When you search the net on a vegan diet you get a whole range of things come up…some interesting and useful but most are seriously inaccurate!
The more I searched it became clear to me that there is a lot of false information out there. These fake articles are sometimes even written or sponsored by the animal agriculture industry as an attempt to scare people from going more plant based in order to protect their industry.
…So after a few months of being plant based I decided to properly educate myself by enrolling on NUTRITION AND HEALTH course, with the leading University for nutrition and food.
Below is a short essay I wrote for the course to argue a health claim using scientific knowledge gained from the course and from ‘pub-med’ (published medical documents).
This is all based on scientific evidence and fact. The only ‘opinions’ are in the conclusions at the bottom.
I hope it helps share some of the knowledge I gained from the course with regards to a vegan diet.
Nutritional science 101
Is a vegan diet unhealthy?
A vegan diet is one which omits all animal produce including; Meat, egg, fish and dairy. Many are saying that a vegan diet is unhealthy and dangerous.
Below I have highlighted some of the nutritional arguments on a vegan diet and I will critically assess their validity. All the information here is based on scientific evidence and research which I hope helps anyone who is wondering if a vegan diet is safe/healthy step to take.
Meat protein VS plant protein
Meat protein is considered to be a higher quality because animal protein contains the complete amino acid spectrum needed for our body to create proteins internally.
However, getting the essential amino acids, to create human proteins, from plants can be obtained by combining plant proteins in a method called ‘protein complementation.’
The University of Wageninger states ‘most grains are low in lysine, whereas beans are low in methionine. By eating beans and grains together, the strengths of one makes up for the deficiencies of the other, creating a complete protein’.
So, mixing your protein sources over the week (which almost every vegan does without having to think about it) will mean you get access to exactly the same amino acids as eating meat.
Animal protein usually comes with; cholesterol, unhealthy saturated fats, excess salt and no fiber; whereas, plant protein usually comes with fiber, healthy unsaturated fats and many bio nutrients.
Vitamin and nutrient deficiencies.
Deficiencies in vitamins and nutrients (including: vitamin A, calcium, B12 and omega fatty acids) are often voiced as concerns for people on a vegan diet.
To analyze this further:
- Vitamin A is only present in animal products. However, the body can make vitamin A using beta carotene, found in carrots and sweet potatoes.
- Calcium is not only found in cheese and milk but in Kale, spring greens, chia seeds, sesame seeds, bread and dried fruits.
- B12 comes from animal protein, fortified foods or failing this, supplements. Vegans are advised to take fortified foods such as, B12 fortified coconut milk or nutritional yeast to meet this need.
- Omega 3 – A cross section study from Warszawski University said: ‘Vegetarian and particularly vegan nutrition may promote good balancing of the fatty acids in the diet, except for the long chain polyunsaturated omega-3, which are also often deficient in the case of conventional diet.’
The Omega fatty acid needed are Linoleic acid (LA) and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Vegans have plenty of LA in their diets but not much ALA. ALA is used to create EPA and DHA that are the ‘deficient’ long chain polyunsaturated Omega-3’s mentioned above.
The Vegan society website states: ‘Your body can make ALA into other omega-3 fats, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). However, if you eat a lot of (LA), your body may convert less ALA into EPA and DHA, reducing the amount of omega-3 fat in your blood.’
ALA rich vegan foods are chia seeds, linseed, hemp seeds and walnuts. There is also a vegan ‘algae omega supplement’ available which contain DHA and EPA.
Cholesterol can cause heart diseases, heart attacks and strokes.
Cholesterol is found in animal fats but not in plants so if you are on a vegan diet you will not be ingesting any cholesterol.
It is important to mention that cholesterol is needed in the body, (to make hormones and produce bile) however our bodies can synthesize enough internally to meet our needs without any consumption.
It is also documented that plant sterols (the healthy plant ‘version’ of cholesterol, found in grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds) can actually lower harmful LDL cholesterol. As stated on PubMed by The National Institute of Nutrition: ‘Recent studies strongly suggest that even smaller amounts of plant sterols are important dietary components for lowering serum LDL cholesterol.’
Another point is that Vegans tend to eat a lot of vegetables and fruits, potatoes and grains, which contain a lot of fiber. Fiber is one of the most over looked substances in our diet. The NHS say ‘ Fiber can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and some cancers, and can also improve digestive health.’
Meat contains no fiber.
On top of this meat protein has one of the highest rates of satiation (feeling of fullness), meaning you are less lightly to bulk up your meals with other ‘fiber filled’ options.
There have also been numerous links between animal protein and cancer.
For example, The Department of Experimental and Clinical Medicine, University of Florence said: ‘A Vegan diet conferred a significant reduced risk (-15%) of incidence from total cancer.’
Also, there was another study on this called The China study, which was a 20-year study done by Cornell University, Oxford University, and the Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine. Its findings stated that; ‘animal protein promotes the growth of cancers.’
It was also found that it is not just cancer and heart disease that responded to a vegan or plant-based diet, their research also showed it may protect you from diabetes, obesity, autoimmune diseases, bone, kidney, eye, and brain diseases.
Overall, I do not think it is fair to say, a vegan diet in unhealthy.
I believe the risk of cancers, chronic heart disease and other illnesses are considerably lower in vegans’ due to their extra fiber, increased nutrient intake and the lack of cholesterol in their diets.
On analysis, most of the health claims against vegan diets can be addressed with a small amount of awareness and knowledge. However, you can take supplements to ensure your full nutritional needs are met.
This paper is, however only showing a small portion of the arguments on this topic. There are many other nutritional beneficial reasons to go more plant based but I am hoping this addresses a few of the most popular concerns.
It is important to note that I have found little research focused on young children on a vegan diet, so further personal research is suggested in this area, if you are raising plant based kids.
Finally, it must be noted that science is still progressing and there are many aspects of nutrition that are under investigated and still poorly understood. Indeed research, analysis and results are always subject to revision as knowledge grows and more investigation is done. I am aware of a number of ongoing studies into vegan VS animal protein diets and would not be surprised if more evidence against animal products is released in the near future.