In the news this week the BBC asked, "Is Veganuary worth doing?" Miles Kasiri, Registered Nutritional Therapist (Dip CNM, mBANT, CNHC), takes a deep dive into this important question.
Ethical and environmental reasons aside, the health benefits of a vegan diet must not be ignored. Considering a whole-foods, plant-based diet is associated with a reduced risk of some of the world's leading killers, including Cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes as well many cancers (1), I would say that this is something to celebrate. In fact, Dr Neal Barnard’s program for treating Type 2 Diabetes is so successful that it has even been proven to reverse the disease in just a matter of months (2).
Considering that the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that a well-planned vegan diet is suitable for all ages (3), one would think that health professionals would be rejoicing at such benefits? Unfortunately not.
In a recent BBC article about people going vegan for January, Nutritional Therapist Vanessa Kahler felt the need to urge caution about the potential dangers of a vegan diet: "vegans run low on essential minerals and vitamins such as B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc and calcium!"
Is this true? Let’s break it down:
B12: While it is true that only animal products contain significant levels of B12, the deficiency of this vitamin is not a only a vegan issue - but a universal problem - that is also prevalent in carnivores. One of the reasons for this is that B12 deficiency is more of an absorption problem, meaning a significant portion of the world is B12 deficient, and it has nothing to do with diet. Most people - vegan or not - need to supplement with B12!
Vitamin D: Our only reliable source of vitamin D (whether you are vegan or not) is the sun, and the last time I checked the sun is neither a plant or animal! Most if not all people in colder climates are vitamin D deficient and need to supplement with vitamin D! Over 90% of my patients (mainly omnivores) are vitamin D deficient when tested! Vitamin D deficiency is a full-scale problem and most people will need to supplement regardless of diet!
Iron: Getting enough iron on a vegan diet is incredibly easy as many plant sources are high in this mineral, so it’s not surprising that in reality vegans and vegetarians often consume more iron than meat eaters (4). Good sources of plant-based iron include dark leafy greens, lentils, beans, soy foods, seeds (especially hemp seeds), nuts, dried fruit, quinoa and oats! The benefit of plant-based sources of iron is that they come with a whole host of antioxidants and fibre, which animal products do not! Vitamin C can help with the absorption of non-heme iron (plant sourced iron) so adding lemon or lime juice over your greens, for example, will help you absorb more.
Zinc: Good sources of plant-based zinc include pumpkin & sunflower seeds, cashew/pine/pecan nuts, peas, asparagus, tofu, tempeh, chickpeas and oats! Needless to say, it’s more than easy to get enough zinc on a vegan diet!
Calcium: Although many poorly educated health professionals still push cow’s milk as a good source of calcium for humans, this is completely backwards. Firstly the calcium in cow’s milk is not well absorbed by humans plus it’s a great source of IGF-1 (Insulin-like growth factor) a known cancer promoter (5). Real human sources of calcium include kale, broccoli, swiss chard, nuts (especially almonds), sesame seeds (tahini), tofu, oranges, dried figs & apricots & calcium fortified plant milk.
So now we have the nonsense about nutrients out of the way let’s talk about another of Vanessa Kahler’s concerns about the vegan diet! Kahler also claims “vegan diets rely heavily on grains that have a low nutrient bioavailable and high in anti-nutrients such as phytates”.
While this may be true (to some extent) about some grains, vegan diets do not revolve solely around grains! There are so many ways to eat a vegan diet. It’s about abundance and variety. Grains aside, most vegans on a whole foods diet get a large bulk of their carbohydrate intake from root vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, squashes and fruit, all of which have very high nutrient availability!
In recent years even whole fruit has been wrongly vilified as something we should limit due to its high sugar content. This suggestion is reductionist and emanates from the fact that whole fruit is often directly compared to high fructose corn syrup, which is known to cause high triglycerides, fatty liver disease and insulin resistance. Whole fruits, unlike isolated fructose, provide us with an abundance of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, polyphenols and fibre, all of which have disease preventative properties and a high consumption of which is associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality (6).
The Nutritionist in the BBC article also claims that animal products including meat and eggs are some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat. This is simply not true. Furthermore, why would you eat potentially cancer-causing foods (7) when we can get the same nutrients from plants without the adverse effects.
Even without considering the environmental and ethical reasons, a vegan diet wins hands down.
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Miles Kasiri is a Registered Nutritional Therapist who studied Biomedicine and Nutrition at The College of Naturopathic Medicine London. He is also a former professional athlete and reached the final of Junior Wimbledon in tennis. In recent years his work has included being the Head Nutritional Therapist at an addiction clinic that specialised in the treatment of eating disorders, working with patients suffering from cancer, diabetes and heart disease as well as working with elite athletes. He also runs the vegan health related youtube channel called Healthy Crazy Cool where he posts videos about all different areas of health, sharing his experiences and promoting a balanced plant based diet for optimal health.
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