Catching Up With Science: Burying the “Humans Need Meat” Argument

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image design: Ashley Capps

In the newly revised Australian Dietary Guidelines released this week, Australia’s top health experts now agree with leading health advisory boards in the U.S. and Canada that well-planned vegan diets are a safe, healthy and viable option for all age groups. Government health experts worldwide are finally catching up with the large body of scientific evidence demonstrating that a vegan diet is not only a viable option for people of any age, but that eating plant foods instead of animal-based foods can confer significant health benefits, including reduction in incidence of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack, stroke, and some types of cancer.

In 2009, the American Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, the U.S.’s oldest, largest and foremost authority on diet and nutrition, also recognized that humans have no inherent biological or nutritional need for animals products: “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” 

While a well-balanced vegan diet can easily provide all of the nutrients we need to thrive, that doesn’t mean that all vegans are healthy. Just as people who eat meat, dairy and eggs often suffer from nutrient deficiencies, a poorly planned or junk-food vegan diet can also fail to meet nutritional needs, leading to health problems. Total raw food diets and diets composed of only very-low-fat foods can also make it harder for some people to get all the necessary nutrients. But with the rare exception of someone who suffers from multiple serious plant-food allergies, science now recognizes that a healthy vegan diet is a safe option for everyone.

So what about ex-vegans? Although some former vegans will have experienced poor health as a result of an imbalanced diet, many others were simply struggling with difficult cravings. And while cravings— and the discomfort they produce— are real, it’s important to recognize that a craving is not a need. As much as it may feel like we are actually suffering from a life-threatening cheese deficiency, we know that withdrawal from highly pleasurable or addictive sensations can produce a multitude of physiological responses, including feelings of depression, fatigue and deprivation. We also know that cheese cravings aren’t indicative of an actual biological need, because cow’s milk is made for baby cows.

It’s also true that, just like meat-eaters, some vegans will struggle more than others to stay healthy. As Ginny Messina, R.D., observes: “Nutrient needs vary among individuals, so some people may need to work a little bit harder to obtain everything they need. And some vegans are not getting enough of what they need because they are eating diets that are too restrictive and/or they are not taking appropriate supplements. My initial recommendations for someone who is craving meat or dairy are these:

  • Add umami to your diet.
  • Eat more concentrated sources of protein—soy, seitan and beans.
  • Add some healthy fats to your meals—nuts, avocado, and foods cooked in small amounts of vegetable oils.
  • Check your diet against the food guide and supplement recommendations from Vegan for Life.”

Most health objections to veganism are easily laid to rest with a few science-based observations. This is not to say that there aren’t people who, due to socio-economic or geographical reasons, have no choice but to eat animals or animal products, whether they live in an urban food desert, or a remote part of the world where little edible vegetation naturally occurs. But as Jo Tyler writes in Does One Person’s Need Excuse Another’s Greed?: 

“If we are fortunate enough to be able to live without causing violence and harm to others, shouldn’t we do so… and do so with gratitude?”

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Got a question about specific nutrients or on planning a plant-based diet? Check out the article Vegan Diets: Sorting Through the Myths

Want to learn more about vegan food and nutrition? Go here.

Veganism isn’t just a diet. It’s a way of life: http://www.vegankit.com/

Visit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and veganhealth.org for more information on healthy eating.

About Ashley Capps

Ashley Capps is a poet, freelance writer and editor, and vegan activist. Her first book of poems is Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields. For more information on her poetry or advocacy writing, please visit http://ashley-capps.tumblr.com/. She also keeps a vegan/animal blog at Alpha Bêtes.

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28 comments

  1. Hi,
    I have been a vegetarian and vegan off and on for years. Since I contracted some chronic illnesses, I have not been able to digest beans or soy without horrible gastronomic distress or limiting thyroid function. This had left me with quinoa, chia seeds and vegan protein powder.
    It makes it. Very difficult to get the protein my sick body seems to need to feel good enough to work to pay my medical bills.

    I don’t like the situation but supplementing my diet by eating fish, chicken and very rarely red meat has been helpful to maintain my health. I know others in my situation who are in the same boat. Naturopathic doctors tell us we need to eat meat when the vegan or vegetarian diets fail us. I eat tons of greens and other veggies, don’t eat junk food and get enough exercise and rest. I drink lots of water and herbal teas. I am off all my allergen ( gluten and dairy) foods too. I avoid sugar. I took neuromins ( still do) too.
    Still my body became bloated, gassy and fatigued. I added back some fish, let go off the beans and then I began to feel better.

    I also have a history of an eating disorder. For me to have to be so restrictive is not good for me mentally. I am sensitive to animals and hate having to eat them but instead of feeling badly, it behooves me to feel grateful to the animal for giving its life for mine. It also helps to feel grateful for any food I choose to eat.

    Those of us who wish we could be vegan, could use compassion for our inability to eat that way all the time and a little credit for trying our best.
    Thank you

    • Paula,

      Doctors and naturopaths are infamous and predictable for stumbling over the protein issue. Not trained properly in nutrition, they “tow the party line” reinforcing the most common myths about protein, often without even knowing it. All one need do is look at the protein profiles of the best plant proteins and compare them against animal sources to see how they stack up. It’s not rocket science. You don’t have to resort to beans and soy for complete protein sources. I would suggest if you really want to thoroughly explore your options for plant proteins, go to the experts. Get the book, Vegan for Life by registered dieticians Norris and Messina. And here’s a great article on getting enough protein on a vegan diet from our resident vegan MD Holly Wilson: http://freefromharm.org/health-nutrition/vegan-doctor-addresses-protein-question/

      Hope this helps.

      Robert.

  2. Hi Paula,

    I appreciate your desire to be vegan despite your hardships. Intentions are important. By any chance, have you consulted with a vegan RD? FYI, a friend of mine is one and is very experienced and does phone consultations. Also, though I’m biased because I run the “PB&J Campaign,” one of my favorite protein sources is peanut butter. Best of luck.

    Gary

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