Vegan Diet: Recipe for Disaster?

Don't Let Philosophy Become More Important Than What Works

By Dr. Ben Kim

Have you ever watched an animal being butchered? Unless you have experienced it many times, I bet you would feel quite bad watching it, let alone doing it yourself. Watching the butchering of an animal certainly helps people understand the passion that animal rights groups have in promoting a strict vegan (plant-based) diet.

From a moral and ethical perspective, I really appreciate the reasons for being a strict vegan. In fact, if I knew that I could be healthy on such a diet, I believe that I would return to being a strict vegan. The reality is that as far as recorded history is concerned, there has never been a population of people in our world that has lived on a strict vegan diet for an entire lifespan. Some populations have eaten mostly plant foods, but to my knowledge, there has not been a single population that has been on a 100 percent plant-based diet.

Today, there are many organizations that use their books and literature to promote a 100 percent strict vegan diet for optimal health for everyone.

Well, my experiences with my own body and in providing health care to many people over the years have led me to believe that a long term, strict vegan diet is likely to lead to the development of nutritional deficiencies and significant health problems for most people. Whenever I have shared this view with people who are just getting started with and excited about a strict vegan diet, I am usually asked to consider specific people or communities that claim to thrive on a strict vegan diet, some for decades.

I believe that people can survive for many years on a strict vegan diet, but almost always with one or more significant health problems. And I believe that some people who are truly thriving without any health problems, and claim to have been strict vegans for many years usually eat some animal foods, even if it is a small amount. The fact is, you and I can never know with certainty what another person eats on a moment-to-moment basis. The only dietary regimen that you can know with absolute accuracy is your own. Even your dog or cat probably eat things that you don’t know about.

Note: If you have been on a 100 percent vegan diet for more than five years and do not have any health challenges, please know that it is not my intention to say that I think you are being dishonest about your diet. This paragraph refers to people I know who claim to have been strict vegans for many years, but who I know include small amounts of animal foods in their diets. I would appreciate hearing from people who have been strict vegans for five or more years and who are without health challenges via our contact form.

Getting back to the organizations that promote vegan diets, I had the opportunity a short while ago to spend several days with a person who used to work for one of them. This person told me that their organization's recommendation to eat a strict vegan diet is mainly to support their mission of preventing cruel treatment of animals. My guess is that organizations like this are well aware that more people will be persuaded to follow a strict vegan diet if they believe it is for their health than if it’s for the welfare of animals.

I respect animal rights groups that come right out and say that they are promoting a strict vegan diet for the welfare of animals. If you are going to choose to be a strict vegan to spare animals pain, even if this means that your health might suffer, I can respect your decision.

But let’s not confuse compassion for animals with striving to do what’s best for your health.

I believe that people who choose to be strict vegans for the welfare of animals need to consider this question: is promoting a 100 percent vegan diet for the welfare of animals a correct moral path if it leads to significant health problems for humans? Personally, I feel bad about an animal being killed to be my food. But if there were no fishermen or farmers around, I believe that I would gratefully sacrifice an animal with my own hands since I believe that the health of my family requires eating small amounts of animal foods.

What about organizations that promote a 100 percent vegan diet strictly for health reasons? I think that these organizations can thrive because many people who first make the conversion from a highly processed and animal-based diet to a strict vegan diet typically experience incredible improvement with their health. For a few months or even a year or two, many people can thrive on a strict vegan diet, making it easy for them to believe that they have discovered a diet that will best support their health for the rest of their lives. But then, as most of them predictably become deficient in nutrients that are difficult to obtain from plant foods alone, they usually become confused about why their health is suffering.

This is where I believe these organizations fail and even contribute to worsening of health. Rather than consider each person as being unique and having unique requirements for health, in my view, they seem more interested in trying to fit everyone into their programs and philosophies. Health problems that people experience while on their programs are often attributed to detoxification or a period of adapation. Sometimes, the reason given for why you aren't doing well with their programs is that your spiritual or emotional health is suffering. Now, I completely agree that your spiritual and emotional health have significant impact on your overall health, but I really hope that you remain open to tinkering with all areas of your life - including what you eat - when looking to get healthier.

Do I believe that some of these groups know that a strict vegan diet is not healthy for everyone in the long term but continue to promote it to their followers? I cannot say for sure. But I will say that I believe that the decision to stick to recommending a strict vegan diet for the long term is often for business reasons or because of an interest in protecting animals than it is about honestly observing what’s working and what’s not.

Please know that I’m not asking you to blindly believe my opinion about a long term, strict vegan diet being unhealthy for most people in the long term. I’m encouraging you to be honest with yourself about how you feel. If you have been a strict vegan for more than a year and have noticed problems like feeling tired a lot, not sleeping well, weak hair and nails, sensitive and decaying teeth, inability to maintain a healthy weight, constant hunger, unexplained irritability, or depression, isn’t it worth your while to at least consider that your diet isn’t working for you? How long are you supposed to attribute these and other health problems to detoxification or a period of adjustment?

If you are a strict vegan eating mainly whole, unprocessed plant foods, and you are experiencing health challenges, you can probably experience dramatically better health just by adding some organic eggs to your diet. Organic eggs from free range birds and organic butter are two foods that will provide you with essential nutrients that are not abundant or present at all in plant foods and may not conflict with your compassion for animals.

In fact, my experiences have led me to believe that many people don’t need to get more than 10 – 25 percent of their total calories from clean, organic animal foods to be at their best. Just in the past year alone, I have worked with several people who were experiencing significant health challenges on a long term, strict vegan diet and were extremely grateful to see their health improve by adding small amounts of clean animal foods to their diets.

Here’s my final take on this topic: eating lots of plant-based foods is good for your health. Eating ONLY plant-based foods for the long term is not likely to be good for your health.

But don’t blindly trust me or anyone else on this important topic.

Trust your own body.

Dr. Ben KimImprove Your Health With Our Free E-mail Newsletter

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