Vegan health: supplements & oils
- Excerpt from The Thinking Vegan's Interview with "Vegan For Life" author Ginny Kisch Messina:
Many of the readers of The Thinking Vegan are ethical vegans. Why should they care about their health and understanding nutritional science?
The unfortunate truth is that we vegans need to prove that our diet is a healthy choice. Anyone on any type of diet can get sick if they make bad food choices, but when vegans get sick, people blame veganism.
It can be tempting to promote the "no worries" approach to vegan nutrition, which suggests that as long as you eat a variety of whole plant foods, with an occasional B12 supplement, you'll automatically meet nutrient needs. But the evidence suggests otherwise, and if vegans have suboptimal nutrition or develop outright deficiencies, then the animals lose in the end (as do the vegans, obviously). That's why we're very specific in Vegan for Life with our nutrition recommendations. Staying healthy is an essential part of activism.
Though you are a registered dietician, you have written in the past that the best argument for veganism is the ethical/animal argument. Why don't you believe that the health argument should be the driver?
I think it's great if people want to talk about the health benefits of eating more plant foods and fewer animal foods. Unfortunately, though, we have no data to show that you need to go 100 percent animal-free in order to be healthy. So there really isn't a "health argument" for vegan diet, let alone vegan lifestyle.
This means that if we want to promote veganism for personal gain or health benefits, we need to overstate the findings and tweak the science. And what does it say about our movement if we're advocating for animals by using a not-quite-honest or not-quite-scientifically-supportable message?
Some might say that we should appeal to every possible motivation in getting people to stop eating animals, and that's a tempting argument. I'd probably buy it if I thought it would work. But I don't see that advocacy built on a shaky factual foundation or on precepts that are ever-changing can prevail in the long run.
No one knows what the exact "ideal" diet for humans is, or if there is any single diet that fits that definition. I talk with my colleagues frequently about new research and whether we need to reassess some of our recommendations or advice based on the latest findings because ideas about the best way to eat are forever changing. Who knows what the research will be showing 40 years from now? But an ethic of justice doesn't change. The argument in favor of animal rights today will be the same in 40 years. So why not stick with the argument that is 100 percent unassailable, the one that we never have to scramble to defend in light of new findings?
In addition, I think there is a real problem in shifting the focus of veganism away from an ethic of justice for animals toward more anthropocentric concerns. It actually reinforces the idea that our food and lifestyle choices should be all about us a belief that lies at the center of animal exploitation.
You cover some of the key nutrients that vegans should concern themselves with. You also recommend supplements for people with greater needs or who may not be able to meet their nutrient needs strictly through diet. Some of the leading medical doctors who promote a vegan diet are adamantly against the use of supplements. Can you speak to this?
This speaks to what I mentioned in response to your first question which is that some advocates would like to portray veganism as the "perfect" way of eating, and the idea of taking supplements challenges that perception. Unfortunately, this can end up jeopardizing the health of vegans. We owe it to those we are attracting to this movement to be 100 percent honest about the potential pitfalls of a vegan diet.
Yes, it's always best to get nutrition from whole foods, but that's not always possiblecertainly not in the cases of iodine and vitamins B12 and D. For various reasons, some vegans may fall short on other nutrients and find it difficult to meet needs from foods alone. Taking supplements to make up the difference seems way smarter to me than trying to explain the problem away.
In the book, you advocate the use of healthy oils, such as olive and canola. Many medical doctors advocate against oil. Would you mind sharing your thoughts?
Actually, I don't think it's true at all that many medical doctors advocate against all vegetable oils. That may have been true 25 years ago, but perspectives have changed with evolving research.
The research shows that the type of fat in your diet is far more important than the amount up to a point, of course. And, I think most medical and health experts who follow nutrition research are on board with the idea that moderate consumption of healthy oils is safe and compatible with healthy eating. It's too bad that the vegan community has lagged behind the science in this regard. It makes us look out of touch with current nutrition research.
I'm not for pouring buckets of oil over salads or slathering heaps of Earth Balance on bread, of course. But some higher fat foods are associated with decreased risk for chronic disease; at the very least, they are harmless in moderation. And unfortunately, efforts to define veganism as a diet that shuns all added fats and sometimes higher fat foods can end up turning veganism into a sort of ultra-restrictive fad diet.
The impression that vegan diets are limited and difficult is a huge deterrent toward adopting this way of eating for many people. If we want to counter that perception, the last thing we want to do is layer on more restrictions that have never been shown to be beneficial. And, with 10 billion animals slaughtered for food every year, do we really want to expend energy railing against harmless plant foods like olive oil?