Last week, a vegan named Kuntal Joisher successfully reached the summit of Mt Everest and came home to post photos to his Instagram account. Chances are, you didn’t hear much, if anything, about him. No doubt, though, you heard about another vegan climber, one who died while attempting to climb the tallest mountain in the world.
Of the nearly 1,000 internet articles generated by this story, some overtly questioned the safety of a vegan diet for climbers. By noting that she was a vegan in the headlines, every single one of the articles implied that this was somehow a relevant fact related to Dr. Maria Strydom’s death.
Dr. Strydom wasn’t some irresponsible dilettante when it came to big mountains. She was an experienced climber who had already summited Denali, Mount Ararat, and Kilimanjaro, among other peaks. It’s hard to imagine that she headed into this adventure poorly prepared and without making sure that her health was in good shape. That hasn’t stopped journalists and doctors and dietitians from questioning her diet.
A spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association told the BBC that consequences of a poor vegan diet would be increased fatigue due to lower iron levels, weaker muscles because of lower amino acid intake, and the risk of fractures from poor calcium intake.
Yes, those all could be consequences of a poor vegan diet. And guess what? They would be consequences of a poor omnivore diet as well. It’s not like iron deficiency anemia and osteoporosis are rarities among the general population. And are we really supposed to believe that someone who made it to Everest Base Camp and had already climbed Kilimanjaro had weak muscles?
If Dr. Strydom knew the basics of vegan nutrition and sports nutrition, there is no reason to think that she was any less prepared to climb Mt Everest than anyone else. A lot of people die in the extreme climates on these mountains, and most of them are smart athletes in excellent shape. It is unfair to single out one vegan climber and try to second guess why she died and to assume that her diet had something to do with it.
The truth is that a vegan diet is safe. Climbing Mt. Everest is dangerous.
As always we can (eventually) put an end to these click-bait stories by assuring health professionals and the media that vegans know how to eat healthfully. That means embracing the science that allows us to do that even when recommendations aren’t especially popular. Yes, vegans need to take supplements (or eat fortified foods.) Yes, vegans need to pay attention to protein. As long as we embrace evidence-based nutrition, share it, and practice it, it will get harder and harder for detractors to say that our dietary choices are unsafe.