Opinion: The Verdict on Vegan

A recent post on Twitter sparked a firestorm when a nutritionist explained why she couldn’t recommend anyone to follow a vegan diet. Her reasoning was that it was hard to eat safe and healthy while being 100% vegan, a perspective that was met with tons of backlash and angry posts.

It’s hard to dissect the ins and outs of veganism in one minute, let alone in 140 characters. This isn’t a black and white issue, and strong reactions contribute nothing to the conversation.

To a dieter, veganism is attractive and simple. Avoid all animal-based food in favor of leafy greens, lentils, whole grains, beans, mushrooms, fruits, and vegetables. The majority of us can agree that all of these foods are generally healthy. Furthermore, why would adhering to a vegan diet be difficult if there are so many plant-based foods available? Clearly, it would seem like the nutritionist is wrong.

Arguments against the vegan diet revolve around the lack of protein and vitamin B12 in plant-based foods. Nutritional supplementation is a straightforward way to work around these issues, yet it is frowned upon. Is your diet really fulfilling your nutritional needs if you need supplements?

The truth is, SOME supplementation is advisable in ANY diet; but not to the point where you’re blowing a boatload of cash and timing your supplement intake with your “workout window” every single day. And there are plenty of articles about how vegans can circumvent their protein disadvantage and get the amount they need with or without supplements, so I’m not even going to start that debate.

The problem with protein though is that we’ve been advised to consume much less than we should for decades. Old guidelines recommended about 0.4 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight; but you should really be getting at least 1 gram per pound, especially if you plan on building muscle and being physically active. The difference between these two recommendations is huge, and if the majority of the food you eat is protein-poor, making up this difference is much more difficult.

But the real problem with veganism, or any diet, is that many see it as a quick and easy health solution; it is not. You won’t automatically lose weight and get slimmer by going on one, and you can’t abandon all your dieting progress once you achieve your health goals. When it comes to health habits, the big question is this; can you sustain them for the long haul?

How much self-restraint do you have? Can you stick to your diet and fight the urge to eat junk food or non-vegan food? Going on a diet and changing habits is an enormous lifestyle change. Perhaps it’s hard to eat “safe and healthy” on a vegan diet precisely because these new dietary restrictions are an enormous lifestyle change, not because of plant-based foods themselves. Are you ready to make those sacrifices?

These are the questions and issues that nutritionists must deal with when making their dietary recommendations. At the end of the day they are just trying to set up their clients for as much success as possible, and it is unwise to be beholden to a single dieting modality.

by Jeremy Lau