My friend and colleague, Patrick, from Personal Trainers London, asked me to respond to an article on his website about vegan diets and fitness, specifically, an article suggesting vegan diets are bad for fitness. I was impressed with the article. It was thorough, covering some major bases. In this article, I would like to address some of what the author, Paul, says about vegan diets as they relate to health and fitness and offer an alternative perspective. You can see Paul’s article at Personal Trainers London, HERE.
I agree that in order to be healthy and fit, you need energy. In order to get stronger and fast, we must be in robust health. If you have inflammation in your joints, if your immune system is depleted and you are chronically suffering from colds and you are unwell, of course you won’t be improving your fitness anytime soon. What may surprise many is that a whole foods, plant-based diet is hands down the most positive step you can take toward strengthening your immune system, restoring your energy and providing your body with the nutrients you need. This in turn can ultimately speed recovery times, allowing you to train again sooner, improving your fitness beyond what you ever thought possible. Choosing nutrient dense plant foods provide just what we need. This is why so many professional athletes are adopting a plant-based diet. Be sure to look up plant-based athletes like Torre Washington, Scott Jurek, and Baggio Husidic. The following are some comments in response to concerns noted by Paul, at Personal Trainers, London.
1. Paul says: “the iron in plants is harder to absorb”.
I say: The iron in plants is usually accompanied by vitamin C. Our bodies are smart. We have a natural regulatory mechanism for the uptake of iron in the presence of vitamin C, ensuring we don’t take up too much. Iron, while obviously a very important nutrient, can be dangerous if we get too much. Heme iron, which is the iron present in the flesh of animals, bypasses our natural regulatory mechanism, and is absorbed readily through the gut. Excess iron is stored. The body has no way of excreting excess iron, except in the case of menstruation or giving blood.
It turns out that iron overload is a much more common problem than iron deficiency. Iron encourages the formation of free-radicals and is associated with cancer formation. Studies show that higher amounts of iron in the blood mean higher cancer risk and higher risk for dementia. Menstruation depletes iron stores and is believed to explain why women generally live longer than men. Iron from vegetarian foods is not absorbed as well, on purpose. Eating iron and vitamin C rich plants provides optimal levels of iron, ensuring we don’t get too much. Since humans do not produce vitamin C, unlike most animals, we need to be consuming plenty of it daily. In this way iron absorption is optimal and our body regulates the uptake perfectly.
2. Paul says: “Phytic Acid Blocks Mineral Absorption”
I say: Phytates bind to minerals in some plants, making some minerals less available, this is true. However, phytates are easily broken down with sprouting, soaking, fermenting and cooking foods. As well, juicing and blending phytate-rich foods will break down the phytates, making minerals more available. As well, fats available in foods such as nuts, olives, avocado, seeds, and some oils will also increase absorption of phytate-bound minerals. Not all vegetables contain phytates. But those that do also provide additional sources of nutrients not bound by the phytates that are important. Vitamin C, omega 3’s, fibre, and phytonutrients are all beneficial to our health.
It turns out that phytates are important nutrients themselves. Phytates can lower cholesterol, protect against kidney stones, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Last but not least, phytates protect us against cancer, and inhibit cancer cell migration (metastases). Researchers now believe that phytates should be considered an essential nutrient or a vitamin, rather than being termed an “antinutrient”.
Calcium Absorption and Oxalates: Oxalates are organic compounds that bind to minerals including calcium. Like phytates, oxalates decrease our absorption of some minerals, including calcium. Foods containing oxalates shouldn’t be avoided though, since these plants offer an array of nutrients including beta-carotene, folate, vitamin K and other phytochemicals. Because only 5% of the calcium in raw spinach is absorbed, this should not be your go-to veggie for calcium, but you should eat spinach because of all of the other wonderful nutrients it offers.
Paul compares calcium absorbability in spinach to milk, which warrants attention. Yes we need calcium for strong bones, along with 9 other essential minerals from the “bone team” as well as vitamins C,D,K and the B’s. We need calcium for cardiovascular health and muscle contractility. Paul agues that while we absorb only 5% of calcium from spinach, we absorb 30-32 % of the calcium from cow milk, to which I say “the source of our nutrients matters”. More on that in a moment. We need to choose low-oxalate greens for the best calcium absorption: bok choy, broccoli, dandelion greens, kale, mustard greens, napa cabbage, turnip greens, watercress all offer 40% or more calcium absorbability. Lets not forget the nuts and seeds, grains, legumes and fruits and other vegetables, which contain calcium. But, there is something more: There has never been a case found anywhere in the world, of anyone on a natural diet suffering from a calcium deficiency.
Bovine Leukemia Virus, present in all cow milk (in North America) is now shown to be at the root of 37 % of breast cancer. This virus is identical in structure to the leukemia virus found in children suffering from Leukemia. Dairy farmers have higher rates of leukemia. Since cows are milked throughout their pregnancies, end stage pregnancy milk has estrogen levels that are 33 times that of a non-pregnant cow, attributing to acne vulgaris, hormone-related cancers such as prostate cancer and breast cancer, and more, including early onset menses and late menopause in women.
Cow milk is designed by mother nature for rapid growth during infancy, and is intended to turn a little calf into a large 1000 lb animal in a year’s time. As such, cow milk stimulates the increase of circulating levels of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor). Cancerous tumours have IGF-1 receptors covering their surface. Among many other concerns like links to Chron’s and colitis, viruses, bacteria and somatic cell (pus) count, cow milk is also associated with type I diabetes and other autoimmune disorders, inflammatory conditions like asthma and allergies, leaky gut, childhood ear infections and more. The source matters. If good health is what you are after, your calcium should not come from cow’s milk.
3. Paul says: “You Really, Really need vitamin B12”
I say: First things first. B12 is actually a microbe, not a vitamin. This microbe proliferates in the intestines of animals, including humans. The absorbability is the problem, which is why 40% of the Western population has low B12 levels, not just vegans. B12 is found in feces and in the flesh of animals. We need it. We need it for neurological health and for the production of red blood cells. I don’t think anyone should take a chance on their B12 absorbability, vegan or not. A B12 supplement, in the form of methylcobalamin is best taken sublingually (under the tongue), since absorbability though the gut tends to be a problem. We need such a tiny amount, about 2.4mcg / day, but that tiny amount is really important.
4. Paul says Vitamin D3 from animals is superior to vitamin D from plants
I say: This vitamin comes from the sun. You can’t blame a vegan diet on low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D levels can be met for most people by spending about 20 minutes in the sun each day. It is true that here in Canada, like the U.K., we can become sun-starved. Research is proving that both forms of vitamin D (D2 and D3) are equally effective.
To clarify, Vitamin D2 is generally derived from fungi, namely mushrooms. Vitamin D3 can come from animal sources such as sheep’s wool or fish oil, and plant sources, like lichen. For those who want a D3 that comes in vegan form, just do a search for Vegan D3. If you can’t get sunlight on your skin daily, especially through the winter months, a vitamin D supplement is a good idea.
5. Paul Says butter is “just good”….
I say: Studies consistently show that Low carb diets high in saturated fat lead to disease. You need to ignore the bulk of nutrition research as it relates to cardiovascular health and all-cause mortality if you believe butter is good for you. But, I get that there is a myriad of conflicting information out there. So, lets ignore the research for a moment and take a look at a the Blue Zones. The Blue Zones refer to the 5 places on earth where the longest living and healthiest people on the planet live. These people regularly live beyond their one hundredth year, fully able-bodied and active, with the lowest disease rates on earth. These people are known as the Centenarians. The centenarians eat a plant-based diet. Some are completely vegan, the others, almost.
The 7th day adventists living in Loma Linda Ca., eating what they call the “biblical diet”, a vegan, whole foods diet free of processed foods. Other Blue Zone groups also eat a plant-based diet, centered on legumes, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Meat is something the centenarians consume on special occasions, or as a condiment. Butter is not part of the dietary repetoire for any of the Blue Zone groups, in fact, their diet is very much low-fat.
In our attempt to eliminate processed foods from the diet, one cannot ignore that butter, the fat from whole cow milk, is not a food in it’s whole form, comes from an ungulate and is a mere part of a food source intended to turn a baby bovine into a 1000 lb animal in under a year.
6. Paul says Omega 3’s are better acquired through animal foods.
I say: Achieving an optimal omega 3:6 ratio is harder than ever. There is one very simple cause for this new and common imbalance: processed foods. Omega 6’s are used in processed foods because they are stable fats with a longer shelf life. Once we decrease our intake of processed foods, we immediately drop our omega 6 intake. This is part of the solution to finding that optimal ratio. Next, we need to find a ratio, as Paul suggests of 1:1 or 1:2. It is true that the conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA is not always efficient. That said, plant-eating fish and all herbivores convert their own ALA into EPA and DHA as needed, just as we do. That’s why you get EPA and DHA when you eat those guys.
The most recent research suggests that we simply don’t give our body the credit it deserves, and that at different stages of life, we require different amounts of EPA and DHA. For example, one study found young women converted 21 % of ALA into EPA and 9 % into DHA, and another 6% into another highly unsaturated fat called DPA. A total of 36% or ALA was converted to highly unsaturated fatty acids. In men, the total conversion was to 16%. It is believed that the high conversion rates for the young women are likely nature’s way of preparing for the increased needs of pregnancy and lactation as DHA is required for the formation and development of the brain, nervous system and retina of the fetus and newborn.
Women beyond childbearing years and men both convert long chain fatty acids less efficiently than young women. Some would argue these groups need a direct source of DHA and maybe EPA, but it is more probable that the conversion is reduced because less is needed. DHA is the most highly unsaturated fat in the diet and also the most unstable, easily oxidized by free radicals, and contributes to cardiovascular diseases among other diseases as well. It is possible that our bodies purposely do not produce DHA when it isn’t needed, in order to protect our health. It is also possible that when it is produced, it is rapidly transported to locations where it is needed and incorporated into tissues of the brain and retina.
The easiest way to ensure you are meeting your omega 3 needs is by adding 1-2 tablespoons of ground flax or hemp hearts to your morning smoothie or oatmeal. The best way to ensure your omega 3:6 ratio is ideal is to avoid processed foods and animal foods, especially chicken. Simple.
7. Paul says animal protein is better absorbed and is more complete…he says: “All Protein is not Created Equally”
I say: The whole protein myth is as old as the day is long. If you believe that animal sources of protein are the best, then you would agree that the ultimate source of protein, the protein most ideal for humans, would be proteins that contain the sequencing of amino acids as we see them in the human body. This of course, would be human flesh. Of course no one would eat that, right? So we seek other proteins that have all of the amino acids, maybe just in the wrong order or in variable amounts. One of the flaws in the animal protein argument lies in the fact that everything we eat is broken down by our body, including the amino acids in the proteins we eat. The human body in all of it’s miraculous-ness, then rebuilds the proteins, gathering up the amino acids, just as we need them, into an ideal structure for use in the human body.
Even the old idea that vegans need to “food combine” no longer holds weight. So long as we eat a variety of foods, from legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, over the course of a 24 hour period, we easily meet our protein needs. In fact, if you are getting enough calories from a whole foods, plant-based diet, you are automatically getting enough protein.
When we determine protein needs, we must consider the recommendations set forth by our national food pyramids, as they compare to the standards put in place by the World Health Organization. The WHO’s agenda is simply to provide the world with appropriate nutritional guidelines. The World Health Organization stipulates that a 150 lb man, eating 2000 calories / day requires about 22 gms of protein daily.
What about the athlete? Well, fitness can be described as an increase in efficiency. The more fit we become, the more we can do, with the same fuel…the more efficient our bodies become. If fitness made us less efficient, then we would have to continue to increase our nutrient needs to meet our fitness goals, but alas, we know that isn’t so. Brendan Brazier explains that when he began training for triathlons, his caloric needs shot up to somewhere around 8,000 calories / day. But by the time his body was in top performance condition, his caloric needs dropped close to his original pre-training levels. Now that we don’t need as much protein as we thought, we can take a closer look at some other considerations. First, lets take a look at a couple of the additional ingredients in animal protein. If I have said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times: “The source of our nutrients matters”.
8. Paul says eggs are an ideal source of protein.
I say: You will never see an add for eggs that refers to them as healthy or good for you. This is because of the laws in place against false advertising! Cholesterol in eggs exceeds the daily recommended limit of dietary cholesterol. Despite the flawed science by the egg industry, we know that eggs do in fact raise blood cholesterol levels.
Further, eggs (and chicken) are the leading source of Arachadonic acid (an omega 6) in the Western diet. Arachadonic Acid is associated with depression and low mood, and internal inflammation. “High quality preformed arachodonic acid” has been linked to rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and it has a clear link to cancer development, according to the world Cancer Institute. Eggs also lead the pack in foods contaminated with salmonella.
In 2008 the Harvard physicians health study was published, which followed 20,000 physicians for 20 years. They found that those physicians eating a single egg a day or more were significantly associated with living in a shorter life. The risk of type II diabetes was increased by 58% for men and for women it was increased by 77%.
High egg and high cholesterol intake before and during pregnancy increases the risk of gestational diabetes. This is likely because one egg has anywhere from 186 to 275 mg of cholesterol. (Compare this to a McDonald’s Big Mac, which contains 80 mg of cholesterol!)
Choline is one of the only real nutrients that are substantial in eggs; in fact the egg industry has actually boasted about choline content. Choline levels are very high in eggs. Unfortunately choline is associated with cancer development: in men eating 2.5 eggs a week there was an 81% increased risk of lethal prostate cancer compared to those eating half an egg a week.
9. Paul says: “Plant-Protein is harder to digest”
I say: I don’t recall ever looking at an elephant or sliver back gorilla thinking “ looks like he is having trouble digesting that plant protein!” To Paul’s credit, he refers specifically to soy when mentioning the digestibility problems of plant protein. It is true that when genetically modified soy was first introduced to the human food supply in the UK, there was an 50% increase in soy allergies due to an increase in trypsin inhibitor caused by the genetic modification of soy. Trypsin is an enzyme involved in the breakdown of proteins. It is believed that the transformed bacteria from the ingestion of GM soy may proliferate in the intestines, stimulating allergies, irritable bowel and digestion problems as well. Yes, we should stay away from genetically modified soy. That said, if you eat meat, you likely eat the flesh of animals that were fed GM soy. As far as the lack of digestibility of other plant proteins, there is no evidence that whole food, plant-based vegans are suffering from a protein deficiency in the western world. In fact, most of the diseases taking the lives of our loved ones are caused by eating too much protein; animal protein, that is.
10. Paul says Fake Meats cause inflammation.
I say: Fake meats include those processed foods that mimic meat products. Paul suggests that these cause inflammation, and that inflammation is really, really bad. I agree! Inflammation is at the root of disease. First, I’ll address the fake meats, and second, the inflammatory response of real meat. The Fake meats I like to refer to as “treat or transition foods”. Fake meats are not an ideal addition to a whole foods, plant-based diet. Fake meats can help people transition over to a healthier, plant-strong diet, and they also come in handy for bbq’s and other special occasions. These are not foods that should be consumed daily.
The fake meats we need to be most concerned about are those that contain soy protein isolates. When we consume the isolated protein of soy, we experience a sharp rise in circulating IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor). As mentioned above, cancerous tumors have IGF-1 receptors on their surface. Isolated soy protein promotes even more circulating IGF-1 than cow milk. Choose first generation soy products like organic edemame or tofu, which do not lead to sharp rises in IGF-1.
If you would like to use fake meats as a treat or transition food, choose seitan. Seitan, or wheat gluten dates back to 6 Century China where strict vegetarian Buddhist monks used whet gluten as a meat alternative. Gluten is practically a bad name these days, but in truth wheat has not been linked to any of the major diseases killing most people today. Heart Disease, diabetes, cancers and dementia have a clear link to animal protein, saturated fat and cholesterol, and other contributing factors of animal based foods, too many to list here. But wheat, in it’s whole form has proven to be a healthy, or at the very least, a benign addition to the diets that are reversing these diseases, including those set forth by Dean Ornish, Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Dr. Michael Klapar and more, barring celiac disease or gluten sensitivities.
Let’s take a closer look at the inflammation factor of foods as it relates to acid load. The LAKE (Load of Acid to Kidneys Evaluation) score measures acid loads in foods and their typical serving size. I found this particular reference in Dr. Gregor’s book “How Not to Die”. Acid load scores highest to lowest are: fish (13) > pork (11) > poultry (9.7) > cheese (8.5) > beef (6.1) > eggs (4.0) > dairy (1.2) > bread (1.2) > rice (0.56) > pasta (-.13) > beans (-4) > fruit (-8.5) > vegetables (-9.9) (note: eggs are more acidic than beef, but portions tend to be smaller). So that’s acid load. But what about inflammation caused by other sources?
Dead meat bacterial endotoxins, present in all meat, despite various cooking methods, causes endotoxemia, a surge of inflammation caused by the dead meat bacterial endotoxins found in meat, and enhanced by the presence of saturated fat.
Last but not least, the choline and carnatine found in animal foods are converted by the omnivorous human into TMAO, which is linked to heart disease and cancer. I’ll let you check that out HERE.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to cover, but, in short, most animal foods are, by far, more inflammatory than any whole plant food. Further, studies show that acid-forming diets, (those containing animal foods) increase the likelihood of disease, and, important for this discussion, are linked to a reduction of muscle mass, as the calcium in our muscle buffers the acidic ph of our blood, by drawing on readily available calcium in our body. Researchers believe this explains the connection between increased acidic blood ph and decrease in muscle mass in aging populations.
As far as disease is concerned, autoimmune diseases, including Rheumatoid Arthrits, M.S. and others are not only preventable, but reversible with the adoption of a plant-based diet. Heart disease, diabetes and cancers of many kinds have been shown to be reversible with the same dietary prescription: a whole foods, plant based diet, free of animal foods. In fact, Dr. Dean Ornish’s most recent research has proven eating this way can reverse not only heart disease, but prostate cancer as well.
11. Paul says “Those looking to avoid the consequences of systemic inflammation would do well to minimize or avoid grains, not base our diet on them.”
I say: Once again we should take a closer look at the Blue Zones, the 5 spots on earth where people live the longest and healthiest lives, fully active into and beyond their 100th year. These people share several dietary factors, one of which is eating a plant based diet, centered on starches and grains. Grains, as it turns out, are one of the most protective foods we can eat, and their components are not near as inflammatory as cooked animal flesh or animal byproducts. Here in Canada, The Alzheimer’s Society now recommends a Plant-Based diet to ward off dementia.
Further, Western Europe and North America have the highest rates of Alzheimers, a disease that barely existed 100 years ago. Now that we know that Alzheimers is a vascular disorder, one rooted in narrowing of the tiny arterioles feeding the brain, we can alter our diet to avoid dementia. Studies show that despite the ApoE4 gene, (the principle cholesterol carrier in the brain), high dietary cholesterol is directly correlated to increased likelihood of dementia or Alzheimers later in life. In fact, Nigeria has one of the highest frequencies of ApoE4 in the world, but they have the lowest rates of Alzheimers. They also eat a plant-based diet.
A recent study, published October 19th, 2016 showed that both refined grains, including wheat, oats and rice, and whole grains, help reduce weight, blood pressure and total LDL cholesterol among overweight and obese patients. “While both groups saw health improvements, decreased diastolic blood pressure was three times greater in the whole-grain group, compared to the refined-grain group.” (Kirwan, J.P)
The bulk of nutrition science today shows us that diet trumps genes, and a healthy diet filled with fibre-rich whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables is the cornerstone of excellent health.
For more information on adopting a whole foods, plant-based diet, and lifestyle modifications that will help end yo-yo diets forever, restore energy, heal your body, and improve your fitness, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Buettner, Dan, The Blue Zones
Gregor, Michael, How Not to Die
Gregor, Michael, Nutritionfacts.org
Davis, Brenda, Becoming Vegan, Becoming Raw
Barnard, Neal, PCRM.org
Kirwan JP, Malin SK, Scelsi AR, et al. A whole-grain diet reduces cardiovascular risk factors in overweight and obese adults: a randomized controlled trial. J Nutr. Published online October 19, 2016.
educational resource: Plant-Based Nutrition Certification: Cornell U, and the T. Colin Campbell Foundation.