Is the vegan diet healthy and sustainable? Are their risks to consider before embarking on such a drastic dietary change? Learn all about what I consider the vegan diet dangers and the ramifications of the diet on your whole body.
Definition: vegan diets exclude all animal products including meat, eggs, seafood, dairy products, and honey.
1) Historically, there are no wide-spread cultures that have thrived by subsisting off of animal-free diets.
Gleaning dietary wisdom from those who have come before you is one of the best ways to learn about health. Ancestral eating habits contain wisdom more powerful than scientific studies, as they show what eating practices have sustained us as a population up to this point.
Check out this book to learn more about Dr. Weston Price, a dentist who traveled the world to study the dietary behaviors and consequences of various dietary practices. Dr. Price made the ground-breaking discovery about the link between a diet low in animal foods (thus low in fat-soluble vitamins) and tooth decay.
2) People often turn to vegan diets because they have trouble digesting meat and dairy products and have other issues like fatigue, inflammation, acne, bloating, and weight gain.
Intolerance to certain foods does not mean there is a problem with that particular food group per se, but it does indicate imbalances present within the body. These imbalances can cause weaker digestive function (such as slowed metabolism and sluggish thyroid function). Some people tend to gravitate toward a vegan diet because the included foods are "easier" to digest due to poor digestive juices. Eliminating these "problematic foods" completely and permanently only avoids the problem. Instead, it's best to focus on getting to the root of the issue, which is working to re-balance the body (including addressing any nutritional deficiencies) to regain tolerance of a wide variety of foods.
3) The best diets are those with the greatest variety of nutrients and without dietary limitations.
Blacklisting certain food groups interferes with your body's communication system. This causes you to ignore your body's cravings by placing certain types of food off-limits. According to Dr. Ray Peat, “Any craving is a good starting point, because we have several biological mechanisms for correcting specific nutritional deficiencies.”
After working with hundreds of clients, I've noticed that ill-health often begins the minute you start ignoring your body in favor of some dietary dogma that makes your ignore your inner voice.
One of the reason I suspect that so many of my clients do poorly on a vegan diet boils down to genetics and methylation status. You see, undermethylators make up approximately 22% of the population and tend to be deficient in methionine (an amino acid or building block of protein) and SAM-E, so getting enough protein for them is essential for balancing their methylation status (as can be determined by a whole blood histamine test). On the other side of the fence, overmethylators (about 8% of the population) could benefit from a diet lower in animal protein.
If you're looking to improve your health, listening to your body over dietary dogma of any kind is absolutely essential, as is getting any testing that may help you along in that process.
4) Vegan diets tend to be low in high-quality protein (and low protein diets can increase toxicity).
Did you know that there is a big difference in the protein quality of animals vs. plants?
According to Dr. Ray Peat, PhD, “One thing that happens in the vegetable diet, heavily based on [the] cabbage family, or beans, lentils and nuts, these proteins, in quality, rank about 15 times lower than the highest quality protein. And so even though a person might think they’re eating nothing but protein rich foods, beans, and nuts, their quality is so low that their liver simply can’t respond to the thyroid."
To counterbalance this, processed plant proteins (protein powders and meat substitutes) are commonplace; further contributing to nutritional deficiencies. According to this recent study, vegans and vegetarians also have lower sperm count and mobility.
Liver detoxification takes a big hit when you don't get enough high quality protein too. Phase 2 liver detoxification is driven by amino acids (the building blocks of proteins). Long-term vegan diets tend to impair liver detoxification pathways leading to toxicity. According to Dr. Ray Peat, “Protein deficiency itself contributes to the harm done by toxins, since the liver’s ability to detoxify them depends on adequate nutrition, especially good protein.”
5) Plant foods don't contain real Vitamin A, only the precursors that require conversion.
Real vitamin A, called retinol is only found in animal foods. Plant foods contain vitamin A precursors, such as beta-carotene that requires conversion into real vitamin A by the liver and intestines if conditions are right.
However, some gene mutations can decrease ones ability to make this conversion by up to 90%! Aside from genetic mutations that can impact ones ability to get real vitamin A from plant foods like carrots and sweet potatoes, there are also non-genetic factors such as poor gut health, low thyroid function (will slow the conversion of beta carotene to vitamin A), liver disease, and nutritional deficiencies that can greatly reduce your body's ability to make this conversion.
As a little reminder, vitamin A is important for thyroid function, hormone production, fertility, a healthy immune system, eye health, and fighting fatigue, but also subject to toxicity making vitamin A supplements a big no-no.
6) Plant-based diets can decrease digestive juices.
Animal protein stimulates the production of HCL (hydrochloric acid) in your stomach to break down proteins. Proper digestion begins with strong stomach acid production that sets the stage for the pH driven digestive process. Without regular and healthy stimulation of digestive juices, your digestion weakens and fewer nutrients are able to be absorbed in your body.
7) Dietary dogma that if it's not working for you, you're doing it "wrong."
Immersion in any dietary paradigm can be very powerful, and the vegan community is no exception. It's common to hear when someone is not feeling well on a vegan diet, that they are "doing it wrong." A 10 year vegan blogger shares her story and experience:
I remember over the years when people would go vegan and then stop because they didn't feel well on it, I used to think to myself, “Well, they’re simply not doing it right.” Some people complained of lack of libido, lack of iron, lack of energy, etc. I now realize, quite humbled, that many of those problems may have been valid, even if they were doing a vegan diet “right.” Perhaps it took longer for the vegan diet to take a toll on my health than others. More likely I just couldn't admit it to myself because my beliefs were so strong, constantly reaffirmed by my full-time immersion in the understandably self-reinforcing vegan culture. -Kristen of Kristen's Raw
8) Because of the body's ability to adapt to any type of fuel for survival, it often takes time to see the negative impact.
Due to the body's incredible ability to adapt, the decline of health due to a vegan diet is often slow and gradual. This can make it very difficult to detect. At first, you may not notice the lack of fat soluble nutrients you're getting (particularly retinol and K2) and that a protein deficiency is hurting your health.
Because your body will first exhaust your "nutritional bank account," it may be many months or years until nutrient deficiencies cause impaired detoxification, thyroid issues, and/or hormonal imbalance.
9) Vegan dieters often favor soy products.
Since protein is scarce when you avoid animal products, soy products like edamame, tofu, soy protein powder, and tempeh are often dietary staples. The reality is that soy protein is very difficult to digest, thyroid suppressive and estrogenic due to phytoestrogens. It also contains high levels of phytic acid that cause less assimilation of nutrients, as well as contain trypsin inhibitors that can interfere with digestion.
10) Vegan diets can be heavy in nut consumption.
In an effort to increase dietary protein and calories, nuts are often adopted to form a more significant part of the diet. But there are major downfalls to heavy nut consumption. Nuts are very hard to break down, especially for those with low stomach acid. They are also very high in polyunsaturated fats, contain enzyme inhibitors, and include phytic acid that blocks the absorption of minerals.
Want to find out if a vegan diet is making you accumulate nutritional debt?
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What's been your experience with a vegan diet? Please share your thoughts!
Orzylowska, E.M. et al. Decreased sperm concentration and motility in a subpopulation of vegetarian males at a designated blue zone geographic region. Fertility and Sterility , Volume 102 , Issue 3 , e273. http://www.fertstert.org/article/S0015-0282%2814%2901556-8/fulltext
Ray Peat Interview with Gary Null. 1996. Retrieved on May 15, 2013. http://eastwesthealing.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/NPRraypeatinterview1996.mp3
Weston Price Foundation. Soy Alert. Retrieved on September 16, 2013 from http://www.westonaprice.org/soy-alert
Two common single nucleotide polymorphisms in the gene encoding beta-carotene 15,15'-monoxygenase alter beta-carotene metabolism in female volunteers. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19103647
Loss-of-Function Mutation in Carotenoid 15,15′-Monooxygenase Identified in a Patient with Hypercarotenemia and Hypovitaminosis A1–3 http://jn.nutrition.org/content/137/11/2346.long
Laidlaw SA, Shultz TD, Cecchino JT, Kopple JD. Plasma and urine taurine levels in vegans. Am J Clin Nutr. 1988 Apr;47(4):660-3.