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OPINION: Here's why vegans have 'one of the most unhealthy diets'

Licensed nutritionist Nonie De Long explains why eating meat is essential for good health
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This story originally appeared on on July 7, 2019.

Dear Nutritionist,

I like to read your articles every week and I have a question of my own. My granddaughter has come home from school with the idea that meat is bad for her and the environment. She thinks eating vegetarian will stop global warming! I don’t see how but that is what she got in her head so she won’t eat any meat now for close to a year, and her mother and father have given up and are buying her what she wants. She’s 17 and she’s lost a lot of weight, and she likes that, but I think she is too thin now and she doesn’t want to eat very much at all. Just cereal and almond milk now mostly, and some veggie burgers and fruit and some yogurt that doesn’t have milk. She won’t even drink milk!

She dropped sports because she doesn’t have the interest and she’s tired all the time. She started having problems with her period. Now my daughter got a call from the school counsellor to say she is depressed and they need to see a psychiatrist. Well, they think she needs medication.

Listen, she was healthy until this vegetarian diet but my daughter doesn’t know how that could be. You seem sensible, so I want to ask you if you think this no-meat and no-milk diet can be causing all these health problems, and is there anything we can do other than jumping to depression medications?

Geared-up Grandma

Dear Grandma,

You’re absolutely right.

A vegan diet - which is vegetarian but without dairy and eggs - is one of the most unhealthy diets in my professional opinion. This is not because I have any personal bias against it, but because I have observed over and over again that it makes people ill. Typically the problems start with a lack of appetite, energy, and strength, and escalate over time to chronic fatigue, dental problems, muscle wasting, premature aging, digestive issues, skin conditions, and very often a mental-health issue: anxiety, panic, mood swings, depression, or eating disorders (which are actually a very complex mental-health issue).

This decline in health happens slowly in most people, so it isn’t always clear to them what the root cause is. But when I treat clients in this downward spiral I frequently see the common denominator is a vegan diet.

This is not only because a vegan diet removes some of the foods that are most nutritionally dense - namely meat, dairy, and eggs - but because it usually replaces them with grains and vegetable oils - which provide cheap, nutritionally-empty calories, and invariably create a lot of inflammation and health problems.

Even if a vegan only eats fruits and vegetables (thought to be ‘clean’) they can develop health issues and run into numerous deficiencies in a very short period of time. And, I find it very difficult to help these clients regain health until they incorporate red meat back into their diets - even with supplementation. Supplements should never be used instead of a healthy, whole food diet for maintaining health, as they contain isolated nutrients, while foods have assorted nutrients that work synergistically. Eating a poor diet and relying on supplements is simply going to create imbalances and poor health over time.

I understand and applaud the desire to eat to reduce one’s carbon footprint. However, a diet of responsibly-farmed meat and veggies with some nuts and seeds and a little fruit and a few healthy condiments creates the lowest carbon footprint, if you consider clear cutting and mono cropping, not to mention factory processing operations used in the big industrial cereal, processed food, and sugar crops. In fact, one environmentalist says it’s more, not less animals we need to reduce climate change!

I know this is a very unpopular view at present, with all the media vilifying of meat, and red meat in particular, but I speak from years of experience. And, as anyone can see now, the dietary recommendation to cut red meat and saturated fats and replace with whole grains and vegetable oils - the mainstream dietary advice of more than 30 decades - has proven to be an absolute sham, according to ReasonTV. The organization has shown it is based on bad science under pressure from food industry special interest groups, but moreover, the lower the fat and red meat and higher the grains and sugars in our diet, the worse the diabesity and heart disease epidemic has gotten!

Turns out, all the science now points to sugar, not fat, as the culprit behind most of our health woes. Many people are surprised to find out that fruit and grains are broken down into sugars by the body!

I am incredulous when I read information online that espouses a vegan diet as healthy for humans. It’s blatant misinformation. I have never in my life met a healthy, vibrant vegan. And I come into contact with a great number of them in my industry. I have even tried raw food veganism for myself - and suffered the health consequences.

A science-based approach means I have to look at all the data - clinical and empirical - when I’m giving recommendations. And no matter how much empathy I have for animals (and I like them more than most humans, in fact), I cannot recommend a plant-based diet to anyone. I have come to believe humans need to eat animal flesh or a good deal of insect protein for optimal health.

Here are some hard facts:

There is no increase in longevity based on eating vegan or vegetarian

Traditional cultures were hunter gatherers, not vegetarian

There have been infant and childhood deaths and malnourishment related to vegan diets, including substandard breast milk and child thyroid disorders

Vegan diets are lacking in these nutrients in particular:

  • Vitamin B12
  • Calcium
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Iodine
  • Essential fatty acids (long chain) EPA and DHA (essential for brain health)
  • Proteins, essential for neurotransmitters (brain function) and healthy tissues
  • Fat soluble vitamins A and D, very important for brain and hormonal health

In summary, Grandma, I would strongly recommend you share this with your family, including the links, and bring your granddaughter to a qualified functional medicine professional for serum and hair testing for deficiencies if she can’t be convinced to incorporate eggs and red meat back into her diet to get some of the nutrients up.

Also, there is a great article here for those who are adamant on a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle and want to know how to do it in the most healthy way possible.

Nonie Nutritionista

Nonie De Long is a registered orthomolecular nutritionist with a clinic in Bradford West Gwillimbury, where she offers holistic, integrative health care for physical and mental-health issues.