I shouldn’t say never, but I’ll get to that later. The short answer to this question is that humans cannot reach optimal nutrient levels with plant-sourced foods alone. That’s really where I’m coming from with this. Plant-based protein and fat sources are not as bioavailable to our species, and therefore cannot be the only sources we get of those macronutrients if we want to be optimally healthy long-term.
Long-term veganism leads to nutrient deficiencies, and the many, MANY processed vegan foods on the market are full of additives that will lead to disease down the road when coupled with insufficient overall nutrient levels. It’s just not the healthiest way to eat if you’re a human, so it comes with consequences.
I am often frustrated by the argument that being vegetarian or vegan is healthier, more noble or somehow better than being omnivorous. It honestly triggers me, and it has taken me a long time to figure out why. I have heard people make off-hand comments suggesting that living meat-free and/or animal product-free is some kind of righteous achievement to be reached. Enlightenment, salvation, whatever you want to call it. This can come from those who actually do it and also those who likely never will, but it seems like it’s the consensus that it is something to be strived toward, to be achieved and to be revered by those who can actually pull it off.
Now we are hearing “plant-based,” which I presume is an effort to rebrand? Not sure why. If so many people think vegetarianism and veganism are so virtuous, why change the words? I like the response of many of my holistic nutritionist colleagues who say they are “plant-based” too, they just also eat meat. The implication of this ambiguous wording is that other lifestyles are not also based in greens/vegetables, which is just not true. It paints those who follow ketogenic or paleo lifestyles as carnivorous when that also does not have to be true. Yes, there are some who do swear by the actual carnivore lifestyle, but those are typically people who are using it as a therapeutic diet and who may return to being omnivores once some level of healing has been achieved.
Why is it not righteous to eat animal products in humane, sustainable ways? (I think it is). Can’t there be a balance of respect towards animals along with respect for our genetic omnivorous nature? (I think so). Can’t we care about the environment AND eat meat? (Yup). This doesn’t have to be all or nothing. The choices aren’t “Big Macs” or “Vegan”. Factory Farms or Vegan. Pink Slime or Vegan. There is nuance to every situation. There are ways to be the healthiest vegan you can be, while there are junk-food vegans who are even more nutritionally deplete than their whole-food counterparts. In the same vain, there are healthy and unhealthy omnivores. The unhealthy ones follow the Standard American Diet, which is full of processed foods, factory farmed meats, sugary drinks and few whole foods. Those of us who are trying to respect animals, the environment AND optimal nutrition can do so with an omnivorous whole-foods diet that includes sustainably raised and humanely slaughtered animal protein. This includes pastured, free range, grass-fed and wild caught animal and fish protein along with raw dairy if one tolerates it. I want to acknowledge that the ability to at this way is a privilege, and I understand it may be cost prohibitive to many people. It is, however, the most optimally nutritious diet for humans, and I strongly believe systems need to change in order to make fresh foods more available to all.
Contrary to what Bill Gates recently claimed, the fake meat movement is NOT the answer to our climate crisis. Sure, if we want to shut down factory farms that are causing devastating damage to our air quality and ozone layers, that will require people to change the sourcing of their meat or stop eating it altogether. I support that. But to proudly back an industry that produces frankenfoods full of GMO soy, damaging vegetable oils, sweeteners, additives and straight up toxic chemicals is downright NUTTY to me. There’s GOT to be a better way to eat a burger than one with a dozen ingredients, some of which were created in a lab and which I cannot pronounce. And that answer to me is… eat a burger. A good old, single ingredient burger made from ground beef, chicken, turkey or salmon. Hey, make your own veggie burger from mushrooms, beans, rice, whatever you want! You are not. not. NOT going to get healthier from eating FAKE MEAT. If you eat it, just know that. If you like it and can look beyond the chemicals- do you. Just please don’t do it in the name of health, because it’s just as bad as an Oreo, Doritos and any other processed fake edible product. Respecting animals and saving the environment are certainly noble and worthy causes, but these issues do not exist in vacuums and the full picture (including what’s best for the nutritional health of the human race) needs to be considered when discussing productive solutions. What ever happened to just eating more veggies and either less meat or more sustainably raised meat? Now, there’s a concept. (More to come on the fake meat debate in a future post).
Weston A. Price was a dentist and a researcher who traveled the world, studying indigenous and westernized populations to discover the causes of erosion of health (and teeth, specifically) among family generations. He had a lot of fascinating findings, but he discovered (to his disappointment) that no vegan culture he studied had optimal health. He was hoping to find one and record their practices as he did with other cultures, but he found that such a culture to be emulated did not exist. Vegans were consistently found to be nutritionally deplete with poor dental health. I you are interested in reading Dr. Price’s work, check out his book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.
*For the purposes of this post, I will be referring to nutritional diets related to health and wellness as therapeutic diets (not medically therapeutic diets like for renal care, cardiac care or consistency changes after surgery).*
This is important. There are some diets that are meant to be short-term in order to detoxify the body from whatever has offended someone’s system. This is where vegan, raw, vegetarian and carnivorous diets can shine the most and be incredibly healing. Many can feel the benefits of a raw vegan diet quickly, for example, especially if they have been eating copious amounts of processed and factory-farmed meat. (Mind you, healthy carnivorous or omnivorous diets promote sustainable and humanely-raised proteins and also do NOT support factory farms). There are tremendous benefits to some who eat this way for a period of time as their body detoxifies, and unfortunately this is often conflated to mean that it is the healthiest way to live long-term. We are often told by the media that we need to pick a “lifestyle” and stick to it. Any time spent NOT on that trajectory is considered “off the wagon.” However, our bodies and states of health are evolving and changing, and we may need to adjust our intake as our bodies change. Um… lightbulb! My mind was blown when I realized this. We do not need to be pigeon-holed into one lifestyle forever. We should be constantly conducting our own experiments on ourselves with diet and lifestyle choices so we can do what’s best for our OWN bodies. Everyone is different; it’s a beautiful thing.
Here are some examples of short-term therapeutic diets working. This list is long but not exhaustive.
- Elimination diets: many of these types of diets cut out gluten, refined sugar and dairy because they are the most inflammatory food groups. The object is to reduce overall body inflammation (a reset of sorts) and then reintroduce foods one by one to assess potential food sensitivities or intolerances.
- Claims include: reduction of inflammation in the body which can reduce joint pain and skin issues among other things. Digestion tends to improve with healing of leaky gut, resulting in fewer digestive and bathroom issues. Identification of food sensitivities and intolerances can be achieved if reintroduction is done correctly.
- Negative consequences of long-term use: Since many food groups are cut out, these diets tend to be accidentally low-calorie which could result in lack of sufficient nutrients over time if not managed well. If someone can sustain these habits long term, though, while achieving sufficient calories, there should be no harm to the body since no essential food group is eliminated.
- Examples: Whole30, Shred10, 21 Day Sugar Detox. More prescriptive examples (for specific diagnoses) include Low Fodmap diet, GAPS diet, SIBO Specific diet.
- Vegan: NO animal products of any kind are to be included in this lifestyle. Eggs might not be meat, but they’re out since they’re still animal protein. Same with fish, butter and all dairy, collagen, gelatin, honey and anything else made by or from animals/insects/fish. This philosophy often spreads to other lifestyle choices such as avoiding leather and wool or soaps made with animal products.
- Claims include: clearer skin, improved digestion, stress reduction, improved energy, increased mental clarity, weight loss, resolved hypertension (high blood pressure), environmental benefits, animal welfare.
- Negative consequences of long-term use: tooth erosion, amenorrhea (loss of periods), B12 deficiency and other vitamin deficiencies, insufficient protein, calcium and Vitamin D levels.
- Raw Vegan: some inherent benefits to this diet are in that all foods consumed are not processed, refined, pasteurized, or covered in pesticides (if organic), which eliminates many of the unhealthy foods people eat and drink, including alcohol. There are some confounding variables here, but that’s the gist. Juicing, blending, dehydrating, soaking and sprouting are permitted. The diet is comprised of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and supplements are discouraged.
- Claims include: all those listed under vegan benefits, with the exception of improved digestion since raw foods are harder to digest. Also improved vitality, improvement of diagnosed diseases, improved overall health, lower cholesterol (both LDL and HDL), detoxification.
- Negative consequences of long-term use: tooth erosion, amenorrhea (loss of periods), B12 deficiency and other vitamin deficiencies (partly because of missing nutrients found in animal products, but also because fat helps absorb nutrients and a raw food diet tends to be lower in fat) , insufficient protein, calcium and Vitamin D levels.
- Nonvegan Raw: can include raw eggs, dairy, fish and meat at times
- Similar claims for health, and the drawbacks are less severe because some of the vitamin and nutrient deficiencies would be solved with the animal product inclusion.
- Vegetarian: more of a lifestyle than a therapeutic diet (included here for clarification). It can be managed healthfully when choosing foods balanced with adequate nutrient profiles and can be done so long-term, especially with the inclusion of eggs and dairy. Mind you, as with any lifestyle, it can also be done unhealthfully. The Pescatarian diet includes fish but no other meats and can be done long-term very healthfully as no nutrient category is completely left out.
- Carnivore: This diet includes ONLY animal products, such as meat, fish, eggs and low-lactose dairy. This diet aims for zero carbs. Theories behind this lifestyle reference ancestral hunter diets which were largely carnivorous, as well as the theory that high-carb lifestyles have led every “advanced” civilization toward chronic disease.
- Claims include: improved digestion (decreased gas, bloating, constipation), improved mood, treats depression and anxiety, increased energy, less need for snacking, fat adaptation for weight loss, blood sugar regulation, reduced body aches/ arthritis, reduced brain fog.
- Negative consequences of long-term use: nutritional deficiencies due to lack of fiber, concerns about health due to high fat and salt content, difficult to maintain, constipation.
- Ketogenic: Extremely low-carb diet that allows the body to be in a state of ketosis, where the body is burning fat for fuel instead of sugar.
- Claims include: weight loss, reduced brain fog/ improved mental clarity, improved energy, no cravings, always satiated between meals, stable blood sugar, stable hormones.
- Negative consequences of long-term use: This diet is not optimal for everyone. It can technically be done long-term with success, since no essential food groups are completely cut out. But I suggest doing research before diving into it to see if your body type, age and gender respond well to it before doing so, or try it for a short period to see how you feel.
- Autoimmune Paleo (AIP): Anti-inflammatory diet consisting of whole foods, and avoiding all allergenic/irritating foods in order to suppress or resolve symptoms of autoimmune conditions. This diet is gluten, dairy, processed-food and refined-sugar free, and can exclude vegetables in the nightshade or fodmap categories depending on the individual. Also excluded are nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs, vegetable oils and artificial sweeteners.
- Claims include: resolution of symptoms from autoimmune conditions, rendering the person essentially “healed,” despite many of these diseases being considered incurable. Gut inflammation relief is a major claim, which leads to gut healing which is strongly tied to autoimmune conditions.
- Negative consequences of long-term use: Depending on your state of health and status of autoimmune diagnoses, this may be the best diet for you and can be done long-term, since essential food groups are covered. It is often very restrictive, though, and can be difficult to manage mentally and physically.
- Low Fodmap: This is an elimination diet designed to improve digestion of fermentable carbohydrates (Fodmaps). Anything that is in the fodmap category is cut out for the first phase and then eventually reintroduced strategically and systematically to assess triggers and thresholds for tolerance.
- Claims include: resolves symptoms of IBS. Drawbacks: difficult to maintain, restrictive.
- Specific Carbohydrate diet: This diet is specifically designed to help with digestive disorders such as
Crohn’s disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Celiac disease, Diverticulitis, Cystic Fibrosis and chronic diarrhea. It focuses on eliminating inflammatory and difficult-to-digest carbohydrates, cutting out sugar, grains, potatoes, processed foods while encouraging a whole foods approach within the framework.
- Claims include: Remission from digestive symptoms, gut-healing
- Negative consequences of long-term use: Some may actually need to be on this diet forever or a very long time in order to keep symptoms away. Others may be able to reintroduce foods once they are healed, but it is not typically recommended until 1 year after symptoms resolve. This diet is strict/restrictive, so it may be difficult for people to manage logistically, despite being effective.
- Juicearian/Juice Cleanses: Fresh fruit and vegetable juice provides wholesome nutrients that can supplement a healthy omnivorous diet. But I will say this: don’t do this long-term, or even for multiple days at a time.
- Claims include: detoxification, “clean out your system,” weight loss.
- Negative consequences: There aren’t significant nutritional benefits to juice cleanses- they’re mostly done for weight loss which does not consider negative health consequences such as nutritional deficiencies. Consuming no protein, fat or fiber can lead to muscle and even bone loss, and those with kidney issues can put themselves at serious risk- they should never juice cleanse.
- Fruitarian/Sproutarian: Subsets of raw veganism. I am only mentioning because they are a thing, but not one recommended by any dietician or nutritionist I know of because it can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies quickly.
This was a LOT of information, I realize. I will do a separate post that is more inclusive of the diets I missed here, but this covers most that people are talking about today. Please feel free to reach out to me with productive discourse, though I am not going to agree with you if you tell me you can get complete protein and nutrients from vegetables alone in the quantities we need for optimal health. It’s just not biologically possible with the way our bodies process foods as humans. To anyone who read this far, THANK YOU!