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My Vegan Challenge to Oprah

By Jennette Turner

Did you see the Oprah show on February 1, 2011? It was about her and her staff taking the vegan challenge. Oprah’s influence over a huge audience makes her endorsement of the vegan diet very powerful and far-reaching. What the program failed to deliver was a discussion about the nutritional downsides that accompany the vegan diet.

Oprah’s vegan guru on the program was Kathy Freston, who was introduced as not only a veganist, but as the wife of Oprah’s financial partner in the OWN network (thank you for that transparency, Oprah). While omnivore Michael Pollan also appeared on the show, he was not able to (or chose not to) comment on the nutritional aspects of the vegan diet. He did say he eats animal products. I don’t make judgments about peoples’ choices (I will address some of the reasons people choose veganism below), but as a natural foods nutrition counselor, I believe in educating people about diet choices that may compromise their health.

The vegan diet includes no animal products – no meat, no dairy, no eggs, no honey. Animal products are very nutrient-dense, and omitting them means cutting out our most concentrated source of many essential vitamins and minerals, a fact that wasn’t addressed on Oprah, nor in much vegan literature, for that matter.

Animal products’ unique nourishing capabilities
According to evolutionary biologists, eating meat helped human beings evolve. The rich supply of complete proteins, cholesterol, vitamins and minerals in meat allowed the human brain to develop. Today, animal products continue to supply our bodies with real nourishment that we can easily use. Including them in our diets is not only the most convenient way to meet our nutritional needs, especially in the context of our stressful, chemical-laden modern life, it is the only way to support and maintain our fullest possibility of health.

Our bodies can store many animal based nutrients (such as B12 and vitamin A), an adaptation that helps protect us from starvation.  But eventually (this can be anywhere from a few months to a few years) we’ll use them up, and need to replenish them. If they are not supplied by our diets, deficiency and disease will result. “Deficiency” can first manifest as feelings of fatigue, susceptibility to illness, and depression, all of which can slowly creep up without having an obvious catalyst, making it hard to pinpoint malnutrition as the source. Unlike omnivorous or vegetarian diets, vegan diets simply cannot provide the nourishment we need to stay truly healthy over time.

When the honeymoon’s over
When people first start the vegan diet, they often feel good, especially if they are used to eating a diet high in processed foods and low in vegetables. This is because the diet can function as a healthful short-term cleanse. But after the honeymoon phase, the vegan diet no longer supplies or grossly undersupplies several essential nutrients. Here is a description of the most important:

  • Vitamin A is found only in animal products: butter, whole dairy, eggs yolks, meats and fish. Vitamin A is needed for healthy eyes, healthy pregnancy and birth, for the immune system, for the liver, and for the kidneys and lungs.  Vitamin A is also a powerful antioxidant that protects our cells from aging.  Vegetables that are thought to contain vitamin A, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, actually contain beta-carotene which the body can convert to vitamin A under the right conditions. However, it takes 12-24 molecules of beta-carotene to make one molecule of vitamin A, and this requires adequate dietary fats. Not everyone can make the conversion, either.  Infants and young children, diabetics, celiacs, anyone with any kind of thyroid condition, and people on very low-fat diets can’t make the conversion and must obtain vitamin A from animal products.
  • Vitamin D is found only in animal fat: butter, whole dairy, eggs yolks, meats and fish. The body can make vitamin D (from cholesterol) when exposed to UVB sunlight without sunscreen during “peak hours” of the day in the summer. UVB sunlight is not available during the winter in Minnesota, making year-round vitamin D synthesis impossible. Vitamin D is needed for maintaining bone health, for healthy moods and for cancer prevention. Vitamin D2 is a plant form of vitamin D found in plants such as avocado and sunflower seeds, but it is not as effective and most notably, brain tissues can’t use it.
  • Cholesterol is an essential nutrient. Our bodies produce around 80% of the cholesterol we needs, the rest must come from our diets. This means that vegans will automatically be at least 20% short at all times because cholesterol is found only in animal products. Cholesterol is needed for maintaining cell membranes, for the digestion of fats, for repairing damaged body tissues and cells, for producing hormones (including steroid, stress and sex hormones), for serotonin production and for higher cognitive functions.
  • Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products. B12 is needed for the synthesis of all new DNA in cells, for the production of energy and for the formation of myelin, which surrounds the nerves in the body and brain. A vitamin B12 deficiency is very serious and can result in irreversible nervous system and brain damage if left untreated. Early indicators of B12 deficiency include fatigue, weakness and rigid thinking. It was once thought that certain sea vegetables, miso and micro algae, contained B12. While B12 is listed as a nutrient on the labels of some of these products, the “B12” they contain is an analogue; it looks like B12, but our bodies can’t use it. Sadly, the analogue will register as B12 in a blood test, so the test doesn’t provide an accurate reading. Still worse, these analogues inhibit uptake of real B12, making the deficiency more intense.
  • Zinc, Calcium and Iron are all minerals that can be obtained, but are undersupplied, on a vegan diet. Zinc is an antioxidant and an enzyme activator. It is needed for the production of hormones, for the immune system and for fertility. Our best sources of zinc are red meats and oysters. Iron is necessary for maintaining the body’s supply of red blood cells, for energy and healthy moods and for cognitive function. There are two kinds of iron: heme iron, which comes from animal foods; and non-heme iron, which comes from plants. Non-heme iron isn’t easily absorbed; the body can only use around 15-20% of it. Heme iron is almost 90% absorbable. Our best sources of iron are red meats and dark meat poultry. Calcium is needed for bones and teeth, muscle function (including the heart) and for a healthy nervous system. Our best sources of calcium are dairy products and stocks made from bones.

Making protein
Perhaps the most obvious concern for vegans is obtaining enough protein. Animal foods contain all eight essential amino acids. With all eight, our bodies can make any kind of protein we need. However, if we’re missing even one, our bodies can’t make any protein. All plant foods, including soy, are low in the essential amino acid methionine. This means even if vegans are technically getting “enough” protein by meeting minimal requirements, they might not be able to efficiently use it. It is important to note that meeting minimal needs is not the same as providing optimal nutrition. For example, the U.S. RDA of 60 mg. of vitamin C will prevent scurvy, but it will not keep your immune system functioning at peak levels.

Protein is our basic building block. It keeps our tissues, muscles and bones in good repair, it makes the enzymes that regulate metabolism and digestion, it makes the precursors for hormones and it makes the neurotransmitters that determine our moods.  We need to get more than just survival amounts in order to thrive.

Digestion issues
Staple vegan protein sources – legumes, nuts and grains – can cause digestive discomfort for many people because they contain anti-nutrients that interfere with digestion – this being among the most common vegan complaints. These anti-nutrients can be neutralized, but only through careful preparation and overnight soaking or fermentation of grains and nuts, as well as all legumes, practices not recommended in most vegan literature. In addition, the most important nutrients for the gastrointestinal tract are proteins found in meats and fish: gelatin and collagen.

Processed foods with soy
Since highly processed meat and dairy substitutes like imitation burgers, hot dogs and cheese (the ones recommended by Oprah’s veganist, Kathy Freston) are easy and convenient, vegans often rely on them for protein. These substitutes are usually made from soy protein and are not health supportive. Soy contains several different natural toxins. One of these is an enzyme inhibitor that interferes with trypsin, an enzyme that digests protein. Trypsin-inhibitors are found in all legumes, but can be neutralized by soaking them; only fermentation can neutralize them in soy. Thus, eating a lot of processed soy food depresses protein assimilation.

Soy also contains plant chemicals called isoflavones which are goitrogenic meaning they depress thyroid function. Low thyroid can cause fatigue, depression, foggy thinking and weight gain, among other symptoms. Soy contains phyto-estrogens that can interfere with the endocrine system and increase risk for breast cancer and other problems associated with estrogen dominance. Soy is simply not the “health-food” it’s relentlessly promoted as by big agriculture.

The vegan choice does not support environmental sustainability
Among the reasons people frequently cite for promoting veganism is environmental sustainability. One popular argument is that it takes ten pounds of grain to make one pound of meat, and that in a world where so many are hungry we shouldn’t waste our grain on feeding animals.

Sounds good on first listen, but it’s an overly simplistic argument based on the assumption that you’re feeding animals grain. Grain feeding is a function of industrial agriculture and compromises the health and nutrient value of the animals. It is also inhumane and environmentally unwise.

Raising animals on pasture is a different story. In this scenario, animals are environmental assets. In fact, sustainable agriculture depends on people eating animal products. All growing plants require their own nourishment. This can come from animal manure and bones, or it can come from fertilizer that is made from fossil fuels. It takes ten gallons of oil to make one gallon of fertilizer : not sustainable.  Pastured animal products are vitally nutritious.  Wheat, corn and soy cannot feed the world without widespread malnutrition.  And furthermore, the reason people are starving all over the world is poverty, it’s not from a grain shortage.

Ninety-eight percent of the prairies in America have been destroyed so that we can grow annual crops of wheat, corn and soy. That destruction includes all of the prairie wildlife. Land used for grazing, in contrast, can be home to a multitude of wildlife, supporting biological diversity on many levels. Watering crops drains our rivers and kills all the fish, reptiles, amphibians, insects and birds that depend on them. And the fertilizers used on crops wash into the ground water and end up in the Gulf of Mexico where they cause algae blooms that destroy all marine life, creating what’s known as the 7,000 square mile Dead Zone. Grain vs. meat is a lot more complicated than the vegan stance would imply.

I’m troubled that all those who tried or tuned into Oprah’s Vegan Challenge aren’t aware of all the health consequences of following a vegan diet long-term. Unlike omnivorous or lacto-ovo vegetarian diets, vegan diets simply cannot provide the nourishment we need to stay truly healthy over time. Animal products are deeply and essentially nourishing and cannot be omitted without damage to our health.

Jennette Turner works with omnivores, vegetarians and recovering vegans in her private counseling practice. She can be reached through www.jennette-turner.com.

References:

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  • Dr. John Cannell, M.D., “Understanding Vitamin D Cholecalciferol.” Vitamin D Council website
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  • Kaayla T. Daniel, The Whole Soy Story. Winona Lake: New Trends Publishing © 2005
  • C.F. Garland et al, “The Role of Vitamin D in Cancer Prevention.” American Journal of Public Health, 96 (2): February 2006
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  • Joel Salatin, You Can Farm and Everything I want to Do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front. White River Junction: Chelsea Green © 2002, 2007
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