Myths About Vegan Diets: Pitfalls to Avoid for Health

A number of people have identified veganism as one of the biggest trends in health and the reality is that the number of persons identifying their diet as plant-based or vegan is growing larger and larger. Health personalities that question the benefits of a vegan diet are easily found, and their concerns, at times legitimate, need to be addressed. So what are some of the biggest myths—both good and bad—about veganism?

1. Vegans never get disease.

Many large studies of nutrition have indicated lower rates of chronic diseases for study subjects following a vegan diet compared with an omnivorous diet. Yet, it is important to remember that vegans can get cancer, heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and other serious disorders. I see patients eating a vegan diet, usually for only a few months or years, that have important heart disease. Most vegans ate an animal-based diet for many years before they adopted their new plan. New vegans and those motivated by ethics may choose a lot of processed foods high in oils, trans fats, sugars, and added salt. Vegans need cancer screening just like everyone else, comprehensive lab studies, and imaging for silent heart disease to ensure optimal health.

The health outcomes over 25 years were compared from a large database from the Harvard School of Public Health in subjects eating a healthy (whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, teas, coffee, and vegetable oils) versus an unhealthy (juices, sweetened beverages, grains, sweets, fried potatoes) version of a plant-based diet. It is not certain how many of the participants were following a fully vegan diet. During the study, 8,631 subjects developed coronary heart disease (CHD). Adhering to a plant-based diet lowered the risk of CHD by about 8 percent overall, but this relationship was much stronger for those following the healthy pattern. Those respondents enjoyed a powerful 25 percent reduction in their risk of coronary heart disease while those eating the unhealthy plant foods actually increased their risk by as much as 30 percent! The bottom line is that a healthy vegan diet is a whole-food plant-based diet (WFPB) and not a junk food diet of processed options and fake vegan foods.

2. A vegan diet is all that is needed for health.

In the 1970s athlete and author Jim Fixx made the mistake of believing exercise protected him from all ailments and ate a diet promoting heart disease. Unfortunately, he tragically died at age 53 of a heart attack despite all of his hours spent running. While a vegan diet can be a very healthy choice, it is just one part of an overall plan for optimal health. Pioneering studies by Dean Ornish, M.D., called the Lifestyle Heart Trial, combined a plant-based diet with exercise, stress reduction, yoga, social support and love, and cessation of smoking to reverse advanced heart disease. I advise vegans to incorporate these other healthy practices into their life as well. Sleeping seven to eight hours a night reduces the risk of heart disease substantially compared with those sleeping less than five hours. About 20 percent of the American public still smoke, and some are vegans who must quit. A strategy to manage stress, whether it is a breathing practice, yoga, religion, music, or social support is a key to health for all. Loneliness is a drag on health particularly in these times. Finally, genetics matter and the inheritance of Lipoprotein(a) cholesterol, largely unaffected by diet, can cause CHD even in those that eat WFPB diets.

3. A vegan diet provides all nutrients from plants.

Surely a rainbow-colored WFPB diet provides all nutrients for optimal health? In fact, in my preventive cardiology clinic I measure blood and skin levels of many critical nutrients, and both omnivores and vegans are frequently low. Vegans in particular are often low in B12, vitamin D, omega-3, iodine, vitamin K2, and taurine (as are most omnivores). Obtaining the maximal health benefit from a vegan diet requires attention to these nutrients. There are vegan multivitamins that provide the proper amounts of these nutrients. At a minimum, all vegans should take vitamin B12. If whole food sources are desired, omega-3 can be addressed by 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed daily with greens, walnuts, and chia seeds. Kelp and nori can supply iodine. Mushrooms and plant milks can be rich in vitamin D. Adequate iron can be an issue for vegans, but spinach, tofu, beans, lentils, and sunflower seeds are quite good sources.

I have eaten a vegan diet for 40 years but have selected WFPB choices for almost all of those 40,000-plus meals. I would strongly endorse a WFPB vegan diet for health enhancement to all readers, from those that are prenatal or pregnant to those feeding children and to baby boomers and the elderly, in keeping with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The healthiest vegan, however, will be the one who understands the myths that surround a vegan diet and avoids the pitfalls.

Dr. Joel Kahn

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