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Vegan diet - healthy or inadequate?

I used to consider a pure vegetarian or vegan diet to be the ideal. Even though I was only briefly vegetarian for about six months during the late 1990s, I always believed that a vegetarian diet was healthy.

By extension, since a vegan diet represented the "purest" form of vegetarianism, I believed that a such a "pure" diet was the healthiest of all.

I acquired this belief from reading vegetarian and vegan literature. They put forward very convincing articles about why eating meat is harmful - not only to health but also to the environment and even to one's spiritual development.

They further argue that a vegan or pure vegetarian diet can provide ALL the nutrition that the human body needs.

I believed all of this. I even reproduced much of it when I published my newsletter on natural health, The Good Life.

I did come across articles and research references suggesting that eating meat is not altogether bad. But at that time, I believed strongly in a vegetarian or, better still, vegan diet. I felt those pro-meat arguments were merely justifications coming from people who enjoy eating meat.

Fats, cholesterol, skin and bones

My views began to change around 2002, when I first came across the work of Sally Fallon and Dr Mary Enig, through their book, Nourishing Traditions and the Weston Price Foundation. They argue in favour of following traditional diets, which was much aligned with my personal beliefs and study of macrobiotics.

A big eye opener for me was the evidence they presented that safurated fats and cholesterol are good and necessary for health. Not only are they "not harmful" but also highly beneficial. Click here to read more about the importance of saturated fats.

Well, vegetarians can obtain saturated fats from coconut, palm and some other vegetable oils. And while cholesterol has to come from animal foods, the body does manufacture its own cholesterol. So what's the big deal? A vegan or pure vegetarian diet still provides what the body needs.

But maybe... just maybe, we do need to eat cholesterdl after all. Children do. They need it for the mental and nervous system development and this is a major reason why soy milk is not suitable for infants. Perhaps adults need as well. For low cholesterol levels - which I used to have - is associated with depression and other mental issues.

Meanwhile, Sally Fallon and Mary Enig also talk about the health benefits of toods like broth - made from bones, skin and other animal parts and rich in gelatin. They rave about the value of liver and cod liver oil, brain, marrow and other body parts, of eating whole small fish complete with eyes, brain and various glands in the body... and traditional Asian foods like fish sauce and shrimp paste.

These foods may not present any "essential nutrients" not found in a vegan or vegetarian diet, but Sally Fallon and Mary Enig sure were enthusiastic about them, giving convinving reasons why they are healthy.

A broth made from bones, cartilage, tendons and other animal parts, for example, contains substances like glucosamine that are now being marketed as expensive food supplements for the relief of joint pain.

I became convinced. And I stopped trying to follow as close as possible to a pure vegegtarian diet.

Vitamin B12 and others

As I researched further, I also discovered that some of the things I previously believed about the completeness of a vegan diet were not true.

The main untruth concerns vitamin B12. I used to believe that certain fermented vegetarian foods - like tempeh - were rich sources of vitamin B12, provided they were made the traditional "diety" way in the presence of bacteria. Later, I learnt from vegetarians and followers of a vegan diet such foods do not contain "real" vitamin B12, but only B12 "analogues". Worse still, these B12 analogues could interfere with the body's absorption of genuine B12.

Vitamin B12 one known vitamin that a vegan diet does not provide. Yet it is a very crucial vitamin. Although needed in very tiny amounts - in micrograms as opposed to milligrams for most other vitamins - B12 is necessary for preventing anemia as well as for a healthy nervous system.

There are doubts, too, about whether a vegan diet can provide adequate amounts of vitamins A and D. Plant foods do not contain vitamin A, but they contain beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A. Beta carotene is itself good for health. But how much of it gets converted to vitamin A? Apparently not a lot and not enough.

In the case of Vitamin D, the common belief is that our bodies produce vitamin D when we go out into the sun. But it is not all that straight forward. Only certain bands of ultraviolet rays, which are present only at certain times of the year, can stimulate the body's production of Vitamin D.

The amount also depends on a person's skin colour. While a light skinned person may benefit from, say, 20 minutes of exposure to (the correct type of) sunlifght, a dark skinned paerson may have to be out in the sun for a few hours to produce the same amount of vitamin D.

So we still need vitamain D from food. And the type found in a vegetarian or vegan diet is not the same as the vitamin D found in meat products like liver.

Questions are being raised also about the amount of vitamin D that we need. Vitamin D is known to promote strong bones, but there is growing evidence that Vitamin D - in large quantities - also plays crucial roles in protecting us against viral diseases like the flu. Some doctors and nutritionists believe we need as much as 10 times the recommended daily value of this vitamin. So once again, a vegan diet may be lacking.

There are lots more issues in vegan nutrition. But not all are acknowledged by vegans. A good book on this subject is The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith. The author used to strictly follow a vegan diet but became quite sick - until she discovered that the vegan diet was a key cause of her illness.

Needless to say, her book has stirred plenty of controversy, with lots of vegans strongly criticising her and defending their way of eating.

But is the vegan diet all that healthy? Personally, the few vegans whom I know follow a vegan diet for "ethical" reasons - meaning they do not wish to kill - rather than for health reasons. If, for whatever reason you really wish to be vegan, then click here to learn how to make the best of a vegetarian or vegan diet.

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