its my job to SUPPORT the needs and wants of my clients and help them strategize their nutrition as healthfully as possible.
But just because there’s a popular trend in vegan foods doesn’t mean you need to throw out all the meat in your home and buy tempeh and lentils. Take your time to read and do real research before making a dramatic and extreme dietary shift.