If I could get $1 for each story I've heard from clients and big names in the health world who have been vegan or vegetarian, had health issues, re-introduced animal products, and solved their health issues, well – I'd certainly have a significant amount of change clinking around in my pockets by now. Truth be told: I don't believe many people do well on a vegan or vegetarian diet. Now, please know I believe in a highly plant-based diet. Fruit and vegetables are integral parts of a healthful diet – this cannot be overstated. In fact, the majority of what you consume should be vegetables. However, if you aren't consuming animal products you are missing out on a huge amount of nutrients that are required for optimal health. This is just a fact: plain and true.
Nutrients that are absent or hard to obtain from a strict vegan or vegetarian diet include:
- Vitamin A – Vitamin A is crucial for eye health, immune function, skin health, and cancer prevention. Contrary to popular belief, plants do not contain vitamin A. Plants only contain carotenoids that must be converted into vitamin A – and not all do this conversion. In fact, there are about 600 carotenoids and only about 50 convert into vitamin A. Beta-carotene has the most ability to convert to vitamin A and lycopene has no ability to convert into vitamin A. And don't think that all human bodies do this conversion automatically. You need optimal levels of other nutrients to make this conversion possible. For example, you need optimal levels of zinc to convert beta-carotene to vitamin A, and many people are zinc deficient, especially vegans and vegetarians, adding insult to injury. Poor night vision and hyperkeratosis, (bumps on the upper arms) are two symptoms of a potential vitamin A deficiency.
- Vitamin D3 – Vitamin D acts more like a hormone than a vitamin. This vitamin affects every cell in the body. The various roles it plays in the body are mind-boggling. From preventing multiple different cancers, type 1 diabetes, heart attack, and multiple sclerosis vitamin D is one nutrient you absolutely do not want to be deficient in, (but sadly most people – even omnivores – are). Vitamin D also plays a crucial role in how we absorb calcium. In fact, calcium becomes almost useless unless we have optimal levels of vitamin D in our system. Vitamin D can also turn genes on and off. The active form of vitamin D is D3. Plants however, only contain D2. You get D3 from salmon, sardines, tuna, and eggs.
- Vitamin K2 – Vitamin K is an essential nutrient for blood clotting as well as to ensure calcium is being deposited into the correct places – such as bones and teeth – and not into places where it can wreak havoc, such as the arteries. It's also an important nutrient for reducing menstrual flow that is excessive. The most active form of vitamin K is K2, plants however, only have K1. We can convert K1 to K2 in our guts, but we have to have optimal gut health and a balanced microbiome to do this (which is very rare this day and age). Fermented soy (natto) does contain K2, but I'm yet to find someone who enjoys eating this food.
- Methionine – This is a crucial, (essential) amino acid and if you haven’t got enough dietary methionine an incredibly important biochemical pathway, (CBS) in the body breaks down. This is scary for multiple reasons and one of them is that the end product of the CBS pathway is the production of our master antioxidant in the body: glutathione.
- Taurine – Taurine is an amino acid that is virtually absent in plant foods. And vegans have been shown to have approximately 22% lower blood levels of taurine than those who consume animal protein. This amino acid is very important especially for those wishing to conceive as the fetus has a limited capacity for the synthesis of taurine due to enzymatic immaturity. In breast milk, taurine is the most abundant free amino acid. There is an increased incidence of paediatric health issues in children from vegan communities. People with higher levels of taurine have significantly lower rates of dying from coronary heart disease and taurine has been shown to help prevent hypertension, stroke and atherosclerotic arterial diseases. Taurine is also imperative for blood sugar control, bile synthesis, depression and more.
- Omega 3's – Again, contrary to popular belief you cannot obtain optimal levels of omega 3's from plant foods. Flax seeds for example, contain ALAs however, these need to be converted into EPA and DHA and the body does this very poorly. For example, in 40g of flax oil only 1g will be converted into EPA an DHA – that's a tiny amount! These omega 3's are imperative for the health of our central nervous system, preventing and treating mood disorders, baby's brain health and development, and they are powerfully anti-inflammatory. Cardiovascular disease, allergic and inflammatory conditions, autoimmune disease, cancer, and depression are conditions in which omega 3's become vitally important. And I can't tell you how many vegans and vegetarians I have come across who have mood issues such as anxiety and depression.
- Iodine – Iodine is a crucial nutrient for women's health. I can not overstate this fact. Iodine isn't just important for thyroid health, it's also critical for the health of the breasts and the ovaries. In fact the breasts are the largest consumers of iodine, with the ovaries being the second largest consumers of this nutrient. Iodine helps to make our cells less sensitive to estrogen, which is important for so many reasons including estrogen dominant cancer prevention, and iodine is also important for immune function and thyroid health. Where is iodine primarily found? In seafood such as sea vegetables, scallops, cod, shrimp, sardines, salmon, eggs, and tuna.
- Complete protein – For the body to make a particular protein all the amino acids for that protein must be present in the cell at the same time. If any are missing, the protein cannot be made. What happens then is the amino acids are instead either oxidized for energy or converted to carbohydrates or fats. It's a lot easier to obtain complete protein from animal foods than it is from plant foods. Why do we care about getting optimal amounts of complete protein? Well, our hormonal balance depends on protein, as does the healthy functioning of our immune system. Protein also helps to regulate our neurotransmitters and it aids in blood sugar control. Suffice to say optimal levels of complete protein is essential for our overall health.
- Heme iron – It's well known that heme iron is a lot more bioavailable than non-heme, (plant-based) iron. Vegans and vegetarians will argue that vitamin C will increase the absorption of non-heme iron in plant foods however, the problem is that plant foods contain polyphenols or phytates, which inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron. These polyphenols and phytates do not inhibit the absorption of heme iron, so you can enjoy your steak with a ton of veggies on the side. Clams, liver, and red meat are some of the best sources of heme iron.
- B12 – It's well established that if you are not eating animal foods you simply must be supplementing with B12. There is no B12 in plant-based foods. B12 is a key nutrient for optimal methylation – a critical biochemical process in the body, (read this blog post to find out more about methylation). Yes, it is true that we can make a small amount of B12 in the gut but only IF our gut is healthy, and this isn't terribly common this day and age. B12 is also important for the treatment of asthmatics, depression, diabetes, low sperm count, MS, and pernicious anemia. And there is no evidence to support the notion that brewers yeast is a substantial source of B12.
- Zinc – Zinc is a major nutrient, especially for women's health. It plays a role in pregnancy, immune function, acne, and mental health (anxiety is a biggie). It's also important for ovulation, helping to balance our stress response, supports the thyroid, and it is also anti-inflammatory. Zinc is primarily found in animal foods such as beef, lamb, chicken, venison, liver, and bison.
- Choline – Choline is such an important nutrient that so many vegans and vegetarians are deficient in. Choline helps other nutrients including omega 3's and B vitamins function as they should in the body. Additionally, choline is required for healthy cell membranes in the nervous system, allowing for optimal signalling between cells. It also plays a big role in how we process and store our memories as well as a role in learning and knowledge retention. In fact, two-thirds of our nervous system is choline. Choline is also important for moving fat out of the liver, which helps to prevent non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Where do you primarily find choline? Shrimp, eggs, scallops, chicken, turkey, tuna, cod, salmon, and beef.
I also strongly believe – because the science tells us so – that we evolved to consume animal products. We did not evolve to eat only plants. We are at the top of the food chain for a reason. Other animals on the planet consume animals. You wouldn't argue that a tiger should go vegan, so why suggest that humans should choose this way of life when it's not how we evolved to be?
In regards to the ethical concerns that I often hear from vegans or vegetarians I have to ask: are you willing to risk your own health for the sake of saving an animal's life? At the very worst, are you actually willing to risk your life in order to save an animal's? I think this is an important question we have to ask ourselves in order to ensure we are being cognizant of the impact that being vegan or vegetarian can potentially have.
Listen, I am ALL for animal rights. I have two cats and I love animals – make no mistake. However, I love my life and being around long-term for my family a lot more than I love any animal on this planet.
There are many ways in which you can get connected to your food and choose the best possible options for yourself as well as the animals. I'm not asking you to consume meat from CAFOs. Instead, you can opt for certified organic, free-range, and free-run. Go to farmers' markers and talk to your local farmers. Go to the actual farms, walk around and look at the conditions, again – talk to your farmers – ask questions. There are plenty of humanely raise animals here in Canada and around the globe. Here's a great website that can help inform your choices when choosing where to purchase humanely raised and slaughtered meat.
If you have recently gone vegan or vegetarian and you are “feeling better than ever” please know, nutrient deficiencies can rear their heads many months or even multiple years later. It takes time for the body to use up previous stores of nutrients and start to show symptoms of these nutrient deficiencies. The potential disease states that can arise from these nutrient deficiencies don't happen over night, but make no mistake, nutrient deficiencies are a massive sabotage to optimal health. Show me a vegan or vegetarian who has religiously eaten this way for 10 years and who is still healthy, vibrant, and happy (depression is a common side effect of a vegan or vegetarian diet I see in my practice). A decade-long vegan or vegetarian who's in optimal health is something I'm yet to come across.
At the end of the day if it comes down to your life or the animals, which are you going to choose?
In happiness and health,