It is my opinion that there is nothing more harmful to our current landscape of unhealthy eating habits than an eating philosophy that vilifies an entire food group.
While I promote ketogenic diets as a metabolic reset tool, they only work when used as that, and I’ll never pretend that carbohydrates are “bad” for everyone. They are, in fact, quite necessary for a healthy lifestyle. Vegans, however, have no issue promoting their eating philosophy and subsequent proclamation that animal products are “bad” for everyone as absolute truth.
And vegans are wrong.
There are some unhealthy animal products (primarily processed ones,) just as there are unhealthy vegan products (again, primarily processed ones!) Vegan, organic cheese puffs are still about as nutritionally dense as a packing peanut, and contain just as many (if not more) industrial food additives that have been directly linked with cancer and chronic disease than the non-vegan variety. Healthy eating isn’t about eating vegan cheese puffs, it is about not eating cheese puffs.
The recent documentary “What the Health?!”, now available on Netflix and therefore being streamed by the masses, attempts to demonstrate the harmful effects of animal products in our diet and encourage us to eliminate them entirely. As an evidence-based health and wellness professional, here’s where they missed the mark:
No one would argue that commercially prepared bacon and deli sausage are health foods, but do they increase the risk of colon cancer by 18% as portrayed in the movie? No. No, they don’t. Even the study cited in the film doesn’t reach for that conclusion, instead demonstrating that daily intake of processed meats (not moderate consumption, but literally every single day) increases the risk of developing colon cancer by age 65 from 2.9% to 3.4%. That means that for every 200 people who eat processed meat daily, one will develop colon cancer they wouldn’t have otherwise developed.
Hardly an 18% increase in risk. Moderate your consumption of processed meats (and really, processed foods in general) and there is no strong evidence of harm.
Common nutritional guidelines already call for the limitation of red meat, while acknowledging that meat in general has several health benefits. What the Health?! cited a statement from the World Health Organization on the dangers of red meat to back up their claim, but in reality, the statement said that red meat should be limited but not eliminated as red meat has several health benefits – including potentially lowering cholesterol levels and decreasing inflammation.
As someone who specializes in metabolic dysfunction, this is one accusation I can say is absolutely, 100% false. It is impossible for the consumption of animal products to directly cause diabetes unless those animal products are highly processed (and contain sugar, the actual cause of diabetes) or if the only animal product consumed was massive amounts of low-fat, high-carbohydrate dairy.
Scientific consensus is that obesity and lack of activity cause 90-95% of cases of type 2 diabetes, which literally cannot exist without excess glucose in the blood stream, because it is the excess glucose that causes the symptoms and damage of type 2 diabetes. Anyone with a limited intake of carbohydrates, if diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, would be asymptomatic as there would be limited glucose in the bloodstream to cause symptoms.
Most sources of meat contain little to no carbohydrates, and properly prepared, full-fat dairy is moderate in carbohydrates.
Milk, cheese, and other dairy products are declared “terrifying” by What the Health?! in spite of numerous benefits to human health. For example, this review suggests that not only are dairy products protective against several diseases, they provide many important nutrients and full-fat dairy may be even better than low-fat!
“Several meta-analyses point to the resounding conclusion that, although dairy products contain a high SFA content, their consumption induces a positive or neutral effect on human cardiovascular health.”
This systemic review concluded, without a shadow of doubt, that:
“The totality of available scientific evidence supports that intake of milk and dairy products contribute to meet nutrient recommendations, and may protect against the most prevalent chronic diseases, whereas very few adverse effects have been reported.”
I’m not the first person to question the validity of What the Health?! and veganism in general.
You can see two other important pieces on WTH here and here; if you’re ready to explore the case against veganism, you can find some well researched and informative articles here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
So are plant-based diets healthy?
One thing that vegans definitely get right is that a plant-based diet is very healthy – the only point of difference between mainstream nutritional recommendations, including my own, and veganism is the inclusion of high-quality animal products along with a diet primarily consisting of vegetables and fruits.
No one is arguing that a carnivorous diet is healthy for humans, just as no one should be arguing that a herbivorous diet is healthy for humans. Yes, you can survive on either plant or animal products alone, especially with supplementation – that doesn’t mean it is the optimal way of eating for human health.
But the way forward is between the two, eating a balanced, whole foods diet with minimally processed food. As Michael Pollan said:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
– Michael Pollan
Mostly plants. Not only plants.
What about the moral side of veganism?
The other thing that vegans get right is their moral connection to their way of eating. While reducing consumption of animal products certainly does reduce suffering, just as with our carbon footprint, suffering at the hands of humans cannot be completely eliminated until the human species is completely eliminated – and even then, there will still be suffering.
And while deeming certain foods or food groups as “good” or “bad” creates the kind of black and white thinking that leads to binge eating, over eating, weight gain, obesity, and metabolic dysfunction, we could all certainly do more to pay attention to the morality of our food choices. For example:
– Choosing sustainably grown vegetables and fruits
– Consuming sustainably, morally raised animal products
– Supporting organizations that create food products in support of human health
– Supporting products and programs currently advocating for food justice, including the reduction of food waste and inequality in access to nutritious, whole foods
– No longer financially supporting organizations that contribute to and control our environmentally unsustainable, nutritionally destitute, obesogenic, economically unequal, industrial food system such as Nestle, Kraft, Associated British Foods, Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, PepsiCo, and Unilever. They don’t make food, they make money, and they do it at our expense.
The final word on veganism?
Is eating a plant-based diet healthier than the Standard American Diet? Absolutely!
Is eating a diet with reduced or eliminated processed foods healthier than the Standard American Diet? Without question!
Is eating a plant-only, whole foods diet healthier than eating a plant-based, whole foods diet with high quality, sustainably sourced animal products? Most of the current evidence says that no, it is not healthier to be a whole food vegan than to eat a balanced, whole food diet with high-quality, sustainably sourced animal products.
I’m not addressing the issues of highly processed food substitutes, high glycemic load, or inclusion of large amounts of grains in the vegan diet in this piece because we already know that isn’t a healthy way of eating – just as an omnivorous diet high in processed foods, sugar, and large amounts of grains is unhealthy.
Yes, most vegans eat that way, but not all do, and I don’t want to dismiss the entire vegan philosophy based off a subset of people who use it as an excuse to eat unlimited amounts of sugar-filled coconut “yogurt” and eat nothing-but-filler tofu burgers with extra buns “because they’re vegan”.
Just as dismissing the entire ketogenic way of eating because some people use it as an excuse to eat bacon wrapped butter is unfair (even though they’re technically keto!) it would be unfair to dismiss veganism based on people who are technically vegan, but eating garbage food.
And yet, as a whole, veganism fails to show any long-term benefit in any real peer-reviewed research when you include all available science. Veganism is simply not healthier than a balanced, plant-based-but-not-plant-exclusive diet.
What’s your take?