In the newly revised Australian Dietary Guidelines released this week (p. 35), Australia’s top health experts now agree with leading health advisory boards in the U.S., U.K. 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 animal 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.”
In 2013, leading U.S. health care provider Kaiser Permanente, with more than 9 million health insurance subscribers, published an article in its medical science journal recommending that physicians consider recommending a plant-based diet for all their patients. The article notes, “Healthy eating may be best achieved with a plant-based diet, which we define as a regimen that encourages whole, plant-based foods and discourages meats, dairy products, and eggs as well as all refined and processed foods … Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.”
While a well-balanced plant-based diet can easily provide all of the nutrients we need to thrive, that doesn’t mean that all vegans are healthy by default. 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, it is often the case that ex-vegans were simply struggling with difficult cravings. And while cravings— and the discomfort they produce— are very 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 little 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?”
Got a question about specific nutrients or on planning a plant-based diet? Check out the article Vegan Diets: Sorting Through the Myths
Veganism isn’t just a diet. It’s a way of life that seeks to reduce harm to animals, the environment, and other humans. See our Why Vegan? page to learn more.
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