Are vegan diets healthy?

vegan diet
Are vegan diets healthy over the long-term?

I’ve been chatting to a vegan on the Happy Guide blog for a few days, and as usual, the debate gets quite intense, vegans are certainly passionate about their choices.

Vegan diets untenable

I want to say something about this because basically, my view is that vegan diets are essentially dangerous. My reasons include “big picture” stuff like…

  • Homo genus has been eating animal foods for 2.5 MILLION YEARS.
  • Eating animal foods is what MADE US HUMAN, e.g. availability of long-chain omega-3 needed for our brain development.
  • Traditional cultures and hunter-gatherers highly valued certain animal foods and would often spend a huge time/effort to get them, especially known to be needed for healthy pregnancy. Tradition is not something to be sniffed at. Healthy behaviors get built into culture over thousands of generations based on observations about “what works.” Science can now dissect these behaviors to understand the mechanisms e.g. cooking with onions reduces formation of heterocyclic amines, cod liver oil, fish eggs, fermented foods and organ meats have micronutrients that are very healthy… omega-3 DHA, preformed vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin K2… this is cutting edge science that was always there in healthy traditions.
  • Our gut physiology clearly shows adaptation to higher nutrient density foods available from animals.
  • Archaeological evidence from early humans that clearly show diets based primarily on hunting, e.g. cro-magnon in France.
  • Study of modern-day hunter gatherers and their diets.
  • There are no examples of vegan cultures where vegan diets maintained healthy populations over generations, not now, not ever in history.
  • Nutrition is an emerging science, and science is what you do when you don’t know what you’re doing. We don’t know it all yet.
  • Testimony of long-term health failure on vegan diets.

… as well as the micronutrient evidence like…

  • Our partial need for dietary taurine shows evidence of adaptation to animal foods.
  • Some people need dietary cholesterol and don’t make enough of their own.
  • Poor conversion in the body of plant-based omega-3 into DHA.
  • Healthy balance of omega-3 and 6, essential to prevent chronic inflammation is not possible on a vegan diet.
  • Poor conversion of carotenoids to retinoids (vitamin A).
  • B12 is only found in animal foods. Vegan B12 status has been found to be very poor in studies. B12 is essential for heart health, involved in pathways with homocysteine that is a risk factor for heart-disease. B12 also needed for healthy myelin sheath that protects nerves, and many other processes in the body. Inadequate dietary sulfur amino acids (methionine and cysteine), and glycine needed for methylation.
  • Thyroid problems from excess plant goitrogens including soy but also many other plant foods.
  • Inadequate zinc, B6, choline and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2
  • Selenocysteine, an animal-based form of selenium is safer at high levels than the plant form selenomethionine, which can cause selenium poisoning.

The poor conversion of plant forms of micronutrients is evidence of adaptation to animal sources of these nutrients that are in the form we need. Click here to read a nice article by Denise Minger about some of these poor conversion issues.

… as well as the macronutrient/food evidence like…

  • Lack of high quality, highly absorbable protein. This is one reason why sedentary women do best for longer on vegan diets, their protein needs are very low. Vegan men often use large amounts of protein powder, a highly industrialized process where the cost to nature is hidden. Protein powder is missing all the healthy cofactors found in natural protein sources. Protein is absorbed and utilized by the body depending on the source. Animal proteins have a higher biological value, more is absorbed, so grams of vegetable protein does not equal grams of animal protein.
  • Reliance on grains (unnatural for humans) which cause a whole cascade of problems in the long-term.
  • A high carbohydrate diet is a main factor in insulin resistance and inflammation, a primary cause of many diseases, including heart-disease.

… as well as insights into the real cost to nature of our diets…

  • A grain based diet is a tragedy for nature and the environment. If land is cleared for planting monocrops, then all the life, the complex ecosystem that was there, is gone forever, until it is returned to nature or a polyculture way of producing food crops that mimic nature. Harvesting grains kills mammals and nesting birds. These are just a couple of examples. There is no death-free food (see book recommendation below). If we care about LIFE, then we need to produce food in harmony with natural ecosystems. Permaculture is good to research. I remember chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall saying that when she first went to Africa, the rivers were overflowing with life, a situation that has sadly changed in such a short time. Abundant LIFE as natural ecology is the humane and sane future, not veganism.

Vegan pillars have shaky foundations

Two of the main arguments used by vegans are The China Study and Dean Ornish’s lifestyle intervention studies showing reversal of atherosclerosis of near vegan diets, very low fat.

China Study — fatally flawed

The China Study was a massive epidemiological i.e. observational study in China where people’s diets were analyzed against health outcomes. A book was written by lead author Colin Campbell based on his conclusions of the China Study, that animal protein causes disease.

This is not how science is done, this is not the scientific method, that has been developed so as to avoid wrong conclusions so easy to come to if we’re not careful.

Epidemiology is good for creating hypothesis, an idea of possible causation, but cannot show causation itself, further study involving ideally double-blind clinical trials are needed to attempt a first step in teasing out the cause-effect. Attempt is made to isolate a variable while keeping all others constant to test the effect of that single variable.

Clever science bods have recently looked at Campbell’s work and found it to be full of holes, bias, selective interpretation of data based of his personal agenda, and frankly, shoddy science. Here’s an enlightening chat between Dr. Mercola and Chris Masterjohn about how Campbell’s work is fatally flawed. It’s in 4 parts, I recommend watching the whole thing if you are a China Study believer…

The China Study, analyzed objectively actually shows meat consumption to be neutral for health outcomes, fish to be protective, but WHEAT to be incredibly strongly correlated with disease, the strongest correlation of all. If you’d like to dig deeper into the flawed science of The China Study, here’s some good places to start…

http://www.proteinpower.com/drmike/cancer/the-china-study-vs-the-china-study/

http://rawfoodsos.com/the-china-study/

http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com/China-Study.html

Dean Ornish lifestyle intervention

The other main pillar of veganism is Dean Ornish’s lifestyle intervention study which was the first to prove that lifestyle could reverse heart disease. I think in terms of understanding the power of lifestyle, Dean Ornish has us done a huge service, but in my view, a couple of things need to be clear…

  • A diet to reverse a certain condition is NOT necessarily a diet that will maintain health of a population over generations, or prevent the disease in the first place. Fasting also has a tremendous record of healing, but it won’t maintain your health for long :-)
  • The mechanism behind Ornish program was not understood, there were MANY factors in his study including smoking cessation, exercise, meditation etc. Until the mechanism, the causes are understood, it is not scientific or even humane, to recommend a diet without understanding the full implications. Since Ornish’s early work, atherosclerosis HAS been reversed on even HIGH FAT diets. So, it seems to be the process of weight normalization, insulin control etc that are the true causes, i.e. NOT vegan low fat.

So, the pillars of veganism are so shaky, and only hold up at all due to the momentum gained from popular exposure to flawed science like the China Study book, and EARLY intervention studies like the work of Dean Ornish. All in all, vegan diets in my view have no basis for recommendation whatsoever, and are frankly dangerous.

Vegan health failures

I regularly come across accounts of health failure on vegan diets. The book recommendation below “The Vegetarian Myth” (author 20 years vegan) is a detailed account, and I recently came across another book called “The Meat Fix” (author 26 years vegan) about long-term health failure and recovery by eating animal foods. Interestingly, the author reports being able to throw away his glasses after a while on his new carbohydrate-controlled, animal foods based diet.

Here’s a very interesting account by Dr. Chris Masterjohn about his journey into vegetarianism, and veganism spurred on by reading “A Diet for a New America” by John Robbins. Then his subsequent worsening dental problems, irregular heartbeats  and panic attacks, and finally his return to health using nutrient dense animal foods. Anxiety, panic attacks, poor libido, dry skin, tooth decay and digestive problems are the most common issues I see reported, and the length of time it takes for these to manifest varies depending on the health of the person in the beginning, and the choices made while vegan. Here’s Chris’s story:

http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com/Vegetarianism.html

Here’s an excellent page of vegan failures (including Gandhi)  and reasons by the Natural Hygiene Society, previously advocates of veganism…

http://naturalhygienesociety.org/diet3.html

E.g…

Kevin Gianni, “Renegade Health”: What diet do you eat now Kevin?
“At one point I was taking 6-10 vegan supplements a day to attempt to override my deficiencies – B complex, DHA, Vitamin D, B12, a mineral supplement, protein powder, chlorella, and more. I also adjusted my diet to add more cooked foods to see if that would change the way I felt as well. This was over a 2 year period. ….. After the introduction of goat’s kefir and yogurt, I immediately felt an increase of energy, slept better and many issues started to clear up – my acne started to disappear, my knees stopped aching after a run, I gained back weight lost, I was able to retain muscle mass better, I could get out of bed in the morning, etc.”

Brain damage

“By far the most intractably damaged brains and nervous systems I have ever encountered have to the letter been vegetarians and especially vegans.” — Nora Gedgaudas, Primal Body, Primal Mind. Click for excellent video.

Vegetarianism is do-able if you can tolerate dairy

(not recommended, but less damaging than veganism)

The compassion, desire for health, and to do the right thing for the planet are noble ideals, ones I can relate to (although I definitely question the idea that veganism, or vegetarianism are the best ways to achieve either goal).

Veganism is a bridge too far… but vegetarianism can support health as long as dairy foods can be tolerated. We do not recommend it, because it’s so hard to say who is affected by dairy, and who isn’t. The effects of unnatural foods can be insidious, doing damage over a long time frame. BUT if someone is not willing to eat animal foods that involve the death of the animal, then vegetarianism is an option to consider. Personally, I would say go for pescetarianism, which would allow fish. Adding this gives us fish, dairy, eggs, shellfish, and THAT is definitely doable for health over generations and we have models for it e.g. Kitavans.

So if you are vegan and unwilling to consider meat or fish, please consider some or all of the following that in my view will offer you some protection against the long-term damaging effects of vegan diets…

  1. Eat some cheese now and again if you can tolerate dairy, preferably made from raw whole milk, esp goat milk, but emmental is widely available and made from raw cow milk. Quality yogurt and kefir are also good, again if you can tolerate dairy.
  2. Eat fermented vegetables e.g. sauerkraut.
  3. Take a high-quality B12 supplement, it ain’t worth the risk.
  4. No gluten grains, stick with white rice, quinoa, millet, or learn to prepare whole grains in the traditional way that removes anti-nutrients… soaking, sprouting etc can ameliorate some of the damage of grains.
  5. Eat some eggs from happy free-range chickens that can eat wild greens with omega-3 in them.
  6. Take a DHA/EPA supplement derived from algae.
  7. Don’t eat vegetable oil high in omega-6, use macadamia oil, coconut oil, and olive oil. Butter/ghee if OK with dairy. Don’t cook with olive oil, use it for salads.
  8. Don’t overdose on nuts, and favor ones lower in omega-6 like macadamia, hazelnut, pistachios, almonds. Soak nuts overnight and be sure to dry them if you want to store them, I soak and eat the next day.
  9. Don’t eat soy apart from limited amounts of fermented soy products like tempeh.
  10. Favor roots/tubers over grains as a starch source… sweet potatoes, potatoes, yams, taro, cassava, squash etc.

A full accounting

vegetarian mythI have one more strong recommendation for vegans and would-be vegans and that is to read “The Vegetarian Myth” by Lierre Keith who was vegan for 20 years, a woman passionate about justice, compassion and equality.

It’s an impassioned, powerful read. Her health was destroyed by 20 years of veganism, a story I’ve heard over and over.

She calls for a “full accounting,” meaning the big picture of what has to die to feed you. Eye-opening, and a good start to explore the bigger picture of diet and how we live. See it on Amazon.com

Best wishes,
Michael Kinnaird

23 thoughts on “Are vegan diets healthy?

  1. “Only trace amounts there, and hardly a good argument, yet another supplement sticky plaster for a poor diet.”

    It was a joke…

    Though it’s never been known as an essential amino anyways cause it’s synthesized from methionine, cysteine and B6.

    “Not vegan, you are arguing a case for veganism, which is what this post is about.”

    I know they’re not vegan. Though not sure why I’m arguing a case for veganism when it’s really vegetarianism and plant based diets that I believe in and follow.

    Which is still Extremely different than heavy meat based paleo diets. I guess what I’m really arguing against is the paleo meat centered diets.

    Though there are plant based sources for choline…

    “We are in the midst of the collapse of The Lipid Hypothesis. Much research into all kinds of things…. essential fats, K2 etc. Plus we have the rise of the Ancestral Health movement, and continuing discussion about healthy diets, a much needed conversation, since our diets have major consequences for health and happiness. If you need a supplement, then the diet is flawed in its basic concept.”

    There will always be constant debates over diet and foods, lifestyles, everything. Forget the meat vs veg argument. Just take almost any food specifically and it’ll be heavily debated if it is healthy or not by the obsessive geeks within whatever diet trend. Vinegar, Juices (unnatural), Oils (unnatural), spices, herbs, nightshades, spinach and kale (cook, don’t cook, don’t eat it at all), fermented foods, soy, dairy, organic (essential or overhyped waste of money), fruit (natural most perfect food or too much sugar), fats (10% of the diet or 50% of the diet), nuts and seeds, cooked vs raw foods, types of cooking, and on and on forever…

    From the data I have seen, most meat eaters would do much better if they supplemented some B12 and vitamin D etc. They are coming up deficient even though they think they’re covered.

    “There are issues with modern farming, but we should address the true cause of problems.”

    I wasn’t referring to modern farming, though any meat. Actually modern meat is often safer and less contaminated than wild meat. There is a reason it has to be throughly cooked…

    If you need to cook a food for it to be safe, maybe that is flawed in its basic concept.

    “The answer is not veganism, but education so that consumers choose healthier foods. That then drives the market for those healthier foods. Consumers choosing lowest price, drives abuse.”

    Education is not the same as choice. People can only choose among what is available as choices and what they can afford also. Think everyone lives a few blocks away from a Whole Foods store or farmers market? Access is not as easy as you think it is to “organic” meats.

    As far as the negatives of modern farmed animal foods, I do think those are terrible and much worse than conventional produce. Conventional produce is not good and I don’t think all of the pesticides etc are any good or safe. Though I also don’t think they are that unsafe or unhealthy that consuming conventional produce in moderation is anything to be concerned about. I used to be obsessive about organic food and fearful of conventional produce though I’m not now. If it is the only choice as it often is many places cause of access or traveling or eating out etc. then it’s not so bad as long as you choose and eat organic produce as much as possible whenever it is a choice. Though I wouldn’t say the same thing about conventional meat. That is really bad!

    Not only health wise and all the injections and hormones and antibiotics and concentration of toxins etc. though also ethically it is the worst.

    So, what do people do and choose when conventional meats are their only option as it often is?

    I have heard quite a few paleo people say that when they are out and their only options are conventional animal foods, they will either fast or only eat vegetables until they can get organic grass fed free range animal food again. That is pretty extreme and difficult though.

    Notice how they say they will eat only vegetables until then…

    Which goes to show, conventional vegetables are safer than conventional animal foods, and also more convenient with easier access. So, it’s even more difficult for people with busy lives to be fussy enough to follow such a strict “organic paleo diet”, esp with it’s lack of grains, dairy.

    I rather agree with them though. I won’t conventional eggs that I don’t know anything about. Not unless it’s only occasionally or in small amounts like a little mayo or something.

    “If veganism is so great, why the shift? I said in the article that vegetarianism is doable, but that’s a different debate, this one is about veganism.”

    Because I started out vegetarian since the start of my life. Lacto vegetarian, no eggs. Though later I gave up dairy for ethical reasons (along with leather and fur etc.) and went vegan. After I gave up the dairy my health really improved dramatically, very quickly. Within only a couple of weeks. Now it’s pretty funny to me that it was such a mystery, pretty obvious. I didn’t just eat a little dairy growing up, I always had several glasses of full fat milk a day and tons of cheese, tons of ice cream etc. I was very addicted to it. Now I know I was always intolerant and didn’t know it. My skin had cleared up and my throat and sinuses cleared up. Whenever I accidentally drank anything with milk again I could immediately feel it coat my throat and feel congested. It’s like giving up smoking and then finally noticing how much it burns your throat and is disgusting.

    So even though my reasons for giving it up were ethical, it had turned out to be the best health change I had ever made. I can’t even say the same for wheat and gluten etc. I gave up gluten and almost all grains for 1 1/2 years once and still never noticed any difference. Maybe there was a difference in my body, though it never translated to anything even noticeable at all. I was rather surprised and disappointed that nothing improved. Though maybe I tolerate it alright.

    Anyways, the reason I had decided to include eggs in my diet is because of the increased availability of more natural and humane free range eggs. I know some of them are false advertising, though there are sources that are alright and small farms etc. So if that is the case, then it is not really an unethical food to me anymore. They are not fertilized and never would be, nothing was ever even alive in them, nothing was even killed. They seem pretty natural to the diet also, foraging etc. Not unnatural like dairy is. Other animals eat eggs, not dairy. So to me, truly free range eggs meet my ethical beliefs, I don’t care about labels and rules etc. As far as health goes, eggs do seem to be superfoods and full of many things that are often missing or low on a strict vegan diet, so I didn’t see any reason not to include them. Though like the gluten elimination thing, I still haven’t noticed any difference in how I feel or anything else. So it’s mostly an intellectual thing that I think and believe it’s better for me, maybe time will tell.

    “I don’t think you’re being entirely honest about your health status.”

    I’m not a dishonest person. Though I can only go off symptoms etc. Any symptoms or things I’ve had that the MAJORITY of others who also have are meat eaters, I’m not going to count as anything relating to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Yeh, I might of had ADHD my entire life, though the majority of others with it are meat eaters, so there is no correlation there. If there was then meat eaters wouldn’t have ADHD, the majority of vegans WOULD have it, and it would heal by stop being vegan. None of those things are true, so what does it have to do with veganism?

    As far as the types of symptoms though that you said other people struggled with that they specifically blamed on their vegan diet and deficiencies of it like dry skin, lethargy, hair loss, etc. I didn’t experience any of those type of symptoms personally. There are many other vegans that don’t experience those types of symptoms either.

    Besides for my ADHD and OCD, the only other chronic thing I’ve struggled with has been blood sugar issues. When I was younger I was told I was borderline hyperglycemic and then later wondered if it swung in the opposite direction sometimes more instead. It stabilizes when I fast.

    I was never overly concerned about my health though and wasn’t a health ‘freak’ or anything. I often struggled with and went back and forth between wanting to eat healthier though not ever having the discipline to, and wanting to just eat for the best culinary experiences. You know like chefs, to them food is about the culinary art and what tastes best, looks best etc. That often is in direct opposition of what is ‘healthiest’. The healthiest version of anything won’t get people gushing over the food and your culinary skills! I was very addicted to sugar and sweets and at one time became very good at creating ‘healthier’ deserts and dishes. Though only healthier cause of no dairy or grains or white sugar or being raw etc. Though still full of fat and sugar.

    “Paleo and SAD are both omnivorous diets, chalk and cheese though. Paleo REVERSES disease, and so a diet has to be exceptionally robust to do that.”

    So… then wouldn’t that show that it is not the meat that is healing (cause SAD eaters eat tons of that). Though instead it is what Paleo eaters DON’T eat that is healing for them. When they stop eating all the processed refined grains and sugars, artificial foods, preservatives and bad oils, fast food, dairy, junk, candy etc. All things we already know are bad and junk and return to a whole food diet. That is what is really happening, and then you say “see, meat heals them”.

    The difference between SAD eaters and them is not the meat, as you say they are both omnivorous diets. So, it’s not the meat healing them, it’s all the other junk they’re not eating.

    “Not a gimmick at all, it’s a concept… to eat the types of foods we are genetically adapted to, just as any animal. Where to look? The paleolithic era is a good place, and to modern-day hunter-gatherers. If you want to feed any animal its natural diet, look at what it eats in the wild. Flawless concept.”

    Not exactly flawless…

    Most animals in the wild also live in their natural environments that they are naturally made for. Gorillas didn’t go migrate to the Arctic etc like the (brilliant) humans…

    And so animals in the wild eat pretty similar diets to each other. It’s easy to see what they should eat cause they stick to the environments and diets they are built for.

    Humans don’t do that and haven’t done that. We think we’re above all that and can do whatever we want. Humans thumb their nose up at nature and go to cold climates and just cover themselves in animal fur or now days indoor heating etc.

    Humans also eat a wide variety of things out of necessity of the region or out of habit. Can’t really be compared to other more natural animals…

    So, following a Paleolithic diet? Which one? Eskimo?

    Which Paleolithic diet consisted of mainly chicken, cow and pigs?

    Why not include all the insects and reptiles and other small animals like real Paleo diets? Why don’t Paleo people eat lizards and insects etc. instead huge plates of cow? There are plenty of free birds they can also grab around… little lizards etc. and all FREE! Though no, they go to the store and buy ready made slabs of cow. So paleo of them…

    “Google “failure on vegan diet testimonials” or something, seek and ye will certainly find no end of examples.”

    You can’t compare a standard vegan diet to a healthy whole food vegan diet anymore than a SAD diet to a paleo diet. There are also examples of people saying they failed on a Paleo diet.

    You might have a few examples of people that had bad symptoms or looked unhealthy, though there are still tons of other vegans that don’t have those symptoms and are glowing and healthy looking and strong etc.

    “Sure, it’s so easy… put a handful in some water in the morning, eat the next morning, while eating, put another handful in water. Pretty easy.”

    Hah, coming from a health nut. What is easy to the majority of people is buying something packaged, walking out of the store and shoving it in their mouth as they drive. No kitchens!

    Like

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