Influential celebrity promotion is fuelling a rise in vegan diets, but can this ideologically driven movement really be healthy? Above: Keeping up with the Kardashians star Kylie Jenner, and footballer Jermain Defoe, both champion the vegan diet. Perhaps they should stick to what they’re good at.
This article was originally going to be part of the July 2017 News Round-Up, but there were so many news items about veganism that month that I decided to give it it’s own post and include more commentary.
Vegan diets are suddenly being promoted by every celebrity and her dog. Another major recruiting factor is a sensational documentary out on Netflix “What the Health” which is pumping the anti-meat message hard. Fortunately, Vox (Jul 26th) takes the film’s twisted message to task and untangles the facts brilliantly (Thank you Julia Belluz for doing such a good job – now I don’t have to!) “Debunking What the Health, the buzzy new documentary that wants you to be vegan” Julia Belluz, Vox – Highly recommended. Others are challenging the film’s objectivity too:
“films like this are sensationalised pieces of idealism, minus the practical strategies”
Susie Burrell, Nutritionist, news.com.au (Jul 26th)
Closer to home, a UK nutrition professor caused an angry twitter storm for her comments on live TV. “It’s really hard work to make a vegan diet healthy,” said Sophie Medlin, RD, a lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at King’s College in London, during a BBC segment on the rise of veganism. (Health.com Jul 27th)
“You have to think very carefully about what you’re eating all the time. I have never recommended any of my patients follow a vegan diet; I can’t see myself ever changing that. It’s very complicated to make sure your diet is safe and gives you all the nutrition you need.”
I couldn’t agree more, and find it a little surprising that other nutritionists took issue with this statement (for example, Abby Langer in Flare, July 27th). After all, there is no reason to think that a vegan diet is healthier per se unless you buy into the kind of pseudo-scientific propaganda portrayed in What the Health. Unfortunately, most vegans do.
Perhaps we should look to India – a country with a tradition of vegetarianism – to see what is happening there. This month, the Indian Dietetics Association has warned that vegetarian diets are failing to meet protein requirements for no less than 90% of the population! (India TV, Jul 19th).
“Proteins from different sources complement each other. Even with a ratio of 5:1 cereals and pulses combination, the protein quality in terms of digestibility and bio-availability is only around 65 per cent when compared to milk protein,”
B. Sesikeran, pathologist,,India TV, Jul 19th
Another Indian news outlet, ran the story of a vegetarian who returned to meat-eating after 6 years (The Times of India, Jul 7th), using bone broth and chicken to correct deficiencies in B12, calcium and Vitamin D.
Back in June this year, newspapers ran a story about a remote Indian tribe that had been studied for two years. Despite having no access to junk food, living a very active lifestyle, and consuming a vegetarian diet they suffered from high blood pressure. (Daily Mail, Jun 30th) Contrast that with the report in March, about an Amazonian tribe that had the healthiest cardiovascular system ever studied, yet their diet contains 14% animal protein. (Treehugger.com, Mar 27th). With all of this evidence stacking up against it, the vegan theory of health has got some explaining to do.
Stories like these support Sophie Medlins statement that vegan diets are hard to get right. However, that does not deter the vegan adherents who took to Twitter to condemn her and seem not to be interested in the facts about nutrition. Fundamentally, the raison d’être of veganism is an absolute belief in animal rights, which is an ethical or political ideology first, and merely co-opts nutrition as an attempt at justification. Vegan dogma comes with a kind of spiritual superiority, as anyone will tell you who has met a vegan proselytiser (and let’s be honest, have you met a vegan who isn’t one?)
Such ideological thinking can lead to even more extreme positions such as a fruitarian diet in which only fruit is eaten. Such diets lead to many health problems, including reduced growth, mineral and vitamin deficiencies, dental erosion, pancreatic and kidney problems, mental instability and diabetes. (See Dr Axe, Fruitarian Diet: Are All-Fruit Diets Dangerous to Your Health?) One blogger, in The Metro (Jul 24th) warns how her obsession with a semi-raw food/fruitarian/vegan diet wrecked her health. She is now sounding the warnings about the fanatical aspects of veganism.
Vegan junk food
As far as health goes it’s possible to eat junk whichever dietary path you choose. So, as The Independent (Jul 17th) reported this month, a recent study that found that some vegetarian diets can increase the risk of heart disease, especially if they are high in sugar, crisps, chips, alcohol and refined carbs – all of which are plant-based, and thus ostensibly vegan.
Interestingly, in this analysis of the Nurses Health Study data, even those who ate a significant proportion of their diet from the ‘vegetarian’ category also ate meat regularly, so they were not vegetarian in the accepted sense of the term, even though these data are used by some to promote such a diet pattern.
Meanwhile, scientists in the UK are recommending women eat more, not less, red meat to prevent iron deficiency anaemia. This comes on the back of the latest UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey which found that more than a quarter of women (27%) aged 19 to 64 don’t get enough iron. To make things worse this vulnerable group is the one most likely to have reduced their meat consumption, and the one most likely to be influenced by celebrity endorsements for the vegan lifestyle. The issues around this are laid out very well in Net Doctor, Jul 11th.
Vegan diets are not better for the planet
Vegan politics find much support from the Greens: “BUT A VEGAN DIET IS MORE SUSTAINABLE FOR THE PLANET?” sympathisers cry in desperation, as they wave their fists at meat eaters.
Well, no. Not according to a new study which found that the carrying capacity—the size of the population that can be supported indefinitely by the resources of an ecosystem—for the vegan diet is lower than both versions of the vegetarian diets (dairy/egg) and two out of the four omnivorous diets they studied. (Health Freedom Alliance, Jul 26th), because it failed to use areas of land that are only suitable for rearing animals and not crops.
For more on this topic: See our posts showing that neither UK nor Australian vegetarians actually live longer, and that dairy is the most sustainable farming system in temperate countries, yes really!