When my yoga teacher announced she was going vegan, my first reaction was, “Well then sign me up, too!”, but when I returned to my earthly self, I decided not to. Though animal products play a supporting role in my diet, they play a critical one.
First off, let’s separate the ethical/moral reasons from the nutritional reasons for going vegan. Yes, most factory farms are despicable, and I think it’s honorable to reject these practices, but if you’re not eating animal products (and fish) because of the inhumane treatment of living creatures, there are farms that raise animals with care and slaughter them with dignity. The animals are drug-free and run around like animals do.
So, the nutritional argument…. Many people go vegan to detox. I am 100% for detoxing by eliminating sugar, processed foods, refined grains, dairy (especially if one is lactose intolerant), and alcohol (though I think the occasional drink is essential for mental health if not digestive). But I don’t believe there is anything about fish (in particular small ones with low mercury) or pasture-raised animals and their eggs, that our bodies find toxic.
We have been eating animals and their offerings quite healthfully for hundreds of thousands of years, and in fact physiologically our digestive systems appear to be more like dog’s (carnivores) than cow’s (herbivores). Lactose intolerance, yes. Gluten intolerance yes. Nuts allergies, for sure. Soy allergies, yes. But meat allergies…. some people may find that it doesn’t suite them, but I have never heard of a true meat “allergy”.
The biggest challenge that I would be concerned about with a strict and long-term vegan diet is that there are critical vitamins and minerals that may not be consumed in adequate amounts.
Nutrients Potentially Missing On A Vegan Diet
1. Vitamin A:
The “direct” form is only found in animal products -meat, egg yolks, dairy (though much less so than meat) and fish. The vitamin A found in orange and green vegetables is beta carotene which the body must first convert to the usable form of Vitamin A. That conversion requires bile salts, which are produced by your liver when you consume fat (making fat essential on a vegan diet). So yes, you can obtain a version of Vitamin A in plants, but you’ll need about 6x as much beta cartonene to equal the amount found in direct Vitamin A.
2. B12 Vitamin:
This is the nutrient which vegans can potentially become deficient as you can only get naturally occurring B12 from animal products. (There are eight different B vitamins and our body needs them all). It can take time for the implications of low B12 to show up, with anemia being the most common outcome of very low levels of Vitamin B12.
3. Vitamin D:
This is another one found only in animal products. Cod liver oil is super high in it, as is shrimp, wild salmon, sardines, full-fat dairy products, and egg yolks. Yes you can get it from the sun, but most of us don’t spend 15 minutes a day, flesh exposed, palms open. Furthermore, the darker your skin, the less Vitamin D your body will produce.
You can get some of the components of protein (the amino acids) from legumes, seeds and grain, but meat and fish contain complete protein (meaning they have all the essential amino acids). The amino acids in meat/fish are also in a form that is very easy for most people to digest. Many people find grains and legumes (which contain digestive inhibitors) quite hard to digest. Note too how little meat you actually need to get protein – 4 oz of beef provides 30 grams protein; salmon 25 grams; tofu 8 grams.
Red meat is high in it and it comes in a form that many believe is easier for the body to break down than that found in grains and legumes.
How To Get These Nutrients If You’re Vegan
Vitamin A: Eat loads of bright orange veg and fruit (carrots, yams, squash, apricots) and dark green ones (spinach, kale, chard etc) which provides beta carotene that the body can convert to Vitamin A. Be careful taking synthetic Vitamin A supplements, as they can be toxic at high levels.
B12: Unfortunately B12 is not available in plant form. Spirulina and other sea vegetables, are considered by some to be good sources, but whether that form of B12 can be assimilated into the body, is under dispute.
Many plants including whole grains are rich in the other B’s. To enhance the digestive properties of the grains, make the Bs more accessible, and eliminate the phytic acid in grains which can draw minerals out of you, I highly advise soaking them. This is especially important if you’re eating large quantities, which many vegans do.
Avocados are also super rich in the other B Vitamins. Though mostly known for its Vitamin C, cabbage has several of the B vitamins.
Vitamin D: Besides the sun and animal products there is no other way to naturally get D. If as a vegan you can make a small exception, consider cod liver oil capsules, they are exceptionally high in D. The risk with a high intake of synthetic Vitamin D (including the D that’s often added to non-dairy milk), is that at high levels it can be toxic since the body stores it – not a concern with sun-created vitamin D as the body simply stops producing it when it’s had enough.
Protein: Tempeh provides the highest protein of any plant form and I’d recommend it over tofu. Quinoa, is a complete protein, so it’s a great source. Lentils and beans have many of the amino acids though they’re incomplete, so to get the missing ones, eat them with grains. The starch and sugar however, of legumes can be hard to digest, so like grains, soak them for a minimum 5 hours in water + vinegar or lemon juice (or whey), ie anything acidic.
Zinc: Found in beans, whole grains and nuts. The phytic acid, however, in non-fermented soybeans (like tofu), as well as in grains and legumes, can bind to minerals (including zinc and calcium) in the digestive tract and carry them out, making vegans potentially more susceptible to mineral deficiencies. Eating fermented soy (tempeh) and soaking grains and legumes in water+an acid, will eliminate most of the phytic acid.
So my advice: pay close attention to what is right for your body. And if you’re going vegan, know what you could be missing, and then find ways to vigilantly incorporate those vitamins and nutrients into your diet. Try doing so with food first, supplements second.