Really, Vitamin Cottage? Why's it gotta be like that?
I recently got some information about veg*n nutrition from a nutritionist at my local Vitamin Cottage. Yeah, I know - nutritionists aren't doctors, might not even have any medical training, don't necessarily know anything about physiology, etc. But the existing health literature surrounding veg*anism is unfortunately very enmeshed in ideological controversey, and thus extremely contradictory, so I always assume the best bet is to get information from as many different sources as possible, and take everything with a grain of salt. It is very important to me to eat a vegan diet, so I want to make sure I am able to maintain it in good health for my entire life.
Initially, I was seriously put off by the literature they distribute. The primary source of their medical information is an article called "The Myths of Vegetarianism" by Stephen Byrnes, PhD, RNCP. There are many, many problems with using Byrnes as a medical authority, the first of which being that he is not an MD. Additionally, the article is published in the Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients, which is not a peer-reviewed medical journal, meaning his claims have not been substantiated by a group of peers, unlike the published research articles he criticizes. The article was published in 2000 - it's not totally antiquated, but it's by no means the most cutting-edge information available. He does not publish references but states they're available upon request, however I discovered that the website he lists (the only contact information published) does not exists. Upon further investigation, I've discovered that Byrnes died from a stroke in 2004 (not diet-related), so I have no idea how to find these references.
And if you can't tell from the title, the letter has a pretty obvious anti-veg*n bias, illustrated right off the bat by this tragic anecdote of a woman who had a miscarriage due to... gasp! ... her vegetarian diet! (As a side note, this woman wasn't actually vegetarian: she ate milk, eggs, and for some reason, liver.) As a scientist myself, the presence of an emotional anecdote in a supposedly scientific piece of literature is a travesty: anecdotes are NOT science, folks, and their sole purpose is to detract from objective scientific inquiry by "poisoning the well" of human opinion from the start. Byrnes uses many other fallacies throughout the work, including a repeated confusion of causation and correlation (admittedly a drawback of much pro-veg literature, too), and use of the same rationale to both discredit pro-veg studies and credit anti-veg ones.
Byrnes identifies 15 "myths" about vegetarianism, including issues of health impact, environmental impact, humanity toward animals, and spirituality. Right off the bat, I can say with certainty that he is simply wrong about issues of the environment and humane treatment: he ignores the pollutive impact of livestock entirely, uses faulty reasoning and incomplete facts to conclude that raising meat is more efficient than growing plants, displays unbelievable arrogance in questioning people's spiritual beliefs, and wrongly states that no animals are killed in the process of dairy and egg production. I am not familiar enough with the biochemistry and physiology of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in the body to immediately discount his claims about the deficiencies present in a veg*n diet; however, I can say that it directly contradicts a lot of the information I've read from other scientists and doctors, and I have no reason to believe Byrnes over the others.
Lastly, the only other medical authority they cite is Dr. Joseph Mercola. Indeed, Byrnes has been often quoted and promoted on Dr. Mercola's website. I can't say for sure that we should assume that Byrnes is a crackpot of Mercola's ilk, but it's a possibility that certainly warrants consideration. These gentlemen are best described as naturopaths gone astray. They both uphold a completely unreasonable idea that the mainstream media is part of some vegetarian-controlled conspiracy to smear the image of noble meat-based agriculture, despite the fact that vegetarians make up somewhere between 2% and 10% of the population depending on who's being polled, and vegans comprise about a fourth of that - we are nowhere near a majority of anything, and if we had control of the media, you can bet your ass that we wouldn't be seeing KFC commercials any more. Besides, the vast majority of agricultural income currently comes from animal flesh farming and crops (corn and soybeans, mostly) grown for animal feed, so there really isn't a financial incentive for the media to promote vegetarianism, either.
Ok, so by this point, I'm seriously pissed off. I come to these people for health advice, and they give me propaganda - and only one side of it, mind you. (For an intelligent refutation of some of Byrnes' points in this article, see http://www.energygrid.com/health/2002/06ap-stephenbyrnes.html - it's not written by doctors, and doesn't cite very many references - so in other words, it's on even footing with Byrnes' article.) I'm definitely rethinking my loyalty to Vitamin Cottage/Natural Grocers.
The Actual Information, Finally
Eventually, I got to the actual information. There are a lot of important things to consider when restricting all animal products from our diets. It is a scientific fact that humans have evolved to be omnivores (though I do NOT believe that includes dairy, one of the most unnatural foods humans eat). So when we choose to exclude animal products from our diets - which, don't get me wrong, is the right thing to do for many reasons - we need to plan it well in order to be able to sustain it over time without any adverse health effects. None of us wants to be the sad case who just has to eat meat because we became anemic or something.
Like most vegans, I get plenty of vegetables (duh) and complex carbohydrates in my diet. Like most Americans, I eat way too much sugar. I need to eat a little more protein and fat. But I came up with some more specific changes I need to make to my diet, and I think they're pretty universal, at least for a lot of the veg*ns I know.
- Supplement B12 and L-carnitine. It's extremely difficult to eat enough plant sources of these nutrients. L-carnitine is not found in plants at all; it can be manufactured by the body, but requires high levels of vitamins C and B6, niacin, iron, and L-lysine, and is pretty inefficient. It's good to hedge your bets with a supplement of each of these.
- Supplement calcium and Vitamin D. This is not unique to veg*ns: due to depletion of nutrients in our soil, and destruction of our ozone layer which requires us to block the sun's UV-B rays so our bodies can't produce enough Vitamin D on their own, all Americans should supplement these two nutrients, in addition to consuming products fortified with them, like orange juice. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, so you should supplement both.
- Increase intake of protein and low-carbohydrate vegetables. Especially in the winter, we tend to eat a lot of starchy vegetables like potatoes, yams, and squashes. Low-carb vegetables tend to have more nutrients, but can get neglected in favor of the starches. Americans don't need as much protein as most people believe, but most of us could stand to raise our intake of a balanced variety of whole grain and legume proteins a bit.
- Lower consumption of grains. This is also a common pitfall of veg*n diets: it's really easy for us to eat a lot of cereal grains like wheat, rice, and corn. These are not great sources of nutrients, so our calories are better obtained from vegetables than grains. Additionally, too many grains in the diet, even whole grains, can contribute to glucose (blood sugar) swings that can mess with our hunger cycles, energy levels, and insulin responsiveness.
- Increase consumption of fats, especially essential fatty acids. The low-fat diet craze has been pretty solidly debunked, and most of us veggies need more fat in our diets. We are not at the same risk for diet-related cardiovascular disease as meat-eaters, so we can afford to eat more fatty foods rich in LNAs (an essential fatty acid), like flax oil, walnuts, grains, and green veggies. I will start snacking on nuts, and adding flax to pretty much everything I bake or cook. Additionally, I am going to supplement a marine algae-derived source of DHA, a non-essential fatty acid that is made from LNAs but has an inefficient conversion from plant sources of LNA in our bodies.
- Soak and/or sprout grains, legumes, and nuts before consumption. Anything that grows as a seed contains phytic acid in the hull. Phytic acid is called an anti-nutrient because it binds with nutrients - specifically, calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc - in the digestive tract, making it impossible for our bodies to absorb them. So even if we're taking in adequate calcium and iron, we can still suffer from deficiencies if we're also eating foods containing phytic acid. Luckily, it can be neutralized by soaking and sprouting grains and legumes before eating them. Sprouting also turns those little grains into tiny nutrient bombs: they are a whole food, a complete protein, and contain a wide variety of nutrients. So I'll buy only sprouted-grain breads and tortillas (Ezekiel 4:9 is the only brand available in stores that I know of), and sprout my own grains and legumes before making hummus, lentil, rice, quinoa, etc. (BTW, if you want to eat raw, sprouting is a great alternative to cooking: to make raw hummus, for example, just soak and sprout dry chickpeas before grinding the little buggers up.)