Saving the planet vs saving yourself?

I know I’m probably more focussed on food than most, but from my perspective there has never been more conflict around what we should and shouldn’t be eating: fats vs carbs, meat vs veg, gluten vs dairy, fruit juice vs coca cola, organic vs not. It’s not easy to keep up, even as a professional.

So today I’m sharing an excellent and well balanced analysis by Dr Mark Hyman that examines the vegan vs paleo stances, touches on the other issues, and lands in a safe place. You may want to read it. Then, please, read on.

As a nutritionist, I put human health higher on my priority list than saving the planet; though from my understanding of the complex and beautiful interrelationships of life on the planet, I instinctively know that both should be possible. But I have no confidence that veganism provides the answer to that conundrum, and I know for sure that it doesn’t suit everyone. I have had two vegan cancer clients whose problems were at least in part attributable to a lack of vitamin B12, and the inability to ‘methylate’ properly – a vital biochemical process.

Going vegan is easy to say and difficult to do. People who eat absolutely no animal products are sacrificing a vital nutritional benefit: when animals eat vegetables they turn them into nutrients and pass them on to us in a much more accessible state. Without their help vegan bodies have to work a lot harder with less resources. To compensate in part for that, veganism needs to be a lifestyle choice too: trying to live life to the limit on a vegan diet is bound to cause problems for a majority of people.

With the vegan diet currently on an upswing, there are plenty of glowing physical specimens who are advocating this healthy way of life. How can that be?

It’s worth remembering that when you first ‘go vegan’ you’re not operating as a vegan. Several key nutrients provided by a diet containing animal foods are stored by the body; you may have as much as three years’ supply of Vitamins A, D and B12 when you start the diet. Many people find their health is great at first but starts to slide as time goes on, and fail to link it to changes they made long ago. (There’s an excellent book, ‘Death by Food Pyramid, that was written only because the author decided to change to a raw vegan diet and nearly lost her mind – along with her hair and teeth.)

Vegan diets can’t replace these nutrients, especially not in the UK climate. Beta carotenes from brightly coloured fruit and vegetables ( if you eat them in very high quantities, and with enough fat, protein and zinc) may be converted to Vitamin A, but research shows that the rate varies hugely with individuals. Vitamin D and B12 are simply not available in a normal vegan diet. To get enough Vitamin D we must rely on sunshine (not a good idea in the UK where the angle of the sun means that we only make Vitamin D in our skin in the summer months – if we spend time outside during the day with enough skin uncovered); and B12 is only available from sea vegetables, and in a form that is difficult, if not impossible, to absorb.

The idea that meat is somehow toxic is nonsense. Proteins are broken down safely and completely in the body to essential amino acids, giving up vital vitamins and minerals in the process: there is no toxic residue. The cancer risk occurs when we overeat protein, as many of us do: there’s a chance that undigested meat fibres are fermented in the gut by unfriendly bacteria, and carcinogenic compounds are formed. But since when did the dangers of overeating provide a sound basis for an argument for not eating something at all? There is no historical evidence to support the idea that meat is bad for you and in the 11 years I’ve been in practice I’ve never come across a client with a meat intolerance.

Ironically, since the switch to veganism often comes from an animal welfare argument as well as an ecological perspective, it’s also worth pointing out that if everyone who cares about animals abandoned meat consumption, then we leave these poor animals to the mercy of those who don’t appear to care. Demand for responsibly farmed meat would fall through the floor.

There are good points on both sides of the vegan/carnivore debate. As ever, I believe the answer lies in a compromise. If I could wave a magic wand I’d tackle global food waste before individual protein consumption; I’d reduce the carbs that lead to irrepressible appetite – and therefore overeating of everything – before reducing proteins which aid satiety, I’d promote higher fat consumption over both proteins and carbs, vegetarianism over veganism (but eating a little meat over both), and provide nutrition and cooking education at school from reception age so that people learned to eat both healthily and responsibly. All of these measures have the potential to offer a human win-win, instead of the own goal that veganism would mean for human health.

This is a hot topic because I understand that there are very strong beliefs at the basis of vegan principles, and I don’t mean to undermine them. I understand that protecting the future of the planet is urgent and important. But, personally, my daily life is more about saving lives now. Surely we can do both?

Tell me what you think. I’d love to know.

And if you missed that link earlier, here it is again: