Let me start by saying that this article took me a very long time to write. The controversy surrounding this diet compared to others is definitely heightened by ethical and environmental concerns, and I have been considerate in my framing of this topic to avoid getting into that realm. I don’t want to be misunderstood so I will make my position completely clear: There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing a vegan diet! However I do notice a lot of clients and friends choosing a vegan diet for what might be the wrong reasons, such as extreme weight loss, or because they are being food-shamed. This is a problem and the reason why I’m writing this article. To let everyone know that their food choices are their business and to not let other’s opinions influence what goes into their bodies. There is no one diet that is suitable for everyone and we should never feel guilt over what’s on our plates.
So with my little disclaimer out of the way…
We all know someone who has recently decided to remove all animal products from their diets and go vegan. Maybe that someone is you! In my practice I’ve certainly seen a huge influx of clients making this change, and even more asking me questions about whether or not they should. I think its fantastic that people are seeking expert nutrition advice when considering such a significant dietary shift. I know a lot of this change has been sparked by several Netflix Documentaries recently released that support going Vegan. Over the past few years there has been an onslaught of videos and online communities sharing a similar message: The vegan diet is the key to cure and prevent chronic disease, maintain a healthy weight, and live a long healthy life. It is also good for the environment and the treatment of animals. Everyone should be a vegan, end of story.
Now, when it comes to such extreme nutrition messaging I’m immediately turned off. Regardless of the diet pattern you’re promoting, trying to shove it down people’s throats in this aggressive style is not ok (so get out of my face What The Health). I know how easy it can be to cherry-pick data and be choosy about which scientific articles you quote in order to create a very convincing message. I have a real problem with diet shaming and using fear-mongering techniques to convince people to change their eating habits. Creating fear around certain foods, food ingredients, or disease is a cornerstone of the diet industry and a huge red flag for spotting nutrition BS.
Perhaps you have decided to follow a vegan diet, but want to enjoy your mom’s amazing holiday baking at Christmas, or try a new restaurant with friends. You should be able to do that without judgement or guilt from ANYONE, but most of all, yourself! I can’t tell you how many clients I work with that feel so guilty when they make “bad” food choices, and it has to stop. My personal nutrition philosophy is that you should eat food you enjoy, and that makes you feel good physically and emotionally, whatever those foods are. Even your Dietitian includes “unhealthy” things in their diet, trust me. I also love cooking with pulses and including plant-based proteins in my diet. Not because I feel the need to exclude other things, but because variety is the spice of life!
So, back to the Vegan thing. There are many reasons a person may have for excluding animal foods from their diet. Some of these are ethical, environmental, or religious and not within the scope of this article. I’m talking about the people out there who believe that animal foods are “toxic” or disease-causing in some way, and feel the need to pressure those around them to cut animal products out of their diets. I am also talking about food companies that take advantage of this trend, and create substitutes for animal foods that are nothing more than processed chemical soup, but market their products as healthy simply because they are vegan.
On that note, the term ‘vegan’ is often used synonymously with a ‘plant-based diet’. I truly think they are two different things. A vegan diet is 100% plants, no animal products whatsoever. A plant-based diet to me means that a person is eating mostly plants, but does include some animal products, in whatever amounts are comfortable for them. Realistically we should all be following a plant-based diet by my definition. Fruits, vegetables, pulses, and whole grains should be making up the majority of the volume of food we consume (honestly take a look at Canada’s food guide or even the plate method of eating- this is REALLY common sense). But, as people do, these common sense messages are taken to the extreme and people start shaming those who don’t follow the “rules” as strictly as they do. Just like MSG, fat, or carbohydrates, of the past few decease, animal proteins are the latest in a long line of nutrition villains. The protein we get from animal products is being blamed for cancer, Alzheimer’s, obesity, digestive issues, etc, etc, etc. “We weren’t made to digest animal proteins!” they exclaim. “Those toxins just build up in your body and kill you!” *insert sassy eye roll*
You would think by this point society would have smartened up and realized that the diet industry is just always on the lookout for a new scapegoat, but instead we fall victim to believing that by doing this ONE THING we’ll be thin and disease-free forever. Cut out all animal products and you are guaranteed to live happily ever after. But that’s what they said about gluten, isn’t it?
So, are Vegan Diets even healthy?
Yes, they certainly can be! Especially compared to some other wacky fad diets out there. Vegan diets tend to be higher in fibre, lower in fat, and include more fruits and vegetables than a “typical Western diet”. What’s important to note though, is that a typical Western diet is not considered healthy by most people’s standards. A typical Western diet is high in processed and convenience foods, and low in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. So really, any change that includes more unprocessed foods is going to be a step in the right direction. Where people can go wrong in starting a vegan diet is not paying attention to nutrients such as protein, iron, vitamin B12, and calcium. These nutrients we tend to get from animal sources, so it is important to supplement these if intake from food is inadequate. Simply removing meat and dairy from your diet, but not replacing those calories and nutrients with alternatives such as pulses, tofu, nuts, or fortified plant-based milks means you might wind up with nutrient deficiencies.
Can a Vegan Diet be unhealthy?
Yes. As I mentioned a vegan diet that simply cuts out animal foods without replacing those calories with something else, or replacing the micronutrients with other sources can fail to provide adequate nutrition. Some people may wind up lacking energy, anemic, or with poor bone density down the road if they are not putting effort into ensuring they are meeting their nutrient requirements. I also believe a vegan diet can become unhealthy when we become too obsessed. Some individuals have a tendency to take things to the extreme, where they have removed so many foods from their diet on top of being vegan, it is almost impossible to get enough calories. This over-the-top preoccupation with healthy eating is becoming a growing trend, called Orthorexia. For example trying to follow a gluten-free, soy-free, low-carb, vegan diet. Honestly, what is left that you’re actually eating?? These folks break my heart because their pursuit of being as healthy as they can be is actually hurting them. Physically they’re very unlikely to be getting the right amount of calories, micronutrients, fibre, and protein, but are also probably constantly worrying about their food choices and if sneaking a cookie here and there is going to cause cancer. Believe me, it won’t.
So, let’s meet in the middle and find balance!
Do I think most of us could eat less meat? Sure. But not because meat is bad for us. Our appetite for meat in North America is the highest in the world and most of us consume more than our necessary share… like, way more. And because plants are SO GOOD for us, yet few North Americans eat enough of them. There is no compelling scientific reason for us to avoid meat or dairy completely, but when it is taking up more room on our plates than vegetables or whole grains, a change would probably be beneficial. Finding balance on our plates is the real key to healthy eating and feeling good about our choices. This means including ALL foods in some capacity, but choosing ones that are nutritious for us most of the time. This could mean simply eating a smaller portion of meat at a time, or swapping out the meat once in awhile for high-protein alternatives such as pulses, eggs, or tofu.
*A quick word about processed dairy-free ‘foods’* If you can get past the offensive taste and ridiculous cost of these products and look at the label, you might notice that they are actually very highly processed. A mixture of chemicals meant to replace something in our diets that isn’t even bad for us in the first place, and at more than twice the cost. If you do not consume dairy for whatever reason, my advice is to choose unprocessed alternatives, such as fortified plant-milks, or yogurt made from coconut, etc. Fake dairy alternatives are just as high in fat and calories as the real versions, but with none of the protein, vitamins, or minerals. Don’t waste your money!
So, do I think being vegan is a bit of a fad? In a way, yes. I think there are many people out there looking for the next quick diet fix, and veganism has promised many of the things the low-fat, low-carb, gluten-free movements did in the past. I think that any time you are having to make extreme diet changes and give up foods you might really love, it’s a recipe for disaster and diet cycling instead of helpful. If you didn’t want to lose weight, or had been told meat was killing you, would you still be adopting a vegan diet?
In reality, I prefer to not label dietary patterns at all if I can help it. I think that when we start labeling things we create rigid, inflexible ideals. People become so emotionally involved in their choices they view anyone who disagrees with them as the enemy. Like, chill out guys! Just because someone chooses different foods than you does not mean they need to be shamed into following your ideals. AND, more importantly, you should not feel like a bad person because you don’t follow this perfect diet 100% of the time. Sometimes I eat meat, and sometimes I eat meat alternatives. Why do I need to label myself as anything when it comes to my food choices? As humans we have evolved as omnivores. This means we eat all things, and we need a variety of foods to provide us with the right balance of nutrients in our diets. If we stop worrying about what we shouldn’t eat and instead focus on making more nutritious choices (with treats as we see fit), tell the fear mongers and food shamers to leave us the hell alone, we can finally begin to establish a healthy, positive relationship with food, which will last much longer than the latest fad.
Do you need more help finding the right diet for you? Contact me today!