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…
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:
Here’s an excellent page of vegan failures (including Gandhi) and reasons by the Natural Hygiene Society, previously advocates of veganism…
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.”
“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 doable 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…
- 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.
- Eat fermented vegetables e.g. sauerkraut.
- Take a high-quality B12 supplement, it ain’t worth the risk.
- 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.
- Eat some eggs from happy free-range chickens that can eat wild greens with omega-3 in them.
- Take a DHA/EPA supplement derived from algae.
- 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.
- 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.
- Don’t eat soy apart from limited amounts of fermented soy products like tempeh.
- Favor roots/tubers over grains as a starch source… sweet potatoes, potatoes, yams, taro, cassava, squash etc.
A full accounting
I 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.