Fact vs. Fiction: What You Really Need to Know About Being Vegan

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eganism has become kind of a hot topic these days.  Recent documentaries would have you believe that veganism will cure all that ails you, while eating meat is pretty much guaranteed to give you a heart attack right in the middle of your cancer diagnosis.  On the other side of the spectrum, vegans are considered a joke—weak, unhealthy, sprout-munching hipsters whose muscles are atrophying away to nothing at this very moment due to lack of protein. As a longtime vegan who has a heavy presence in the strength/fitness, vegan, and heavy metal communities, I think I’ve heard it all.  And the more I hear, the more I feel the need to breathe some sanity into this confusing world of misinformation. It’s time to lay down the vegan facts behind some of the myths surrounding the vegan lifestyle and to perhaps provide some food for thought.


vegan facts

Myth 1: There’s no such thing as a healthy vegan. 


I have been bombarded with this sentiment for years.  I know more than one personal trainer who refuse to train vegans, and I even had an experience with a chiropractor who told me that I was “lucky” he’d agreed to consult with me, as he usually wouldn’t treat a vegan.  The fact of the matter is, a well-designed vegan diet can be as healthy, if not healthier than, a diet including meat and dairy products (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).  Although more research is needed, current evidence suggests that vegan diets done properly can fuel athletes as well as omnivorous diets (5, 6, 7, 8).

Of course, the key words here are “well-designed.”  Vegans often substitute bread or junk foods for meat, which certainly do not provide the same nutrients.  Furthermore, many vegans do not eat a balanced diet or supplement appropriately (more on this later).  Then again, plenty of omnivores also do not eat a nutritionally complete diet.  A key to good health is to ensure that all nutritional needs are met, whether through food or supplementation.


Myth 2: Eating meat means you’ll get cancer/other diseases.


When it comes to health, there is a lot of evidence that links red meat to cancer and heart disease (9, 10, 11).  Diets high in processed meat seem to be linked to colorectal cancer, with limited evidence linking meat-heavy diets to other types of cancers or other diseases (10, 11).  Organic meat, in the little research that exists on it, has the potential to be just as carcinogenic as non-organic meat in a high meat-eating population (12).  The problem seems to come from chemicals within the meat that are released when it is processed or cooked (11, 13).

Before you vilify meat-eating from a health perspective, there are a few issues with this evidence.  Firstly, the studies linking meat to cancer are mainly epidemiological, meaning they compare different populations and guess what the cause of a problem might be.  This doesn’t mean that the studies are useless, but they cannot pinpoint meat as the cause of the diseases in question.  There are many lifestyle factors that can go along with meaty diets that may also contribute to disease, including obesity, sedentary lifestyle, poor nutrition, and smoking. vegan facts saute magazine

Another issue is that there is no base amount of meat that is determined to be a risk factor.  Someone who eats seventeen steaks a night might be at risk, but maybe someone who sticks with smaller portion sizes has little to no risk.  The moral of the story is that while there is evidence that links meat to colorectal cancer and possibly some other diseases, it is by no means conclusive, and does not necessarily mean that meat cannot be eaten in moderation.


Myth 3: You can get all the nutrients you need from a vegan diet, and you don’t need to supplement. 


While a whole foods based vegan diet has a lot of great things about it, there are some nutrients that cannot be obtained from vegan food alone, and must be supplemented.  The nutrients I recommend for vegans (generally through supplementation or enriched foods) include creatine monohydrate, vitamin B12, an algae-based DHA/EPA supplement, a vegan (fungi-based) D3 supplement, calcium, iron, and zinc.

It is also important for vegans to realize that not all proteins are created equal.  Many vegan proteins do not contain all essential amino acids, or have proteins that are not utilized efficiently by the body. vegan facts saute magazine

The Protein Digestability-Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) is the current standard for determining protein quality.  Soy protein and mycoprotein (Quorn, or mushroom protein) are two of the highest-scoring vegan proteins on the list (scoring a 1 and a 99 on the PDCAAS scale, respectively) (14, 15).  Most beans score somewhere between .50-.70 on the PDCAAS scale, while quinoa scores about .78.  Sprouted beans, grains, and corn tend to score higher than their unsprouted counterparts.  Combining beans with grains such as wheat, rice, or corn increases their protein quality score, as well.  As long as you are eating a wide variety of protein-containing foods and perhaps add a plant-based protein shake to your daily routine, you should do just fine in the protein department.

Hopefully this article has cleared up some misconceptions for you.  There is much I have left uncovered, but consider this a good start.  Veganism may not cure all that ails you, but you can absolutely be a very strong, healthy vegan if you do it right. vegan facts saute magazine


vegan facts

Melody Schoenfeld, MA, CSCS is the author of the new book Pleasure Not Meating You: A Science-Based Approach to the Vegan Lifestyle (And Some Recipes, Too) and has been a leader in the fitness industry for more than two decades. She is the owner of Flawless Fitness, a personal training center in Pasadena, CA, and Evil Munky Enterprises, a fitness equipment manufacturing company. vegan facts saute magazine

For more information visit www.pleasurenotmeatingyou.com or connect on Facebook and Twittervegan facts saute magazine


References

  1. Dinu. M., Abbate, R., Gensini, G. F., et al. (2016).  Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies.  Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, (57)17, 3640-3649;  doi: doi.org/10/1080/10408398/2016.1138447
  2. Le, L. T., & Sabaté, J. (2014).  Beyond meatless, the health effects of vegan diets: Findings from the Adventist cohorts.  Nutrients, 6(6), 2131-2147;  doi: 10.3390/nu6062131 vegan facts saute magazine
  3. Glick-Bauer, M., & Yeh, M. C. (2014).  The health advantage of a vegan diet: Exploring the gut microbiota connection.  Nutrients, 6(11), 4822-4838; doi: 10.3390/nu6114822 vegan facts saute magazine
  4. Appleby, P. N., & Key, T. J. (2015).  The long-term health of vegetarians and vegans.  Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 75(3), 287-293; doi: doi.org/10.1017/S0029665115004334 
  5. Melina, V., Craig, W., & Levin, S. (2016).  Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:  Vegetarian diets.  Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(12), 1970-1980; doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025
  6. Rogerson, D. (2017) Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers.  Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, (14)36,
  7. Rodriguez, N. R., DiMarco, N. M., & Langley, S. (2009). Nutrition and athletic performance.  Medscape.  Retrieved from: www.medscape.com/viewarticle/717046_11 vegan facts saute magazine
  8. Craddock, J. C., Probst, Y. C., & Peoples, G. (2016). Vegetarian and omnivorous nutrition—Comparing physical performance.  Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, (26)3, 212-220; doi: https:/doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2015-0231
  9. Samraj, A. N., Pearce, O. M. T., Läubli, H., et al. (2014).  A red meat-derived glycan promotes inflammation and cancer progression.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(2), 542-547; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1417508112
  10. Abid, Z., Cross, A. J., & Sinha, R. (2014).  Meat, dairy, and cancer.  American Society for Nutrition, (100) Supplement 1, 386S-393S; doi: 10.3945/acjn.113.071597 vegan facts saute magazine
  11. Boada, L. D., Rodríguez Hernández, Á, & Luzardo, O. P. (2016).  The impact of red and processed meat consumption on cancer and other health outcomes: Epidemiological evidences.  Food and Chemical Toxicology, 92, 236-44; doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2016.04.008
  12. Rodríguez Hernández, Á., Boada, L. D., Mendoza, Z, et al. (2017). Consumption of organic meat does not diminish carcinogenic potential associated with the intake of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 24(5), 4261-4273.
  13. Trafialek, J., & Kolanowski, W. (2013).  Dietary exposure to meat-related carcinogenic substances: Is there a way to estimate the risk?  International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 65(6), 774-780; doi: doi.org/10.3109/09637486.2014.917146
  14. Hughes G.J., Ryan D.J., Mukherjea R., et al. (2011)  Protein isolates and concentrate: Criteria for evaluation.  Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.; 59(23), 12707-12712;  doi: 10.1021/jf203220v vegan facts saute magazine
  15. Edwards D.G., & Cummings .J.H. The protein quality of mycoprotein.  Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2010; 69(OCE4), E331;  doi:10.1017/S0029665110001400 vegan facts saute magazine

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