Is veganism healthy?

As an abolitionist, I promote veganism because animal use is unfair. However, one of the common questions about and objections to veganism is whether veganism is nutritionally sound or healthy. It is important to understand the question of health as a vegan generally, as well as it place in the education process.

 Sensational stories in news media aside, many health organizations believe that a well-planned vegan diet can be healthy; still others claims that there are considerable health benefits to plant-only diets in terms of heart disease, cancer, etc. That doesn't mean you can't be unhealthy on a vegan diet; just that the same generally applies to all diets: planning and balance are important. In a 2009 position paper, however, the American Dietetic Association wrote:
“It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”  Journal of the American Dietetic Association, July 2009. 109(7): 1266- 1282.

But what about other organizations?
The American Dietetic Association is hardly on the radical fringe, but it is not alone in its position. Private and public sector health organizations across a continuum of care agree that a well planned, plant-only diet can be healthy. Organizations that have made public statements of the healthiness of a plant-only diet include dietetic associations, governmental bodies and private clinics.

The American Dietetic Association (1), Dietitians of Canada (2), the British National Health Service (3), the British Nutrition Foundation (4), the Dietitians Association of Australia (5), the United States Department of Agriculture (6), the National Institutes of Health (7), the Mayo Clinic (8), the Heart and Stroke Foundation (9), among others, all provide information on healthy living as well as nutritional suggestions for plant-based diets.

What are the common recommendations?

The consistent recommendation (should anyone read the sources above) is that vegans should ensure that they intake appropriate amounts of calories overall for their age, sex, lifestyle, etc., and that they should eat a varied diet with foods rich in calcium, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc and other nutrients.  Although there is ample debate about vegan nutrition in terms of absorption and lots of arcana and which foods to eat in what order, the National Institutes of Health fact sheets for health professionals make it clear that there are plant sources for
  • Calcium. Plant sources of calcium include tofu, kale, calcium fortified soy, rice and nut milks and (plant-only) breakfast cereals (10).
  • Iron. Plant sources of iron include various beans, tofu, spinach, raisins, iron fortified soy, rice and nut milks and (plant-only) breakfast cereals (11).
  • Zinc. Plant sources of zinc include beans, cashews, chickpeas, and zinc iron fortified soy, rice and nut milks and (plant-only) breakfast cereals (12).
  • Vitamin D. Plant sources of vitamin D include sunlight!  But more seriously, many fortified soy, rice and nut milks and breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin D (13).
  • Vitamin B12. Plant sources of B12 include B12 fortified soy, rice and nut milks and (plant-only) breakfast cereals as well as nutritional yeast.
If you see a pattern here, that's not surprising  Many cereals are fortified (at least in North America) because of concerns that the standard North American diet may not be optimal for human health. Shocking yet true. Fortification, however, varies by brand and by region. Many plant-only cereals may not be fortified, and fortification may not be as common outside of North America.  Be sure to check the label for nutritional information.

There has also been a lot of back and forth recently about the Harvard School of Public Health's Healthy Plate and Healthy Pyramid.  Regardless, the Mayo Clinic provides a pyramid suitable for vegans that recommends:
  • 2 servings of fats
  • 2 servings of fruits
  • 4 servings of vegetables
  • 5 servings of legumes, nuts and other similar foods
  • 6 servings of grains
That's a lot to eat, but as a vegan, I do my best (see 8 below for more details on recommended servings).

I am not a dietitian. However, I try to eat nutrient dense foods. For example, I'll eat muesli, dried fruit and fortified rice milk when I can for breakfast. I eat salads with spinach, arugula, collards, kale and other greens, as well as lentils, chick peas, and other beans with rice, quinoa, couscous, amanrath and other grains, as well as tofu, tempeh, etc., in order to add calcium, iron and zinc to my diet. I eat fruit in smoothies and whole for a treat.  Plants are beautiful, nutritious and they taste wonderful.  It's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.

What about 'the health argument'?
Advocacy organizations or individual advocates may claim that the 'health argument' turns people vegan. However, chronic health issues are common among North Americans, as are awareness raising campaigns about health on the part of national health organizations. Taken together, they suggest a general lack of knowledge and concerned action with regard to nutrition and health in practice among the general public.

People may, indeed, claim that health is important to them, but it does not necessarily match up in real life practices. In combination with other motivations, however, it seems plausible that people may see value in at least adopting a plant-only diet. That doesn't mean that health provides no motivation. It simply means that, by itself, however, a 'health argument' does not provide sufficient justification for veganism, or even, necessarily for a plant-only diet. The health argument also does not address leather shoes, circuses and other animal uses that vegans avoid.

On the other hand, few people want to be unhealthy.
Although both are empirical questions, whether health motivates change, the idea of worsening health by adopting veganism probably demotivates change. In that light, it is important for advocates to be able to respond to basic questions about or objections to veganism, nutrition and health, even if it only means providing others with references to expert opinions and evidence-based resources.

All other things being equal, however, there are no substantive reasons to use nonhuman animals for food purposes for human health; in fact, an increasing number of studies show that well-planned, plant-based diets may provide health benefits. A well-planned diet is important, and be sure to check with a registered dietitian if you have dietary concerns.

But if you are not vegan already, morally worried by the use of animals, why not give veganism a try? Don't let health concerns deter you; using nonhuman animals is unfair!  The resources below provide elaborate information on healthy plant-only diets, sources of vitamins and nutrients and other information. Read through the information; decide for yourself.  Make a meal plan and go vegan!

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