I don’t like the name of this article. I have never argued with a vegan, per se. In fact, I respect all people who make a conscious choice about the way they eat, it’s much better than people who don’t think about their food at all. However, I personally believe that eating a balanced (omnivore), natural diet is probably the healthiest diet for humans, and I am concerned that some new vegan food products are low in nutrients, and are harmful in the long run.
First let me talk about the positive side of choosing to eat vegetarian and vegan. Modern agribusiness farming is definitely having a negative impact on the earth. Livestock emits approximately 65% of the nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, which is even more potent that carbon dioxide. Water is also used in excess to raise animals for food. And more than 1/3 of all fossil fuels are used to raise livestock. Aside from the damage this practice causes to the earth, the current inhumane methods of containing animals in closed, dirty quarters and feeding them food that is not indigenous to them, injecting them with antibiotics and hormones and then of course slaughtering them in often gruesome ways; are all unhealthy practices for everyone.
So I get it why many people (especially after watching movies today about these inhumane farming methods) have chosen to avoid eating animal products. But agricultural farming practices are also harming the planet. The use of pesticides is causing a massive kill-off of bees, we waste tons of water on primitive irrigation processes, GMO’s are unhealthy for everyone and we over till the land stripping it of vital nutrients that we don’t replenish. So it seems neither way is sustainable for the earth.
It is becoming more and more obvious that we need to create and use more sustainable farming practices. But cutting out one food source to achieve this unfortunately leaves us with a less than optimal diet for human health. I compare this choice to the current “green” building rage in our country. My husband and I chose to build an “energy-efficient” or “green” house about 5 years ago. We wanted a house that used up less energy and created a smaller “footprint” on the planet. A good cause- right?
We thought so. But once we started to undertake this project we quickly learned that there were many trade-offs in building green that were not really so healthy in the long-run. Our builder recommended we use spray-in foam for the insulation because it provides the highest level of insulation on the market today. And the more insulated a house is, the less energy is wasted. Makes sense. But what they don’t tell you is that the spray itself is very toxic to humans. In fact they have to wear specific suits and head gear when spraying it, so as not to come into contact with it. Basically it is made from polyurethane, which many studies are showing has a very bad impact on our endocrine systems and may cause many health problems. (tip: use natural insulation made from recycled blue jeans, or formaldehyde-free fiberglass)
There were several other “green” building practices that we would do differently today now that we have learned which ones are unhealthy for us, even if they are more energy-efficient (I will save for another article). Point is, we need to figure out how to provide healthy choices for us that also benefit the planet. That’s why I advocate more for healthier farming practices so that we can eat meat in a more sustainable way. Also, as a nutritionist, I recommend we all eat much less meat (I obviously don’t advocate for the Paleo diet either), and we shouldn’t eat any processed meat (think hot dogs, deli meat, etc).
Now on to the bad side of eating a vegan diet. If you choose to eat all natural, unprocessed vegetables, fruits, grains and some plant-based fats, then you are probably getting most of the nutrients you need, and may be able to maintain a healthy life (although you should still probably take supplements for B12 and D3- very tough to get without meat/fish sources). What I take issue with is the vegan meat substitutes out there today. Most of them are not healthy choices, and in fact can be detrimental for your health.
The main ingredient used in vegan meat substitutes is TVP (texturized vegetable protein). This is a man-made product made mostly from soybeans. Basically soy flour is extruded into various shapes and is heated to a degree that is becomes a “thermoplastic” protein. Yes, “plastic”. It becomes a polymer which makes it mostly indigestible. There is much controversy out there whether TVP is safe. Bottom line, TVP is not found in nature and as history has shown time and again, “processed” food is not healthy for us.
Also, vegans tend to eat more soy products overall, which in their natural state probably are healthy in moderation, but eating too much soy may predispose a person to other health issues. Some vegans also consume more protein-based shakes, which can create an imbalance of nutrients if they are ingesting too much protein. And many shakes are filled with unnatural ingredients that can cause other problems.
Overall, I have to continue to say that I think the omnivore path is still the healthiest and safest path. And I am hopeful that our farming practices, both livestock and agriculture, will keep improving. If you would like to read a good book about being an omnivore, I recommend “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. Not only is it an interesting read, his writing is fantastically entertaining.