A year or so ago, I read Something Deeply Hidden by Sean Carroll. It talked about the wonders of the quantum number generator. I really don’t want to write anything today, but if I am (because I have to for my group meeting), I figured why not make it fun. I could write a research update (1), or about a book I need to review (2), or try to review a paper (3), or why not chat about the upcoming Biden Presidency (4). Or I could just pick the one I most want to do and be done with it (5). All I have to do, is ask the quantum RNG.
I want to talk about what it means to be healthy as a vegetarian or vegan. As with anything, the key to a healthy diet is diversity of foods. This is hardly a full review of the science; I’m discussing a report by the American Dietetic Association from 2009. Nevertheless, the paper is a systematic review of the existing literature, and this blog will be a broad review of the key nutrients vegans need to pay attention to with a discussion of my own approach in what I eat. I won’t get too deep into my eating patterns outside of these main nutrients. There is plenty left to talk about.
Generally speaking, vegans and vegetarians may be considered healthier than meat eaters. This may be true when it comes to heart disease, cholesterol, cancer, hypertension and so on. However, I want to be especially careful with my claims her because correlation is not causation. Attributing these traits to veganism is like attributing diabetes to sugar. One does not produce the other, but one may beget a pattern of eating that does. That is why it is so important to ask whether my own diet really reflects the ideal way of eating. Either way, I still have to make a point to be healthy.
Vegetarians and vegans often have a lower body mass index, consume less saturated fats and more fruits, veggies, grains, nuts, and soy products. This basic fact already disagrees with my own diet. I consume a great deal of saturated fats. Don’t get me a wrong, I try to ensure I buy oils that are very low in sat fats, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is a major part of my week to week diet. I do eat a decent among of fruits, soy, and veggies, but I could use more nuts I think. They key take away is that the ADA says there is a clear benefit to a nutritionally adequate vegan or vegetarian diet.
A vegetarian is a person who doesn’t eat meat or fish. Vegans excludes egg, dairy and other animal products, but variation does exist among vegans. The authors suspect the abundance of key phytochemicals (fiber, potassium, vitamins C and E, etc.) combined with lower sat fat and cholesterol is likely a big reason for this. I suspect I am benefiting from many of these benefits, but there are clear risks I face being officially obese with a moderately high fat intake. That said, the lower risk of heart disease persists even after removing the effect of BMI. I think something I would benefit from is a consistent tracking of my sat fat intake over several months to get a realistic look at my fat intake.
The paper goes on to break down various nutrients that are often a point of concern for meatless diets. First and foremost is protein. The do a deep dive into the various forms of protein in a veggie diet, but the key take away is that protein is easily found in a veggie diet, and the boy processes it just as effectively as with meat. What’s more, meat, especially red meat, is where a lot of saturated fats are consumed. Even my diet, I doubt, compares to that someone who often eats beef.
Fatty acids are an area where vegans may be somewhat low, and these are important for cardiovascular, brain and eye health. However, I make a point to consume a great deal of soy, vegan butter, canola oil, and various forms of plant based milks fortified in these. Canola oil is a great example of a way I try to limit my sat fat intake because it is one of the lowest sources of sat fat among oils, replaced by key fatty acids. It is worth noting that the body does not consume these plant based fatty acids as effectively. However, the ADA seem to think it need not be a major point of concern. I don’t think this is something I need to change, but I wouldn’t mind a check on my fatty acid levels to be safe.
Iron is similar to fatty acids in that plant based sources are hard to consume, and it is recommended that plant based eaters consume nearly twice the amount of iron. This is not a point of concern. I eat a great deal of cocoa, beans, etc.
Zinc isn’t something I’ve thought much of. It doesn’t seem to be a major problem, but the ADA notes that the intake varies significantly. I am not prepared to say weather I consume the right amount of this, but I definitely get some based on the sources they list.
The most surprising fact to me, when I first read this, was how difficult it is to get iodine as a vegan. I learned a while back to use iodized salt, and I try to make a point to use it fairly regularly. As with all this, I suppose I could stand a test of my iodine levels.
Calcium is another nutrient that is specifically under recommended levels for vegans (on average). It leads to vegans being more likely to suffer bone fractures due to weaker bones. This isn’t something I think much about, but that is because I consume fortified plant milks which has the same bioavailability as regular milk (at least soy). I also consume greens (broccoli and kale) and tofu which are good sources as well.
Vitamin D is something I assumed I was fine with, but rereading this has me rethinking it. I have not had much sunlight, especially this last year, and the sources of vitamin D seem to be exclusive to some plant based milks. I need to rethink my vitamin D intakes and consider whether supplements are necessary (something I am very hesitant with).
B12 was the first major nutrient I made a point to consume. This is a major underrepresented nutrient for vegans, and we have to consume fortified foods with this. I get a good deal from my plant based milk, but I remember reading (not in this paper) that its bioavability isn’t as high as in regular milk. I may be remembering that wrong. In either case, I make a point to consume fortified nutritional yeast. Although, I did just learn not all nutritional yeast products are fortified in B12, so that is definitely something I must continually check. One point of concern is that I don’t consume nutritional yeast consistently. I usually make vegan cheese that will last a couple months. Then I may go a month or two without it. From what I’ve read, it takes time to become depleted, so hopefully I stay within range, especially with my fortified milks. Nevertheless, I really need to discuss this with a doctor (which I have yet to do).
Overall, non meat diets are just as effective as meat ones. Vegans may have the hardest time, but a balanced diet is still possible. What’s more, you don’t have to take supplements if you’re willing to put in the work. Of course, a healthy diet takes work regardless of if you’re vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or a meat eating monster (that’s a joke). There is a great deal to understand health wise, and they do a much deeper dive into the health benefits later in the paper. I may discuss that at another time.