Navigating a healthy diet can be difficult when there are so many different opinions out there. I think there is an overwhelming majority of people who think that a vegan diet is the end all be all diet to follow if you want to be healthy. Not only do I see a lot of people trying to eat more plant-based, I also see a tremendous amount of people feeling guilty about not wanting to entirely give up eating meat. While I have absolutely no doubt at all that eating more plants is vitally important to human health, I am also convinced that eating a small amount of animal protein is as well.
Most scientific research suggests that there are great health benefits to avoiding high meat intake. Meats, especially processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, and sausages, are linked to a higher risk of all cause mortality, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. There are not, however, an overwhelming number of studies to support the health benefits of a vegan diet over an omnivorous diet.
There are so many factors that play into health that it is difficult to truly identify the health benefits of eating vegan vs. omnivorous. For example, a vegan can eat plant-based foods from whole food sources like vegetables, whole grains, and legumes and have an entirely different outcome than a vegan who consumes a lot of sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed food. The same goes for the candy, fast-food, deep fried, hot dog eating omnivore vs. the whole food eating omnivore.
” It is estimated that the typical American consumes 60% of their calories from processed foods. Whether these are plant based or not, that means that 60% of the average American diet is devoid of nutrition. “
I am deeply concerned about any person that is consuming processed foods. It is estimated that the typical American consumes 60% of their calories from processed foods. Whether these are plant based or not, that means that 60% of the average American diet is devoid of nutrition.
Any poor diet, whether vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore, can lead to nutrient deficiencies which, in turn are detrimental to health. I see patients that do their best to eat healthy, yet still consume foods that are too high in refined carbohydrates, sugars, and processed foods. This ultimately leads to feeling poorly, sub-optimal lab results, and undesirable health conditions.
There is, in fact, a higher risk of nutrient deficiency in a vegan and vegetarian diet, especially a poorly implemented vegan diet. A vegan diet leads to deficiencies in vitamins A, D, and B12, amino acids, particularly choline, creatine, methionine, taurine, carnitine, and glycine, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, zinc, selenium, iodine, and iron. There is even a greater risk of severe deficiencies during pregnancy, infancy, and during childhood. The first year or so of a vegan diet might lead to someone feeling great but after a few years, when the nutrients are depleted from the body, symptoms develop. Commonly, this looks like fatigue and malaise, mood disorders, poor growth and development in children, and neurological symptoms. Unfortunately, these deficiencies can have both short-term and permanent negative health consequences.
Maximizing nutrient density should be the number one goal in eating because nutrient deficiencies lead to chronic disease and a shorter lifespan. Vegetables and fruits provide us with an abundant source of bioavailable nutrient-rich phytonutrients and should really make up the majority of our diets. Grains and legumes also contain nutrients, but unfortunately they are less available for absorption. Meats, particularly grass-fed, pasture raised, wild caught, etc. are arguably the most nutrient dense food available to humans. I will say that again: when you look at the nutrient content of food, animal products provide the most bang for the buck.
Again, I will reiterate that there is evidence that high meat consumption can be detrimental to our health. However, this is correlation, not causation, as people who eat a large quantity of meat are also more likely to engage in other unhealthy behaviors. Many nutrition experts are encouraging the idea to use meat as a condiment rather than as the “main” course. A little bit goes a long way, especially for adults. Children and pregnant women, especially, should not limit their protein intake.
I certainly understand the desire to eat the healthiest possible diet. I embody that desire myself. I also recognize the environmental impact and ethical dilemma of raising animals for food. There is the subject of biological individuality- there is no one diet that is perfect for every individual. We have to take into account who you are, your personal health, and your stage in life to guess at what diet is best for you.
However, it is beyond doubt that focusing on a nutrient dense diet is the healthiest choice for all people. I recommend a Paleo-type (remember that everyone is different but this is a good template) diet, including a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, high quality fats from olives, avocados, nuts and seeds, a reasonable amount of high quality animal protein, and an avoidance of sugar, industrial seed oils, and processed foods.
Any food that is processed, made in the food industry, and altered from its original form is a processed food and devoid of any nutrition. Are there healthy processed foods? In my opinion, no. I don’t like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat (have you LOOKED at the ingredients?). I don’t like bread or crackers, cakes or candy- regardless of the ingredients. I also don’t like protein powders or bars (again, have you looked at the ingredients?). I don’t think that any food “product” is a food.
A whole food is made up of food that has only one ingredient: itself. It has not been changed from the time it was grown until the time it reaches your plate (maybe it was cut or peeled or cooked- that doesn’t count as altered). It is food that does not require a label. Imagine actually eating a whole foods diet. What would your plate look like? It would be a beautiful collection of fresh, nutrient dense food. This is the ultimate human diet.