Almost everybody I know has a friend or knows somebody who went vegan or vegetarian, but then allegedly suffered some sort of health problem or deficiency. They went back to eating meat or animal products and now feel, “much better.”
These stories, along with famous or semi-famous ex-vegans that come out of the closet, are enough to scare most of those new to vegetarianism or veganism away entirely.
But I don’t think that’s the whole picture. Let’s take a little closer look and see what’s more likely going on:
Why Vegans Crash and Burn
My own personal diet has varied throughout my life, but regardless of whether or not I’ve been 100% vegan or vegetarian, I’ve always felt best eating mostly plants. That’s what I currently do and feel the best with that, at least for now.
What I want to emphasize is that just being vegan is really not a health choice specifically, but more an ethical choice.
The vegan diet, in itself, can be healthy or unhealthy. It is not by definition a healthy diet, something that far too many vegans and vegetarians falsely believe. There are plenty of vegans, from college campuses to suburban houses, where most of what they eat is junk! Vegan junk food, but junk food nonetheless.
Here are 3 of the most common mistakes that vegans, vegetarians, and raw vegans make:
1) Too Much Fat, Especially Omega 6
Vegans cut out saturated fats largely (with the exception of coconut and palm fruit, which is arguably in a different category), but often replace it with vegetable oils and other fat sources, which means that their diet is not only high in fat and refined oils, but also very high in omega 6 fats.
For example, many plant foods contain a lot of omega 6 but very little omega 3, which is needed to balance the two together.
Take a look at the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in some common plant foods, the first number being omega 6:
English Walnuts 4:1
Pumpkin Seeds 117:1
Sunflower Seeds 300:1
Pine Nuts 300:1
Flax Seeds 1:3.1
Chia seeds 1:3
As you can tell, many plant foods are too rich in omega 6 and not rich enough in omega 3 to be a healthy balance.
There’s nothing wrong with eating sunflower seeds and eating avocados given you are eating other foods to balance your ratios. But far too many vegans and vegetarians get the bulk of their calories from these foods, which can in time spell trouble for your omega 6/3 ratio balance.
Many ex-vegans have blamed the vegan diet for being too low in omega 3. But research has shown that the real problem is that we get too much added omega 6 fat! As a result, our body can’t efficiently utilize the omega 3 fats we do eat.
We’re told to eat healthy fats, like the foods above, which is good in a sense. But in a diet where there’s already too much fat in general and/or too much omega 6, it can make things worse.
Omega 6 polyunsaturated fats promote inflammation in the body. When you eat too much of it, it competes with your absorption of omega-3 fats, which are anti-inflammatory.
The ideal ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is between 1:1 and 4:1.
Fruits and vegetables, as well as other low-fat plant foods, have a natural ratio of 1:1-4:1
If most of your calories come from these foods, then adding a bit of higher fat plant foods with lots of omega-6 will not overthrow your balance. However, if a significant proportion of your calories come from high-fat foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, and oils, then it’s likely that you’ll eventually spell trouble.
2) Too Much Fat, Not Enough Plants
Vegans eliminate unhealthy animal proteins, but often replace it with foods that are very high in fat, even higher or the equivalent of some animal foods. While there still is a difference between a ground beef burger and a TVP patty topped with vegan cheese, they aren’t as big as some vegans like to believe.
Raw foodists do the same with an overreliance on nuts, seeds and avocados, and don’t necessarily realize the implications of consistently overeating on fat and not eating enough unprocessed, fresh whole plant foods.
Too much fat in the diet not only promotes heart disease and cancer, but it also affects every aspect of your health negatively. It’s also much easier to gain weight overeat on fatty foods rather than eating low-fat, carbohydrate-rich foods.
Too much fat does the following and more to your body:
– Negatively affects insulin sensitivity and promotes diabetes and high-blood sugar
– Negatively affects energy levels and athletic performance due to lower oxygen uptake
– Promotes inflammation and omega-3 deficiencies
– Negatively affects digestion and nutrient absorption
– Promotes heart disease and high cholesterol, as even vegetable fats can cause heart trouble the same as animal fats, if eaten in excess.
For raw vegans, common sources of fats include olive oil, coconut oil, flax oil, avocado, nuts and seeds — all of which are often used in large quantities in every recipe.
For cooked vegans, fat sources that pile up include: all oils, fried foods like fries, chips, donuts, crackers, “Earth Balance” products, coconut milk, vegan cheeses, “sour creams”, and fake meat products like Tofurkey and TVP meats.
Healthy plant-based eating should be centered on plants. Potatoes and other root vegetables, whole grains, beans, and any kind of vegetable are the foods that build the foundation of a healthy diet. While there’s nothing wrong with a tofu burger from time to time, the bulk of your calories should be coming from healthy whole plant foods, not boxed vegan cookies and cola.
Raw vegans would be wise to get the bulk of their calories from fruit, and eat plenty of it to meet their body’s needs. Greens should be consumed for minerals (but not as the foundation of a meal, or you’ll end up hungry and/or overdoing the cashews later), and fatty foods should be used as condiments, not as the main ingredient in a meal.
3) Vegans Do Need to be Mindful of Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 deficiencies are common topic of discussion amongst vegans and meat-eaters alike, and everybody has a different opinion on it. Still, many people experience issues from a lack of B12, regardless of why. Numerous symptoms can be attributed to a B12 deficiency, including fatigue and failure to thrive.
The standard recommendation is to take a B12 supplement containing 25 to 100 mcg every day, or one containing at least 1000 mcg three times a week. If you’ve had a past of B12 issues or have been eating vegan for years and never taken a supplement, you might start with some B12 injections, as low B12 levels can actually prevent absorption from dietary or supplemental B12. Taking an oral supplement later can sometimes be too late, so always get tested and see where you are at if you’re concerned.
Vegans Who Don’t Make These Mistakes
Some vegans and raw foodists say that they don’t make these mistakes, but yet still don’t feel right and think they should eat some animal products again. In many cases, cleaning up your diet, eating whole foods, and getting enough calories without too much fat is enough to make a difference. In other cases, more complex factors may be at play, and this needs to be dealt with on an individual basis.
How Can You Be a Healthier Vegan?
Vegans and raw vegans can make a few simple changes to immediately improve their diet and their health:
1) Get out of the habit of putting oil on everything. I know that expensive olive oil is good, but you don’t need to pour it everywhere! Salad dressings can easily be made with smaller amounts of nuts/seeds blended or mixed with other fruits, vegetables, and seasonings.
2) Whenever you make a recipe, tailor the recipe to suit your needs. Many a time the recipe that calls for a cup of grapeseed oil for cooking and another half cup of toasted sesame seed oil to drizzle on top tastes just as good with a fraction of, or none, of the added oil.
3) Avoid using nuts, seeds or avocados as a main ingredient in any recipe. Instead use these foods as flavoring agents to your meals, instead of making a meal out of them.
4) Vegans be aware that vegan meat/dairy replacement products are often rich in unhealthy fats and proteins, such as earth balance butter, any type of vegan cheese, and fake meat products.
5) Raw vegans: learn to make fruits and vegetables the foundation of your diet, instead of an over-reliance on nuts, seeds, and avocados.
6) Minimize the use of all processed plant foods, including ALL oils, sugar, sweeteners, white flours, and anything that’s been significantly processed.
So remember, “vegan” or “vegetarian” does not automatically mean “healthy”, as there are plenty of meat-eaters out there who eat more plants than many vegans do. Let us know your experiences in the comments below!