As vegans, we minimize the direct impact of animal diseases, diseases known and unknown. There have been more than 100 deaths associated with the consumption of bovine meat with spongiform encephalopathy, and no one knows how many more such cases will be found in the future. Unless mad cow disease becomes one of the biggest public health scourges of the 21st century, it will simply be a matter of luck.
A vegetarian diet is preferred due to its low content of saturated fat, which leads to lower cholesterol levels. Elevated cholesterol is a major risk factor for developing heart disease. Lowering cholesterol levels can reduce overall mortality by reducing the risk of heart disease. The likely increase in life expectancy is significant.
Being vegan allows people to use less land for food production, freeing up land for trees and energy crops to reduce the rate of global warming and provide living space for the many other species with which we share this planet. Strict vegetarianism contributes to the health of people, animals and the planet as a whole. All vegans should be proud of this.
A vegetarian diet has great potential to support a long, healthy and fulfilling life, but an unbalanced vegetarian diet will not promote good health. It’s not uncommon that people who go vegan don’t feel the way they hoped and rush back to an omnivore or lacto-ovo diet.
Often these people were following a clearly ill-conceived diet that could easily be improved by adding appropriate plant-based foods. Thus, it is important that key nutritional issues are clearly defined so that vegans can easily plan the diet that best promotes health at every stage of life. The good health of vegans can inspire others to become vegan – this is the key to eliminating animal abuse.
Much of modern nutritional science focuses on the health of omnivores, so its findings and conclusions require some interpretation if they are to be useful to vegans. Some messages do not need to be interpreted. Whole grains and nuts are good for health. Vitamin C is good for you. Eat more fruits and vegetables. All of this is good news for vegans.
Other scientific advice doesn’t seem to apply particularly to vegans, or even goes against the principles of veganism. “Folic acid prevents birth defects and supports heart health.” But don’t vegans get plenty of folic acid from greens and beans? “Eat fish, especially oily fish, to get healthy omega-3 fats.” Can’t a vegetarian diet be optimally healthy? In both cases, there is positive and helpful information for vegans, but we need to dig deeper.
Folic acid does prevent birth defects and may improve heart health. It does this by lowering the body’s levels of a toxic chemical called homocysteine. Vegans tend to consume more than enough folic acid. Vegans prefer unprocessed foods, including green vegetables and legumes, so they get plenty of folic acid.
However, vegans have been found to have higher levels of homocysteine than meat eaters. In vegans who do not take B 12 with fortified foods or supplements, low B 12 levels are the main cause of elevated homocysteine. Thus, it is important for vegans to take in enough B 12. About 5 to 10 mcg per day of B 12 is sufficient to minimize homocysteine levels and minimize the risk of homocysteine-related birth defects and heart disease.
This dose is much more than what is needed to avoid the classic symptoms of anemia and nervous system problems. 5mcg of vitamin B12 can be easily obtained from nutritional yeast and B12 fortified foods or supplements. Most B12 tablets contain much more than 10 micrograms. The tablet can be split to provide the required daily dose at a lower cost. Taking one high concentration tablet once a week will have a much worse effect, as less B12 will be absorbed by the body.
So is fish oil necessary to get omega-3 fatty acids? The good news is that plants also contain omega-3 fatty acids. What’s more, plant-derived omega-3s, not fish oil omega-3s, were found to be the most effective way to prevent recurrence of heart attacks. A daily dose of essential omega-3 fats is found in a teaspoon of flaxseed oil. Mortality among people under 60 who use it is reduced by 70%, mainly due to a decrease in the number of heart attacks. The incidence of cancer is also decreasing.
The bad news is that high intake of the omega-6 fatty acid, linoleic acid, interferes with the absorption of the omega-3 fatty acids your body needs. Vegans eat more omega-6s than omnivores (two to three times more). Vegans would benefit from lowering their intake of omega-6 fatty acids by favoring olive oil, hazelnuts, almonds, cashews and avocados and limiting sunflower, safflower, corn and sesame oils. Vegans should increase their omega-3 intake. A teaspoon of flaxseed oil a day provides the right amount of omega-3s. Green vegetables and beans are also good sources of omega-3s.
There are four other nutrients that deserve special mention. Iodine deficiency is the single largest cause of low IQ in the world and can have particularly severe consequences for children under the age of one and also before birth. Iodine deficiency also contributes to thyroid dysfunction, which can lead to many health problems later in life.
North America is trying to prevent iodine deficiency through the use of iodized salt. The UK and Ireland rely on iodine in milk, the iodine content of which is increased by iodized supplements in livestock feed. The recommended intake of iodine is 150 mcg per day; pregnant women and nursing mothers need large amounts of iodine. Excessive intake of iodine can have adverse effects, so the optimal intake is between 150 and 300 micrograms of iodine per day. Vegans can get iodine from supplements or kelp. Unfortunately, the iodine content of most types of algae is highly variable, so only a few species are reliable sources of iodine. Brown algae (kombu) contain a large amount of iodine. At least twice a week, you need to eat foods containing iodine.
Selenium is also deficient in vegetarian diets. Selenium is very beneficial for the immune system and has powerful anti-cancer properties. A vegan needs about 40-50 micrograms of selenium per day. About 200 mcg of selenium per day is needed to prevent cancer. Selenium intake in doses exceeding 400 mcg per day is undesirable. One brazil nut contains about 70 micrograms of selenium, so a couple of brazil nuts a day will save you from a lack of selenium. Brazil nuts also contain small amounts of radium and barium. It’s hardly unhealthy, but vegan selenium supplements are readily available for those who prefer an alternative source.
Vitamin D obtained from sunlight can be stored in the body for several months, but in countries like the UK, there is not enough sun to produce vitamin D from October to February, resulting in a lack of vitamin D. This applies to all vegans, who do not take fortified foods or supplements. This is a serious cause for concern, a vegan diet in winter is not conducive to bone health, especially if calcium intake is inadequate.
Low vitamin D intake increases the risk of autoimmune disease and cancer, although this has not yet been conclusively proven. Vegans should take about 5 micrograms of vitamin D 2 (ergocalciferol) per day from October to February (D 3 is derived from sheep’s wool) or take a winter vacation and head south to increase their vitamin D levels naturally. Older vegans and vegans not getting sunlight may need 15 mcg per day. Vitamin D 2 can be obtained from fortified foods.
Calcium is a controversial nutrient for vegans due to the dairy industry’s persistent and failed attempts to make us believe that dairy products are the best source of calcium for bone health. In fact, over millions of years of evolution, our ancestors obtained large amounts of calcium from wild plant foods.
Unfortunately, many of the wild plants are not readily available, and modern plant foods contain much less calcium, as well as many other important nutrients such as potassium, magnesium, and vitamin C. Vitamin C, potassium, and magnesium are essential for health, including for the health of our bones.
How much calcium does a person need? This is debatable, but the optimal intake is unlikely to be less than 800 mg per day for adults, and more than 1300 mg per day for adolescents during peak growth. Scientific evidence suggests that calcium intakes above 2000 mg per day can have a detrimental effect on magnesium absorption, especially if the diet is also rich in phosphorus.
Processed dairy products such as cheese are not the best sources of calcium when compared to green leafy vegetables because they are high in sodium, which increases calcium leaching from the body. Milk enriched with retinol is produced in Sweden, the USA and some other countries. There is considerable evidence that retinol accelerates bone loss in the elderly and may be associated with high rates of osteoporosis in Sweden and Norway.
Vegans who eat foods rich in calcium do not have these problems. Green leafy vegetables rich in calcium are spring greens, cabbage, mustard greens, spinach, rhubarb, beet leaves. Calcium-fortified soy milk contains about 300 mg of calcium per glass. The above recommendations are not difficult to implement. It should not be forgotten that diet is only one aspect of health promotion. You need to invest your energy in what is important to you, in spending time with friends and family, regular physical activity. Sufficient rest is also important.