Why vegans are putting their health at risk for their principles
Ok, I realise that statement was a bit provocative, but I wanted it to be…I wanted to get your attention, because as a registered nutritional practitioner, I am concerned about the quality and nutrient density of food, and how it effects health.
There are many reasons why you might have chosen to be vegan…perhaps you hate the taste or texture of meat? Or maybe, you think being vegan helps the environment? Maybe you switched for a better lifestyle? Or, perhaps you believe that a plant-based diet is cruelty free? Or, all of the above reasons and more?
Let’s just think about animals for a moment and pets particularly.
Would you feed your dog a junk food diet? I don’t think many of us would, as ultimately, we would be hurting them, giving them something that will make them poorly. You want them as fit, healthy, and happy as they can be. You hate it when your pet is ill, it’s not just the cost of the vet bills, they are part of your family and it hurts you to see them in pain, or unwell.
So here is my gripe…
Why would you feed and look after your animals, better than you look after yourself? Are you not just as important?
The market for vegan food is growing, and every day a new product is out, made from a cheap, nutrient poor base, which is sometimes fortified with synthetic vitamins and minerals to make it appear healthier than it is. These vitamins and minerals are produced from coal tar or petroleum derivatives (fossil fuels in other words) ....and yet I see sensible people excitedly rush out to buy it!
It seems that the only time we blame food for our ill health, is when we get food poisoning
Unless we have an immediate reaction to what we eat, for example from food poisoning, we don’t seem to make the link between what we put in our mouths and the health and performance of our body. What we eat, whether nutritious or not, makes our cells and those in turn build our bones, organs, skin etc. The human body isn’t built at birth and that’s the end of the story. Not only does it grow into an adult, but as an adult, its cells are constantly renewing themselves. Some cells take just days, others take months, but it happens, and for it to happen they need a combination of factors, including protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals, not just calories! If you don’t believe me, try a healthy diet full of colourful veg, good sources of protein and fats, and notice how amazing your skin looks in 30 days. That is how quickly you can get results!
I’m not suggesting that all vegans eat rubbish, and my sweeping statement doesn’t apply to every vegan of course, there are many who prioritise their health. To be fair, rushing to buy the latest junk food is not just a preserve of the plant eater. And to be clear, I’m also not suggesting cake and crisps should never be eaten. I’m not the food police. We all eat junk on occasion!
Why am I picking on vegans then? To a certain extent I am being unfair because many meat eaters rely on a junk fuelled diet too. My issue is this, in an already restricted diet, adding empty calories from junk, depletes the diet of even more nutrients and adds harmful rubbish that the body, then must deal with (if it is well enough to do so).
The British Dietetic Association has a strong partnership with The Vegan Society, and promotes veganism, stating that ‘a well-planned vegan diet can support healthy living’, so long as nutrient deficiencies are obtained from fortified food and oral vitamin supplements. Fortified food (such as cereals) and most supplements (including The Vegan Society own brand ‘VEG 1’) contain synthetic vitamins and minerals, not natural, food based. The Dietetic Association then contradicts itself when talking about the use of supplements in an omnivorous diet “unless you have a specific deficiency, a balanced diet should provide all the necessary vitamins and minerals that your body needs” Well, either a vegan diet is a balanced diet, or it is not?
Why is that an issue?
Let’s brush aside the whole ethical consideration about promoting processed food and money led dietetics. Fortified processed food is big money and is certainly not healthier than real food. Without the fortification, it adds nothing to the diet apart from sugar and highly refined seed oils, which as a rule, we are eating to excess. Aside from that, synthetic fortification doesn’t have the same effect in our bodies as natural vitamins do.
Let me give you an example...
Natural folate (think foliage, green leafy vegetables) compared to folic acid (the synthetic version added to fortified foods and many supplements). We need folate to make and repair DNA and red blood cells (along with vitamin B12). Some signs of deficiency include tiredness, headaches, trouble concentrating, irritability, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath and mouth sores.
Folic acid on the other hand, is not a form of folate that your body can use immediately and is increasingly being linked to tongue tie in newborns. One reason for this may be that folic acid needs to be converted by an enzyme into L-Methylfolate, a form your body can use. 40-50% of the population have a gene mutation that makes this difficult. That is a high percentage of the population, but increasingly there has been a big push for folic acid to be added to flour and other foods and these people may be unable to make that conversion. 96% of women of child bearing age have an intake of dietary folate below recommendations for pregnancy. If they then supplement with synthetic folic acid fortified foods and are unable to convert, they are not reaping the benefit of folate and the development of the baby is compromised.
For those of you that don’t need to think about pregnancy, but may be predisposed to heart disease, don’t think that just because you have read somewhere that vegans have less heart disease you are safe. The same factors with meat eaters apply. If you eat a diet high in refined grains (think white! Bread, rice, pastries etc) and sugar (sweets and puds) and a good helping of damaging heat processed refined seed fats, from margarine and oils, you are increasing your risk for heart disease. GP’s frequently recommend folic acid when there is increased risk of heart disease, due to the role of folate in reducing high homocysteine levels (inflammatory), however that conversion process is still important, so you may wish to consider the folic acid/folate/B12 relationship again.
Let me explain…
Remember I spoke about a methyl group earlier? The methyl group enables a chain of chemical processes to happen in the body, first to folate (methylfolate) and then to B12 (methylcobalamin), this is then able to deal with homocysteine effectively via a chemical reaction called methylation. Without the methyl group, inflammatory homocysteine levels rise.
You cannot out supplement a poor diet
Red blood cells are formed in bone marrow and use vitamin B12 and folate to mature and reduce in size. Once they mature, they are able to carry haemoglobin, with which oxygen is transported throughout the body. A type of anaemia can result when red blood cells do not have the nutrients to mature (see earlier symptoms). If you are one of the lucky ones and you are a great folic acid converter, folate can regenerate red blood cells without the need for B12, thus masking a B12 deficiency. The effects of a B12 deficiency creep up slowly, sometimes years. You probably won’t know, or notice symptoms at first, but eventually you may suffer with memory loss, problems walking, tingling to hands or feet. There are many other symptoms.
I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t take supplements for nutrients that are lacking in a vegan diet. I do suggest supplements for my clients, but first and foremost, attention should be given to diet and lifestyle. You cannot out supplement a poor diet. If you feed your body rubbish, usually the first system to feel the strain is digestion and the supplements are not going to digest and absorb properly if the gut isn’t functioning optimally. Bloating, excessive wind or burping, constipation, diarrhoea and acid reflux are just a few signs that you need help to improve gut function.
Read again, the BDA’s recommendation of a ‘well-planned vegan diet’. This means that the diet does indeed need to be planned and not guess work, or grabbing a supermarket meal deal of crisps, sandwich and fizzy drink. We are bombarded with confusing advice, with celebrities and even athletes endorsing products. For example, Quorn products are very popular for people because they are high in protein and generally low in fat. However, they contain no iron whatsoever, and if they play a major role in your diet, you could well be putting yourself at risk of anaemia.
Let me help?
Here are 3 easy steps to improve your vegan diet today
Eat when relaxed and chew your food. Stress delays digestion, taking the blood supply to the muscles, rather than the digestive system (so save the political discussion for when you’re not sitting at the dining table). Chewing thoroughly also releases an enzyme to start digestion.
Remember the mantra ‘beans and greens’. Ideally three cups of green leafy vegetables each day. When you include beans, also include foods high in vitamin C to help absorb iron (such as raw bell pepper, tomatoes and citrus fruit).
Eat a variety. Sticking to the same choices each day is not only boring, but narrows both the nutrient intake and limits the fodder for which our beneficial bacterial communities in our gut grow from. Among their many roles, bacteria are essential for making some vitamins and supporting our immune system.
Wishing you a healthy, happy vegan life!