Because our Clean Cuisine nutrition program is so rich in plant foods we are frequently asked by readers, “Is a vegan diet the healthiest?”
The primary factor that makes some people believe a vegan or vegetarian diet is healthier than more conventional diets containing animal foods is that the vegan or vegetarian supposedly consumes first and foremost more nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables followed by unrefined whole foods in the form of beans, whole grains, and nuts and seeds.
We emphasize supposedly because the reality is not all vegan or vegetarian diets are fruit- and veggie-forward and not all vegan and vegetarian diets are based on unrefined whole foods. Simply being vegan does not mean you are optimizing your health.
In fact, the vegan or vegetarian who eats a diet based on nutrient-poor foods such as bagels, pretzels, processed breakfast cereals, French fries, and white rice will be far worse off than the non-vegan who eats most of his or her calories from fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains, and seeds but also includes small amounts of animal foods too, such as pastured eggs and lean cuts of pastured beef and pastured chicken.
Furthermore, we just can’t find scientific evidence to support health reasons for anybody eliminating fish from their diets.
And, even though studies do show that vegetarians have fewer heart attacks, less incidence of cancer, less obesity, lower body weights, less high blood pressure, and longer life spans in general, if you dig deep into the research you’ll see even those who are not super strict at avoiding animal foods enjoyed equally impressive health benefits across the board, as long as the bulk of their calories came from unrefined whole plant foods with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
Vegan (Kinda, Sorta)
The take-home message we are trying to get across is that science supports that you can reap the health and weight-loss benefits of a vegan diet without being 100 percent vegan. Even Colin Campbell, Ph.D. — one of the biggest champions of vegan diets in the medical community, co-author of the best-selling book The China Study, referred to as the “Grand Prix of epidemiology” by the New York Times — states in his book that it has not been proven that a zero animal food diet is best. We agree, it has not been proven. We would go further as to say we believe a slightly less than vegan diet, one that contains omega-3-rich seafood and is more like the way we recommend in our Clean Cuisine program, is the most healthful (Ok, so we admit our opinion is a little biased.)
But really, our goal is not to set the bar for dietary purity so high that it guarantees failure; instead we want to help you learn to eat in a way that fits into your lifestyle, a way of eating that is doable, tasty, and healthful. Less than 0.5 percent of the population is vegan, meaning they eat no animal foods whatsoever; you don’t need to go to these extremes to improve the way you age, look, and feel. Clean Cuisine is not about exclusivity or making people think they can’t measure up to nutritional idealism. And to repeat, going to vegan extremes is not necessary or proven for optimizing health. Instead, what we recommend with Clean Cuisine is a primarily plant-based diet with heavy emphasis on fruits and vegetables along with nuts, seeds, beans and unrefined whole grains as well as moderate amounts of super high quality animal foods including wild fish, pastured red meat and pastured chickens and eggs.
What Does “Moderate” Mean?
So then, how do we define “moderate” when it comes to eating animal foods? How many animal foods do we actually eat?
As a general rule we don’t eat more than one animal food per day (with the exception of eggs); typically we are ovo-vegetarians until dinnertime. At least two thirds of the few animal foods we do eat are fish or shellfish. On a few days each week we eat a completely vegan diet, such as meat-free Mondays. When we do eat animal proteins, we choose the absolute “cleanest” sources.
Consider Pushing Protein to the Side of Your Plate
We realize pushing meat to the side of the dinner plate is a radical deviation from the way many people have grown up eating. And we totally understand that the thought of deemphasizing animal protein has sort of an undesirable new-age hippie health movement ring to it, one that sounds a lot like it means self-denial and deprivation. We get it.
We also understand that a change in diet requires considerable creativity and a bit of behavior modification at first. But even with all of this in mind, we are going to ask you to rethink your standard dinner plate anyway. Think of the less meat thing as a culinary journey—a journey that will awaken your senses to all the incredible other foods and flavors that you miss if you eat a meat-heavy diet. And really, we just have to ask, is eating baked skinless, boneless chicken breasts as the main dinner entrée night after night truly exciting?
The rest of the world is actually way ahead of the United States in terms of incorporating smaller amounts of meat as a supporting cast member to the plate as a whole. A plate that is often bubbling over with flavor from spices, herbs, and vegetables we might add. But even here in the good old U.S.A., where visions of Texas ranches and steakhouse restaurants dance in our heads, there is a growing audience of people who declare themselves omnivores yet have begun to trim back on animal foods. This would include us. We consider ourselves to be “flexitarians,” or part-time vegetarians.
We still eat animal foods, but we really do limit our intake of them. We know to purists being part-vegetarian is like being half-alive, but after doing the research, we cannot find proof that being either vegetarian or vegan is the healthiest way to eat. Limits for the sake of limits is just not our style.
Why We Still Eat Some Animal Foods
As we mentioned back on Day 48 of the Challenge, we don’t eat animal foods so much for the protein they provide because we know we can get the protein we need from plant foods, assuming we eat enough calories and enough variety. Instead, we eat animal foods because we like their taste and because animal foods contain certain nutrients that are difficult to get in adequate amounts from plant foods. Nutritional supplements are an option for strict vegans, but it is best to use supplements as just that, supplements. It is always far better to get the nutrients your body needs from whole foods.
Nutrients Strict Vegans May Be Deficient In
Some of the nutrients found in animal foods that are difficult to obtain in adequate quantity from plant foods are the following:
- VITAMIN B-12. Strict vegans absolutely must supplement their diets with B12 or choose vegan foods to which supplemental B12 has been intentionally added. There are no non-fortified vegan sources of vitamin B12.
- IRON. Good plant sources of iron include cooked dry beans, leafy green vegetables, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, and tofu. However, iron from plant foods is not absorbed nearly as well as the heme iron found only in animal foods. If you do not eat any animal foods at all you really need to pay extra special attention to eating iron-rich plant foods. We do not suggest iron supplements unless under a physician’s supervision because iron supplements can be toxic and free-radical forming. Note: Eating foods that contain vitamin C along with iron-rich foods will boost the body’s absorption of iron from a meal.
- DOCOSAHEXAENOIC ACID (DHA). Considered the most beneficial of all the omega-3 fats, DHA is for the most part found only in fatty fish and egg yolks. Even if you are not vegan and you eat fish and egg yolks we still think everyone should take an omega-3 fish oil supplement containing DHA. Strict vegans who do not eat fish or take fish oil should supplement with an algae-based DHA supplement. Note: Algae-based DHA supplements contain less DHA than do fish oil supplements. Refer back to Day 19 of the Challenge for more specific guidelines on DHA supplementation.
- VITAMIN D. Whether you eat animal foods or not, getting enough vitamin D should be a concern for everyone. If you are overweight you need more vitamin D than the average person because body fat traps this fat-soluble vitamin and makes it unavailable for your body to use. Unfortunately vitamin D is found in very few foods naturally so it’s hard to get optimal amounts. Although cow’s milk and dairy products are well known for being good sources of vitamin D, dairy foods contain synthetic vitamin D; natural vitamin D is found in fatty fish and eggs. Fatty fish is also a far richer source: 6 ounces of salmon contains 900 International Units of vitamin D compared to 160 International Units found in 2 large eggs. In the plant kingdom, portobello mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet light contain approximately 400 International Units of vitamin D. But other than those few sources, vitamin D is not readily available from the food you eat. Although your body can make vitamin D from sunlight exposure, we feel eating a vitamin D–rich diet and taking vitamin D supplements are important for everyone (refer back to Day 12 of the Challenge for supplement guidelines.) And, we should add, you should step outside without sunscreen on a regular basis too. A little sunlight and fresh air will always do a body good.
- ZINC. One of zinc’s major roles is to allow the body to use dietary protein as building blocks for the regeneration of muscle as well as support a healthy immune system. However, because zinc from plant foods is poorly absorbed, it is important for vegans to eat plenty of zinc-rich plant foods such as peanuts, soy foods, wheat germ, sesame seeds, and cocoa powder. Animal food sources of zinc include dark meat turkey, fish, eggs, oysters, crab, and red meat.
The Last Word on Going Vegan…
The last thing we have to say for anyone contemplating a strict vegan diet is to simply see how you feel. We have both experimented with veganism and while we absolutely feel better when the vast majority of our calories are from unrefined plant-based foods, we don’t feel as good when we completely eliminate all animal foods, especially over an extended period of time. But, having said that, a well-balanced plant-based diet that is centered around a wide array of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and unrefined whole grains and supplemented with vitamin B12, vitamin D, DHA from algae and a good multi-vitamin can absolutely be a super healthy, super clean way to eat. And if you give it a try and you find you personally feel best on a 100% plant-based diet then we can’t argue with that! We encourage you to listen to your body and see what works best for you.