Are Vegan Diets Healthy?

2 Dec

The answer to this question is: it depends. It depends on what your health goals are, what health issues you struggle with, and how you implement the diet.

When I started my veg experiment, I laid out my two reasons for attempting to transition to a vegan diet: 1. the environment (following a vegan diet is the single biggest way for a person to reduce their carbon footprint and 2. the animals (factory farming is wrong on so many levels…’nuff said). The third reason people “go vegan” is for their health. As a result, many people equate a vegan diet with a healthy diet. But a vegan diet, like any diet, is only healthy if you want it to be. Check out this mock vegan menu:

Breakfast: Reese’s Puffs cereal with sweetened rice milk, white toast with peanut butter and jelly, and apple juice

Lunch: Processed veggie dog on white bun with mustard and ketchup, potato chips, and Oreos

Supper: Nachos (corn chips with melted vegan cheese), Skittles, and Diet Coke

Ethical vegans do not necessarily care to eat a healthy diet any more than omnivorous Americans do. I doubt most ethical vegans eat this atrociously, but the point is, “vegan” is not synonymous with healthy.

A minimally processed whole foods vegan diet can be healthy….IF you plan properly and take supplements or eat fortified foods to make sure you are meeting your nutrient needs on a consistent basis.

Vitamin B12 is the biggest nutrient of concern on a vegan diet. Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal foods, and a vitamin B12 deficiency can cause irreversible nerve damage. All vegans should supplement with vitamin B12 or make sure they are getting enough through fortified foods, such as nutritional yeast.

For more information on how to follow a healthy, nutritionally-adequate vegan diet, check out this vegan RD page: https://www.theveganrd.com/vegan-nutrition-101/food-guide-for-vegans/

Research suggests a vegan diet based on whole foods (also called plant-based) decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes, some cancers, heart disease, and can slow the progression of existing heart disease. These are common health conditions, so the average American is likely to benefit from a healthy vegan diet.

However…

Many Americans (especially women) suffer from an autoimmune disease: https://www.aarda.org/diseaselist/ Because there is a connection between many (possibly all?) autoimmune diseases and intestinal permeability, a strict Paleo diet with a focus on optimizing nutrient density may be more appropriate for managing these type of diseases. Healthy vegan foods, such as legumes and grains, may contribute to an inflammatory response in people with autoimmune disease.

Several factors (genetic, environmental, etc.) contribute to a person’s response to a dietary approach and if optimum health is the goal, some self-experimentation and research may be in order. There is no one-size-fits-all diet, but at the end of the day, a diet centered around whole, unprocessed foods (whether that includes animal products or not), is going to be more health promoting than the standard American diet.

I didn’t go vegan for my health, but I would be willing to quit a vegan diet for my health.

First, let me clarify that I am not even vegan yet. I am following the schedule I created in this post: https://thehungryguineapig.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/im-back-baby-but-please-hold-the-baby-back-ribs/ Currently, I am following a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (includes dairy and eggs) with a fish allowance. In November, I ate fish four times over the course of the month. For December, I am allowing myself two servings of fish. I started limiting my meat consumption in July. Since that time, I’ve had terrible symptom flare-ups related to my fibromyalgia. My neck pain (especially during my period) has amplified and my immune system seems compromised (I’m getting sick more often, with worse symptoms and longer recovery times than I’m accustomed to). Recently, I had several lab values checked to rule out autoimmune thyroid disease among other things (mentioned in my previous post), but they all came back normal.

I can’t blame my (mostly) vegetarian diet for my worsening symptoms, because correlation does not equal causation, and there have been other changes since this time. For example, I had recently stopped breastfeeding, and my fibromyalgia seemed to benefit from the hormones that were flowing through my body when I was still nursing. Seasonal changes also have a history of making everything worse. Still, I can’t rule out the possibility that my diet is a factor. Mostly, because I know too much about the connection between diet and health to be so naïve.

I suspect that if my new diet is to blame, it has less to do with the meat I’ve removed and more to do with the foods I’ve been eating more of, such as soy and gluten and protein isolates derived from them.

For a person with fibromyalgia, food sensitivities are common. A 2016 study found that removing altered proteins, such as those found in all the fun mock meats I started regularly indulging in, resulted in significantly improved pain symptoms in fibromyalgia sufferers. Well, shit. I suspected the processed fake foods were making my body angry, so I stopped eating them a couple months ago. I’ve been eating a mostly healthy vegetarian diet centered around legumes, tofu, produce, nuts and seeds, calcium-fortified soy and almond milk, hard-boiled eggs, a small amount of cheese, and some grains (usually of the whole grain variety). But STILL, my body hates me more than usual.

In the course of my MANY diet experiments of the past, the diet I followed which offered the most relief excluded all the following: gluten, soy, peanuts, corn, dairy, eggs, caffeine, sugar, sugar substitutes, processed oils, and alcohol. For obvious reasons (who wants to eat like that all the time?!), I abandoned that diet but took solace in the fact that I could return to it if necessary.

Interestingly, a small 2001 study found that a mostly raw vegan diet provided dramatic improvement in fibromyalgia symptoms for 19 of the 30 participants. What were they forbidden from eating?: refined flour, corn syrup, dairy, eggs, caffeine, sugar, processed oils, alcohol, and all meat. Hmmm…

Disordered eating has continued to be a non-issue on my current diet, so I am entertaining the idea of trying out a vegan diet like that outlined above to see if it makes me feel better. I doubt a diet like that is sustainable over the long term, but I’d like to give it a go at some point. I don’t have any immediate plans to add additional restrictions to my current diet but perhaps sometime during the new year. If I discover that certain vegan staples, such as soy, are problematic, then it may be time to get creative.

I am approaching my vegan diet experiment with a cautious optimism. If it becomes apparent that my mental and/or physical health is suffering from its implementation, I will stop following it and see what I can do to support my health while reducing my impact. I believe in compassion for all living things, and this includes myself. But the animal welfare and environmental benefits of following a vegan diet is something I’ve become quite passionate about, and I’m not willing to give up without a proper try. Onward!

References:

https://www.consumerreports.org/diet-plans/plant-based-diet/

https://www.healthline.com/health/fibromyalgia-diet-to-ease-symptoms

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC57816/

 

 

 

 

 

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