Helpful or Harmful Diet Review: The Vegan Diet

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on May 24th, 2012)

This week on the Helpful or Harmful Diet Review we are going to be exploring the well known lifestyle diet of Veganism. In the Vegan diet all animal and animal related products are avoided and nutrients are gained through vegetables, grains, fruit, and nuts. Even products such as honey are avoided because they are the product of animal labour. For many people, the choice to follow the vegan lifestyle is moral or ethical to avoid the cruel treatment of farm animals. For others it is religious. Health is not the most common deciding factor but it is far from rare. Many vegans avoid animal products because of the synthetic hormones and antibiotics fed to them and passed onto the consumer.

Whatever the personal reason for maintaining a Vegan diet, there are many claims of health benefits. There is a great lack of research into the vegan diet and it is quite often lumped in with vegetarian diets in trials and surveys. Some of these studies have shown decreased levels of heart disease markers in vegan and vegetarian diets1, 2, 3, 4 as well as significant weight loss3. Even some chronic diseases like fibromyalgia have been found to benefit from vegan diets6, 7, 8, 9. Studies have been performed, demonstrating the decreased risk of macular degeneration5 and even certain types of cancer3, 5.

There are many other claims such as prevention of arthritis or osteoporosis and even longer life spans, which I have not been able to find documented evidence to support but this is not to say that there is none. If anyone out there has links to the research please do share it.

Despite all of these benefits, the Vegan diet can be dangerous to those who do not know what they are doing. Taking meat out of our diets removes a fairly unique source of nutrients that we as omnivores have evolved to need. The main nutrient that meat provides us with is protein. When asked what protein is needed for in the body, most people will answer, “Muscles”. This is true, but there is much more to the story than that. Every single enzyme, and messenger molecule, and a vast portion of the hormones in our bodies are proteins. So maintaining our daily intake of this essential nutrient is…well…essential! Proteins can be found in a vegan diet but they need to be from a wide variety of sources to meet the necessary amino acid (protein subunits) profile we need. Luckily there are many vegan foods that contain protein but they are not normally a large part of our Standard North American Diet so the need to be added. These foods include beans, nuts, and quinoa to name a few.

The other main nutrient meats provide us with is fat but we get more than enough fat in our diets in North America. The main issue with fat in Vegan diets is what is packaged inside of it. I am talking about the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. As with all vitamins these are essential for life and without them we begin to develop a myriad of significant health problems in many difference organ systems. So in a vegan diet it is very important to make sure that these fat soluble vitamins are present in sufficient quantities.

Vitamin A is fairly easy to ensure this. It can be found in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables like carrots, melons, apricots, and mangos. My favourite Dark Green Leafy Veggies also contain some of this nutrient. Basically anything that you have heard contains Carotenes or Beta-Carotene has Vitamin A. Beta-Carotene is actually two Vitamin A molecules bound end to end for stability.

Vitamin D is a little harder to come by. Most of you are probably thinking that I’ve gone crazy or lost that section of my biochemistry textbook because everyone knows that we get Vitamin D from the sun. Well, here’s the whole story. Vitamin D has several forms it can take and we can only use one of them (D3). UV radiation (sunlight) comes into this equation by converting D2 into D3 for us. So yes, we get USABLE Vitamin D from the sun but we still need to ingest the precursor for it from our food. There are not too many vegetable sources of Vitamin D available. Really the only two with measureable amounts are Alfalfa and mushrooms. All other sources are from animal meat. This is why many staple foods in North America have been fortified with Vitamin D but natural sources are always better than artificial ones.

For a more detailed explanation of the use and conversion of Vitamin D, Wikipedia has a great article on it.

Vitamin E is one of the strongest anti-oxidants in our bodies and is involved in immune function. It is not hard to replace the meat sources of this Vitamin because it is found in nuts, seeds, Dark Green Leafy Vegetables, and some grains and fruit. Once again, a diet that includes a wide variety of foods and colours will pretty much make sure that you are getting enough Vitamin E.

Vitamin K is not much of a worry for most people as it is produced by the good bacteria in our large intestines. It can also be found in our Dark Green Leafy Vegetables, and some vegetable oils.

Iron is a commonly known deficient nutrient in vegans and some vegetarians. Iron is essential for the hemoglobin in our red blood cells to carry oxygen and bring it to our tissues. An iron deficiency can quickly affect anyone’s quality of life and so is necessary to maintain a healthy level. Iron can be found in beans and legumes, Dark Green Leafy Vegetables (see they do everything), some nuts, and grains.

Many vegans find that they are low on Vitamin B12 or “Cobalamin” (I love that name. It sounds like an onomatopoeia out of a comic book). This little Vitamin is responsible for the health of the blood cells and the nerves. It is usually recommended that vegans and some vegetarians take Vitamin B12 supplements to maintain healthy levels of this nutrient as it is difficult to do so just with food alone. Most vegetables have some B12 in them but not enough to keep the body going.

Supplements can also be taken to avoid deficiency of the other nutrients we have been discussing but there are some issues that everyone should be aware of when choosing their supplements. First, the source of the product you are taking is very important. These nutrients are naturally most abundant in animal products and therefore animal sources are most often the cheapest source of them. So to truly maintain a Vegan diet, no matter what your reasons are, make sure you know what your nutrients are being taken from. The other side of the coin is synthetic nutrients. When creating Vitamins synthetically (minerals are pretty much always the same) there are usually several arrangements that the molecules can take while still technically being the same substance. These minute structural differences may not seem like much but they make a big difference to the body. The best example of this is Vitamin E which has eight orientations (Alpha, Gamma, Delta, and Beta Tocopherol and Alpha, Gamma, Delta, and Beta Tocotrienol) but the body can only use one (Alpha Tocopherol) because it is the most natural form of the Vitamin and our bodies have evolved with it as the main source. So buying supplements with unnatural structural forms of the nutrient is absolutely useless because our bodies cannot use them.

The second issue to know about is dosage. These supplements can be toxic in high doses and so some research is needed before buying supplements to avoid toxic overload. Generally it is safe to take the recommended amount on the bottle’s label but that will usually only give you a minimum dosage to have an effect. Ask a doctor about safe and effective doses of all supplements before taking them. The best example of this is Iron which is a heavy metal so our bodies cannot get rid of it very well. At high amounts our bodies will start to look for ways to store it and given it’s similarity to Calcium in charge it will replace Calcium in the bone. This is a very bad thing because it is not exactly the same as Calcium and the bones will actually become brittle and break more easily.

Overall, my impression of the Vegan diet is a good one. It is healthy. It has many benefits. And it is well supported and written about so there is lots of support on the internet and many resources to be found. The downsides are that it still allows gluten containing grains and other common allergens as well as not animal processed foods and sugars. Once again this is really just splitting hairs at this point. The other big con on my list is that I really like meat. I like the flavour, I like the texture, I like smell. I personally could never become a Vegan but I think it is a great idea for anyone who feels strongly about not eating meat. It does require some vigilance on the part of the follower but really, no more than any other diet out there.

Thanks for reading. Join me next week for the final installment of the Helpful or Harmful Diet Review.
Dr. Ben

For more information about and great resources for vegetarian and vegan diets take a look at the Vegetarian Resource Group website here.

References

1. Krajcovicova-Kudlackova M, Babinska K, Blazicek P, Valachovicova M, Spustova V, Mislanova C, Paukova V. Selected biomarkers of age-related diseases in older subjects with different nutrition. Bratislavské Lekárske Listy 2011; 112(11):610-3.

2. Li D. Chemistry behind Vegetarianism. Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry 2011; 59(3):777-84.

3. Craig WJ. Nutrition concerns and health effects of vegetarian diets. Nutrition in Clinical Practice 2010; 25(6):613-20.

4. Sticher MA, Smith CB, Davidson S. Reducing heart disease through the vegetarian diet using primary prevention. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners 2010; 22(3):134-9.

5. Segasothy M, Phillips PA. Vegetarian diet: panacea for modern lifestyle diseases? QJM. 1999; 92(9):531-44.

6. Donaldson MS, Speight N, Lumis S. Fibromyalgia Syndrome Approved Using a Mostly Raw Vegetarian Diet: an observational study. BMC Complementary Alternative Medicine 2001;1(1):7.

7. Hanninen, Kaartinen K, Rauma AL, Nenonen M, Torronen R, Hakkinen AS, Adlercreutz H, Laakso J. Antioxidants in Vegan Diet and Rheumatic Disorders. Toxicology 2000; 155(1-3):45-53

8. Kaartinen K, Lammi K, Hypen M, Nenonen M, Hanninen O, Rauma AL. Vegan Diet Alleviates Fibromyalgia Symptoms. Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology 2000; 29(5):308-313

9. Smith JD, Terpening CM, Schmidt SO, Gums JG. Relief of Fibromyalgia Symptoms Following Discontinuation of Dietary Excitotoxins. Annals of Pharmacotherapeutics 2001; 35(6):702-706

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