Patients frequently ask me, “Should I go vegan?” And my answer is usually no.
Let me explain.
Making the choice to be vegan means you will only consume plant products. Absolutely no animal products, this includes products like cheese, milk and eggs. You will not even be able to consume the gelatin in a typical capsule, which is usually derived from beef protein.
When a patient asks about going vegan, I tell them to look at their body for the answer. Start by looking at your teeth. There are tearing teeth in the front (incisors) and grinders in the back (molars). Now go look at your dog’s teeth. Carnivores (meat eaters) have all incisors and no molars. Now look at an herbivore ( plant eater) like a horse or cow. Plant eaters have all molars and no incisors.
We actually count on the herbivores that we eat to break down the grass so we can ingest their flesh and benefit from the grass. We cannot digest grass and were never meant to. Humans have both incisors and molars which make them omnivores. We were meant to eat both plant and animal foods because our bodies need some of both.
“But I get plenty of protein!”
This is where the discussion usually gets heated if a vegan is a within earshot. They insist they get plenty of protein without meat. And that may be true if and only if they balance their proteins well.
But what happens if we take away soy? There goes vegan hot dogs, vegan soy cheese, veggie burgers, and anything tofu. Many vegans eliminate meat and over consume soy to compensate. If you say you don’t miss meat, then why go out of your way to try to simulate it with highly processed soy in forms like Tofurky and vegan bacon? Your body craves what it needs. This desire likely represents a craving for meat.
Soy is harmful to the body in many ways. It interferes with thyroid function and has estrogenic effects. It is NOT part of the usual human food chain. Having said that, there are other ways to consume a complete protein, but it takes effort and most vegans don’t do it all the time. You have to consume ALL of the amino acids your body needs at the same time or the body cannot use them. That’s why vegetarians in the know have classic pairings such as rice and beans. Quinoa by itself is a complete protein… as are chicken and fish.
The Problem With B12
One argument against going vegan or vegetarian is the lack of Vitamin B12, since it is only found naturally in animal foods (meat, dairy, eggs). Vegans quickly counter with, ”you can get B12 from Spirulina!” The thing is, spirulina is an algae, which is not in a human’s natural diet (i.e., food chain). In any case, prior to modern day it would only have been truly available at the shorelines.
If man was really meant to be vegan does that mean everyone inland would just be out of luck and have a B12 deficiency? No. Man was not meant to be vegan. Even if you look at the theory of the hunter gatherer, what do you think they were hunting? Carrots?
Having said that, vegans have devised ways to get B12. Nutritional yeast is one way. Supplements are another. Vegans MUST be on adequate supplementation to make up for their limited diets. To make it even more interesting, the high amount of folate in a vegan diet can actually mask a Vitamin B12 deficiency.
Another issue vegans and vegetarians can run into is overeating pasta and sweets. When the bulk of what you eat is fiber, your body cries out for calories. Carbohydrates give us quick energy, and protein and fats sustain it over the long haul. That is just the way the body works. Yet another example of why we are omnivores.
If your diet is too low in protein and fat—which are found together in meat—you will constantly be craving carbs to get enough calories. Again, a careful vegan will work to achieve this balance with plant oils and protein. But that takes a lot of time and energy to do, and not all vegans take the time to do it.
An Intellectual Choice
I am not here to tell people what to do. I’m here to educate. I’ve watched all the movies that show the deplorable conditions that occur in meat and chicken plants. I get it and agree our food system needs a major overhaul. But you could choose to purchase organic free range chicken instead. You could add wild caught fish to your diet and avoid mammal flesh altogether. You could certainly choose to be an ovo lacto vegetarian (consuming some animal products like dairy and eggs), which solves the B12 issue nicely and doesn’t kill anything. You can even raise your own chickens and milk the family cow, as was done in the past.
Many times people choose to be vegan to prove a point, not because their bodies need it. I wish they would just be upfront with that. They may end up feeling better by losing some symptoms associated with dairy intolerance alone, or simply because they are eating “cleaner,” but they attribute that all to being vegan. They may lose weight, but that may be solely related to drastically increasing the amount of fruits and veggies in their diet. On the other hand, I have dealt with very overweight vegans who feel lousy and became that way by loading up on soy and carbs and avoiding fruits and veggies.
To be vegan is a modern world intellectual choice, not our natural state of being. Extremes are never good for the body. It seeks moderation in all things. As for me, I understand the message my teeth are giving me. I’m an omnivore who chooses her protein sources and portions carefully. Grass fed, no antibiotics, free range, organic fed, and wild caught whenever possible. And I genuinely enjoy weekly vegetarian meals too… just not tofu.