Top 5 Vegan Health Myths

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provide you with some useful information and make you rethink some of the vegan health myths which are are now either outdated or have been disproved.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

Calcium by The Fox Eyed Man

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

Supplements by The Fox Eyed Man

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

Healthy by The Fox Eyed Man

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

Children by The Fox Eyed Man

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

Soy by The Fox Eyed Man

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.

Myths Debunked!

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.

References:

Appleby, P., Roddam, A., Allen, N. & Key, T. (2007). Comparative fracture risk in vegetarians and nonvegetarians in EPIC-Oxford. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 61, pp.1400-1406.

Atkinson, C., Frankenfeld, C.L. & Lampe, J.W. (2005). Gut Bacterial Metabolism of the Soy Isoflavone Daidzein: Exploring the Relevance to Human Health. Experimental Biology and Medicine 230(3), pp.155-170.

Bedford J.L. & Barr, S.I. (2011). Higher Urinary Sodium, a Proxy for Intake, Is Associated with Increased Calcium Excretion and Lower Hip Bone Density in Healthy Young Women with Lower Calcium Intakes. Nutrients 3(11), pp.951-961.

Clarys, P., Deliens, T., Huybrechts, I., Deriemaeker, P., Vanaelst, B., De Keyzer, W., Hebbelinck, M. & Mullie, P. (2014). Comparison of Nutritional Quality of the Vegan, Vegetarian, Semi-Vegetarian, Pesco-Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diet. Nutrients 6(3), pp.1318-1332.

Constantinou, A.I., White, B.E.P., Tonetti, D., Yang, Y., Liang, W., Li, W. & Van Breemen, R.B. (2005). The soy isoflavone daidzein improves the capacity of tamoxifen to prevent mammary tumours. European Journal of Cancer 41(4), pp.647-654.

Craig, W.J. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 89(5), pp.1627S-1633S.

Fuhrman, J. & Ferreri, D.M. (2010). Fueling the Vegetarian (Vegan) Athlete. Current Sports Medicine Reports 9(4), pp.233-241.

Hamilton-Reeves, J.M., Vazquez, G., Duval, S.J., Phipps, W.R., Kurzer, M.S. & Messina, M.J. (2010). Clinical studies show no effects of soy protein or isoflavones on reproductive hormones in men: results of a meta-analysis. Fertility and Sterility 94(3), pp.997-1007.

Kerstetter J.E., O’Brien, K.O. & Insogna, K.L. (2003). Low Protein Intake: The Impact on Calcium and Bone Homeostasis in Humans. Journal of Nutrition 133(3), pp.855S-861S.

Krajcovicova-Kudlackova, M., Babinska, K. & Valachovicova, M. (2005). Health Benefits and Risks of Plant Proteins. Bratisl Lek Listy 106(6/7), pp.231-234.

Lee, M.M., Gomez, S.L., Chang, J.S., Wey, M., Wang, R-T. & Hsing, A.W. (2003). Soy and Isoflavone Consumption in Relation to Prostate Cancer Risk in China. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention 12(7), pp.665-668.

Maskarinec, G., Morimoto, Y., Hebshi, S., Sharma, S., Franke, A.A. & Stanczyk, F.Z. (2006). Serum prostate-specific antigen but not testosterone levels decrease in a randomized soy intervention among men. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 60, pp.1423-1429.

McCarty, M.F. (1999). Vegan Proteins May Reduce Risk of Cancer, Obesity, and Cardiovascular Disease by Promoting Increased Glucagon Activity. Medical Hypotheses 53(6), pp.459-485.

Pilšáková, L., Riečanský, I. & Jagla, F. (2010). The Physiological Actions of Isoflavone Phytoestrogens. Physiological Research 59(5), pp.651-664.

Ravindranath, M.H., Muthugounder, S., Presser, N. & Viswanathan, S. (2004). Anticancer therapeutic potential of soy isoflavone, genistein. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology 546, pp.121-165.

Sanders, T.A.B. (1988). Growth and Development of British Vegan Children. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 48(3), pp.822-825.

Stewart, L. (2013). Mineral Supplements for Beef Cattle. University of Georgia, viewed 31 July 2016, http://extension.uga.edu/publications/detail.cfm?number=B895#Bioavailability

Wirnitzer, K.C. & Kornexl, E. (2014). Energy and macronutrient intake of a female vegan cyclist during an 8-day mountain bike stage race. Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent) 27(1), pp.42-45.

Young, V.R. & Pellett, P.L. (1994). Plant proteins in relation to human protein and amino acid nutrition. American journal of clinical nutrition 59(5), pp.1203S-1212S.

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Meat Free Monday: A Curse in Disguise?

The idea of ‘Meat Free Monday’ has become increasingly popular recently, and many people are praising the progress being made in the name of animal welfare and environmental sustainability. If you are not familiar with the concept, people are encouraged to not consume meat products on Mondays in an effort to improve health, save money and reduce environmental impact. Many argue that this can only be positive, it is a step towards the eventual transition to a completely plant based diet that is needed to avoid environmental collapse. However, as usual it is our duty to look deeper and examine the latent implications in order to fully understand the situation. Meat Free Monday may indeed be more of a curse than a blessing.

  • Meat Free Monday encourages complacency. Instead of properly tackling the ethical, environmental and health issues that surround animal products, people may feel as though they are doing enough by just avoiding meat for one day. By championing the herculean efforts needed to not eat meat for just one day, people remain unaware that their effort is minuscule compared to the good they could be doing by going all the way. Also, it detracts from further efforts to encourage change: If people are already satisfied that they are ‘doing enough’ they are far less likely to make further efforts. The importance of the plant based movement is diminished by praising the only partial recognition of environmental issues, animal lives and personal health, so Meat Free Monday could be actively damaging the vegan message.
  • There is not enough emphasis on educationThis is always a driving point to my arguments, education is essential for almost every aspect of progress, whether it be environmental protection, animal rights or anything else. The problem with Meat Free Monday is that not nearly enough emphasis is placed on actually educating people as to why animal products are harmful. Without really knowing why they are participating the whole purpose of the activity is lost and people are left assuming ‘it’s something to do with health’ or ‘I think I’m saving the environment’. The only way to really stress the importance of the plant based movement is by making sure that people are educated about the issues that need addressing. However, armed with the knowledge about the harmful nature of animal product industries, Meat Free Mondays would seem pointless and nothing short of complete veganism would be logical.
  • Dairy and eggs are not included. By placing the importance on meat, the egg and dairy industries are ignored and reduced in importance. Physical meat becomes the symbolic representation of animal products and makes people blind to the total saturation of animal products in our everyday lives. If the activity was to avoid all animal products for one day, people would realise how damaging animal products are sneaked into a ludicrous percentage of everyday items. The dairy and egg industries are extremely damaging and unethical (read more about the culling of day old male chicks here) and it seems illogical to leave them out of the picture.

There may be more points, but these are the blaringly obvious points that come to mind immediately. I’m interested to see what your ideas are on the subject, do you support the Meat Free Monday campaign, or do you think it is actually damaging? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!

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