We often see people getting inclined towards vegetarian and vegan diets instead of non-vegetarian or omnivorous diets. Some choose it to contribute their bit in saving the environment. Others are driven by ethical, religious and humanitarian reasons. I respect their thoughts and appreciate their social or spiritual concern.
However, there is a set of people who choose to go vegetarian under the impression that it’s a healthier choice. But, considering human evolutionary cycle that took billions of years, there’s a different picture I could see. This is something that I’d primarily like to discuss through this article. We’ve been long told that we’ll have a prolonged and healthy life if we avoid meat, eggs and animal fat. We’ve been mentally conditioned not to question this anymore.
It’s a fact that vegetarian diet that contains primarily vegetables and fruits are nutrient rich. However, this diet also includes legumes and cereals thatare high in anti-nutrients which reduces body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients. For eg, phyate found in beans reduces the absorption of minerals (like iron, zinc, magnesium and calcium) from a meal.
On the other hand, vegan diets completely lack several nutrients that are essential for body. Studies show that vegetarians and vegans are prone to deficiencies in Vitamin B12, Vitamin A & D, minerals (zinc, iron) and EPA & DHA.
It has been observed by studies that around 68% vegetarians and 83% vegans are vitamin B12 deficit compared to 5% of omnivores. It is thought to be the leading nutrient deficiencies in the world. Vitamin B12 helps in DNA synthesis, enzyme production, maintaining hormonal balance and keep body’s nerve and red blood cells healthy. Few problems that can occur due to deficiency of vitamin B12 are:
1. Weakness and joint pains.
3. Memory loss
4. Lack of concentration and mood changes
5. Poor appetite and poor dental health (bleeding gums, mouth sores) Much alarming consequence is a form of anemia called pernicious anemia that can cause memory loss or even long-term dementia.
EPA and DHA
Vegetarian diets do contain omega-3 (linoleic acid) and omega-6 (alpha-lenolenic) fatty acids which are essential fatty acids and must be consumed in diet due to body’s inability to synthesize them on its own. Out of 11 types of omega-3 FA three most important ones are – ALA, EPA and DHA. These fatty acids are important in multiple ways as they play a therapeutic role in diseases like – Cancer, Asthma, Cardiovascular diseases and ADHD.
ALA is mostly found in plant diet while EPA and DHA are mostly found in animal foods like fish. While its possible that some plant derived ALA can be converted into EPA and DHA, this conversion is very poor in humans. Conversion of ALA to EPA and DHA depends on the presence of nutrients like zinc, iron, pyridoxine due to which vegetarians have around 30% less EPA & DHA than omnivores while vegans have nearly 55% lesser of them.
Vitamins A and D
While Vitamin A helps in building healthy immune system, fertility, eyesight and skin, vitamin D regulates immune function, calcium metabolism and protects against some forms of cancer. Now, the problem is vegetarian and vegan diet nearly totally lack these two fat-soluble vitamins. However, these vitamins are found almost exclusively in animal foods like sea food, meats, eggs and dairy products.
As a consequence vegetarians are nearly 58% and vegans almost 74% deficit in vitamin D as compared to omnivores.
Plants contain beta-carotene. Although, Beta carotene gets converted into vitamin A, this conversion is again poor in humans. Just for information, one serving of liver per week gives as much amount of vitamin A as one gets from 2 cups of carrots and one cup of sweet potato everyday. It is nearly impossible to meet the vitamin A requirement from vegetarian diets without taking supplements.
So who lives longer – Vegetarians or Omnivores ?
Majority of the people would say ‘Vegetarian’. However, I love the analogy and conclusion given by Chris Kresser. According to him this is just a product of “healthy user bias”. Healthy user bias is a reasoning that anyone who is indulged in one activity
that is perceived healthy is likely to engage in other healthy activities as
This bias blended with our usual conditioning leads us to believe that vegetarians are more likely to exercise, eat fruits and follow healthy daily routine.
So according to this, some one who eats more burgers and bacons that has large amount of sugar, processed flours and lot less soluble fibres is perceived to exercise less and drink & smoke more.
If that is the case then how can we conclude that it’s the meat that is increasing the risk of heart disease instead of other things. Thankfully, there’s a research that puts a new perspective in front of us. Instead of usual comparison between an ‘omnivore’ and a ’vegetarian’, this study compared the mortality of ‘people who shopped at health food stores’ to the ‘general population’. Majorly, people who shop at health food stores are more likely to be health conscious irrespective of whether they eat meat or plants.
Researchers found that people in health food stores lived longer than the people in the general population. However, there was no difference in mortality or rate of heart disease between vegetarians or omnivores. In other words, omnivores who are health conscious live just as long as vegetarians that are health conscious.
In the case of vegetarian diet, its possible to meet the nutrient need of body provided there is a perfect blend of pasture raise, full fat dairy and eggs. However, there would still be a deficiency of EPA & DHA. One can overcome this deficiency with the intake of fish oil, cod liver oil or micro algae supplements. As far as vegan diet is concerned, its not possible to meet the nutrient need without taking quite a few supplements. You need to consume supplements that are rich in nutrients mentioned above.
However, conversion of certain nutrient precursors (like ALA, beta-carotene) into active nutrient forms (like DHA, EPA, Retinol) vary from person to person due to genetic difference. This is the reason why some people seem to do well with vegetarian diet while others develop nutrient deficiency very soon.
Hence, it is difficult to vouch for a diet that has low levels of several nutrients critical to human function. While, its possible to meet these deficiencies through supplements but there is just no comparison with intake of nutrient-rich whole foods. This gets even more essential for kids who are in developing phase and are vulnerable to such nutritional deficiencies.
I hope this article gives you enough insight to make a wise decision about your diet.