This article has been written to dispel some of the myths that surround veganism in an attempt to lay out the facts. This article is not supposed to be an attack on meat eaters, I am not suggesting that vegans are ‘better than you’ I am simply trying to make the facts truthful and clear regarding links between health and a vegan lifestyle. This article is designed to address only the health aspects and will not include arguments for other concepts within the vegan movement such as environmental concerns or animal welfare.
I have tried to be as objective as possible, since health is a silly thing to lie to oneself or others about, and misinformation could be detrimental. Also note that I am not personally a medical professional, I have only conducted research examining recent scientific studies and evidence, but the following should not be treated as medical advice and should not replace recommendations by trained medical professionals or your personal judgement.
I hope this article will provide you with some useful information and make you rethink some of the vegan health myths which are are now either outdated or have been disproved.
Without milk you won’t get your calcium
One thing that is often assumed about vegans is that without dairy products they will be deficient in calcium and thus more vulnerable to issues with bone density and health. However, recent studies are increasingly suggesting that this simply isn’t the case. What many people don’t realise is that common, dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale, broccoli, nuts and beans (to name a few sources) provide an excellent source of calcium (and indeed iron and essential proteins among other goodies), even potentially more than dairy products can provide. It is very easy to obtain adequate calcium (and iron) on a vegan diet, and because of its ready availability it should not be a concern even for vegan athletes (Fuhrman & Ferreri, 2010). With athletics in mind, it is worth remembering that bone density and health is directly linked to exercise and activity, the more active you are the better your bone health. Of course this is dependent on diet and lifestyle on an individual basis, since anybody can be inactive and have poor diets.
A study by Appleby et al. (2007) showed that vegans had a similar bone fracture rate to meat eaters and vegetarians, the (the minute difference possibly due to the lack of leafy vegetables in their diet). This has led to the conclusion that everyone should be monitoring and supplementing their calcium intake whether vegan or not. It is also interesting to note that there are continuing debates within scientific communities over whether high animal protein intake can in fact cause calcium loss through urination due to blood acidity (Kerstetter et al. 2003). Just as a warning for everyone, urine calcium loss is also linked to sodium intake, some suggesting that each gram of sodium in a diet can cause 20mg calcium to be lost, so diets high in sodium are associated with reduced bone density (Bedford & Barr, 2011).
You might be shocked to hear that most people around the world are in fact technically lactose intolerant. This is because the production of lactase, the enzyme produced by the gut that is required to break down lactose, stops after children move on from breastfeeding. This is natural since the body no longer requires milk from the mother when it can digest solid foods, so why do people rely on the breast milk from other animals when their body cannot digest human milk, let alone that of another species.
Therefore the myth that vegans cannot get enough calcium without dairy milk is simply not true. Vegans should make sure to monitor calcium intake, but if they are eating a healthy diet (like everyone should!) it should never be a concern. That said, I would advise everyone, vegan and not, to supplement their calcium intake with either vitamin pills or fortified foods, simply because osteoporosis is a concern for so many ageing people and the dietary causes are still not fully understood, and osteoporosis is an awful fate for anyone. So by making sure to get enough calcium rich greens and pulses, and exercising regularly any vegan can have perfectly healthy bones.
Vegans need to take loads of supplements
This follows on nicely from the previous myth, but extends to include a variety of vitamins and minerals such as iron, vitamins D & B-12, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids. This a funny one in the sense that essentially everyone needs to take supplements of some sort. What I mean by this is that many foods are fortified by manufacturers with vitamins, an easily recognisable example is breakfast cereals, they often have big labels advertising the fact that they contain some of your daily recommended vitamins and minerals. Many people don’t realise that the reason this is seen as necessary is because we have moved too far from the diets we are designed for, for example a variety of nuts, pulses and seeds, leafy green vegetables and fruit are great sources for these vitamins and minerals… exactly what vegans have given up animal products to embrace. Even the milk that you think is full of vitamin A and D only has those vitamins because they are added afterwards to make sure people get enough.
I’m not saying that a vegan diet provides all the things we need, but neither does a meat based diet, so both require supplements of some kind. Vitamin D is essential for helping to absorb calcium (see above), and is a concern for most people since humans have moved from their evolutionary origins in Africa (this is seen as one of the driving causes of white skin pigmentation as people moved north). Since we obviously don’t produce as much vitamin D from exposure to the sun as we move into more northern latitudes we should be supplementing our natural vitamin D (this is a classic example of cultural adaptation). People with dark skin find it harder to produce vitamin D, but anyone living in places that aren’t mainly hot and sunny (for example anywhere above the equator) should really be supplementing their vitamin D, especially during the winter (Craig, 2009).
One of the most prevalent concerns about veganism is the fact that B-12 is no longer found in large enough concentrates to be absorbed naturally through a plant based diet. This concern is real because B-12 is essential and most people don’t want to have to take supplements for such an important vitamin. Most people think that B-12 comes from meat, however the actual source of B-12 is bacteria found in soils, which are now all but depleted in most places, and gut bacteria in animal digestive tracts. Since most farmed animals don’t eat a natural diet which includes traces of soils and faeces this means that the B-12 you get from meat… is given to the animals as supplements in their food/injections (Stewart, 2013)[Cobalt is the dietary supplement needed by ruminants to synthesise B-12]. So everyone is actually taking B-12 supplements, but vegans are the ones getting it more directly.
Vegans need to regularly consume fatty acids such as omega-3, but these are readily available from many sources such as walnuts, flax and hemp seeds, canola oil and many soy products (Craig, 2009). Everyone should make sure to get enough of all the above vitamins and minerals, vegan or not, so make sure to check your diet to make sure you are either eating foods rich in goodies or at least taking supplements, and try to get out in the sunshine as much as possible but be careful not to burn! (remember you should wait around 10-15 minutes in the sunshine before applying sunscreen to allow for sufficient UV absorption).
Vegans aren’t healthy
This myth is becoming less and less popular through time as people realise that veganism is actually a very healthy and fulfilling lifestyle, studies showing that veganism is sometimes even considered the more healthy lifestyle (Clarys et al. 2014). Countless vegan athletes continue to perform either as well as or better than athletes that consume animal products, and the vegan diet is becoming synonymous with glowing health and longevity.
As you can see above there is ever growing evidence that obtaining the right amounts of vitamins and minerals can be easy on a vegan diet, and the idea that vegans lack protein is now outdated. The adequate combinations of essential amino acids can in fact be obtained solely from plant sources (Young & Pellett, 1994), and come without the added hormones, antibiotics and unwanted fats (plant proteins instead come with good fibre, antioxidants and phytochemicals). In fact the consumption of plant proteins instead of animal proteins is suggested to decrease risks of obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer due to activity by providing “non-essential” amino acids that promote increased glucagon activity (Krajcovicova-Kudlackova et al. 2005; McCarty, 1999).
As mentioned before there is a rise in the number of plant based athletes around the world, and they are certainly making waves. For example at the time of writing this article Patrik Baboumian is the strongest man in Germany… he has been vegan for years. There is increasing evidence that meeting the dietary needs for competitive athletes is entirely possible (Wirnitzer, 2014; Fuhrman & Ferreri, 2010) and has even been said to produce leaner more energised athletes.
So as you can see it is a myth that vegans can’t be healthy, there is much evidence that suggests otherwise. This is of course dependent on lifestyle of the individual, there are still many unhealthy vegan foods (like fries for example) so it’s not enough to say a vegan lifestyle will make you healthy. However this isn’t limited to vegans, everyone should plan their diet and activity to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but it’s clear that this is achievable as a vegan.
Vegan diets aren’t suitable for children
First I would like to remind you of the points above. As evidence suggests, the human body can get the nutrients it needs from a plant based diet and can be an extremely healthy way to live. HOWEVER this does not mean that a child’s diet and activity shouldn’t be monitored to make sure they are getting everything they need to grow and develop healthily. This applies to EVERY parent, not just vegans. I have seen parents condemning vegan parents for not providing their children a healthy diet, whilst continuing to feed their own children a diet filled with sugar, processed meat and rarely any vegetables.
Just like anyone else a vegan diet can be a perfectly healthy one for children as long as it is planned properly, and there is no evidence of physical or intellectual impairment in vegan children that are well cared for (Sanders, 1988). There was a story that hit the headlines recently of an Italian child that was rushed to hospital because it was supposedly malnourished from its vegan diet. However, since the author was so busy condemning vegans the fact that it was neglectful parenting, not the vegan diet, which had caused the harm was ignored. This leads to a worldwide expectation that vegan diets are bad for children when in reality they can be extremely healthy and provide all the nutrients for normal healthy development.
Soy contains oestrogen and lowers testosterone
Until relatively recently it has been widely believed that soy was a source of oestrogen that could throw of the body’s natural hormone balance and cause testosterone levels to drop. However so much evidence has been produced that disputes these claims that this myth is now considered outdated.
The reason these claims were made in the first place is that soy contains phytoestrogen compounds called isoflavones which have chemical similarities to oestrogen. However, even though they are similar these compounds do not affect the body in the same way; isoflavones found in soy do not affect reproductive hormones (Hamilton-Reeves et al. 2010; Maskarinec, 2006). It is even increasingly considered that these isoflavones, especially genistein and daidzein, are linked to reducing risks of many hormone-dependent cancers, cardiovascular diseases and age related conditions (Pilšáková et al. 2010; Atkinson et al. 2005; Constantinou et al. 2005; Ravindranath et al. 2004; Lee et al. 2003). One of the reasons for the misunderstandings about isoflavone activity in humans was due to tests conducted on rodents, whom now are understood to process isoflavones differently to humans.
Therefore the myth that soy is harmful due to oestrogen activity and reduction of testosterone is now considered false. What I will say is that effects of high soy consumption have not been extensively tested and cannot be assumed to be as benign, so I personally would suggest moderation when consuming soy (also the closer to raw, natural soy the better). This shouldn’t be a problem for anyone as there are more products made with soy alternatives becoming available everyday such as hemp milks etc.
I hope this article has been informative and not too difficult to read, I have certainly enjoyed researching and writing it. These are but some of the negative myths surrounding veganism that are either untrue or twist words to make veganism seem like an impossible and unhealthy lifestyle. Both vegans and non vegans should be careful to monitor their health in today’s world, which is not as natural as you are led to believe, but as I have shown above veganism can certainly be a healthy lifestyle.
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