Is the vegan diet healthy or not? “Going Vegan” is a term that has become pretty popular lately and the vegan diet is becoming more and more common. I think people are starting to catch on to the idea that eating plant foods (aka fruits and vegetables) is super healthy and they are also catching on that our animals are not treated the way they should be on our farms. These may be some of the most common reasons why people change to a vegan diet though there are many others.
Both of these reasons are great reasons to think about and to change your diet accordingly. However, there are some other things we need to think about before jumping into the vegan diet.
WHAT IS IT?
If you aren’t familiar with the vegan diet, here is a very brief summary. Vegans are essentially vegetarians (don’t eat meat) but also stay away from eggs, dairy, honey and products derived from animal by-products. A vegan basically eats fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Sounds healthy right? Well, not so fast.
The problem with the vegan diet is that it is missing so many essential vitamins and minerals that are present in animal products. Switching to a vegan diet will most definitely provide your body with a lot of nutrients because you are eating mostly plants. However, you will also be missing some vitamins your body needs because you are avoiding animal products altogether.
Let’s take a look at what vegans might be missing out on.
Vitamin B12 is important for our bodies because we need it in order to build our red blood cells, metabolize protein, support brain function, etc (1). It is also very important for our nervous system to conduct nerve impulses, which is how your body thinks and moves (1). So you can see that it’s pretty important that we get enough. Vitamin B12 is obtained through the diet and the following are some of the best sources:
- Organ Meats (liver)
B12 is also fortified (added) in some breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast. It is a common thought that you can obtain B12 from fermented soy, seaweed, tempeh, barley grass and spirulina (2). First off, I want to say that just because a food is listed as being high in a certain nutrient, doesn’t mean your body will absorb it. Your body does not absorb the B12 from these plant foods because they contain “blockers” that do not allow your body to absorb the vitamin. This is why it is important to obtain B12 from animal sources. Our body can best absorb B12 from animals, not from plants.
Why do you need B12 in your diet? It is dangerous for the body to be deficient in Vitamin B12 because of the following problems: (3,4)
- Memory loss, brain fog
- Stroke, heart disease
- Premature aging
- Male and female infertility
- Impaired immune function (autoimmune disease, cancer)
It is possible to supplement, however highly debated, with B12 if you suspect you are deficient and are a vegan or vegetarian. It will be best to get it from food, however some people prefer a plant-based diet. I do not recommend a strict plant based diet nor relying on supplements to obtain vitamins. However, sometimes you have to go that route for some people who prefer a vegetarian/vegan diet. Chris Kresser recommends Jarrow Formulas Methyl-B12 along with Folate, Potassium, TMG (4).
Bottom line is if you are vegan, you have to rely on fortified foods and supplements in order to obtain any Vitamin B12 in your diet in an absorbable form. This is not the best for your body and I do not recommend this tactic.
Iron is an essential mineral for the body because it is needed to make hemoglobin, which is the part of the cell that transports oxygen throughout the body. Symptoms of iron deficiency include low energy, tiredness, headache, and dizziness (6).
Food sources of iron include red meat, chicken, eggs, fish, and liver. Plant foods include dark leafy greens such as kale, spinach and broccoli. Also whole grains such as brown rice and oats. The iron is not well absorbed in the body from plant foods because they contain phytate which inhibits iron absorption. Increasing vitamin C (citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes) may help to increase absorption of iron in the body, however absorption from animal foods is the best way to ensure we are getting what our bodies need.
Iron deficiency anemia is a very common condition seen in vegetarians and vegans. I see this a lot in clients that I see daily. They have low hemoglobin because they do not eat meat and they explain to me that they feel very tired all the time. It is so important to find ways to give our bodies what they need in order to feel the best we can.
Zinc is a trace mineral in the body that is needed for many functions including the immune system, wound healing and carbohydrate metabolism. Zinc is important for your sense of smell and taste to function properly (5). It is very important during pregnancy, infancy and childhood for proper growth and development.
Some symptoms of zinc deficiency include the following: poor appetite, hair loss, sense of taste and smell problems, and slow wound healing. These are just a few.
Food sources of zinc include beef, chicken, pork, fish, oysters, and eggs (yolk). Plant sources include whole grains, nuts, and legumes. However just as in the B12, our bodies cannot absorb the zinc from the plant foods because of “blockers” that inhibit the availability of the zinc for our bodies. Because of this, vegetarians and vegans need 50% more zinc in their diet just to get enough for proper function (3).
Vitamin A is important for healthy teeth, bones, skin and eyes just to name a few. The best food sources include cod liver oil, liver, eggs, dairy products, seafood. Vitamin A deficiency symptoms include dry eyes, dry skin, inability to see in darkness, and frequent infections (7).
It is a common misconception that Vitamin A is present in plant foods such as orange and yellow fruits and vegetables. We usually see it associated with carrots, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe. The truth is that it is actually beta carotene that is present in these foods, and our body converts this to vitamin A to be used for the body. However, this is very inefficient and we do not get that much vitamin A from the beta carotene we eat. We would have to consume abnormal amounts of fruits and vegetables high in beta carotene in order to get the Vitamin A our bodies need. Most of us already aren’t consuming fruits and vegetables at every meal, so it’s safe to say that if you are not eating animal products, you are probably not getting the Vitamin A your body needs.
Vitamin D is so important for many functions in our body other than just bone health. We usually only see vitamin D as being associated with calcium and making sure that we get enough so that our bones are healthy. This is true, but there are so many other important functions. Studies have shown that vitamin D may be important in the protection from developing type 1 and type 2 diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and multiple sclerosis (8).
Vitamin D deficiency can occur without symptoms. I was very low in vitamin D with no symptoms and many others are probably walking around the same way. It can still cause problems in the body when you don’t have any symptoms. Your bones could be very weak without you knowing it until something breaks. However, some symptoms include bone pain, muscle weakness, cognitive decline in the elderly, and asthma in children (9).
The best food sources of vitamin D are fatty fish like salmon, herring, or mackerel, egg yolks, and fish liver oils. If you don’t like fish I would recommend supplementing with cod liver oil or a supplement that includes vitamin A, K2 and D (the balance of these is very important for proper absorption). Sun light is the best way to get vitamin D, so in summer months if you are out in the sun you may not need to supplement. During winter months, especially if living further North, I would recommend a supplement.
It is essentially impossible for a vegan to get enough Vitamin D because they would stay away from all of these foods and supplements. The only possible way would be to get direct sunlight for at least 15 minutes every single day of the year, including winter months. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see many people sitting outside in the sun when it is snowing outside.
To me, if you have to rely on fortified foods and supplements, you aren’t eating like your body was created to because you have to rely on manufacturers to produce products that you need. 2,000 years ago we didn’t have fortified foods or supplements. It doesn’t make sense to eat a vegan diet and to have to rely solely on these things, because if it was the healthiest option for our bodies we wouldn’t have to rely on man-made products.
So, I think by now you can gather that I do not support a vegan diet and I do not recommend that anybody follow a strict vegan diet. I listed only a few of the nutrients that are very important to your body that are best absorbed from animal foods. There are many more and you can check that out here. In order to feed your body the nutrients it needs, you really do need to eat good quality meats and fish.
Now, I do know that our animal welfare in this country is not the best. That is why I advocate for good quality meats that are grass fed and pasture raised. Not only are they the most nutrient dense meats, but the animals are treated the best.
I also know that these meats are the most expensive. If you are like me and on a strict budget, you do not have a lot of money to spend on food. If you cannot afford grass fed, pasture raised meat, you will be fine to eat conventional meat though it is not the best. I just recommend to buy the best quality you can at a price you can afford. I do not buy grass fed meat because of the price, but when I can afford it I will. All we can ask for is to do the best we can with what we have.
WHAT SHOULD YOU EAT?
To avoid being deficient in these nutrients, eat a real food diet composed of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, high quality dairy and high quality meats. If you do this, you should be fine. To those who choose not to eat meat for various reasons, I recommend to eat shellfish once a week or dairy and eggs daily (8). This may mean giving up the idea that a vegan diet is a nutrient dense diet and that our bodies don’t need animal products. To me it is pretty obvious that our bodies were made to consume meats and fish so that is how I choose to feed my body. If you are still not convinced after reading this, I recommend to talk to your doctor and monitor your body. It is very dangerous to be deficient in any of these nutrients, so catching it early is very important.
I do recommend getting your vitamin D level tested and if it is low, try eating more fatty fish or taking a cod-liver oil supplement. I was very low in vitamin D and if I wouldn’t have asked to get it tested, I would have never known. Be an advocate for your health and ask your doctor for a blood test!