Paleo Advocates Get Vegan Diets (and Saturated Fat) Wrong

Replacing saturated fat with healthy plant fats is still best advice.

 

Quite a few people have asked me to comment on the blog Authority Nutrition. It’s written by Kris Gunnars, a medical student at the University of Iceland.

First, despite the bold title of his blog, Gunnars is no authority on nutrition. His background is the usual one of the self-proclaimed expert: “I got interested in my own health and started reading books and studies on nutrition.”

The result is that his blog is an interesting mix. There is some good advice and thoughtful observation, but also many overstatements of the evidence as well as some overt misinformation.

But he is certainly popular and it’s not hard to see why. He writes with great confidence and he challenges the nutrition status quo. He cites studies, which gives his blog an impression of legitimacy. There is a certain appeal to “authorities” who tell you exactly what to eat and what not to eat, and why everybody else is wrong. If you’re a Paleo dieter who likes this sort of thing, you’ll love Kris.

Gunnars promotes low-carb diets (although he thinks some starchy foods are okay for those with high calorie needs), so it’s no surprise that he doesn’t like vegan diets.  Nor does he like the way vegan diets are sometimes promoted or portrayed. Neither do I. Which is why I did in fact agree with some of what he said in his recent post Top 11 Biggest Lies About Vegan Diets.

For example, I agree that some vegans spread unscientific fear-mongering about animal foods, and sometimes overstate benefits of veganism. And yes, it’s possible that many people experience improvements in health when they go vegan because they reduce their consumption of refined grains and processed foods at the same time.

But Gunnars gets things a little confused regarding this point. He says that a properly-planned vegan diet is actually called a “whole foods, plant-based” diet and that it eliminates all processed foods, refined grains, vegetable oils, and refined sugar. He says that any benefits seen with vegan diets are due to the elimination of these components, not to the lack of animal foods.

Here’s the catch, though: The studies that suggest that vegan diets may lower blood cholesterol levels and reduce risk for hypertension, diabetes and heart disease looked at plain old vegans. (1-4) There is no evidence to suggest that they were all avoiding oils, processed foods like veggie meats or refined grains.

And, it’s not true, as Gunnars contends, that vegans were compared to people eating usual “junk food” western diets. The meat-eaters in the EPIC-Oxford study, for example, were more health conscious than the general British population.

Like Gunnars, I doubt that a vegan diet is the one and only healthy way to eat. But his insistence that observed health benefits of vegan diets have nothing to do with avoiding animal foods doesn’t necessarily fit the evidence.

He’s also unimpressed with the lower saturated fat content of vegan diets because, he says with great certainty, the saturated fat “myth” has been debunked.

It’s this type of certainty that suggests more than anything that he doesn’t understand how complex nutrition research is. It’s true that the effects of saturated fat appear to be more nuanced than we once thought. For example, some types of saturated fat may be more harmful than others. And the benefits of reducing saturated fat intake depend very much on what you replace it with.

The hard lesson we’ve learned over the past few decades is that eating more refined carbs in place of saturated fat doesn’t lower heart disease risk; it’s likely to raise it. But replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats does lower heart disease risk.

This relationship is actually reinforced in some of the studies that Gunnars cites as “proof” that you don’t need to worry about saturated fat. (5,6) For example, he says that the Cochrane review of clinical studies on fat found that reducing saturated fat had no effect on heart disease. What the report actually says is that the best advice for anyone at risk of heart disease is to reduce saturated fat and replace it in part with unsaturated fat. Gunnars ignores that advice because he thinks polyunsaturated fats are unhealthy.

To show the nutritional inadequacy of vegan diets, he drags out the same old arguments and half-truths that I’ve addressed before. It is simply not true that “83% of vegans” have a vitamin B12 deficiency. Vegans who take B12 supplements are no more likely to be deficient than meat-eaters and are probably less likely.

And yes, we have lower iron levels. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And yes, we need to make sure we get enough vitamin D by getting adequate sun exposure or taking a supplement or using fortified foods. Just like meat eaters do if they aren’t eating sword fish or salmon every single day.

Regardless, the need to supplement with vitamin B12 and possibly DHA is really all that divides us from the carefree life of a meat-eater. Gunnars’ reaction to this is that it makes a vegan diet a “pretty bad idea.” Mine is a shoulder shrug. As always, when you recognize the moral imperative of veganism—and Gunnars admits that he doesn’t—then whatever little tweaks you need to make to your diet to keep it healthy are not that big a deal.  

Nobody knows what the single best diet is. The only question that matters is “Can you be healthy on a vegan diet?” And the answer is “yes.” There is nothing in the Authority Nutrition blog that disproves that.

 

1. Serum concentrations of cholesterol, apolipoprotein A-I and apolipoprotein B in a total of 1694 meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Bradbury KE, Crowe FL, Appleby PN, Schmidt JA, Travis RC, Key TJ. Eur J Clin Nutr 2014;68:178-83.
2.  Hypertension and blood pressure among meat eaters, fish eaters, vegetarians and vegans in EPIC-Oxford. Appleby PN, Davey GK, Key TJ. Public Health Nutr 2002;5:645-54.
3.  Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Tonstad S, Butler T, Yan R, Fraser GE. Diabetes Care 2009;32:791-6.
4.   Risk of hospitalization or death from ischemic heart disease among British vegetarians and nonvegetarians: results from the EPIC-Oxford cohort study. Crowe FL, Appleby PN, Travis RC, Key TJ. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;97:597-603.
5.   Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91:535-46.
6.  Reduced or modified dietary fat for preventing cardiovascular disease. Hooper L, Summerbell CD, Thompson R, et al. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011:CD002137
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44 Responses to Paleo Advocates Get Vegan Diets (and Saturated Fat) Wrong

  1. Alyssa Pindar April 21, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    Ginny,

    You have such a fabulous approach to educating on topics with mislead beliefs. The world surrounding nutrition is confusing and I recently graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Nutrition from an accredited university for that reason. I have always had a passion for wholesome, healthful food and chose to follow veganism for ethical reasons and firmly believe the word “diet” brings stresses on people that are unnecessary, and therefore avoid it as much as possible. I plan to get my Master’s degree in Community Nutrition or Public Health here in a few years to complete my internship hours. I hope to have the impact you have had as an RD in the Vegan and Vegetarian world! I have the utmost respect for you and thank you for doing such a wonderful job on this website.

  2. Alex Caspero MA,RD (@delishknowledge) April 22, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    Excellent post! Thank you for addressing this topic. While gunner is popular blogger, there are so many other paleo/WPF bloggers/nutritionist who tout the same thing, especially with regards to sat. fat.

  3. Dan April 22, 2014 at 8:45 am #

    I agree with most of the commentary except for the subtitle, “Replacing saturated fat with healthy plant fats is still best advice.”

    It may be best to replace fat with high-complexity (slow-release) carbohydrates such as brown rice, amaranth, other whole grains; fruits and vegetables; and legumes. This is the ‘starch solution’ promulgated by McDougall and advocated by the likes of Ornish, Esselstyn, Campbell, etc. I think that the literature examining replacement of saturated fat with unsaturated fat has largely shown neutral (sometimes even harmful) effects – e.g. the Sydney Diet Heart Trial analyzed recently in BMJ 2013 by Ramsden et al.

    • Ginny Messina April 29, 2014 at 11:36 am #

      Dan, the caption for that photo really meant that unsaturated fat is still a better choice than saturated. I recommend replacing saturated fat with a mix of unprocessed carbs and unsaturated fats. As you know, I don’t agree with high carbohydrate diets which may raise heart disease risk in some people. Probably the best replacement is a mix of whole carbs, and omega-6 and omega-3 PUFAs.

      • Dan April 29, 2014 at 1:34 pm #

        I would rather see saturated fat replaced with whole carbs, omega-3 PUFAs, and plant *protein* (which was not listed in your reply above), rather than omega-6 PUFA. At a minimum, omega-6 PUFA appear to inhibit conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA; they may be pro-inflammatory (although there is contradictory research on this); and using them to replace saturated fat at a minimum does not appear to lower cardiovascular risk and may actually increase it (according to the Sydney Diet Heart trial with safflower oil).

        • unethical_vegan May 1, 2014 at 8:32 am #

          Dan, I think recent findings have been less conclusive when it comes to specific n-6 pufas.

          • Dan May 13, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

            Of course. Much of the research is old and poorly done. But the best of the studies (trials) do suggest harm with omega-6 replacing saturated fat. That has been seen in the latest meta-analysis published in the BMJ last year. I eat some omega-6, but I never fry with it, and I try to avoid direct oils.

        • rhianna May 6, 2014 at 2:54 am #

          http://scepticalnutritionist.com.au/?p=1356

  4. Jill April 22, 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    I am new to the vegan world, and appreciate your work. I have done a lot of reading and am tired of the “everyone can be vegan with no problem” message. I think veganism can allow problems to surface that it did not cause nor can it cure. It takes education and a sensitivity to your own bodily reactions so you can work with whatever comes up.

  5. Steve G. April 23, 2014 at 9:02 am #

    Lowering cholesterol doesn’t actually improve mortality. Most people that die from CVD or have CVD have average levels of cholesterol. Low cholesterol levels do lead to higher incidences of cancer. Finally, there is no study that conclusively connects saturated fat to CVD.

    Look, processed foods are the problem, vegan ones too. Actually, most processed foods are plant based (sugar/starch/seed oils/soy). Get rid of those and you will get rid of most diseases of civilization. When SAD diet processed foods are introduced to communities that were eating a whole foods diet, sickness follows.

    When you look at societies with traditional whole foods diets that include animal products, they don’t have our issues.

    I used to be a vegan, but I kept reading and I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t doing much to reduce suffering of animals, nor was I improving my health. For example, in Australia, its estimated that agriculture kills 25x more sentient animals than meat production. Living on a ranch, I got to see first hand the effects of agriculture. (Tilling, making hay bales, seeing mangled animals).

    http://theconversation.com/ordering-the-vegetarian-meal-theres-more-animal-blood-on-your-hands-4659

    Organic also does not mean without pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

    For me, veganism became a lazy way to protest or help the world (I thought I was) and make myself feel better. What I learned though was that I could help society more by maximizing my health and that meant eating meat.

    • Corrin Radd April 25, 2014 at 6:25 pm #

      So making hay bales counts as “agriculture” and not “meat production”?

    • MacSmiley April 25, 2014 at 9:27 pm #

      @Steve G

      You evidently don’t live in the US where most agriculture is dedicated to raising corn and soybeans to feed…um…animals for meat. So here we’re killing the sentient beings you’re concerned about with farming to kill even more sentient beings. This system is being replicated elsewhere in the world because of its “efficiency”.

      Meanwhile, grass-fed ruminants produce much more greenhouse gasses (methane) than grain-fed, thus contributing to the cooking of the entire planet.

      BTW grass-fed animals are marginally healthier than grain-fed animals because of the meat’s lower levels of saturated fat. Marginally.

    • Ginny Messina April 29, 2014 at 11:24 am #

      I guess this would make sense if there were any evidence that eating meat “maximizes” health. But there isn’t.

      I agree that highly processed foods are a big part of the cause of cardiovascular disease. It doesn’t mean that the type of fat you eat doesn’t matter, though. And yes, many people who develop heart disease have “average” cholesterol levels. “Average” doesn’t equal “optimal.”

      As far as vegans killing more animals than meat eaters–believe me, every vegan has heard this argument and knows that it is nonsense. Yes, animals are killed in all kinds of agriculture. But most of those animals are killed in the process of growing food for farmed animals, not for humans. Get rid of animal agriculture and we’ll need to grow way less food, which would reduce the number of animals killed.

      • Steve G. April 29, 2014 at 11:51 am #

        @ MacSmiley

        I live here in the US, and the only way that CAFO’s are even possible is because of mono-crop agriculture. Take that away, and you take away the cheap food input. Mono-crop came first, then came CAFO’s. As far as climate change is concerned, yes, I agree something is happening, but blaming herbivores and eliminating them won’t solve it.

        @ Ginny

        Its easy for you to dismiss the idea that millions of sentient animals like rodents are mangled, tilled, and murdered because it doesn’t fit your ideology, but its a fact and not-believing it doesn’t change it. You also didn’t address pesticides and herbicides and their impact on health and the environment. And in order to feed the growing world, those chemicals must be used to maintain the highest yields possible.

        You do know that there is a limited amount of arable land on the planet right, and that grazing animals can feed on no-arable lands.

        Like I said before, something must die for us to live, its naive to think otherwise. There is blood on all of our hands.

        Its easy for us Americans to decide what others should eat, impart morality, and make a judgment. Many cultures rely on animal products, and would vanish if you took those animals away. We have the luxury of picking and choosing from high a top of our pedestal. You go anywhere else, and veganism can’t exist. It requires a lot of resources to make it happen.

        • Steve G. April 29, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

          And don’t forget all of the poor souls that have to toil in agriculture. Its not easy. There is a reason why Americans and other countries import cheap labor and allow for illegal immigration. Sorry, there is no morality in food production. Live, be healthy, make a difference in the lives of others with actions, not your mouth.

        • unethical_vegan April 30, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

          “and that grazing animals can feed on no-arable lands.”

          the idea that the meat-centric diets of the typical conscious-omnivore could be supported by available grazing land is pure fantasy. most of this land is unproductive and environmentally fragile. in fact, over-grazing is one of the primary causes of desertification. moreover, huge swathes of forests and tropical forests have been razed to create additional grazing land.

          “Its easy for you to dismiss the idea that millions of sentient animals like rodents are mangled, tilled, and murdered because it doesn’t fit your ideology, – See more at: http://www.theveganrd.com/2014/04/paleo-advocates-get-vegan-diets-and-saturated-fat-wrong-2.html#sthash.usD9RoJF.dpuf

          arguments that agriculture causes more suffering are questionable because they do not take into account natural deaths per acre, fail to normalize deaths per calorie consumed, and make the erroneous assumption that the death of a shrew is equivalent to that of a self-aware pig.

          two publications that debunk the faulty logic and math used in these arguments:

          http://link.springer.com/article/10.1023%2FA%3A1026354906892?LI=true

          http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9833.2007.00382.x/full

          • Gary June 12, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

            The debunked studies claiming that vegan diets kill more animals also don’t take into account that nearly every animal killed deliberately for their flesh, milk, or eggs is killed very young and bred to grossly overproduce.

            They also tend to ignore fish. Commercial fishing is depleting major fish populations, and the bycatch (unwanted fish, turtles, etc thrown back in the water dead) from commercial fishing is deplorable. Fish farms are aquatic cesspools that waste even more wild-caught fish (which are fed to the farmed fish). The farmed fish are also killed at a fraction of their lifespan – granted after a miserable life.

        • Gary June 12, 2014 at 2:13 pm #

          - If we’re concerned about harming animals, a good place to start is by not supporting the very deliberate slaughter of very young animals, bred to overproduce flesh, milk, or eggs; e.g., go vegan. Next (and concurrently), let’s work on reducing our side-effect harm, by supporting more earth- and animal-friendly plant agriculture as best we can.

          – The billions of animals killed to meet meat-eaters’ demand are fed lots of grain and hay that kills yet even more animals (and free-range animals also eat usually supplemental hay and grain).

          – Most likely the people on this thread are living in the first world. Since we have the “luxury” or choosing foods that use fewer resources and involve less cruelty, that is our obligation.

    • Bubbles April 29, 2014 at 8:07 pm #

      “For example, in Australia, its estimated that agriculture kills 25x more sentient animals than meat production.”
      That’s simply not true, in Australia or elsewhere.

    • Fred May 1, 2014 at 1:48 am #

      I agree with you. Low cholesterol is actually linked with HIGHER mortality. Everyone thinks you need to lower your cholesterol and cholesterol is some sort of poison, when it’s actually a substance vital to life.

      http://s30.postimg.org/kp1c3lakx/cholesteroldata2.png
      http://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/10.1056/NEJM198904063201405

      So even though lower cholesterol meant lower CHD, that doesn’t mean anything when 300 range. Preventing CHD doesn’t mean anything if you still die from something else.

      • Fred May 1, 2014 at 1:51 am #

        What I meant to say was,

        Even though lower cholesterol meant lower CHD, that doesn’t mean anything when the less than 140 range had the second highest mortality, only second to the greater than 300 range. Preventing CHD doesn’t mean anything if you still die from something else.

    • David August 24, 2014 at 7:51 pm #

      Steve, the notion that people who die of CVD tend to have lower cholesterol showing that lowering cholesterol does not improve CVD has been disproven. The evidence of lower cholesterol CVD deaths (and in cancer) is that age and ill health decrease cholesterol, not that low cholesterol damages health.

      The claim that “there is no study that conclusively connects saturated fat to CVD” is a bit of meat propaganda. It first pretends that there need be one single definitive study for any health proposition (or scientific proposition). (Hence, meaters like to cite a couple studies that they think support a meat-reduced CVD or meat-reduced cancer thesis, and ignore thousands of studies; and they like to cite one study by Ansel Keys [not the one that says what they say he says] and misreport it [they don't know the actual work they're talking about, because they're just plagiarizing Taubes or people who've previous plagiarized Taubes], as if Keys only did one scientific study in his life.)

      Then it simply ignores the massive reams of studies that show strong connections between saturated fat and CVD. They use words like “conclusively connects” to set a standard that one study cannot meet in virtually any nutritional context (but that hundreds can when they virtually all indicate the same thing, as is the case with saturated fat-CVD).

      The notion of agriculture killing 25 times more sentient creatures than animal raising is laughable. What do you think farmed animals are eating? Agricultural products. So you have the (I would say mythical) 25 multiple to raise soybeans and corn and other feedstocks–and then you slaughter the animal that ate it all. That argument is BS.

  6. Micah Risk, MS April 23, 2014 at 11:59 am #

    Thank you for this very informative post! Can you point us to some studies that illustrate the differentiation between less- and more-harmful saturated fats? My gut tells me that this may have something to do with the other nutrients present in the source, but I would love to have a clear way to understand and communicate that information to others.

    Thanks again!

    • Ginny Messina April 29, 2014 at 11:18 am #

      Micah, the medium chain fats in foods like coconut oil and dairy seem to have a smaller effect on blood cholesterol levels. But no food has just one type of fat. For example, coconut oil includes some saturated fats that have little effect and others that raise cholesterol levels. And you are right that other components in foods may impact all of this as well. So, I think the best advice still is to reduce sources of saturated fat. It doesn’t mean we can never have foods like coconut oil, but until we know more, I’m in favor of keeping intake low.

      • M D May 30, 2014 at 2:22 am #

        What about MCT (Medium Chain Triglyceride) oil: is it healthful?

  7. Matt Dowell April 23, 2014 at 2:01 pm #

    Beautifully written piece, Ginny! I very much identify with and appreciate your approach to veganism. Your approach to veganism is not one of blind promotion or being a cheerleader. Instead, it is nuanced – critical where necessary and balanced. I especially appreciate your highlighting the importance of the “moral imperative”, which undergirds veganism but is frequently discounted. I believe I can speak for other vegans when I say that we chose veganism not because of potential health benefits, but because it is first and foremost a more compassionate, kinder way of living with the other beings we share this planet with, nonhuman AND human.

  8. Marion Rollings,PhD April 23, 2014 at 8:29 pm #

    Ginny, your post indirectly makes another very important point-and that is that when making decisions about health and diet, it is essential to rely upon those who are properly credentialed, licensed, and therefore, knowledgable about their area of expertise. There are plenty of laypersons out there churning out (with the best intentions) misinformation and bad advice.
    There are plenty of credentialed quacks out there too, however, one can usually single them out by the nature of their advice-I.e., how wacky it sounds

    • beforewisdom June 1, 2014 at 9:11 am #

      I think that is a correct, but moot point. Low carb and other fad diets aren’t about people trying to get good information and failing. It is about them being told what they want to hear.

  9. Mary April 23, 2014 at 8:38 pm #

    Your comments and analyses are always so refreshing. I get buried by all the hype and misinformation circulating on the internet and the media in general. Coming here helps me clear my head and reground my efforts to be vegan. Thanks!

  10. beforewisdom June 1, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    Thanks for taking the time to publish this and helping to clear up the ever renewable resource of nutrition misinformation on the internet.

  11. Sel June 2, 2014 at 6:59 pm #

    ‘Overstatements of the evidence’ perfectly sums up the basis of Gunnar’s ‘work’.
    If only people took the time to read the actual studies he cites; it’s astonishing how misleading his statements are.

  12. Kim June 11, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

    For those that haven’t seen it, I suggest you view Sir Allan Savory’s TED talk on desertification caused by agriculture and how animal grazing is the solution. It’s absolutely shocking how simple and easy it is to return the earth to the annual grasses livestock should feed on and how it completely changes the environment. Not only that, but a herd of livestock can nutritionaly support a village far better than GMO farms. Mono-crop agriculture has done more to destroy the earth than any other single thing.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change

  13. Linda @ Veganosity July 24, 2014 at 6:11 am #

    Ginny, I’m so happy that i found this site. You make so many valid points in this post. The human body is so complex, there are no absolutes. There are many people who do not know how to interpret a scientific study (including the media); therefore, there is so much confusion about diets and health in general.

    My daughter chose to go vegan in October, and I in January. We are both athletic and need to watch our protein and complex carb consumption carefully so that we don’t lose our edge. Eating a vegan diet has actually made us perform better because we are eating a balanced, nutrient rich, whole foods diet daily. No fast food for us anymore. In truth, we’ve never felt or looked better!

    In the short time that I’ve been a vegan it has amazed me to hear so many people criticize my lifestyle choice, especially because I NEVER judge them for what they eat. I’ve come to the conclusion that deep down they must feel some guilt or envy, why else would they care so much?

  14. Michael Parish July 29, 2014 at 7:51 am #

    Nature or if you prefer God designed our bodies to store excess calories from protein and carbs as saturated fat. Am I to believe that we are giving ourselves heart disease because we burn our own saturated fat as a natural part of living? This simply doesn’t make sense. In fact the most perfect food for babies is breast milk which has a saturated fat content higher than cow’s milk. My mother is giving me heart disease starting day one of life? I have a hard time believing our own bodies are traitors to our health. I’ll place my bet that it’s the excess protein causing most health problems in the US. I’ve read several articles by Dr. Campbell of China study fame that states there hasn’t even been one study showing saturated fat causes heart disease. This conclusion comes from a noted researcher and vegan.

  15. David August 24, 2014 at 7:56 pm #

    My experience with Gunnar is that he has a light grasp on the facts about meat and eggs. When his fallacies are explained, he either trivializes, or he deletes responses. (As he did when I disputed his entire account of Ansel Keys’ scientific research and his claims of low heart disease/high meat fat diets in Denmark and Norway).

  16. Kent Frost September 25, 2014 at 5:37 pm #

    Very interesting to read your post here about Kris Gunnars. I found “authoritynutrition.com” by trying to find out of Eggs were healthy or not.
    Dr. Michael Greger said here:
    http://nutritionfacts.org/video/more-than-an-apple-a-day-preventing-our-most-common-diseases/
    That the USDA can no longer call eggs healthy or even safe due to their high content of cholesterol and saturated fat. M.D. versus Gunnars.

    He or his site administrator deleted my posts that challenged his “Eggs are a super food” article which says that eggs are among the most nutritious foods on earth.
    They may have a complete amino acid profile but they are not THAT nutritious:
    http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/dairy-and-egg-products/117/2

    He also goes on and on, article after article about how great meat is. While I do eat eggs and meat, I am concerned that he is actually paid by egg and meat producers somehow to have so emphatically pumped up the reputation of his diet.

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