It seems nearly every day there is a headline making news about a scandal surrounding veganism in some way or another. A few short weeks ago, vocal vegan Ariana Grande made waves with her Starbucks collaboration drink debut, as the main component of the drink is made from egg whites. This week, we’re seeing apologies flood in from Yovana Mendoza Ayres, the vegan lifestyle YouTube star of Rawvana, who was just caught on film eating fish. As for me? I just happened to wrap up an intense three-week yoga teacher training course deep in Costa Rica’s jungle, and was (reluctantly) put on a vegan diet, too. The thing is, much like Grande and Mendoza Ayres, veganism is seemingly not for me.
I didn’t need to live in the jungle for almost a month to discover this about myself, though; I’ve always felt best on a loose paleo-style diet, eating about 70% veg and fruit with a helping of animal protein and a sweet potato thrown in here and there for good measure. I love steak so much, at the tender age of one year, my mum used to chew it up and feed it to me like a bird feeds its baby. And yet here I was, trying to survive off carbohydrate-rich oatmeal for breakfast, piles of jasmine rice for lunch, and lentils for dinner. Within days, I felt incredibly lethargic, moody, bloated, uncomfortable, and never truly satisfied. I was always searching for something to give me a feeling of fullness, and ended up gaining weight from constantly snacking on nuts, seeds, fruit, and rice cakes, which I cannot fathom why anyone still eats; they taste like air and did nothing to appease my appetite whatsoever. Grouchy and hangry became my two main moods, and my digestive system was so unhappy, my sleep pattern was thrown off from discomfort. Don’t even get me started on trying to squeeze into my Lululemons…
Apart from the physical discomfort and dissatisfaction of being fed nothing but carbohydrates for three meals a day, I found the moral standpoint of veganism questionable from my perspective, too. While I can definitely understand feeling compassion for animals and choosing not to eat their meat, I can’t really grasp the concept of abstaining from eggs, honey, yogurt, and other animal products should they be produced in safe and healthy environments for the animals in question. As well, I was recently enlightened about a science report outlining the negative impacts a vegetarian or vegan diet can have on living creatures, and specifically mice. The report shares that in Australia, millions and millions of mice are killed annually in order clear land to make room for grain crops. Morally and ethically, I stand in the camp that feels all lives are equal.
Back in Costa Rica, while expressing my disappointment for another lunch lacking any source of protein (it was taco Tuesday, but there, irritatingly, weren’t even any beans), a fellow student and full-time vegan pointed out, “but there’s avocado! That’s protein.” It took every ounce of self-control to do anything other than politely correct her that avocado, in fact, has a macronutrient breakdown that’s main source is fat and not protein. This was the same vegan that insisted broccoli has just as much if not more protein than beef. However, how much broccoli do you have to eat to equate to a comparative serving of protein from beef? A 4oz serving of beef has nearly 30g of readily available protein, while you’d need to eat over 12 cups of broccoli to come close to that… moreover, how much of that protein in the broccoli is bioavailable and can be utilized by the body? Many people will argue that meat isn’t food for human consumption, but many people will also complain of digestive problems after eating large quantities of broccoli. Clearly, there is some misinformation flying around veganism, so I decided to reach out to several experts from all different kinds of backgrounds to get an unbiased and well-rounded opinion on the topic.
“While veganism can be a wonderful health choice for some people, overall it’s very difficult to be a ‘healthy’ vegan. Adherence to a vegan diet requires a lot of planning; otherwise it can put you at risk of missing out on major nutrients. Humans evolved eating both plant foods and animal foods, and you can risk becoming deficient in key nutrients if you completely eliminate animal products,” Dr Sarah White, a naturopathic doctor shares.
She explains, “The biggest issue with macronutrient deficiencies in the vegan diet comes from a lack of plant-based complete protein sources. The term complete protein refers to proteins that contain the 9 essential amino acids (aka building blocks of protein) that the body can’t produce on its own. These are called essential amino acids because we can’t synthesize them on our own and therefore need to get them from food sources. Meat and eggs are complete proteins, while common vegan sources of protein like beans and nuts aren’t. Vegan protein sources also contain less protein overall then their animal-based equivalents.”
Fiona Tuck, nutritionist, warns of vitamin deficiencies as well, including Vitamin B12, Calcium, Omega 3 Fatty Acids, and Iron, which can be especially problematic: “While there are plenty of plant foods that contain iron such as legumes, tofu, some wholegrains, dried fruit and dark leafy greens, the iron in these foods is in the form of non-haemiron, which is not as easily absorbed as haem iron, which is found in animal foods.”
Former vegan, nutritionist and chef Ryan McKenna offered plenty of insight on the topic, too. Looking inwards, he says that, “new scientific research shows that genes may play a significant role in developing personalised nutritional plans. For example, some individuals metabolise carbohydrates, starches and sugars faster than others and require a higher ratio of protein to slow the break down. In this instance, animal protein can inhibit and slow down the release of glucose into the blood from carbohydrate-based foods, maintaining a safe level on the glycaemic index.”
Highlighting that veganism isn’t for everyone, he points out, “Although many people can thrive on a plant-based diet for prolonged periods of time, many people cannot, and have extreme sensitivities to different plant foods. We also have to take into consideration that ancestrally, we have been eating animal foods; I’m not saying that we cannot overwrite ancestral coding and genetic memories, but perhaps we may not be so naive to assume that this is possible for every human body.”
Additionally, “Certain plant foods can cause a lot of digestive problems in humans due to the fact they contain anti-nutrients. From the lectins in beans to the phytic acids in nuts and seeds, the promise land of plant-based living isn’t all fairies and unicorns, despite that that’s how the vegan YouTubers portray it to be.” Nutritional therapist Theodora Findlay adds, “Legumes and grains that have been poorly prepared, and for people who have pancreatic enzyme insufficiency, will overtime incur damage to the enterocyte layer in the small intestine, leading to leaky gut syndrome and inflammation. As well, Zinc levels will decrease, which could lead to hair loss and depression.”
McKenna shares, “On the other hand, the human body, on a gross physical and biological level, will and can digest meat very well. It can also extract and assimilate a high range of bioavailable nutrients from it. I am not talking about ethics or morals here, I am looking at this from a mere physical 3D perspective; animal foods have nutrition in them, and most importantly, bioavailable nutrients. Bioavailability means nutrients that are easily digested, metabolized and assimilated in the body. Look at the nutritional profile of foods like bee pollen or eggs: these are true superfoods, and we must be grateful for the animals for providing us with this nourishment should we choose to ingest them.”
Dr White wraps it up nicely, saying that “There are plenty of reasons to eat more plant-based meals. They’re typically cheaper, better for the environment and studies unanimously show that eating more plants is great for our health. People typically eat way more meat than they need to in order to be healthy, so I often encourage my patients to eat a plant-based diet, with one serving of organically-raise and humanely-treated animal protein each day. If a patient wants to continue being a vegan for ethical reasons, I completely support their choice as long as they’re willing to take some essential supplements like iron, B12, vitamin D & vegan-based protein powders.”
It seems pretty simple to me; Oreos are vegan, pepperoni is not. Both are highly processed, chemical-laden food-like substances that do not offer a whole lot of nutritional value. With a focus on whole foods that nourish, whether vegan or not, eating well for what’s right for your body seems to be the simplest way to a life healthfully lived.