Presently, 5% of the U.S. population is vegetarian and half of those are vegan. Over the last five years, the rates of going “veg” have skyrocketed and studies show that they are continuing to climb.
There are many reasons why people choose to go vegetarian or vegan. Some are guided by religious or spiritual reasons. Others believe that a vegetarian or vegan diet is a healthier choice than an omnivorous diet. After all, we have been told for the last 50 years that meats, eggs, and animal fats are all bad for us. However, the most compelling driving force probably came from how much we have now learned about the environmental impact of confinement animal feeding operations (CAFO) and the unethical treatment of these animals.
Most vegetarians and vegans are women. They make up 59% of the vegetarian group and 79% of the vegan group. In recent years, an increasing number of celebrities – athletes, performing artists, talk show hosts, and political figures – have also turned to a plant-based or a completely vegan diet.
Since this is a nutrition newsletter, the focus here will not be on the spiritual, social, or ethical reasons of being a vegetarian or vegan but instead, the nutritional aspects of a plant-based diet. What are the pros and cons? Does going “veg” really help us avoid diabetes, heart disease, and cancer? Can humans truly live on merely eating plants without developing nutrient deficiencies?
Let’s start by first defining what a vegetarian or a vegan is:
A vegetarian is one who lives on a diet of grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruits, with or without the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish, or by-products of slaughter.
A vegan follows the strictest form of vegetarianism and does not eat dairy products, eggs, or any animal products.
Pros Of A Vegetarian or Vegan Diet
It is a fact that the average vegetarian is far healthier than the average American who eats a meat-based diet.
The main reason is that vegetarians, in general, have a healthier lifestyle. They tend to drink less alcohol, exercise more, and avoid a number of extremely harmful foods and ingredients that the average omnivorous American eats.
- Low quality meats. In a standard American diet, most people eat far too much low-quality meats from commercially raised animals, which have been routinely exposed to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic chemicals. These substances have been proven harmful to health and possibly cancer-promoting.
- Processed foods. Most Americans who eat a meat-based diet consume excessive processed foods which are loaded with harmful additives, trans fat and vegetable oils. These bad fatty acids are highly inflammatory, cause oxidative damage, and lead to cardiovascular problems.
- Refined grains. The average American consumes a high amount of refined grains, which causes rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin. In the long-run, it leads to insulin resistance, weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.
- Refined sugar. The average American consumes 3 pounds of sugar each week! Day-in, day-out, it results in insulin resistance, fatty liver, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Plant-based diets emphasize vegetables and fruits, which are high in cancer-protective phytochemicals, antioxidants, and fiber. In contrast, a standard American meat-based diet is extremely low in vegetables and fruits. According to the CDC (Center for Disease and Prevention), only 9% of Americans eat enough vegetables and 13% enough fruits.
Therefore, just by eliminating all the harmful foods and ingredients and by eating an abundance of vegetables and fruits, vegetarians and vegans are naturally healthier than those who are on a standard American diet.
Cons Of A Vegetarian Or Vegan Diet
So vegetarians are healthier, but can a diet of strictly plant-based foods provide all the necessary nutrients required for the normal functioning of the body?
The answer is a definite NO. If you are a vegetarian or a vegan, you should be very cognizant of the hazards of a diet devoid of animal foods. The following are some common nutrient deficiencies in vegetarians and vegans:
Vitamin B12 (cobalamin)
Recent studies using more sensitive techniques to detect B12 deficiency found that 68% of vegetarians and 83% of vegans are B12 deficient, compared to just 5% of omnivores.
The reason is because B12 is present in natural form only in animal sources of food, such as meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs.
B12 is known as the energy vitamin and your body requires it for energy production, blood formation, DNA synthesis, and reproductive health.
Deficiency can cause numerous problems, including fatigue, lethargy, weakness, memory loss, impaired brain function, neurological and psychiatric problems, anemia, and much more. The scariest thing about B12 deficiency is that it can take years to develop, but once symptoms of deficiency appear, the effects can be devastating and may even involve permanent nerve or neurological damage.
If you are a strict vegan, you have a few options to get your B12 – nori seaweed, tempeh (fermented soy), spirulina, brewers yeast, or a B12 supplement. Let’s look at how effective they are.
Research found that only nori seaweed provides the biologically available form of B12. Tempeh, spirulina, and brewers yeast contain so-called pseudo-vitamin B12 which is not biologically available and are not suitable as a source of B12. Also, raw or freeze-dried nori may be better than conventionally dried as some of the B12 is destroyed in the conventional drying process.
When it comes to supplementation, the effectiveness of oral B12 supplement is questionable. Therefore, you should look for a sublingual version rather than pill form. The most readily absorbed, retained, and utilized form of B12 is methylcobalamin.
In studies, both vegetarians and omnivores have similar calcium intake because both groups eat dairy products, however, it is much lower in vegans who are often deficient, putting them at higher risk for bone fractures.
The reason is because calcium bioavailability (degree of absorption) from plant foods is affected by the levels of oxalate and phytate (substances found in plant foods, grains, and legumes), which inhibit calcium absorption and therefore, decrease the amount of calcium the body can extract from plant foods. So while leafy greens like spinach and kale have a relatively high calcium content, the calcium is not efficiently absorbed during digestion.
One study suggests that it would take 5-6 cups of cooked spinach or 33 cups raw baby spinach to get the same amount of absorbable calcium as an 8-ounce glass of milk. This implies that plant foods alone is unlikely to provide all the calcium needs of a vegan.
Iron is found in both plant and animal foods but the type of iron differs. Heme iron is found only in meats, primarily red meat. Non-heme iron is found in plants but its bioavailability is inferior to that of heme iron.
Furthermore, heme iron helps with the absorption of non-heme iron, and the absorption of non-heme iron is also inhibited by substances such as coffee, tea, dairy products, supplemental fiber, and supplemental calcium. So vegetarians and vegans may have an elevated risk of anemia, even though they are getting plenty of non-heme iron.
Iron is an essential element for blood production. Deficiency is best known for causing anemia and fatigue, but iron is also required for proper functioning of the brain and deficiency can cause memory and other cognitive problems.
If you are an adult male or postmenopausal woman, you may not have to worry too much as your body requires less iron. However, if you are a menstruating woman, you probably need supplementation.
Do not go for ferrous sulfate supplements; it is a relatively toxic inorganic form of iron found in many multivitamins. Instead, choose carbonyl iron, which is a safer form of iron supplement. Avoid taking calcium supplements with iron pills at the same time because calcium interferes with iron absorption. Instead, take with vitamin C supplements to enhance absorption.
Zinc is an important trace mineral for good health. It is found in cells throughout the body and is needed for the proper functioning of the immune system. It plays a key role in cell division, cell growth, and wound healing. Zinc enhances the action of insulin and the breakdown of carbohydrates. It is needed for the senses of smell and taste. During pregnancy, infancy, and childhood, the body needs zinc to grow and develop properly.
Although zinc is present in vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes, it is found in much lower amounts compared to animal foods and is also much less bioavailable. Moreover, zinc absorption is inhibited by plant compounds such as phytate, oxalate, polyphenols, and fiber, but enhanced by compounds present in meats. For this reason, one study suggested that vegetarians may require up to 50% more zinc than omnivores. However, take zinc in small doses as high doses can cause nausea and copper deficiency.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an essential omega-3 fat found in animal products like fish, eggs, and meats. It is vital for normal brain function and heart health, and pregnant women who are deficient in DHA also place their babies at increased risk for developmental problems.
In the body, DHA can be made from the omega-3 fatty acid, ALA (alpha linolenic acid), which is found in high amounts in flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. However, the conversion of ALA to DHA is very inefficient. Some studies suggested a conversion rate of merely 2-5%. In addition, the conversion of ALA to DHA depends on zinc, iron, and pyridoxine (vitamin B6), nutrients which vegetarians and vegans are likely to have deficiencies.
In general, vegetarians have 30% lower levels of DHA than omnivores, while vegans have nearly 60% lower. Hence, they should consider taking a vegetarian DHA supplement made from micro algae.
Sulfur is the third most abundant mineral in the body, after calcium and phosphorus. It plays a vital role in the body’s energy production, vitamin conversion, detoxification, joint health, and proper insulin function.
Sulfur is found in abundance in animal products like meats, eggs, and fish. Legumes, garlic, onion, cruciferous vegetables, asparagus, avocados, and wheat germ also have small amounts of sulphur provided the food was grown in soil that contains adequate amounts of sulfur.
Vegans are at a higher risk of sulfur deficiency. Apart from eating more sulfur-rich plant foods, they can get additional sulfur from coconut oil and olive oil. Supplementing with an organic form of sulfur called methylsulfonylmethane (MSM) is another option.
Vitamin D is an extremely important steroid hormone for optimal health and chronic disease prevention. It regulates calcium metabolism and immune function, reduces inflammation, and protects against various forms of cancer.
Up to 75% of the U.S. population is deficient in Vitamin D. Most people do not get enough vitamin D merely from food sources, namely fatty fish, organ meats, eggs, and dairy products. Hence, vegetarians and vegans are at even greater risk of deficiency unless they get regular exposure to sunlight (without the use of sunscreen) or take a vitamin D3 supplement.
Do not use vitamin D2 which is much less bioavailable compared to D3. If you take a D3 supplement, remember to take a vitamin K2 at the same time. This will ensure that calcium is not erroneously deposited in your arteries but the bones instead.
To be honest, it is quite impossible to meet all the nutrient needs without extensive supplementation. Vegans may even require to take in 25% more protein every day than vegetarians and carnivores, because plant proteins are more difficult to digest and absorb than animal proteins.
If you plan your diet very very well and you eat plenty of organic, pasture-raised eggs and full-fat dairy, you may be able to meet all your nutrient needs with the exception of omega-3 DHA and vitamin D. That means you still need to take a micro algae supplement for the DHA plus a D3 or get regular sun exposure.
Genetic differences play a huge role in the conversion of certain nutrient precursors into their active forms. These differences may affect how long someone will be able to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet before they develop nutrient deficiencies. That is why some people seem to do well for years or decades on these diets while others develop problems rather quickly.
One last note is that many vegetarians and vegans rely on soy products as their main source of protein. To the surprise of many people, soy is actually not a health food. Here are five reasons why soy is not good for you:
- 94% of soybeans in the U.S. is GMO. Unfortunately, due to cross-pollination by wind and insects, the remaining 6% of non-GMO soy may not be truly non-GMO either.
- Soy contains chemical compounds called isoflavones that mimic estrogen. Too much estrogen causes reproductive problems in both sexes and may promote cancer development.
- Soy is a legume and is not easily digested. It is very high in phytates, a digestion inhibitor that binds to minerals like zinc, iron, and calcium and prevents their absorption, leading to mineral deficiencies.
- Soy is one of the top allergenic foods because it resembles gluten on a molecular level. If your body reacts to gluten, you may react to soy too.
- Soy is goitrogenic, meaning it suppresses the thyroid gland in the uptake of iodine, which is necessary for making thyroid hormones.
Thus, it is best to avoid relying on soy as the main protein source. But if you are going to eat it, at least go for organic fermented soy products, such as tempeh, natto, miso, and soy sauce, which have less of the negative effects of soy.