Eating animal foods can be healthy, sustainable and ethical – Part 1 Nutrition
It seems that if you want to be a "good", "enlightened" and "politically correct" consumer these days, you have to "go vegan" or at least radically reduce your intake of animal foods. While I can understand the ethical, environmental and nutritional motivations fueling this trend, the whole notion that eating less animal foods is the most ethical, sustainable and healthiest way to eat is dangerously one-sided and misleading. Things are not as black or white as they might seem. Just because you don't eat meat, does by no means mean that you are not involved in the killing of animals and even people, as we shall see further down in this article. Making people feel guilty about eating (ethically farmed!) animal foods and leading them towards veganism is not only potentially harmful to their health, but also to their spiritual development - and ironically also to the health of this planet - and even of the animals. In this article I explain how this is possible and explore under what circumstances eating meat can be healthy, sustainable and even ethical.
I used to be a fierce promoter of plant-based eating myself for many years. At the canteen of the company I worked for from 2008-2012, I would always omit the meat or fish and only go for the veggies plus starch. Apart from being friendly on my budget, this was what I considered a balanced meal back then. I only ate about 1 egg per month and about 1 portion of fish every 2 months (at work events). I would tell everybody how bad eating meat was for their health and the environment. I would also bring my own food. I still remember how my ex-colleagues asked me what the heck I was eating. It was quinoa. Or soy protein. Or millet. Today everybody knows these foods of course and they are even served at canteens. In 2010 that wasn't the case yet. If veganism had been as popular then as it is today, I would have probably been tempted by it. My point is that I do get where you are at, because I have been there, too. However, somewhere along the way I changed my perspective. And I want to share with you the insights that led to this change.
My aim with this article is NOT to start an ideological fight, to tell anybody what to do or to convince. I am not "fighting" the vegan trend. I believe that there’s a Higher Wisdom to everything that happens and in fact, veganism makes perfect sense from a Universal perspective. The law of polarity teaches us that when we exaggerate one pole, we will eventually drop into its opposite extreme, before bouncing back into “balance”. The push towards veganism and plant based eating is the logical answer to a society that has industrially abused animals for many decades. If I tried to stop that wave (assuming I could) it would not only be a complete waste of my energy, but it would not even serve us on a collective level – even if it would prevent individual pain. I still want to "rescue" people from pain, especially from that kind of pain that I have gone through myself. This is why I choose to expose, share and discuss with you in a respectful way the arguments that my personal and professional experience and knowledge have allowed me to acquire over the years and that made me change my mind about eating animal foods. I want you to know both sides of the story, so that you can make an informed decision for yourself, too.
I know this topic can be very emotional and lead to heated discussions. I am fine with that, as long as everybody agrees to have an open mind and to show respect for each other, even though we might have a different point of view. If you cannot agree to that, it would probably be better if you stopped reading right away.
Originally, this was one long post. However, for reading convenience I decided to split it into three parts:
- Nutritional point of view
- Sustainability (environmental) point of view
- Ethical point of view
Part 1: Nutritional Point of View
Many people report feeling great after a few weeks of going on a "vegan challenge". That doesn't surprise me at all, given that most vegan challenges don't only tell you to cut out meat, fish, chicken and eggs, but also processed foods, sugar and highly reactive foods such as wheat and pasteurized dairy, while loading you up on veggies. However, in the long run, your health and fertility would benefit from some animal protein and fat (from small-scale, pasture raised animals) with those veggies, because even if plants contain protein or omega 3 or iron, that doesn't mean your body can use them (more on that below). Vegans usually argue that instead of eating the cow who ate the plants, we should eat the plants directly. However, we are more than obviously not a cow with four stomachs and we don't spend all day chewing and re-chewing either.
In addition to that, our bodies digestive capacities are often weakend by the pressure of our complex, modern lifestyles full of stress. Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome is a silent epidemic on the rise. Most people are not even aware that they suffer from it in its early stages. Still it affects your metabolism in a big way, especially your liver. A weak liver however won't be able to convert beta carotene into real vitamin A, or ALA (the plant-based omega 3) into EPA and DHA (the usable forms of omega 3 found in animal foods). The deficiencies resulting from a diet low in animal foods further deplete the cell's nutrient reserves, aggravating the condition. This can be a slow process, advancing over many years or even decades, but at some point even a minor stressor can make your system crash. So you can see, that if I argue against veganism or the reduction of animal foods in the diet it is not because I hate, but because I love and care.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not “anti-veganism” per se. I am a big promoter of biochemical individuality and there are certainly people for whom this kind of diet really works – just like there seem to be people who can live on air and sunshine alone. But in both cases, this is not the majority of people. There’s a reason why we humans have the anatomy of an omnivore - not a carnivore, but not a herbivore either. Yes, we can survive on almost any diet in the short run, including the so-called “Standard American Diet”, full of sugar, refined carbs, soft drinks and cheap meats, or a diet consisting only of rice in very poor countries, but surviving does not equal thriving nor keeping our ability to reproduce strong. At least not in the long run, generation after generation. In fact, there are no indigenous tribes that are 100% vegan, first of all probably because they are still so much in tune with nature, that the mere thought wouldn’t even occur to them, but if it had, they simply wouldn’t have made it.
We have to be very clear about the fact that veganism the way it is practiced today is a modern experiment that is only possible because of the makeup and convenience of our food system and because of the availability of supplements.
So BECAUSE I am all about respecting a person’s individual biochemistry and the fact that there is no one-size-fits-all, I get angry when a diet that will jeopardize the longterm health and fertility of most people (and as we shall see in part 2 also of the planet) gets promoted as “the” way to go. I have been in their shoes, so I know it's not done with bad intentions in mind, but that doesn't change the outcome.
But let's take a closer look. There are a few key nutrients that are either just not available at all in plant foods, not in the right quantities or in forms that are very hard for our body to assimilate.
Absolutely essential for life, proteins are the building blocks of all our body tissues, muscles, hormones, anti-bodies, enzymes… We can derive protein from plant or animal foods, however, plant foods do not contain complete protein, which is why you have to wisely combine grains or nuts/seeds with legumes, since their amino acid profiles complement each other. But even though you might be able to cover all essential amino acids, they still need to be present in the right amounts and ratios – like a puzzle, where you need x parts of piece 1 and y parts of piece 2 and so on. If only one piece is missing, you can’t do the puzzle. All plant foods are low in "puzzle pieces" tryptophan, cystine & threonine.
Another aspect is the assimilation in the body. In order to well assimilate proteins, you need certain “activator” vitamins, especially vitamin A, D and K2, which are ONLY found in saturated animal fats in their original form (read more here and here). This is why in nature proteins usually come with their fat (e.g. whole milk, eggs, meat, fish, chicken) and why we should not trim that fat off (low fat- high protein diets are very heavy on the kidneys since that protein cannot be assimilated well but has to be excreted). Yet another aspect is all the unhealthy “by-products” of plant proteins: Anti-nutrients (i.e. phytic acid) and enzyme inhibitors in legumes (esp. soy), unfermented whole grains, nuts and seeds. Gluten in seitan…
So while in developed countries people are usually not clinically protein deficient, many do actually suffer from SUB-clinical essential amino acid deficiency.
Saturated fats and cholesterol
Demonized for years, saturated fats and cholesterol are essential for our metabolism, health and fertility. They constitute more than 50% of our cell membranes and our brain, surround (protect) our heart and liver and are the main ingredients in mother’s milk (essential for the ideal development and growth of the baby - also called the "ideal" food). They balance blood sugar and strengthen important hormone-producing and metabolism-regulating glands (e.g. adrenals, thyroid…), are important for gut health and have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties (if they come from free-range animals that have not been fed pro-inflammatory grains and legumes). They are highly stable and - unlike unsaturated vegetable oils - don’t easily go rancid (= oxidize, form carcinogen free radicals) when exposed to heat, oxygen and light. Saturated fats AND cholesterol together occur only in animal foods. Coconut and palm fruit oil are two popular plant sources for saturated fats and have wonderful health properties. BUT both are “exotic” (= have to be imported from far away) and come without the cholesterol and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and K2 (all of those are crucial for health and fertility). Palm oil is of course also questionable from a sustainability point of view. Truly local saturated fats of our region are animal fats (butter, lard, tallow).
Both – omega 3 and omega 6 – are essential fatty acids, meaning that we need to ingest them with food. BUT, we need to ingest them in the right quantities, in order to maintain balance between omega 6’s pro-inflammatory characteristics and omega 3's anti-inflammatory characteristics. Experts recommend a ratio of 1:2 to 1:5 (1 part of omega 3 for 2- max. 5 parts of omega 6). Nowadays we eat approximately 1:20, which contributes to the prevalence of inflammatory diseases. Now, there are two strategies to achieve this optimal ratio: Increase omega 3 intake (usually recommended) OR – and this is actually even more important – reduce omega 6 intake (often “forgotten”, since this would mean abandoning our focus on plant foods). Reducing omega 6 AND somewhat increasing omega 3 is preferred, since the OVERALL consumption of poly-unsaturated fats (the omegas belong to this family) should not exceed 4% of calories (= 80kcal = 10g). This is because those fats – as beneficial as they are in small quantities – are highly sensitive and quickly go rancid, causing oxidative damage (= aging, wrinkles, cancer...) in the body.
Plant-based diets are very high in omega 6 (= highly inflammatory), since grains (esp. corn), legumes (esp. soy), nuts, seeds and vegetable oils (esp. canola, rapeseed, peanut, soybean and sunflower) are rich in omega 6. Certain plant foods also contain omega 3, the most popular being flax, hemp, chia and walnuts, BUT they all also contain omega 6 and the omega 3 they do contain is available only in its least bioavailable form: ALA. The body needs to convert ALA into more usable forms of omega 3, namely: EPA and DHA. It is quite inefficient in doing so, especially given the already mentioned often (subclinically) impaired liver functions, and there is a lot of “loss” along the way. Less than 5% of ALA gets converted to EPA, and less than 0.5% of ALA is converted to DHA, meaning that in order to arrive at the needed quantities of EPA and DHA, a person would have to ingest tremendous amounts of the foods mentioned above, which would result in a far too high overall intake of poly-unsaturated fats. The best source of easily available omega 3 are animal foods, especially WILD fatty fish (I emphasize “wild” since farmed fish like salmon – even if it’s organic – is one of the most polluting and unhealthy foods out there). Read more here. Recently there is more talk about getting DHA from microalgae as well. However, simply eating the algae (like wakame or dulse) won't be sufficient either, since the total fat content of algae is very low, so again, you'd need to eat enormous quantities, which would raise other concerns, such as heavy metal contamination. Supplements with DHA from algae could be a valid option, however, I have not yet found one product that does not contain additives of one kind or another.
Vitamins and minerals
Many vitamins and minerals are not present in sufficient amounts in plant foods or cannot be correctly assimilated, especially by weakened and fatigued bodies.
The most popular example is vitamin B12 – essential for the body, but only available in animal foods. (There is a myth that it is possible to get B12 from seaweed, fermented soy, spirulina and yeast. BUT: Those contain B12 analogs called cobamides that block the intake of, and increase the need for, true B12. Read more here)!
Another important nutrient that is deficient in plant-based diets is “real” vitamin A. Just like with the omegas our body is very inefficient in converting beta-carotene into vitamin A, especially if your thyroid and/or liver function are diminished, which is often the case in a high carb-low fat diet or chronic fatigue. Vitamin A is crucial for eye sight and skin, but also involved in the immune system and reproduction, among other things.
The conversion from sunlight is not sufficient, especially since we all spend too much time inside (and also need cholesterol in order to do the conversion). Vitamin D is found in fatty fish - not too long ago children had to supplement with cod liver oil! It is involved in many metabolic processes, among others hormone production in the thyroid and the adrenals.
Vitamin K2 is a very important yet rather unknown nutrient. It is needed for the proper assimilation of nutrients, such as calcium, iron and phosphorus. While iron and calcium are present in certain plant foods, the body won't correctly assimilate them without vitamin K2 (among others). Since vitamin K2, just like the other fat-soluble "activator" vitamins, is only found in saturated animal foods, you can eat all the spinach in the world and still not get sufficient calcium and iron. Highly grain and sugar-based diets also mess up the body’s sensitive balance of calcium-magnesium and phosphorus, leading to the demineralization of bones and teeth (the real reason for osteoporosis and tooth decay). Grains, legumes (esp. soy) and nuts/seeds are also very high in "anti-nutrients", which block the absorption of nutrients in the gut and/or de-activate digestive enzymes, both potentially leading to nutrient deficiency. Soy is especially rich in antinutrients and omega 6 and on top interferes with the body’s hormone system (especially bad for boys) and negatively affects the thyroid, completely disqualifying it as a health food.
Mainly plant-based diets are usually very high in carbohydrates. This is very bad news for your blood sugar and thus your hormones. Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, potatoes, legumes… even the protein sources (soy, legumes, grains, nuts) contain carbs. And this is not even taking into account all those processed foods containing simple sugars. In my opinion this is why so many people choose this diet, because it allows them to live out their sweet tooth with a good consciousness. They do not realize how much they are actually hurting themselves with such an overload on carbs. Even if you say no to all that processed foods (organic or not), still chances are you are relying 60-70% or more on carbs, if your diet is mainly plant-based. In my practice I have seen many vegans / vegetarians with blood sugar issues of one kind or another. This is very bad news for your overall health, incl. fertility! There is a huge correlation between high blood sugar, insulin resistance and PCOS for example. Even if you try to balance the carbs with healthy fats, depending on your Metabolic Type, it might still be a problem for your individual metabolism.
Plant-based or Clean Eating and Eating Disorders
As a former anorexic (and later orthorexic) and as a Certified Eating Psychology Coach, I do see a strong correlation between the rising number of vegans and disordered eating (please note that I said correlation, not causation). As a society, we strive for perfection and impeccability. We tend to live in our heads and are often disconnected from our bodies. We want to reach for the sky and spiritual enlightenment, but forget about getting grounded and rooted in the soil first. We love control and are afraid of the primal instincts represented by meat and animal foods. We want to be "clean" and free of sin. Veganism for me is quite symbolic for these tendencies. I am not saying that everybody who tries to eat "clean" has an Eating Disorder - far from it. But the "clean eating" movement definitely fuels already existing predispositions towards disordered eating by conveying a notion of guilt and ethical pressure. If self esteem is already weak, feeling "less than" is equivalent to not belonging and thus not being loved. It also allows to hide already existing disordered eating habits (and also other traits typical of a controlling person, such as exaggerated thrift) behind the socially well-accepted motivations of health, sustainability or ethics.
Final Words on Nutrition
Of course we are all individual, and depending on your constitution you might be able to survive on a mainly or completely plant-based diet for a long time, but with every generation the risk of degeneration and infertility increases - and in my opinion - people would eventually die out (the same is true for people living on a modern low quality omnivorous diet of course). Already now 1 in 8 couples has difficulties to conceive and/or to maintain a pregnancy... That’s probably why no native “hunter and gatherer” population EVER evolved on a 100% vegan diet. Quite to the contrary, most relied heavily on wild animal foods (depending on climate and food availabilities). The work of Weston Price and his studies on indigenous populations (book reference: Nutrition and Physical Degeneration) is really eye-opening on this matter.
The best and most important advice I can give you if you are thinking of going vegan or reducing your animal food intake, is to pay close attention to your body, to see how it feels on it.
Not what you'd want it to feel, but how it really feels! What about your energy, bodyweight, skin, digestion, sleep, menstruation, body temperature, mood, hunger/cravings? These are your best indicators - in the short AND in the long run. Because what might feel good in the short run, might no longer feel good in the long run. We are all individual and have our genetic Metabolic Types, yet our needs also adapt to changes in season, age, stress and functional changes, thus what worked for us yesterday isn't necessarily going to work for us tomorrow! Should you indeed find, that it doesn't work for you, please read on to understand why you absolutely do not have to feel guilty!