Common Misconceptions About a Vegan Diet
Written by Famke
Welcome (back)! This article is the second of two addressing some of the most common misconceptions fellow vegans and I have encountered, why there are actually misconceptions, followed by some responses that you might be able to use in your next discussion. Don’t worry, if you read this and you are a meat eater, this is not a personal attack, but it might still answer some questions you have about veganism.
The article preceding this one was focused on misconceptions about the difference one vegan can make, the effects of changing the demands of non-vegan products and vegan products, and finally on the expenses of a vegan lifestyle. This time around we’ll focus more on the vegan diet and how this affects us human beings.
A common misconception I often encounter is the idea that:
"Vegans are malnourished."
Continued by claiming that vegans do not get the right vitamins or enough proteins.
Let us start with the idea that we need animal products to survive, that they are necessary in our diets or that veganism would not be nutritious or safe enough to live a healthy life. The American Dietetic Association as well as the British Dietetic Association, actually stated that “a vegan diet is healthy, safe and nutritionally adequate for all stages of life, including pregnancy, lactation and infancy”.
Continuing with the case of protein. In the early 2000's a survey was conducted analysing the protein intake of people in the US. The survey included vegan, vegetarians, flexitarians, pescetarians and non-vegans. The recommended daily intake of protein (for adults) varies between 42 grams and 60 grams a day depending on size and weight, which the people in every category passed easily. On average, vegans and vegetarians get 70% more protein every day than they would need to be healthy. Moreover, 3% of non-vegan or omnivore adults have a deficiency in protein intake based on their unbalanced diet.
Another reason why some people might worry about the intake of protein, is because they work out a lot or wish to increase their muscle growth for which protein is an important factor. This reason is sometimes used when people try to defend why they eat meat or why they won’t eat less meat. However, the idea that you have to get your protein from solely meat, or meat at all, is a very uninformed idea. While it might be easier to get the right amount of protein from eating meat, when carefully managing your vegan diet and varying your meals, the recommended daily amount of protein can be easily achieved, even for athletes. The Netflix documentary ‘The Game Changers’ also nicely portrays how a vegan diet is nutritious enough for professional athletes and (ex-)bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Continuing on deficiencies, the American Dietetic Association researched in 2007 common nutrient deficiencies with vegans and omnivores. As it turned out, on average vegans have a deficiency of calcium, iodine, and vitamin B12. The average omnivore however, judged with the same criteria as a vegan, has a deficiency of not just these three, but another 5 nutrients as well: fiber, folate, magnesium, vitamin E and vitamin C. Moreover, the nutrients provided by vegan products are often claimed to be superior. The calcium in vegetables like kale and broccoli are often absorbed better by our bodies than the calcium we find in milk. This research already shows that every average adult should take supplements and pay close attention to their diet in order to get the right daily recommended intake of nutrients.
Lastly, I want to address the thing where most of the fuss is about - B12. Vitamin B12 is important for anyone who wants to be healthy, but is often claimed to be more important for vegetarians and vegans, because their diets do not contain enough of the vitamin. This is where it gets interesting, because it is not just vegans that do not get enough vitamin B12, the average non-vegan adult often also has a deficiency. Vitamin B12 cannot be found in every diet, at least not in sufficient amounts. Meaning that a B12 sufficiency can occur in any diet, especially since B12 cannot be found naturally in any greens nor in meat. B12 is actually a bacteria found in the soil we use to grow our food and in natural water sources. Since we filter our water, finding B12 in our water is quite rare. Moreover, B12 is only found in very small amounts in greens, especially since we do not “naturally” grow our food anymore. In “regular” or omnivorous diets then, B12 is often suspected to come from the meat within that diet, however, this is not true. While meat does contain B12, this is not produced by the animals but instead comes from the food and extra supplements they are given. Moreover, the amount of B12 found in omnivorous diets and meat itself, is on average not sufficient compared to the daily recommended intake. We could then argue that not just vegans or vegetarians should take supplements, but omnivores should as well. Something else that often comes up regarding supplements, is that taking these is seen as unnatural and supposedly proving that an omnivorous diet is healthier because that does not require supplements. However, what is unnatural about supplements is not that we people consume them, but that we give supplements to our animals. So, while eating meat might seem like a “natural” way to get sufficient amounts of B12 in your system, it is actually very unnatural. Instead, we should just take the supplements ourselves, whether we do or do not eat meat.
Overall, this misconception comes down to the idea that a non-meat diet is unhealthy or less healthy compared to diets that include meat. The opposite is actually true. Besides the deficiencies I have addressed above, there are some general health risks and illnesses which are seen way less with people on a non-meat diet. For example some health risks associated with eating red meat such as clogged arteries, high blood pressure, increased risk at heart attacks and even a reducing brain function at an earlier age than vegans. Furthermore, various research showed “that a longer duration (≥ 2 decades) of adherence to this diet contributed to a significant decrease in mortality risk and a significant [1.4 - 5.6 years] increase in life expectancy. A lot of research has shown the positive effects of a non-meat/vegan diet on the health and life expectancy of people who follow this lifestyle/diet for a longer time. Nonetheless, these researches show enough proof that a life with eating meat is actually very sustainable, and give a nice reply to anyone doubting this.
The last misconception, one I am sure many of us have heard:
“Humans are meant to eat meat.”
Sometimes also phrased as “It is what we know.” or “We have always done so.”
We can argue that doing things the same way we have always done might be a safe or comfortable option, but we would never have formed the society we are living in today if we still were doing the same things we always did. Imagine if in the 18th century people would have ignored James Watt and his invention of the steam engine, a beginning factor to the industrial revolution and technology that we cannot live without today, simply because they did not know it or they figured ‘Why have a steam engine, if how we live now is how we have always done?’ The idea that simply because something works it cannot or should not be changed, is one that does not succeed in our society. Again, looking at technology: We would not have the most developed and modern phones if we would think this way, we would not have life-saving medical technology and assisting robots, if we would think this way, so why do we still think this way regarding food, diets or our lifestyles? Changing your diet might impact your life(style), but so might changing from Apple to Samsung or changing from grey energy sources to green ones. Change is not something bad, it is what keeps our society going.
Furthermore, when discussing the argument that “Humans are meant to eat meat.”, presumably this comes from the idea of human evolution and biological characteristics of our bodies. l have heard some meat eaters argue that we are supposed to eat meat because of our teeth. Humans have canine teeth, seen in the wild mostly only with carnivore animals. Yet, humans only have four canine teeth and the sharpness of these teeth has decreased over time since we do not have to use them as weapons anymore. Moreover, our teeth are a lot flatter than those of carnivore animals and are often used more for grinding food, than for tearing apart. In general, carnivore animals do not or barely chew their food and instead, partially because of their sharp teeth, are able to swallow large pieces of meat whole. Even the way we move our jaws, from side to side, is more commonly seen with herbivore animals. When continuing down in our bodies, we see that human intestines are generally twice or thrice as large as those of carnivore animals, resembling more the intestines of herbivore animals that are made this way to absorb as much nutrients from the plants as possible.
But is it even necessary to explain how human bodies work in comparison to animals or to know whether we are “meant to be” carnivore, omnivore or herbivore? After all “our bodies are [not] fine tuned by engineers [but] rather cobbled together by natural selection.” When looking at human evolution and thinking about where we have come from or who our ancestors are, most of us will probably imagine a somewhat angry looking caveman, with muscles for days, animal fur covering only some parts of his body, and a club in his hand. Moreover, in our society the idea that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, is often still adapted to the idea that they mostly ate meat and only from time to time ate an occasional berry. Yet, our ancestry goes further than other human beings, after all we share quite some similarities with apes. As it happens apes, as well as any type of monkey, are leaf-eaters. While there are some exceptions, most of them have biological characteristics suiting a herbivore diet. If they would eat meat, this would be meat of insects, easily processed and not upsetting for the stomach.
I realise that comparing our human bodies to those of apes and monkeys is hardly a decent argument, nor is comparing it to our ancestors. However, what I try to exemplify, as do these researches, is the fact that we evolve. While at some points in time our bodies are more likely to be tuned to solely eating leaves, at other points in time our ancestors have adapted to eating both leaf and meat. Research has shown that our bodies evolve based on what is available in a certain time and place. While for some of our ancestors milk was available, for others it might not have, resulting in lactose intolerance with some of their descendants. So our bodies actually adapt to what was available or what is available. However, for most of us, we no longer live in a world where we can only eat or drink what is given to us by the land. New technologies, fermented and processed foods have altered our diets in ways previously unthinkable, making it thinkable that our bodies will alter similarly.
So yes, while at some points in time we might have been evolved to eat more meat than at other times, we are no longer nor have ever been evolved to solely eat meat or eat meat at all. When looking at our history and seeing the change our bodies have made, who is to say that we cannot or have not evolved to no longer eat meat? Key to answering this misconception or argument, is change. Stepping out of our comfort zone, daring to change how we live and instead of being anxious for change, being excited for it. Not trying something new does not only influence the lives of human beings and animals around you, it limits your own life. You consciously limit yourself and what you could become. After all, change is what we will always need as a society and individuals to keep evolving, biologically, mentally and cognitively.
Hopefully, these responses to common misconceptions have given some of you useful information for your next discussion or some food for thought for those not (yet) vegan/vegetarian. If you are interested in reading more, check out part 1 of this blogpost or other blogposts on our website!