Preventing Ex-Vegans: Why Nutrition and Nutritionism Matter

Natural vitamins in fruitEating healthy whole foods is important—and so is paying attention to individual nutrients. Lately, though, that’s become an unpopular thing to say. It’s what food activists like Michael Pollan refer to as “nutritionism.” That is, he and others say we should stop worrying so much about nutrients and just eat food (or “real” food as they refer to it). As physician David Katz says “If you eat whole foods, the nutrients sort themselves out.”

But this is not exactly a science-based observation; it’s an opinion or at best a hunch or casual observation of the world. Pithy observations like this make for engaging writing and perky sound bites, but not always great advice.

To be fair, though, unlike Pollan whose understanding of nutrition is practically non-existent and whose advice is sometimes complete nonsense, Dr. Katz frequently brings a balanced perspective to hot button nutrition issues. And it’s probably not entirely wrong that people should worry more about eating whole, nutritious foods and less about micromanaging their diets.

Or at least this is probably not wrong in the world that Michael Pollan and Dr. Katz inhabit. It might be wrong in mine, though. Because the plant-based, whole-food diet that Katz, Pollan and others are talking about includes a bunch of foods that you and I don’t eat. It includes—in moderate amounts—cheese and eggs and chicken and fish. So they aren’t really thinking about how we can achieve optimal intakes of omega-3s, calcium, vitamin B12 and iron on the kind of diet that I promote. The idea that the nutrients will “sort themselves out” doesn’t always hold up for vegans.

The diets that have long protected the health of people in Asia and southern Europe are based on whole plant foods, but they aren’t vegan. A vegan diet omits foods that are traditional sources of nutrients in cultural plant-based diets. And, when people stop eating animal foods they need to know a few things about nutrients. For example, they need to know that it is important to include legumes—at least 3 servings—in vegan diets to get adequate amounts of all amino acids. They need to know which leafy greens provide calcium that is actually absorbed by the body. They need to know which type of vitamin B12 supplement is the best and how much is required.

We vegans are sort of pioneers when it comes to ethical eating because a world that honors justice for animals is very different from the world that has existed up to now. We don’t have the history, so we must be guided by the science. Does it make it look like being vegan is hard? Does it sound like nutritionism? It doesn’t matter. Our job is to ensure that vegan diets can be a viable long-term choice for anyone who wants to be vegan. That requires solid, evidence-based vegan nutrition information. Attention to nutrients is critical for preventing ex-vegans. The animals can’t afford for us to take risks with fuzzy, unsupported advice about how whole foods automatically meet nutrient needs.

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20 Responses to Preventing Ex-Vegans: Why Nutrition and Nutritionism Matter

  1. Matt July 10, 2015 at 9:37 am #

    <3

  2. Andy July 10, 2015 at 10:40 am #

    Great post :) This is great advice to always follow the data and to be real about what we are talking about.

  3. Jodie July 10, 2015 at 2:39 pm #

    I took a nutrition course that Dr. Katz taught a few years ago at Yale. When specifically talking about vegan diets, he strongly recommended algae supplements for Omega 3s, and also recommended B12 supplementation.

  4. Radha Sahar July 10, 2015 at 2:56 pm #

    Congratulations, Ginny, on this post which presents, succinctly, a most fundamental and important point unfortunately absent in current plant-based wholefood advocate circles; that, for thousands of years, humans on healthy plant-based diets had to eat some animal food to survive; foods that provide essential nutrients.

    For the first time in history humans can afford to be vegan because B12 is available as a supplement. Veganism is a modern privilege, and I am privileged to be one of them.

    Since every ‘body’ is unique, some of us need other supplements from time to time. Plus, since modern food production methods result wide quality variations, all long-term vegans need to know how to ensure healthy levels of essential nutrients easily accessed by consuming animal foods.

    I think it is crucial that vegans acknowledge these points, according respect to the role animal foods play in the wider scheme of things. If, for instance, social chaos were to ensue, and we could not get B12, all of us would have to eat humble pie, (made of some kind of animal …), even if only occasionally. Unless vegans, and animal food lovers, redress the imbalance in our opinions, we are likely to see ongoing, ridiculously indulgent conflict and tension.

    I think your article is so important. Could it be published more widely? I, for one, will be posting links to it in as many places as possible. Thank you, Ginny. It’s brilliant.

  5. Cyndi Rook July 11, 2015 at 8:45 am #

    This is frame-worthy. Thank, Ginny.

  6. Bård Kjelling July 11, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

    “For example, they need to know that it is important to include legumes—at least 3 servings—in vegan diets to get adequate amounts of all amino acids”
    Excuse me! The incomplete protein myth again!? Are you saying it’s less healthy to have a vegan diet without legumes!? (Sorry for the shouting, but when authorities in “our camp” tell “half-truths”….)

    Also,
    “They need to know which leafy greens provide calcium that is actually absorbed by the body”
    I don’t, and I’m sure many cultures with low calcium and mostly vegetarian diet haven’t either with very low rates of osteoporosis etc. Eating a plant-based diet and being physically active should be the best policy for having strong bones.

    I tend to agree with your general point in the article. Thanks.

    • Ginny Messina July 11, 2015 at 1:09 pm #

      Yes, I’m saying that it’s less healthy to have a vegan diet that doesn’t include legumes. Here is an explanation of why I say that: http://www.theveganrd.com/plant-protein-a-vegan-nutrition-primer

      And when you talk about cultures with low calcium intakes and low rates of osteoporosis, I assume that what you are really talking about are low rates of *hip fractures*. This doesn’t translate to low rates of osteoporosis. In fact many of these cultures have relatively poor bone health. http://www.theveganrd.com/2013/08/calcium-and-protein-and-bone-health-in-vegans.html

      The idea that vegans don’t need to be concerned about calcium is the type of myth that increases the risk that vegans will experience poor health and return to eating animal foods.

      • Bård Kjelling July 12, 2015 at 1:04 pm #

        Thanks for your answer. I appreciate your work.

        Legumes. The meta-analysis you cite shows a very weak association between BMD and protein-intake. Here’s a revealing quote: A meta-analysis of randomized placebo-controlled trials indicated a significant positive influence of all protein supplementation on lumbar spine BMD but showed no association with relative risk of hip fractures.
        They conclude: “Therefore, there is a small benefit of protein on bone health, but the benefit may not necessarily translate into reduced fracture risk in the long term.”
        They used small differences in BMD to conclude there was a small benefit on bone health. Now, BMD is only a marker, and to say that more protein equals better bone health is premature, and yes, a reductivistic view of nutrition in the wrong way. Western nations have teenage girls with the highest BMD(I think?), yet also have very high rates of hip fractures.

        The other study you cite is more relevant since it deals with a more or less vegetarian population, the Adventists. Interesting findings, and I admit that I’m a little bit surprised by those findings, since I don’t see any obvious confounders with that study. BUT, it’s A) observational B)only one study. Also, it can’t be used to confer a unique role of legumes, though it scored marginally better(not statistically significant, I think) than other high-protein foods. It’d be wise to not infer special properties to legumes on health on the basis of very little conclusive/causal type evidence.

        Lysine. Maybe this is the boon of vegan diets; that they’re relatively low in lysine. I’ve heard mention of lysine when it comes to protein restriction and longevity and that it’s one of the essential amino acid important to not overconsume for longevity. But I can’t speak to the technicalities or the recommended amounts you are referring to. I don’t include legumes in this, but high protein diets have been shown in various studies to be associated with higher mortality.

        Calcium. I guess you are using the train of thought that higher calcium means higher BMD means strong bones. Maybe there’s some truth to this, but I question that it really has much relevance. Also, there’s considerable variance to calcium recommendations around the world which shows us that requirements aren’t necessary hard targets, easily defined.

        In my mind the biggest culprits in Western diets are probably animal products, salt, too much fat and highly processed foods. Calcium falls way down the list amongst most other problems of undernutrition in the West. Compared with what I would define optimal, vegans also tend to eat too much saturated fat (and fat in general), too much salt, too much highly processed foods, too much fatty/calorie-dense foods which are causing so much of the chronic diseases we see in this society. The nutrition lessons in calcium, protein, vitamin D etc. are very well and we should all have them. Thanks for your work! The problem is if we forget that the biggest challenges is those bad aspects about the Western diet, vegetarian or not.

        It seems to me that your views reflect current nutritional thinking/consensus by and large. This may be good or it may be bad, depending. But next time maybe add some qualifiers, particularly when it comes to things like calcium, lysine, legumes. For calcium for instance we do know from inteventional trials that supplementation has very little effect, and sometimes may even give negative effects, apparently.

  7. Fidel July 11, 2015 at 3:37 pm #

    Have been avoiding legumes most days on a low sulfur vegan diet. Cronometer does not show that i’m coming up short on lysine or any other amino acid.

    Your general advice is good though, because the different approaches we take to a vegan diet could very well require many of us to examine our nutrient intake more closely. For example, the low sulfur vegan diet has lead me to add CaCO3 powder to recipes, since a low sulfur, whole food vegan source of calcium is hard to find.

    Like to ingest methylcobalamin rather than cyanocobalamin for b12, thinking that the latter is too stable, that is, the cyanide tends to stay attached to the cobalamin, rendering the molecule biologically inactive.

  8. Kathryn July 13, 2015 at 9:10 pm #

    A question occurred to me as a result of the data about recidivism among vegans. If the large majority of vegans often return to eating meat, how valid are the results about various health outcomes for vegans in large, long term studies (such as EPIC and others)? I’d assume that the vegans in these studies are probably no less susceptible than other vegans to “falling off the wagon,” so how can their health outcomes be tracked reliably?

  9. Dee July 14, 2015 at 11:04 am #

    Thanks, this is a great post. I have a question. I was brought up vegetarian (no meat, fish, animal fats, gelatine, etc, but I occasionally ate eggs and veg cheese), and remained so until my early 20s. I was quite anemic then and was advised to incorporate fish into my diet, which I did, reluctantly at first. Now I am a ‘pescatarian’, yet I have tried to go to a vegan diet and again became quite anemic. I am on the bloodthinner, warfarin, and have to be very careful with my diet to make sure I don’t have too much vitamin K, (which is in in green leafy veg) or too many anticoagulants (in lots of herbs, supplements and some other foodsand drinks) and I tend to get anemic quite easily. What would you suggest to someone like me, who ideally would like to be vegan, but has to be extremely careful with diet due to a significant medical condition? Thank you in advance. This is just out of curiosity, I do not expect you to have the answer as it is quite a tricky one. :)

  10. Shannon July 19, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    yes! we need more people like you spreading accurate scientific guidelines. you’re the best! i take my b12, get my blood checked every few years, and eat three servings of beans a day because of your good advice!

  11. Gretchen July 20, 2015 at 10:14 am #

    Great article. I think it is important for people (on any diet) to pay attention to nutrients overall. As you mention for vegans this is crucially important since we don’t have tons of long term studies on the effects of our diet on our body.

    I love being vegan (and have been for 10 years) but it hasn’t been a ticket to perfect health. I had health issues before I went vegan, and they remained after I went vegan. I was disappointed but fortunately I realized I generally felt better as a vegan and I definitely felt better about not causing harm to animals.

    Thanks for your thoughtful, fact based articles!

  12. Sara July 23, 2015 at 8:41 am #

    It was very comforting for me to read this article, mainly because this is the way I’ve found my balance as a vegan. I make a conscious choice to think about what I eat as a whole, a lot of veggies and legumes and some seitan, and to include nuts or seeds, calcium-rich (or enrichened) foods, etc. etc. I supplement for vitamin B12, also. For a year now I haven’t used Cronometer, but I still feel that it really helped me see and learn a more balanced vegan diet. And balanced, for me, means that I occasionally eat junk food or candy or veggie meats.

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