Is Veganuary healthy?

What the campaign tells you & what it doesn’t tell you…

Executive summary

* Veganuary was launched in the UK in 2014. The campaign encourages people across the world to go vegan in January. The vision statement for Veganuary goes much further than this: “we want a vegan world.”

* Vegans consume no foods whatsoever that have come from an animal, or for which an animal is deemed to have been exploited or harmed in any way.

* The number one reason given by people for trying Veganuary was health.

* I analysed the health content of the campaign website: Veganuary.com to evaluate whether Veganuary is a healthy thing to do.

* The answer to the site’s own question “Is a vegan diet healthy?” was a quotation from the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that “a vegan diet is nutritionally adequate.” This is not true. A vegan diet is not nutritionally adequate – it requires supplementation.

* A vegan diet does not provide retinol, B12, D3, heme iron or omega-3 in the forms needed by the body. A vegan diet is likely deficient in calcium, iodine, iron and zinc.

* The health information on the Veganuary.com campaign site did state the importance of vital nutrients. It rarely clarified the form of the nutrient required by the body (the animal form) and the fact that conversion from plant to animal forms of nutrients is poor, if possible, at all.

* Recommendations to supplement/consume fortified foods (which are merely high calorie supplements) were inconsistent across the website, but did include vitamin B12, vitamin D, iodine and iron and should have included algae and probably calcium and zinc. Recommendations to supplement are admissions of deficiencies.

* People who do Veganuary will probably feel short term benefit after Christmas indulgences and because many processed foods will need to be avoided. However, health problems will emerge if people don’t supplement well to avoid the deficiencies that exist in a vegan diet. People who happen to be poor, or non-converters of plant to animal forms of nutrients (e.g. carotene to retinol) may find themselves unable to sustain a vegan diet without serious harm.

* A healthy diet provides the nutrients that we need. A healthy diet does not require supplements. A vegan diet requires supplements. De facto, a vegan diet is not healthy.

Introduction

Veganuary was launched in the UK in 2014. The website Veganuary.com says “Since 2014, Veganuary has inspired and supported more than half a million people in 178 countries to try vegan for January – and beyond.”

This seems harmless enough – go vegan in January. January is a well-chosen month, not just because it works for ‘Veganuary’ but because most people eat and drink their body weight in junk over the holidays and thus any diet will make them feel better.

The vision statement is not so harmless. The site continues: “Our vision is simple; we want a vegan world.”

A pie chart on the home page of the website, Veganuary.com, shared that the reasons for participating in Veganuary were as follows: 46% gave health reasons; 34% cited animals; 12% cited the environment and 8% gave other reasons.

Given that health was the number one reason given and given that that’s our area of interest in this Monday note, let’s explore whether Veganuary is a healthy thing to do…


A vegan diet

A vegan diet involves the consumption of no foods whatsoever that have come from an animal or for which an animal is deemed to have been exploited or harmed in any way. That means no meat, no fish, no eggs, and no dairy products. It also means no cochineal (a food colouring derived from beetles); no gelatin (a protein that comes from animal collagen); no confectionery glaze (a sheen that is harvested from trees in which the lac insect resides); no L. Cysteine (a dough conditioner found in some breads and baked goods, which is often sourced from feathers or human hair); no honey (bees are exploited); and so on. All these non-vegan substances are found in processed foods. Hence you can see that a vegan diet has the health benefit, from the outset, of avoiding many processed foods. (Many/most vegans take the food theme further and refuse to wear any products from animals e.g. leather, silk and wool.)

Health claims

Interestingly, I didn’t see any claims on Veganuary.com that going vegan is healthier than following an omnivore diet (I didn’t read every word of every post, but it’s fair to say that health claims were not prominent). Health may be the main reason that people sign up, but the site is very much focused on animal welfare. The health information on the site could be found in blog posts. Blog posts were categorised into five groups: animals; environment; food; health; and press releases. I focused on the health posts. There were 72 on the UK site. The US site contained a subset of these, so I focused on the UK site.

Of the 72 health posts, 15 were about athletes – usually individual (usually amateur) athletes who wrote a post about the fact that they were vegan, and it wasn’t a problem for their chosen sport. Eight posts were comments on studies or news items e.g. “One in three Brits reducing meat in diet.” Eight posts were about meals/eating tips e.g. “How to grow herbs for a nutritious addition to mealtimes.” Nine were random questions and answers e.g. “My 80-year-old granddad has eaten meat and dairy his whole life – doesn’t that show it’s healthy?” Six were about specific conditions e.g. Type 2 diabetes. Five I categorised as other e.g. “Angelina Jolie’s breast surgeon says meat grows cancer.” Finally, 21 were about nutrition. Those are the ones to focus on.

In support of my observation about the lack of health claims on Veganuary.com, many of the health/nutrition posts were defensive – answering common concerns about a vegan diet e.g. “Is a vegan diet dangerous for children?” “How to get enough protein as a vegan.” “Is it safe to be vegan while pregnant?” “Don’t vegans need to take several supplements to stay healthy?” and “Is a vegan diet healthy?

The answer to the last question was presented as a quotation from the US Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “All the major dietetics societies have published papers stating that a vegan diet is nutritionally adequate for all stages of human health”.

I addressed the dangerous errors in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ beliefs here (Ref 1). The American Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) admits that a vegan diet is not safe by listing the nutrients that need to be taken as fortification and supplements. If a vegan diet were safe per se, it would provide all nutrients required for life and health. Notwithstanding this, “nutritionally adequate”, albeit false, would still hardly be a health claim.

Many of the other posts were about individual nutrients, which are of concern in a vegan diet: vitamin A; vitamin B12; vitamin D; iodine; iron; omega-3; protein; selenium; and zinc. Let’s go through these to see what was said and what wasn’t.

Vitamin A

The entire vitamin A blog post is as follows: “Vitamin A is essential to human health. It is great for our eyesight, our immune system and bone growth (their ref – Ref 2). Our bodies convert beta-carotene to Vitamin A. This means that good sources of Vitamin A are vegetables that are high in beta-carotene – carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, cantaloupe, mango, apricots, and kale – so eat some of these every day! (Ref 3).

That is not the whole truth. The post should say “our bodies CAN convert beta-carotene to retinol, which is the form in which we need vitamin A, but conversion is poor, if it happens at all.”

Vitamin A comes in two forms – carotene comes from plants and retinol comes from animal foods. Retinol is the form of vitamin A that the body needs. Carotene can be converted to retinol by the body but even with Beta-carotene, the carotene most easily converted into retinol, there is substantial loss such that the conversion ratio was long held to be at best 6:1 (Ref 4). This has since been revised to 12:1 (Ref 5). Also, not every person is capable of converting carotene to retinol “Diabetics and those with poor thyroid function cannot make the conversion. Children make the conversion very poorly and infants not at all” (Ref 6). Finally, carotenes are converted by the action of bile salts and very little bile reaches the intestine when a meal is low in fat. Our grandparents put butter on their vegetables for good reason. Animal food generally, and liver particularly, is the best source of the vitamin A that we need.

Vitamin B12

The blog post on B12 admits that B12 is “the biggie (and probably the most controversial)” but adds “It need not be.” The post recommends “Ensure that you get a reliable source of vitamin B12 through fortified foods (eat at least two a day at different meals) or cyanocobalamin supplements” (Ref 7).

That’s an honest admission that a vegan diet is nutritionally deficient. A vegan diet does not provide B12 and thus it must be obtained either from supplements or from fortified foods (think of fortified foods as high calorie supplements).

Vitamin D

The vitamin D blog ducks the issue of vegan deficiency in this nutrient by generalising the issue. The post reports: “Public Health England now recommends that everyone in the UK take a vitamin D supplement in autumn or winter of 10mcg (400 IU) a day.” The post also promotes a supplement: “The Vegan society makes a supplement containing 800 IU of vegan vitamin D3 a day (which also contains vitamin B12, iodine and selenium)” (Ref 8).

The post should make it clear that vitamin D comes in two forms: D2 from plants and D3 from animals. As with every nutrient that comes in both plant and animal form, the body wants the animal form and conversion from one to the other is poor, if possible. While it is true that a vitamin D supplement may be of benefit for people not able to sunbathe at any particular time, this post neglects to tell people that the only dietary sources of D3 are animal foods – especially oily fish and dairy products. It is far more likely that a vegan will be deficient in D3 and thus required to take supplements.

Iodine

The iodine post rightly summarises the importance of this nutrient: “Iodine helps make the thyroid hormones, which keep cells and the metabolic rate healthy” (Ref 9). As for getting iodine, the post says: “If you regularly eat seaweed (multiple times a week), you will probably get adequate iodine from the seaweed.” This was followed by the caution: “However, the availability of iodine from seaweed is variable and it can provide too much iodine.”

Given that people don’t eat seaweed multiple times a week, and given that this might not be a good idea anyway, the post recommends supplements: “75-150 µg every few days.”

That’s another admission of nutrient deficiency in a vegan diet.


Iron

The post rightly notes the importance of this vital nutrient: “Your body needs iron to be healthy and strong. It is needed to make proteins, such as haemoglobin and myoglobin.” The post is also honest about plants being a poor provider of iron: “Popeye, however, wasn’t entirely accurate; while spinach does contain iron, it doesn’t have significant amounts of it – just 2.71mg in 100g, in fact!” (Ref 10).

Fortified cereals were the top food recommended for iron intake for vegans – that’s a high calorie supplement again and an admission of likely deficiency in this vital nutrient.

The post shared that the (UK) recommended daily intake of iron is 8.7mg for men aged 19-50 and 14.8mg for women of the same age. The post didn’t share that “The RDAs for vegetarians are 1.8 times higher than for people who eat meat” (source: US National Institutes of Health) (Ref 11). And that’s for vegetarians – not vegans. That’s because absorption from non-meat and fish sources is so relatively poor. And, as with calcium and zinc, phytates in plant-foods substantially impair iron absorption. The post didn’t share that it is extremely likely that vegan diets are deficient in iron and this will be particularly serious for females of menstruation age.

Omega-3

This is one of the longer blog posts in the health section and it has some good bits and some bad bits. First it does stress that the omega-3 fatty acids that the body needs are EPA and DHA. It also admits that “there are no dietary sources of EPA and DHA available for vegans beyond sea greens, they must rely on the body’s natural ability to convert it” (Ref 12). (The issues with the body’s far-from-natural ability to convert it were not shared – see these below).

Second, it correctly reports that the conversion of omega-3 into EPA and DHA is impaired by omega-6 “which is found in the highest quantities in wheat products, wholegrain foods and vegetable oils.” It doesn’t spell out that this means that the foods most commonly eaten by vegans are the ones that further impair the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA. “With a diet rich in n-6 PUFA, conversion is reduced by 40 to 50%” (Ref 13).

The post was called: “Where do vegans get their omega-3?” and it didn’t give a clear and correct answer. The only option for vegans to get omega-3 in the form that they need it (DHA and EPA) is to consume algae. (Algae is the green scum that you can see in a fish tank). The post mentioned sea greens (also known as edible algae), but it did not emphasise that vegans must supplement with algae – usually taken as algae capsules. The post recommended pumpkin seed oil, nuts and seeds (especially flax and chia seeds), sprouted beans, squashes, vegetables and blueberries. These are sources of ALA, not DHA and EPA. As with other plant vs animal sources of nutrients, conversion is very poor, if it happens at all (Ref 14). Most studies find a conversion rate of less than 10% and some studies find no conversion at all (Ref 15).

The balance of DHA and EPA is critical for health but the conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA is not balanced. “More specifically, most studies in humans have shown that whereas a certain, though restricted, conversion of high doses of ALA to EPA occurs, conversion to DHA is severely restricted” (Ref 16).

The human brain is approximately 60% fat (Ref 17) and approximately 20% of that fat is DHA (Ref 18). As noted above, the conversion to DHA is particularly compromised. It should be expected that brain health will be compromised too (Ref 19).

Interestingly, algae supplements have only been available since the late 1970s. Arguably veganism has only been possible since this time (Ref 20). Amusingly, algae are creatures too! (Ref 21).

Protein

The protein blog surprised me. It should have explained that protein from plant foods is incomplete (it does not contain all nine essential amino acids that the body can’t make and in the right amounts), while protein from animal foods is complete. A useful blog post on a vegan site would explain how plant foods can be combined to provide essential amino acids. Instead, this blog post was an advert for “Nutristrength pea protein” – a vegan protein supplement.

If people doing Veganuary buy this pea protein product, will this provide all that they need? I couldn’t see any claims on the Nutristrength web site that their vegan products would provide complete protein. I did some general research, therefore, and found a well-researched and written post, which set out the World Health Organisation Essential Amino Acid recommendations per 100g of protein and per kg of body mass (Ref 22). The post averaged eight sources of pea protein – two from scientific papers and six from manufacturer claims. The results were that pea protein was an acceptable provider of eight of the Essential Amino Acids, per 100g of protein, but that it was deficient in Methionine.

The post went on to examine how much pea protein an 80kg person would need to consume to meet their Essential Amino Acids requirements. The conclusion was that “we should have around 0.7g of protein per kg of body weight, an 80kg person should eat around 60g of protein per day. So we’re 17g over our recommended dietary intake.” i.e. because pea protein is a relatively inefficient provider of protein, people would exceed the overall protein intake requirements while trying to meet the Essential Amino Acid requirements. This isn’t a big deal, as protein intake can be 1g of protein per kg of weight and still be healthy, but pea protein is still deficient in one Essential Amino Acid and the blog would have been far better had it explained how to get complete protein from combining plant foods.

Selenium

The entire selenium blog post states: “Selenium is an essential trace element that plays a key role in helping the immune system and preventing damage to cells and tissue. In some countries, the UK included, selenium levels in the soil are very low. Plants get selenium from the soil, and so the levels of selenium available in the soil will affect how much is available in plant-based foods. Brazil nuts are a brilliant source of selenium. Just one a day can provide all your needs, or you can make sure you get some via a supplement” (Ref 23).

Eat a brazil nut a day or supplement – I agree.

Zinc

The entire zinc post is: “Zinc helps our body grow new cells, promotes healing and aids with processing carbohydrates. Good sources of zinc include legumes, nuts, seeds and oats, leafy green vegetables, and sprouted seeds and beans” (Ref 24).

The post doesn’t say that a 280g steak would provide your entire recommended daily zinc intake (Ref 25). The post doesn’t say that vegans had the lowest intake of zinc when 65,000 meat-eater, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans were compared in a UK cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (Ref 26). The post doesn’t say that plant foods rich in zinc, such as legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, are also high in phytic acid, an inhibitor of zinc bioavailability (Ref 27). Zinc is thus another nutrient likely to be of concern in a vegan diet (as are calcium and choline which were not addressed).

Supplements

There were two blog posts in the health section about supplements. One, which was called “Don’t vegans need to take several supplements to stay healthy?” said “No. All the nutrients you need – with perhaps one exception – can be found easily and plentifully in a vegan diet. That one exception is Vitamin B12” (Ref 28).

This is not true, as we have shown above, and as is admitted elsewhere on the Veganuary web site.

Having said that B12 is the only issue, the last sentence of this post was: “As for all those other vitamins, minerals and nutrients, you’ll find them aplenty if you eat a varied vegan diet. Take a look at Dr Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen chart to guide you as to what else we should be eating for optimum nutrition.”

This is not true. I analysed Greger’s Daily Dozen in this post (Ref 29). Greger put forward the optimal vegan diet in his Daily Dozen diet. It contained no B12, no retinol, no D3, no heme iron, and no omega-3 in the right form. It was also deficient in calcium, iron overall and zinc (iodine would have been deficient too – my nutrition evaluation tool didn’t include iodine). And that’s with the best vegan diet that one of the world’s leading vegans can design.

The second post on supplements was a guest post by a supplement seller (Ref 30). This was called “How to supplement on a vegan diet” and it recommended D3, B12, calcium, zinc, iodine, and omega-3. That’s lucrative, but far more honest.

The Veganuary press pack

The Veganuary press pack on Veganuary.com was full of stats and data from Veganuary 2019 (Ref 31). The gender split of the people who signed up for Veganuary was 87% female and 11% male. No explanation was given for that not adding up. A worrying 3% were aged 13-17; 22% were aged 18-24; 28% were aged 25-34; 21% were aged 35-44; 17% were aged 45-54 and 9% were over the age of 55. The diet of people who signed up to Veganuary was reported as 44% omnivore, 23% vegan, 17% vegetarian and 16% pescatarian. Almost a quarter of people who signed up for Veganuary were already vegan!

Despite the fact that the number one reason that people gave for doing Veganuary was “health”, the recent press release was all about animals and the planet, with no mention of health benefits (Ref 32). Perhaps that’s because there aren’t any. There are just concerns about the nutrients that are naturally found in animal foods: complete protein; essential fats; retinol; B12; D3, heme iron etc.

Briefly, but for completeness, Veganuary does not help the planet, as a vegan world would eliminate the part of the food chain that protects and rejuvenates topsoil (ruminants – which provide meat and dairy products) (Ref 33). It would take but a few seasons in a vegan world to achieve desertification of areas that currently provide food. How plant foods would then feed the planet, I know not. How far can hydroponics go? As for the animals, there would be no, or extremely few, cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, goats etc in a vegan world (farmers don’t keep pets). Domestic cats would need to slaughter birds, rabbits, mice and voles or starve to death. Multiples of millions of animals would still die, if we were able to continue plant agriculture, as field animals and birds have no chance of avoiding combine harvesters (Ref 34). And how many fish would die because we’d eaten all of their food i.e. algae?

The bottom line

I was pondering the fact that little harm can be done doing Veganuary for just a month and wondering how to close this post when I happened to catch an interview on BBC breakfast on 4th January 2020. The co-founders of Veganuary were being interviewed. One was Jane Land (who has been vegan for seven years). The other was Ursula Philpot – a dietitian. Philpot was asked about the health aspect of doing Veganuary and her reply included these words: “Just doing it for a month, you’re not going to run into problems really – even if you eat a pretty poor diet. But, longer than that, it has to be fairly well planned… There are gaps in the diet – things like iron, B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fats.”

And there you have it. From one of the founders of the Veganuary campaign. Replace the word planned with supplemented and we have agreement.

People promoting a vegan diet – for any length of time – are not being honest unless they tell you what you must supplement and the serious consequences of not doing this. Let’s have no more dishonest statements that a vegan diet is nutritionally adequate – “oh – but you need to get all of these nutrients from supplements” in the small print. We need promoters of a vegan diet to be up front about what a vegan diet lacks – each and every time they mention it – and what you need to supplement to make up for these many deficiencies. They might like to add that you should then hope or pray that supplements are as good as the nutrients found naturally in what we’ve evolved to eat.

A healthy diet provides the nutrients that we need. A healthy diet does not require supplements. A vegan diet requires supplements. De facto, a vegan diet is not healthy.

References
Ref 1: https://www.zoeharcombe.com/2019/02/is-a-vegan-diet-safe-for-infants-and-children/
Ref 2: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals/vitamin-a/
Ref 3: https://uk.veganuary.com/blog/vitamin-a-in-a-vegan-diet
Ref 4: “The accepted 6:1 equivalency of beta-carotene to preformed vitamin A must be challenged and re-examined in the context of dietary plants.” Solomons, N. W. and J. Bulux. “Plant sources of provitamin A and human nutriture.” Nutrition Review, July 1993
Ref 5: Guangwen Tang. Bioconversion of dietary provitamin A carotenoids to vitamin A in humans. American Journal of CLinical Nutrition. (2010) (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2854912/)
Ref 6: Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig, “Vitamin A”, (March 2002).
Ref 7: https://uk.veganuary.com/blog/vitamin-b12-vegan-diet
Ref 8: https://uk.veganuary.com/blog/vitamin-d-vegan-diet
Ref 9: https://uk.veganuary.com/blog/iodine-vegan
Ref 10: https://uk.veganuary.com/blog/iron-vegan-diet
Ref 11: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iodine-HealthProfessional/
Ref 12: https://uk.veganuary.com/blog/where-do-vegans-get-their-omega-3
Ref 13: Gerster. Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)? Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1998 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9637947
Ref 14: Gerster. Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)? Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1998 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9637947
Ref 15: Cholewski et al. A Comprehensive Review of Chemistry, Sources and Bioavailability of Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Nutrients. 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6267444/
Ref 16: Gerster. Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)? Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1998 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9637947
Ref 17: Chang et al. Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan. 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20329590
Ref 18: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/diagnosis-diet/201903/the-brain-needs-animal-fat
Ref 19: Joanne Bradbury. Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA): An Ancient Nutrient for the Modern Human Brain. Nutrients. 2011. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257695/)
Ref 20: https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-923/blue-green-algae
Ref 21: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070619182508.htm
Ref 22: https://www.brightaroundthecorner.com/diet/is-pea-protein-complete/
Ref 23: https://uk.veganuary.com/blog/selenium
Ref 24: https://uk.veganuary.com/blog/zinc-vegan-diet
Ref 25: https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/beef-products/7493/0
Ref 26: Davey et al. EPIC-Oxford: lifestyle characteristics and nutrient intakes in a cohort of 33 883 meat-eaters and 31 546 non meat-eaters in the UK. Public Health Nutrition. 2003. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12740075)
Ref 27: Harland BF, Oberleas D. Phytate in foods. World Rev Nutr Diet 1987;52:235–59
Ref 28: https://uk.veganuary.com/blog/vegans-supplements-healthy
Ref 29: https://www.zoeharcombe.com/2018/01/food-to-help-you-live-longer/
Ref 30: https://uk.veganuary.com/blog/how-to-supplement-on-a-vegan-diet-guest-post-from-together
Ref 31: https://uk.veganuary.com/press
Ref 32: https://uk.veganuary.com/blog/statistics-show-the-positive-impact-of-trying-vegan-this-january
Ref 33: https://www.zoeharcombe.com/2017/05/red-meat-human-and-planet-health/
Ref 34: Fischer and Lamey. Field Deaths in Plant Agriculture. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics. (2018). https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10806-018-9733-8

28 thoughts on “Is Veganuary healthy?

  • avatar
    January 28, 2020 at 10:08 am
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    Excellent article! Thank you for the research and for explaining it so well Zoe!

    Reply
  • avatar
    January 12, 2020 at 8:54 am
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    Hi Zoe,

    I know this is off topic here but I am trying to find out when the guidelines in the UK are due to change, have an idea its this year. Do you know when and what theses might be as trying to find out what the new graphics for the ‘eat well plate of death’ as I call it will be, any links of input would be great thanks?

    Just to leave my two pennies worth on the subject here, Veganuary is excellent for me as it is ‘World Carnivore Month’ and I am Animal foods only (Anti-Vegan) for the month. Ruminants Rule!

    Reply
  • avatar
    January 9, 2020 at 10:37 am
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    Zoë, you claim that a vegan diet is not healthy because it requires supplementation.

    I would like to inject a bit of semantics here: Even if supplements are not considered as being part of a diet (because diet is “the sum of food consumed by a person or other organism” and supplements are not food), one might also eat fortified foods, so a vegan diet can include nutrients such as vitamin B12 after all, no? Furthermore, besides eating, people also need to breathe. Does that mean that all diets are unhealthy (because eating PER SE is not enough to be healthy)? Or can we say that diets can be healthy because they can be a PART of a healthy lifestyle?

    Anyway, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics does state that “[v]egans need reliable sources of vitamin B-12, such as fortified foods or supplements”, the matter of dispute is whether “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases” is an appropriate wording.

    You claim: “The American and British dietetic organisations assert that a vegan diet is safe for all life stages: children; infants; toddlers; pregnant and breastfeeding women. The German and Swiss Nutrition organisations disagree.”

    I see no such disagreement. While the German Nutrition Society explicitly states that it does not recommend a vegan diet for pregnant women, lactating women, infants, children or adolescents (which is understandable, they are not an animal rights organization and a vegan diet can go wrong if not well-planned), it does not state, as far as I know, that a nutritionally adequate vegan diet is completely impossible at a certain life stage. Quote: “In this way and with specific food selection and good planning, it is possible to create a vegan diet in which no nutrient deficiency develops.”

    From their FAQ (translated): “In North America, compared to Germany, there are generally significantly more foods enriched with vitamins and minerals on the market. Therefore, the supply of critical nutrients in these countries may be easier to implement. These differences in the availability of fortified foods may, among other things, explain the different assessment of the possible risk of health disorders with a vegan diet.

    Since the risk of nutrient deficiency in the sensitive phases of life is rated as high, the DGE decided, based on the available data, not to recommend a vegan diet for these population groups.”

    Reply
    • avatar
      January 13, 2020 at 3:30 am
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      I know that you asked that question to dr.Zoe Harcombe, but I can respond about the foods fortified in vitamin B12. The industrials use the cheapest synthetic vitamins to fortify their processed foods. For example, the vitamin B12 added to vegan “milks” is cyanocobalamin, which is a synthetic form of B12 which has a poor bioavaibility and can be problematic (even toxic) for people with a MTHFR mutation (40% of the population, most of them ignore they have it). There are other nutrients added to fortify these processed vegan foods that can be problematic and cause health issues (like synthetic vitamin E in almond “milks” for example).

      Reply
      • avatar
        January 13, 2020 at 8:06 am
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        Many thanks Davina! I never catch them all – work gets in the way! Great answer :-)

        Reply
  • avatar
    January 7, 2020 at 2:21 pm
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    This is excellent – it must be one of, if not the, best articles I have read about this devisive topic. You ask the question about hydroponics which is my ‘field’. I take issue with most people who talk of hydroponics as it can be argued that any plant with roots grows hydroponically – the uptake of required nutrients is as disolved compounds in water. The majority of hydroponic growers restrict what they can grow with a system wide single mix of nutrients. This works well for monocultures such as sweet peppers, tomatoes and leafy greens – separately. The issue is that the increase in costs pressures them to grow as fast as possible which is where the problems start. It restricts them to poor business models and to produce a vegan should avoid – the narrow range of nutrients used may produce a healthy plant but there is no acknowledgement of the far greater number of trace elements we need – and which you highlight is not as easy as simply being present. You are spot on with the need for livestock for healthy soils. It is researching nutrients that has extended my knowledge and understanding of what a good Controlled Environmet Agriculture system needs. Commercial greenhouses usually run gas boilers all summer simply to add CO2. However increasing it too much shows in the reduction of other nutrients absorbed alongside water. I could go on at length – if you are interested!

    Reply
    • avatar
      January 8, 2020 at 8:13 am
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      Hi Jonathan
      Thanks so much for sharing this and for your kind words. I’ve put you on my experts list in case I need to go into this further. Hope that’s OK!
      Best wishes – Zoe

      Reply
  • avatar
    January 7, 2020 at 10:09 am
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    Fascinating, once again. Please write this up as a paper for a journal, then I can cite you!
    I have a couple of reservations ‘tho.
    * I am not convinced that you can get all necessary micronutrients from even an optimal nutrient dense LCHF diet in today’s world. It assumes that you have access to food grown in rich soils that haven’t been deleted by industrial ag, and that you have an undamaged gut that can absorb everything you need from what you ingest. After decades of a carb-heavy Western diet along with past excess alcohol, occasional antibiotics and NSAIDs, a few years doing vegetarian, and various other insults, I am not sure I do absorb all the good stuff I eat these days.
    * It also assumes you don’t need extra nutrients to help you deal with illness. Some years back, after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, and a year or so after a dietitian analysed my diet and said that I was meeting most of the RDIs, I remember feeling vastly better after starting zinc, Vit C, B6 and Mg, then selenium, iodine and B12. My nutrient intake might have been technically adequate, but supplementing made a huge difference: I could think again.
    * many people in the low carb community are big on supplementing; the ‘net is awash with advice. Electrolytes like Na, K, Mg are the big ones but also Vit D and Omega 3 feature prominently. Perhaps the LC community is more honest about need for supplements?
    That being said I agree that an omnivorous eating pattern is more likely nutritionally superior to the vegan conceit.
    I am just not convinced that everyone can all get everything they need from what they eat and all be healthy. I do think some people need supplements no matter how hard they try.

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      January 7, 2020 at 6:26 pm
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      Well therein lies the problem….getting the RDA’s isn’t optimal nutrition. It’s only for getting the minimum amount that a body needs.

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    January 7, 2020 at 9:57 am
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    Supplementing with cyanocobalamin as a source of B12 is not a good idea for those of us who have the MTHFR genetic mutation. I suspect a lot of vegans would not know they have this, just as many meat-eaters also have no idea. I take methylcobalamin and methylfolate to help deal with it. Cyanocobalamin is the cheap synthetic version of B12, found in all the supplements in the supermarket. If I wanted to increase my homocysteine levels and put myself at increased risk of cardio-vascular problems I could take it, but why would I want to when there are better alternatives? Anyone who advises using cyanocobalamin has not done their homework and cannot be taken seriously.

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      January 8, 2020 at 8:15 am
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      Hi Diana
      Great point – many thanks for sharing this.
      Best wishes – Zoe

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    January 7, 2020 at 9:00 am
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    Hi Zoe, thank you for another beautifully balanced and properly informative article. I am seriously concerned about the massive increase in young people adopting a vegan diet with no knowledge of nutrition nor the ability to cook real food, they are being misguided and misinformed by those with an agenda only to make a profit with their products. It is not only irresponsible it is dangerous.

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      January 8, 2020 at 8:16 am
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      Hi Gill
      Thanks for your kind comments. I was one of those veggies who set out young and knowing nothing about nutrition and just assuming that I would get everything I needed. Heck – it would be healthier right? I found out the hard way.
      Best wishes – Zoe

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    January 7, 2020 at 4:52 am
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    I have tried carnivore, and appreciate it is nutritionally complete if you eat liver, but I find it a little boring. I love being an omnivore which is probably not surprising given that is what humans evolved to be! I couldn’t begin to contemplate being a vegan, I value my health too much. As a doctor I have seen plenty of miserably unwell vegans who would be so much better off adding back at least some animal foods but steadfastly refuse to do so for whatever reason. Ah well, you cant fix everyone I guess!

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    January 7, 2020 at 3:36 am
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    Hi Zoe, Great article as always. Do you think it matters if the Brazil nuts are not from Brazil? I am in New Zealand we have low selenium here and can get Brazil nuts from Australia but they also have low selenium. I found some Brazil nuts from Indonesia but I do not know what selenium they have in their soil. Thanks, Saskia

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      January 7, 2020 at 2:05 pm
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      Hi Saskia
      You raise a very good point, which I didn’t cover as the article was already double normal length! Our increasingly poor soil quality is depleting nutrients – minerals especially. Selenium is one of the examples often used as one where nutrient density is getting worse from foods.
      This of course would only get worse in a vegan world without the ruminants to protect top soil.
      We are treading a tightrope feeding the world at the moment!
      Best wishes – Zoe

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    January 6, 2020 at 9:41 pm
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    Your point about some people being bad converters is vitally important but it is typically skipped over in vegan promotional material!
    You mentioned beta-carotene to retinal problems. I’m aware of 5 SNPs that individually may each reduce this conversion.
    Another problem you mention is conversion of ALA to EPA. I have worst-case genes for this, and I would be in serious trouble trying to be a vegan. (I eat oily-fish instead!)
    I’ve seen a caution that genetic variations may cause some people to need more choline. In which case, this would amplify their problems with getting enough choline.
    Other potential genetic problems include: Amylase-number and starch tolerance; extra risk of coeliac disease.
    All of these mean that two people eating exactly the same vegan diet may have totally different health-results. The Faunalytic survey of ex-vegans identified “health” as the 2nd most common reason they stopped being vegan. (“Food” was the most common reason for giving up).
    Their statement “we want a vegan world” is chilling: A vegan world would cause massive mental and/or physical health problems for many people.

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    • avatar
      January 7, 2020 at 2:06 pm
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      Hi Barry
      Many thanks for all these great inputs.
      I’m a bad carotene to retinol converter – I found out the hard way!
      Best wishes – Zoe

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    January 6, 2020 at 7:59 pm
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    As a current student of nutrition and a Vegan of a year I found your article an interesting read.
    I have a few thoughts and hope you are able to address them.
    When talking about B12 you mention about fortified foods and a suggestion that these are high calorie. Most plant-based milks are fortified, do you not agree that this is an appropriate way of supplementing the diet, without adding unnecessary calories?
    I was under the impression that soybeans contain all the 9 amino acids, but perhaps I am mistaken. So, animal protein is ‘complete’, but we rarely eat anything in isolation. When we prepare or buy a meal if we add a number of components containing different amino acids, then is it possible to then have a meal that is ‘complete’?
    Also, with zinc you mention that you could achieve your entire recommended daily zinc intake with a 280g steak. I also believe this would not be healthy, as the current UK guidelines suggest cutting back if you eat 90g a day. Would you suggest that it is OK to eat 280g of steak a day to get your iron?
    The study (ref 26) that found vegans had the lowest intake of iron out of 65,000 people is from 2003, which is outdated at 17 years old. Are there any other more recent studies that support this?

    What saddened me, was your closing thoughts when talking about Omega 3. When you say -amusingly, algae are creatures too, feels a little bit like you are mocking people that are choosing to eat Vegan. Most people choose to follow this lifestyle because of ethical reasons and not wanting to impose suffering on other living beings. I constantly fail to understand how people are so negative about a person making a choice based on this reason.

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      January 12, 2020 at 11:24 pm
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      Sorry to pour cold water on the ideal of living without inflicting suffering, but what about the small creatures killed by agricultural machinery, the loss of habitats for wildlife as agriculture becomes more efficient, loss of insect life, loss of bird life when their are no insects to eat, and the chilling decline of the bee population, which has been linked to pesticides? What about the cruelty of life in the wild? Nothing dies of old age. Everything feeds something else. To be honest, vegans make me sad because they think all meat eaters don’t care about animal welfare.’

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      January 22, 2020 at 3:14 pm
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      I can’t answer most of your questions, but on the complete protein question you are right – combining different vegetables, fruits, legumes etc is a way of getting all 9 types of amino acids you need. That does take some extra thought and planning.

      As Zoe stated : “A useful blog post on a vegan site would explain how plant foods can be combined to provide essential amino acids”

      In terms of soybeans, everything I’ve read says that they do contain ‘complete’ protein (all 9 amino acids). The challenge with relying solely on soy comes from the environmental impact of industrial farming (https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/soy-story-uk-retailers-and-soy-driven-deforestation).
      I found the WWF livewell plate interesting reading too.

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    January 6, 2020 at 5:01 pm
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    Vegans can be fantasically zealous, to the point of tunnel vision. I agree that the necessity of supplementation precludes that a plant-pure diet can be truly ‘healthy.’
    I am confused by the need for absolutism; one is either 100% plants & vegan, or not. I have found my personal health to vastly improve by switching to a diet in which raw plant foods predominate. However, several attempts to sustain 100% plants even with judicious & expensive supplementation have failed.
    I do well with a portion of oily fish once a week and occasional goats cheese.
    There are many ex-vegans who will testify to the deliterious effects of 100% plants. Remarkably, many do appear to thrive longterm, this includes friends of personal acquaintance now in their 2nd and 3rd decades.

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    January 6, 2020 at 2:10 pm
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    Another aspect of the utopia that vegans envision that I have never seen addressed is the fact that our pets (dogs and cats) would starve to death without animal based foods. Without meat, they could not survive. Hundreds of dogs in the US have died from dilated cardiomyopathy after eating dog food “fortified” with pea protein. The amino acids necessary to sustain life in these animals (especially taurine) can only be found in animal protein.

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    • avatar
      January 6, 2020 at 2:37 pm
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      Hi Roxana
      Many thanks for this – I mentioned the carnivore cats towards the end – I stopped at other pets – the post was already double normal length! There’s a great video on line with a Labrador being offered a salad. Labs will eat anything – or maybe not!
      Best wishes – Zoe

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    January 6, 2020 at 1:51 pm
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    That’s been very helpful. I stopped eating meat over welfare issues about a year ago. I still continue with dairy and fish. As an elder woman (58) I’ve had concerns that my diet may not be providing me with all the nutrients needed.
    My son’s girlfriend is a vegan and ate a strict plant diet until recently adding eggs back in. She eats very little processed food and is under the impression her diet is healthy as I am too. This is a good read and I will be sharing it with her. As for me my diary is always free range, organic I think the meat that I’m going to reintroduce will be the same.

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    • avatar
      January 6, 2020 at 4:07 pm
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      Hi Tracey
      Dairy and fish may well be enough. Meat is the richest source of iron and zinc and eggs are really helpful for choline, but you may well be able to get all you need from your diet. You may like to get one of those food apps that lets you enter everything you eat on a typical day (most of us eat similar things daily) and see if you are missing anything?

      Your son’s GF has taken a valuable step by including eggs, in my view. Choline, iron, retinol and the B vitamins – including B12 – are now in GF’s diet – she may need to eat eggs daily to get the full recommended amounts.

      I was veggie for 20 years, so I really do understand the difficulty of moving away from this. I did it because once I found out the impact of meat on my health and the importance of ruminants for the planet, I felt I needed to do my part. (https://www.zoeharcombe.com/2011/08/the-vegetarian-myth-lierre-keith/)

      Best wishes – Zoe

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    • avatar
      January 7, 2020 at 5:03 pm
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      Excellent analysis. It is good to see the intricate relationship between different elements, and how the old saying “varied and scarce” becomes a scientific truth

      Reply

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