Health / nutrition
Despite all the myths you may have heard from friends, family, and the general public, and all the scare stories put out in the media by PR companies hired to write fear-mongering articles by Big Ag, going vegan is not a health concern, and it is appropriate for people of all stages of life. All nutrients come from the sun and soil, and this is how they enter into the food supply in the first place (through animals eating plants, and so on).
The most comprehensive nutritional study in human history, The China Study, was conducted over a 20-year period by researchers from Oxford and Cornell universities, in association with Chinese government scientists, and concluded that a whole-foods plant-based diet, free of animal products, is the optimum diet for human health. As well as this, it showed that all of our main diseases (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, etc.) are caused or aggravated by the consumption of animal products, and that adopting a whole-foods plant-based diet massively lowers your risk of those diseases.
On top of this, studies such as the German Vegan Study showed that, on average, non-vegans have more nutritional deficiencies than vegans—so yes, you are actually more likely to be deficient in a wide range of nutrients as a non-vegan than you are as a vegan.
(Author note: I am not a health professional. Thus I welcome you to do your own research on anything I say that you do not think sounds credible, and form your own conclusions. The sources I use throughout this section, however, are from medical professionals.)
2. What about protein?
The idea that vegans need to worry about their protein intake in any way whatsoever is a myth that just will not die. The largest study of its kind in history showed that the average vegan gets 70% more protein than they actually need, every single day. And despite the myths that have been put out there (and in particular seem to be prevalent in the field of bodybuilding), no, you do not need to 'combine proteins' from different food groups to get complete proteins. As it turns out, the only food in the entire food supply that doesn't have a complete amino acid profile is a meat product (gelatin), so unless that's your only food source, you don't need to worry about combining proteins. Amino acids such as carnitine and creatine (found in meat) are actually not dietary amino acids—that is, there is no need whatsoever for humans to consume them, as our own body produces the perfect amount needed of those amino acids (which is how those acids got into the herbivorous cow or the lamb you're eating in the first place, i.e. their own body produced it).
It actually turns out that human breast milk (the perfect food for human beings, fine-tuned for us over millions of years) has the lowest protein content of any animal milk in the world, less than 1% protein by weight. Given that no one reading this knows anyone who has ever died from protein deficiency, but knows several people who have died from cancer, protein is not a nutrient of concern for anyone, vegan or not.
The strongest land animals on the planet (gorillas, rhinos, elephants, hippos, buffalo, etc.) all tend to be herbivores, thus fuel their superior muscle strength to any meat-eating human with a diet of plants, all of which have a full amino acid profile.
3. What about calcium?
Calcium is a metal, and comes from the earth. The only reason there is any calcium in cow milk (which I assume you're associating it with) in the first place is because that cow (who is a vegan, by the way), eats grass, soy, or whatever else is fed to them.
The calcium content in milk is designed by nature to actually, believe it or not, raise a baby cow. Humans have no need to drink cow milk for calcium than they do rat milk, dog milk, or chimp milk.
Good vegan sources of calcium include: dried herbs, sesame seeds, figs, tofu, almonds, flax seeds, Brazil nuts and kale. If you’re still unsure about calcium intake from just plants in a vegan diet, most vegan milks are fortified with calcium—so just consume those as you would do any cow milk.
4. What about iron?
Again, like calcium, iron is a metal, and has nothing whatsoever to do with animals or the stuff that comes out of them. There is no link at all between veganism and anaemia (iron deficiency) and vegans and vegetarians tend to get their RDA for iron without even thinking about it. Remember this rhyme for iron: nuts, beans and dark leafy greens.
Vegans generally have a far better intake of vitamin C than meat eaters (who are, on average, deficient in vitamin C), which aids iron absorption. The type of iron found in meat is heme iron, which is the type of iron your body cannot regulate properly, and forces its way into the bloodstream. This, in turn, encourages production of free radicals, which can damage DNA and increase cancer risk. So it is safer as humans that we consume plant-based sources of iron (non-heme iron).
5. What about b12?
While we can only consume naturally occurring B12 via a.) eating animal products, b.) drinking dirty water, or c.) eating our own excrement (none of which I advise, by the way), B12 is readily available for vegans in many fortified foods (e.g. soy milk, Marmite, nutritional yeast, spreads), or can be consumed in the form of a supplement.
So is there any shame in consuming fortified foods or taking a supplement because the food you eat does not naturally provide it, as many non-vegans seem to think is a case to argue against veganism? Not at all! It turns out that, if like me, you live in a developed or developing country, you're pretty much a walking supplement advert—and you probably don't even realise it.
The bread you eat is fortified with vitamins (by law in certain countries, e.g. the UK); juices are fortified; cow milk has vitamins added to it during the manufacturing process; table salt often has iodine added to it; livestock animals are fed or injected with supplements; breakfast cereals are fortified; and unless they work outdoors, all meat/dairy/egg eaters (especially if they have darker skin) need to be taking a vitamin D supplement on a daily basis. All those listed foods are fortified because the vast majority of people (that's non-vegans) fail to get anywhere near adequate nutrition without them.
So not only do non-vegans have no right to condemn vegans eating fortified foods or taking a supplement for B12 when 99% of non-vegans eat a heavily supplemented diet anyway, but it is actually advisable that you do eat fortified foods or take a supplement to cover your basic nutritional needs anyway.
6. what about omega-3?
Just as the dairy industry has managed to get everybody to associate calcium with their product, so too have the fish and fish oil industries managed to get everybody to associate omega-3 with theirs.
Contrary to popular belief, fish is not a 'health food'—riddled with mercury, dioxins, and PCBs, it is highly advisable that you consume plant-based sources of omega-3 to maintain a healthy heart, brain, and body.
Good vegan sources of omega-3 include: flaxseeds (aka linseeds), hemp seeds, edamame, wild rice, canola oil, walnuts, black beans and kidney beans.
7. What about vitamin d?
Despite what critics of veganism will tell you, animal foods are not a good source of vitamin D—in fact, food with naturally occurring vitamin D, in general, is not.
When it comes to naturally ingesting it, vitamin D is only reliably sourced through skin exposure to sunlight (at least 20 minutes per day if you are fair-skinned, longer if you have darker skin, depending on how dark it is).
As such, it is advisable that, unless you spend a decent amount of your day outdoors, you eat fortified foods or take a supplement. A UK-government-commissioned report recently advised that all citizens take a vitamin D supplement, particularly in Autumn and Winter.
8. what about iodine?
The richest sources of iodine on the planet are sea vegetables (seaweed, kelp, dulse, etc.), but be careful not to overdo them, as your iodine levels might be too high if you do. If you don't like the taste of sea vegetables, you can either use these little tips as advised by Dr Michael Greger, or you can take a supplement, e.g. a multivitamin.
9. What about non-processed meat? Isn't that healthy?
The short and simple answer is: no.
While many people are aware that the World Health Organisation recently declared processed meat (e.g. bacon, sausage, etc.) a Group 1 carcinogen that definitely cause cancer (and if you didn't know, now you do!), most people are still of the belief that non-processed meats are healthy to consume.
The truth is that all meat is carcinogenic and even cooking chicken breast, for example, releases carcinogens in the meat and ups your cancer risk. In fact, meat is so carcinogenic that even being in the same room as it being fried or grilled can up your cancer risk, just from exposure to the fumes—check out this study showing lung cancer prevalence in Chinese women who do not smoke.
10. Yeah, but doesn't everything give you cancer these days?
Well, admittedly, a lot of things do, and the media sensationalism surrounding the idea of everyday items such as candles, lights, and just about anything, giving you cancer has caused people to be sceptical of its claims... but the science is there for you to see that animal products most definitely do cause cancer, while fruits and vegetables actually lower your risk of it.
11. Are vegan diets appropriate for children and pregnant women?
Absolutely. The American Dietetic Association recently released a statement stating that fully vegan diets are appropriate for people of all stages of life, including for children and pregnant women.
There are a lot of scare stories out there due to babies dying of malnutrition being fed a vegan diet by their parents, but rather conveniently, no newspapers seem to be interested in reporting on the many babies who die every week from malnutrition after being fed a non-vegan diet by their parents. See my post here on what it would look like if the health problems of non-vegan children were reported on in the same way as the deaths of vegan children.
If you are curious about raising your child on a fully vegan diet, have a look here on the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine's website for scientific info and a meal plan.
12. Are vegan diets appropriate for athletes?
Of course! Not only do vegan diets provide more than enough protein, but they are also high in complex carbohydrates (carbs being the primary source of energy for the human body) and naturally-occurring nitrates—that's right: while athletes are cheating by taking nitrate drugs, vegan athletes are consuming them legally and naturally in the form of rocket (aka aragula), beetroot, etc. So plant-based diets actually boost your performance in a similar way that banned drugs can! That's how good they are for athletes!
No wonder, then, that so many athletes now are switching to plant-based diets, even if not ethical vegans themselves! Below is just a small list of athletes, current and former, on plant-based diets:
Weightlifting / Strength contest
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
Track and field
13. I Want to go vegan, but have a health condition. What can I do about it?
Just to reassure you here, vegans of all health ailments are living proof that absolutely anyone can be vegan, regardless of their health condition.
However, given that Carnism Debunked cannot give professional medical advice, the first thing to do here if you are truly concerned about how you would fare on a plant-based diet due to your health condition is to seek out professional advice from a plant-based dietician/physician. You can go to plantbaseddoctors.org and find one near to you.
As well as this, you can sign up to Challenge 22+, which is a completely free 22-day support programme that will give you all the help you need to go vegan, and even has professional plant-based dieticians on-board the programme. However, please be aware that there are certain health conditions the dieticians on the programme would not legally be able to advise you on, so the former option may be more applicable to you!