Just because you're eating vegetarian or vegan does not necessarily mean you're eating healthy. When I go around speaking at colleges across the country, I too frequently run into "junk food vegans" who are surviving on bagels, french fries and beer--vegetarian foods, but not health-promoting. Even Crisco, one of the most toxic substances on our grocery store shelves advertises itself as "all vegetable." Yes, but not healthy.
August of last year, the BBC reported that the British Advertising Standards Authority attacked a vegetarian organization for making "alarmist" and "unsubstantiated" claims about the risks of eating meat. Headlines like "Vegetarian group slammed over advertising" splashed across the evening news. What "exaggerated" claims were targeted by the agency? The vegetarian group claimed that meateaters were at increased risk of dying from heart disease and stroke, and that vegetarians lived longer than meateaters. How could the agency possibly find fault with such incontrovertible facts? Because, simply put, our "facts" aren't true.
The latest science and the best science that we have suggests that we vegetarians do not live longer than our meateating counterparts. The latest published results came out January 2002 in a journal called Public Health Nutrition. Eight thousand vegetarians were followed for 18 years, and no survival advantage was found. Then in April 2002 the results of a study twice that size were released at the International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition held at Loma Linda University. A study involving seventeen thousand vegetarians followed for about nine years confirmed the bad news -- no survival advantage for vegetarians. Even more worrisome, both of these huge studies found that vegetarians had an increased risk of dying from degenerative brain diseases.
Frankly, I was shocked when I saw the new data. My first thought was, "It's got to be the dairy and eggs." After all, isn't milk just liquid meat -- with the same cholesterol and saturated fat? And indeed dairy is one of the main sources of saturated fat in the American diet. And aren't eggs like little cholesterol bombs? No wonder ovo-lactovegetarians weren't doing so well. Separate out the vegans, I thought, and then you'll see some longevity. Neither of these two studies separated out the vegans, so where can we turn? Well, this was the latest research; what about the best?
Probably the best science we have was summarized in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1999, in an article entitled "Mortality in Vegetarians and Nonvegetarians." In an enormous undertaking, twelve researchers took all of the biggest and best studies to date on vegetarian mortality rates and pooled all the data together. They took a decade of mortality data from 28,000 vegetarians from Germany, California, and Britain. And found... no survival advantage for vegetarians.
What about vegans though? Despite even having lower cholesterol levels than vegetarians, the vegans in the study didn't live any longer either. Vegans had the same mortality rate as meateaters. Now although this is the best science we have, it is far from definitive; there are flaws in the study, and they were just looking at a few hundred vegans. There is a study currently underway in Europe which will soon become the biggest study of vegans in human history. We should have that data in a few years, but unfortunately there's not much reason to suspect that the results would turn out significantly different.
Before we explore these findings, it's important to realize that even as we vegetarians don't seem to live longer, that doesn't mean we're not healthier. These studies were of mortality rates only. Everybody's got to die sometime, so it's not only how long one lives, but also how well one lives. Vegetarians still have less heart disease, less obesity, less hypertension, less diabetes, less colon cancer -- even less emergency appendectomies. The list goes on and on. It still makes sense to go vegetarian, just for health reasons alone, but with all that one would think we'd have a survival advantage. We have a tremendous potential for reducing heart disease risk, but there's something getting in our way. What is it about vegetarian and especially vegan diets that's increasing our risk of heart disease so much that it's canceling out our potential?
The first reason why vegetarian nutrition experts think we're not doing as well as we should is that we're not getting enough omega 3 fatty acids in our diet and we're getting too many omega 6 fatty acids. For more information about these essential fatty acids, I recommend the book Becoming Vegan by Melina and Davis (available from the NHA on page 37) and an article by Jack Norris, R.D., entitled "Staying a Healthy Vegan" at http://www.veganoutreach.org/health/stayinghealthy.html . Suffice to say that every vegetarian and vegan should:
Step 1. Everyday eat 1-2 tablespoons of ground up flaxseeds. (or take flaxseed oil capsules )
Step 2. If you have any of the following oils in your house, throw them away: corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, or cottonseed oil. If you feel the need to use oil, use olive or canola instead.
Reason number two why we're not living up to our potential -- or more accurately, living out to our potential -- is probably even more important. Reason number two is homocysteine. Homocysteine is a toxic metabolite. It attacks our blood vessels; it attacks our brain cells; and it's a risk factor for heart disease, for stroke, for Alzheimer's, and a growing number of other diseases. And, up to 25% of lacto-vegetarians and 80% of vegans have seriously elevated levels in their blood. This is probably why the latest research suggests vegetarians have over twice the risk of dying from degenerative brain diseases.
Why do we build up more of this toxic stuff than meat-eaters? Because, simply, we don't get enough vitamin B12. We now have quite convincing data that there seems to be an epidemic of this functional B12 deficiency among vegans. Every person on this planet needs a regular and reliable source of B12. For vegans this means vitamin B12 supplements or vitamin B12 fortified foods.
If one chooses the supplement route, one can take 100mcg of B12 once a day, or 2000mcg once a week. Ideally the supplements should be chewed or let to dissolve under the tongue. Alternately, if one relies solely on B12 fortified foods, one needs to eat servings of B12 fortified foods at least twice a day. There does not seem to be any harm in taking too much. And if you haven't been getting enough, once you start supplementing your diet, odds are your homocysteine levels will drop. You may physically and mentally feel better, and you'll lower your risk of becoming paralyzed, demented and dead -- all for just pennies a day!
These changes are assuming one already eats a healthy diet. To be healthy vegetarians, we have to eat our vegetables, particularly green leafy ones. Studies consistently show that even "health-conscious vegetarians" seldom consume the recommended quantities of fresh produce every day. In addition to eating dark green leafy and other vegetables every day, we should also include fruit, beans, nuts, whole grains and exercise on a daily basis and avoid processed foods.
When I first learned about all this, my first thought was that it just didn't seem natural. When human beings were evolving, I kept thinking, they didn't have to take flax. Then I learned that's because there were no such things as cottonseed oil, no such thing as trans fats. Prehistoric people got much of their omega 3s from wild plants that tend to have much higher levels than the ones currently cultivated. Purslane, for example, the most common plant in the world, is one of the highest plant sources of omega 3s. But, as a culture we just don't eat weeds anymore.
Those cavepersons didn't have to take vitamin B12 supplements, I thought. Well, one of the reasons is because they didn't chlorinate it out of their water supply. People used to be able to get B12 from well water, drinking from mountain streams, etc. It's true that we don't get a lot of B12 in our water anymore, but we don't get a lot of cholera either ' that's a good thing. The problem is that we live in an unnatural world which is compromising our health, compromising our vegetarian potential. But we can reclaim that potential with a few simple changes, and maximize our chances for optimal health and longevity.
Health Science is the publication of the National Health Association. This article reprinted from the Spring 2003 issue.