At The Taymount Clinic we always encourage a diverse diet in order to promote diverse bacteria within the gut. There is tremendous diversity within the plant kingdom, and many people find a plant-based diet works well for them.
In the news recently there has been discussion around plant-based diets increasing the risk of heart disease, however the term ‘plant-based diets’ is very vague and open to incredible variances of definition.
As part of the discussion a lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics stated that she would never recommend any of her patients going on a vegan diet, but didn’t elaborate on why that might be, apart from it being too complicated (!) and there was a group of parents who thought that a vegan diet was too complex for their children.
It is interesting to consider that a mature, male, Silver-back Gorilla can weigh up to 430 lbs, is a vegan and doesn’t worry about nutrients, he just eats a wide variety of foods, all of which are plants.
A couple of things need clarifying:
Firstly, it is possible to be vegan and eat an extremely unhealthy diet, full of white, processed flour and refined sugar. Some vegan products are extremely processed, refined and unhealthy. This ticks all the vegan boxes as it avoids all animal products, but does not provide a good, sound nutritional profile. This would give ‘veganism’ a bad name for sure.
We think there should be a new label of ‘vegan junk’ for foods and recipes that eliminate animal products but are just unhealthy blends of refined and sweetened processed foods. If you have a vegan junk diet, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that it may increase the risk of heart disease. Similarly if you have a meat-based diet consisting of sugar, refined flour and processed animal-based fast-foods, it could also raise the risk of heart disease. It is the sugar, refined flour and processed food that is at fault, not a healthy, well-balanced vegan diet.
A healthy vegan would eat organic, wholegrain, plant-based foods every day; a wide variety of different grains, beans, pulses, etc., which will provide the whole range of amino acids required by the body. A wide variety of freshly ground or chopped seeds and nuts will also provide adequate omega 3 fatty acids, without the mercury found in fish. Incidentally, it can be claimed that by the very nature of the extraction process, omega 3 oil supplements are all rancid (oxidised) by the time they reach the shops, let alone by the time you eat them. Chopping up fresh nuts, grains and seeds can release fresh omega 3 without this problem.
Vitamin B12 is only a problem for the vegans eating vegan junk. If you follow a correctly balanced, almost macrobiotic vegan diet, you are naturally incorporating things like nutritional yeast, naturally fermented foods, sea vegetables and algae into your daily salads, ensuring adequate intakes of Vitamin B12; but without the hormones and the antibiotics often accompanying animal products. The message should be that it is entirely possible to eat a nutritionally sound, adequate diet, using only plant-based foods, if you choose the right ones, and it’s not hard to do so.
Perhaps the label of ‘Vegan’ should be sub-divided to clarify between those just avoiding animal foods and those seeking a widely diverse, plant-based, organic, wholegrain diet. The latter being extremely healthy.
For all diets, it is the quality and the diversity which matters. Eating a vegan diet of over 50 different plant foods in a week, all organic and wholegrain, is a very sound nutritional approach. Eating animal foods from excellent quality sources, alongside a very wide diversity of fresh fruits and vegetables, can also be a good dietary choice.
The problem here is labelling. What one person can label as Vegan, another person can find 100% fault with. There is no standard Vegan which we can discuss as a constant, so the argument “a plant-based diet may raise the risk of heart disease” is flawed.
I propose a new label: Plant-based, Organic, Wholegrain (POW). If you want some meat, eat the best quality; if you want fish, eat the least contaminated, wild-caught (not fish-farmed). Plant-based means just that – based on plants, but not exclusively – it means you can add little bits of excellent quality animal food if you wish, no rules. If you source all your foods with good environmental conscience, eschew plastic wrappers and cookware, you can add Environmentally Responsible to the list and call it: Plant-based, Organic, Wholegrain, Environmentally Responsible – or POWER for short. Perhaps a POWER diet could lead to POWERISM instead of Veganism as a label. If you need labels.
A healthy diet of any kind should contain a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetable produce and should source its foods from the cleanest and purest sources, whatever the focus. That should be the main argument, not the label of Veganism, which is very imprecise and non-defined for any given individual.
ND, BSc (Hons) Psych
Clinic Director, Taymount Clinic