Many articles have been written about the dangers OF a vegan diet.
Many of the points made in those articles are valid and need to be raised. They’re also blown out of proportion and taken out of context.
Eating an unbalanced vegan diet can lead to some health problems related to deficiencies. However, deficiencies are not a very common problem compared to diseases of excess.
We live in a world of abundance. By far, the biggest problems we face are caused by eating too much of the wrong foods rather than not enough of the right foods.
That being said, the human psyche is wired to worry about lack rather than abundance. As we evolved on this planet, the biggest danger we faced was famine. That’s why we like fatty foods.
When a group of early humans came across extremely rich fatty foods, those who ate them survived. Our brains are programmed to like concentrated sugars and fats. This program worked well in the context of a world where those foods were rare and helped us survive by providing the calories we needed, when few calories were available.
In the world we live in today, we experience the opposite problem. Yet, we still worry about lack.
- Are you going to get enough?
- Are you sure you’re going to be okay?
- Are you sure you’re not going to run into deficiencies?
Those are the types of questions we get asked by our parents, nutritionists, and so on. Does this diet contain every nutrient? Are you sure you’re getting all your vitamins? Are you sure you’re getting all of your protein?
The Dangers of a Vegan Diet
I purposely use the word “vegan” because it’s a little offensive. A vegan diet applies to plant-based diets in general. The word “vegan” implies more of a life philosophy, but it is actually the proper term to describe a diet that does not contain any animal protein.
Plant-based is more politically correct, but it implies that the diet could have a lot of plants in it while not being completely vegan. Let’s stick with the word “vegan” for now because it describes a diet devoid of animal protein.
Are there any dangers to following such a diet?
Well, if you’re getting enough calories from fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans (with a little nuts and seeds for Omega 3s), then the dangers are quite limited—in fact, widely exaggerated.
B-12 can be a problem. B-12 is found in animal products, but that’s because it’s made from bacteria and we don’t live in the type of environment where we get exposed to unwashed foods and fecal matter and other nasties. So, we take a B-12 supplement. Most vegans know that they have to take a B-12 supplement and do. Not a big deal.
What about vitamin D? Vitamin D is contained in animal products, but vitamin D is not specifically a product made by animals. Vitamin D is not specifically a product that we have to get in animal foods. It is made by our bodies through sun exposure. Granted, if we don’t get enough sun, we could run low on vitamin D and eating certain animal foods could be beneficial, but whether you take the vitamin D from an animal or from a supplement, the end results are the same. Running low on vitamin D is not a vegan problem per se.
What about Omega 3s? We’ve heard that we must eat fish for Omega 3s, but where do the fish get their Omega 3s? Plant foods; namely algae. Are vegans low in Omega 3? No lower than anyone else. The human body can make its own DHA and EPA from other Omega 3 fats that are found in plants. Still, some people have concerns that they’re not getting enough Omega 3s. In that case, you can take a supplement of Omega 3.
Finally, we have the question of protein, which has been a debate in the nutrition world for a long time and is still being advocated as an important part of our diet. Vegan diets contain plant-based protein and there are many advantages to consuming proteins from plants rather than animals.
Recent research by Italian researcher, Dr Luongo, found that a lower protein diet, in general, is the best for cancer prevention.
Vegan diets contain almost the same percentage of protein (by calories) as omnivorous diets. The big difference is that the protein is coming from plants, not animals. And no credible research has ever shown that consuming plant proteins leads to health problems. In fact, quite the contrary.
Vegans get plenty of protein, more in fact than what is recommended, as long as they eat a wide variety of foods from the categories I mentioned previously. If you get enough calories from those foods you will get enough protein, even the foods we typically don’t associate as protein sources. For example, brown rice and even green vegetables.
We have a few nutritional concerns regarding the vegan diet, which is normal because the human brain is wired to worry about deficiencies.
But let’s ask a more important question. What are the dangers of NOT eating a vegan diet — in other words, of NOT eating a diet that is largely plant-based? I think those dangers are much, much bigger.
One can run low on B-12, and fix the problem almost instantly if it is discovered early.
However, when we create other problems in our health such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, they are much harder to reverse.
Diets rich in animal protein have been linked to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a wide range of other health problems.
To me, the two things that are most worrisome and lead me to prefer a vegan diet are heart disease and cancer.
- Heart Disease: The scientific consensus is that saturated fats in our diets raise our cholesterol levels, and high LDL cholesterol levels create hardening of the plaque in the arteries, leading to heart disease. This is an established scientific fact. I know, I know… you’ve heard differently via blogs and diet books. But think about who you should trust: a blogger or dedicated scientists that have painstakingly researched this issue for decades? A paleo blogger or a cardiologist like Dr. Esselstyn that is actually getting results actually reversing heart disease?The bottom line is that we know for sure that elevated LDL levels cause heart disease. They are one of the most identifiable causes of heart disease and diets rich in animal protein DO generally raise LDL cholesterol levels in most people.
- Cancer: This is actually a little scarier. This idea that animal protein drives cancer growth isn’t just shared by a few lunatic researchers, but is becoming more widespread in the scientific community, especially with the latest research done on fasting by Italian-born Dr Longo. This is also the view of Dr. T. Colin Campbell, an actual biochemist and other of over 300 scientific papers. Oh but wait… His China Study also has been “debunked” by a blogger. I will admit however that the case for “animal protein driving cancer grown” is a little less solid that that of heart disease. But I certainly don’t think it’s a coincidence that all long-lived cultures of the world eat a plant-based diet (in most of these cultures, meat is a “treat” or a “condiment” but never a main part of the diet.).
I’m not going to review other potential health problems caused by animal products, as this has been covered extensively in many excellent books by respectable authors. In fact, that’s not even the point of my article.
The point is that the so-called “dangers” of a vegan or plant-based diet are largely overblown. But because our brain is wired about deficiency, we tend to worry about those “dangers,” instead of worrying about the potential health cost of not ditching animal products.