Recently I came across an article – 10 Vegan Diet Dangers – by a blog named Butter Nutrition authored by “nutritional therapist,” Catherine. It tries to evoke fear into readers to avoid going on a vegan diet.
Obviously the first point to note is the hasty generalization of an entire group. Secondly, veganism is not a diet, it’s an ideology. It’s well known that vegetarian diets, including strict vegetarian diets (colloquially known as vegan), can not only meet all human nutritional needs but also be health promoting, as asserted by authoritative health boards across the world like the USDA, Mayo Clinic and Harvard Health. Catherine seemingly neglected to mention this in her post.
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” – Position of the American Dietetic Association
Maybe Catherine is implying an overemphasis on the premise appropriately planned, which in reality applies to all diets, vegetarian and non-vegetarian alike. However, as is clearly demonstrated throughout the vegan community and in my own dietary guidelines, eating healthfully without animal products is simple and easy.
Arguably, avoiding animal products may even make healthfulness even easier, as plant based diets have been demonstrated numerous times within scientific literature to be superior. Subsequently there many experts in the field of nutrition who advocate for plant based diets, some of whom include Dr Michael Gregor, Dr Joel Fuhrman and Dr T Colin Campbell.
Now, let’s tackle each of Catherine’s specific points.
Vegan Diet Danger #1: Historically, there are no cultures that have thrived by subsisting off of animal free diets.
The argument here is that since there have been no vegan cultures in the past there is an inherit danger of being vegan today. This is a weak argument. Cultures are continuously evolving and science is adapting, so too is our food changing. What makes this argument even worse is that’s its assumption isn’t entirely correct – while veganism is a new ideology, vegetarianism dates back to ancient times. Agriculture is what gave birth to civilization, and domestication of cattle came much later and didn’t really become prominent until the 18th century (refer to Lawrie’s Meat Science for the history of meat). As is argued by Dr John McDougall, author of The Starch Solution, diets of the past have consistently been starch based and consisting of very few animal products.
Look at Chinese Buddhist cuisine, almost entirely void of animal products. Look at traditional diets of less developed nations in Asia, almost entirely void of animal products (in part due to them being unable to afford animal products, as animal product consumption increases with increase of GDP). Milk consumption isn’t common in many cultures due to lactose intolerance. And what about Seventh-day Adventist populations in California where many nutritional studies are conducted as they are well known to live longer and more healthfully? On top that there are other religions and cultures that exclude many forms of animal products.
There are clearly subgroups of populations that have thrived with elimination of animal products, including elimination of all animal products. Using history as an argument doesn’t favorably work against animal free diets when we consider the nutritional health decline of populations with high GDP, and consequently high animal product consumption, compared to those of other healthful cultures restricting or eliminating animal products. There’s no “gotcha” here, just ignorance.
In this section Catherine also references dentist Weston Price who found correlation between tooth decay and lower absorption of fat soluble nutrients. Rather than advocating for higher consumption of fruits and vegetables, or healthy fats like nuts, seeds and avocados, the argument seems to be that we shouldn’t restrict or eliminate animal products. This is clearly flawed logic.
Vegan Diet Danger #2: People often come to vegan diets because they have trouble digesting meat and dairy products (fatigue, inflammation, acne, bloating, weight gain, and other symptoms)
This isn’t even an argument. The claim here is that some people who seem intolerant to animal food groups turn to veganism, and this is apparently dangerous. Needless to say, lactose intolerance is a real issue – it doesn’t matter how healthy you are, if you’re lactose intolerant then you’re lactose intolerant and cannot properly digest dairy milk.
If you’re having trouble on a diet containing animal products, it’s not dangerous to transition to a healthy plant based diet, it just makes sense. Why would you continue on a diet that makes you sick?
Vegan Diet Danger #3: The best “diets” are those with a great variety of nutrients and without dietary limitations
Here I can agree with the first premise – the best diet is one with a great variety of nutrients. However, most of us in some form or another have dietary limitations – how many of you consume insects, dogs, cats, grass, leaves? Are you really an omnivore making full use of your canine teeth then?
Granted, it can be unhealthy to completely eliminate healthful groups of food. For example, it’d be dangerous for health if one were to cut out fruits or vegetables. Animal foods however can be safely and healthily either restricted or eliminated due to their poor nutrient composition. Some people choose to cut out grains, and some people cut out wheat due to celiac disease – there’s nothing inherently unhealthy with this so long as the wide spectrum of essential nutrients are covered.
There is one caveat though – sometimes it can be psychologically unhealthy, but not necessarily physically unhealthy, to enforce dietary limitations. Like telling yourself you can’t eat cake, meanwhile reinforcing your craving for cake, then punishing yourself if you cave and eat cake. This doesn’t mean that cake should be an unrestricted component of your diet, but if you suffer from this restrictive mentality then eating disorders can arise. I cover this a little in my article, Don’t be Afraid of Chocolate. Seeing as veganism is an ideology it doesn’t imply that vegans have eating disorders. Not to say that vegans can’t suffer eating disorders – just as any non-vegan can suffer an eating disorder – but veganism itself doesn’t create an eating disorder.
Vegan Diet Danger #4: Vegan diets tend to be low in high quality protein
Did you know that there is a big difference in the protein quality of animals vs. plants?
Why yes, I did know that. Did you know that “complete” animal protein can be carcinogenic and cancer promoting whilst “incomplete” plant protein is not? I’ll take the “lesser quality” plant protein over the more harmful “higher quality” protein, thanks.
What Catherine also fails to acknowledge is that foods are not merely collections of macronutrients (like protein), but come in complete packages. Some packages can be health promoting and some can be detrimental to health. Animal foods come attached with other unnecessary baggage like saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol, not just protein. On the other hand, plants come with healthful baggage like phytochemicals and antioxidants.
In this segment Catherine quotes Dr Ray Peat who claimed, in 1996, that “[t]he quality of most vegetable protein (especially beans and nuts) is so low that it hardly functions as protein.” This is contradictory current scientific consensus and every world health organization. It’s pure outdated nonsense (see: The Myth of Complementary Protein).
Catherine also makes an incorrect connection to infertility, despite that plant based diets are associated with higher fertility rates and animal protein is actually associated with infertility (also see: Male Fertility and Diet and Meat Hormones & Female Infertility).
Vegan Diet Danger #5: Low protein diets can increase toxicity
This is barely worth addressing. There’s no science backing this up, but there’s a lot of science illustrating toxicity of animal protein. Catherine also talks about detoxification – more nonsense. Maybe if there were some actual references provided rather than another quote by Ray Peat we could take this empty claim more seriously.
Vegan Diet Danger #6: Plant based diets can decrease digestive juices
Here Catherine demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the human digestive process. No references are provided in this segment so it’s not even worth countering. There’s no evidence suggesting that plant based diets decrease digestive juices.
Vegan Diet Danger #7: Dietary dogma that if it’s not working for you, you’re doing it “wrong”
Dogma is present in all dietary regimes. Paleo advocates argue the same just as raw vegans and everyone in-between. This isn’t a danger inherit to veganism itself, it’s a danger of being human. Humans can be very dogmatic in their views. It’s always best to keep an open mind, but that’s not excuse to fall for unfounded nonsense.
If one is not achieving optimal results on a diet, then that diet should be altered – preferably with the help of somebody else with necessary expertise. Many varieties of diets can fall within the category of strict vegetarianism. Avoiding animal products is so broad it shouldn’t be interpreted as a diet. Claiming to be “vegan” is of little significance when analyzing the sufficiency of a diet. (See this helpful thread by registered dietitian Jeff Novick: When Vegan Is Not Enough!)
Vegan Diet Danger #8: Because of the body’s ability to adapt to any type of fuel (for survival), it often takes time to see negative effects of this way of eating
We’re getting to the end now, and it seems Catherine is really pulling at straws. Again this applies to all diets. The detrimental effects of the Standard American Diet aren’t immediately visible, but generally show later on in life in the form of heart disease or cancer. This is not a danger inherit to veganism, it’s a danger inherit to eating unhealthfully for a prolonged period of time.
Vegan Diet Danger #9: Vegan dieters can favor soy products
And non-vegan dieters can favor steak, or chips, or anything else that fits in with this useless, irrelevant argument. Again the claims in this segment are unfounded. Soy is a health promoting food. If you have issue with soy, then don’t eat it – there’ll be no danger either way. As usual, put emphasis on whole food rather than processed, as soy can be an additive in many foods that aren’t so good for your health.
Vegan Diet Danger #10: Vegan diets can be heavy in nut consumption
This is really just a repeat of illogic in the other argument above (the desperation is showing), just replace soy with nuts. Again there are no references in this segment. Nuts are not difficult to digest and in fact are healthful. Mentioned here also is phytic acid, which actually has health promoting properties. Even though phytic acid isn’t inherently dangerous, it can be dramatically reduced through soaking, sprouting and cooking of seeds (such as grains, nuts and legumes, including soy).
Does Catherine’s article provide a compelling argument illustrating potential dangers of a vegan diet? Certainly not. This is a clear illustration of misinformation and creating unfounded fear to prevent people from looking after their health, the planet and fellow animals.