Why vegans are putting their health at risk for their principles
Updated: Nov 28, 2018
Ok I realise that statement was a bit provocative, but I wanted it to be…that’s because I’m a nutritional therapist who cares about vegans and wanted to get your attention.
There are many reasons why you might have chosen to be vegan…maybe you hate the taste or texture of meat? Or maybe you care about our environment? Maybe you switched for a better lifestyle? Or, perhaps you just can’t stand the thought of hurting animals? Or maybe, it was all of the above?
Let’s just think about animals for a moment and pets particularly.
Would you feed a 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?
The market for vegan food is growing and every day a new product is out, made of cheap, nutrient poor rubbish and yet I see sensible people rush out to buy it and I jump up and down with concern, shouting ‘no, no, no’.
I’m on a mission to get people to make the link between what they put in their mouths and the health and performance of their body. What you eat makes your cells and those in turn build your bones, organs, skin etc. Your body isn’t built at birth and that’s the end of the story. Not only did it grow into an adult, but as an adult, your 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 vitamins and minerals, not just calories. If you don’t believe me, try a really 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. My sweeping statement doesn’t apply to every vegan thank goodness, many prioritise their health. To be fair, jumping up and down for the latest junk food is not just a preserve of the plant eater. And just to be clear, I’m also not suggesting cake and crisps should never be eaten. We are human!
Why am I picking on vegans then? To a certain extent I am being unfair. I totally agree that meat eaters also eat junk. 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 has to 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.
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.
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) and 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 (remember this, as I will talk about it again in a moment). 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 will 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 and 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.
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
1. Eat when relaxed and chew your food. Stress delays digestion, taking the blood supply to the muscles, rather than the digestive system (save the political discussion for another time). Chewing thoroughly releases an enzyme to start digestion.
2. 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)
3. Eat a variety. Sticking to the same choices each day not only is boring, but narrows both the nutrient intake and limits the fodder for which our beneficial bacterial communities grow from. Among their many roles, bacteria are essential for making some vitamins and supporting our immune system.
If you would like more help to support your transition, head over to my web site at www.nutritionali-healthy.com where I have a variety of products to support you, such as group cooking and learning workshops, 1:1 consultations, lunch and learn experiences and much more. In the meantime, sign up for my free 'Cheat Sheet' and email updates here...
Wishing you happy, healthy, vegan living