How healthy is a vegan diet?

Hap­py World Ani­mal Day! This morn­ing we were dri­ving on the Dutch motor­way, with all of our belong­ings in a trail­er. A bright orange sun was ris­ing over the mead­ows, where the fog still cov­ered the grass. On the radio was a lot of news about ani­mals. The news read­er report­ed that 65% of Dutch dairy cows spend part of the year out­side. That means that 35% of these cows are locked up for life.

At anoth­er sta­tion, a lady told how she was going to spend thou­sands of euros on the health of her labrador pup­py, because all things con­sid­ered he is not so dif­fer­ent from a human. “You are also veg­an, I under­stand?” said the pre­sen­ter. No, she wasn’t.

A grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple are con­cerned about the fact that a lot of ani­mals only exist to pro­vide us with meat and dairy. Some are also wor­ried about the huge impact of the live­stock sys­tem on the envi­ron­ment, and oth­ers are attract­ed by the healthy asso­ci­a­tions they have with a veg­an diet. Alto­geth­er there are more and more peo­ple who are veg­e­tar­i­an or veg­an — see for exam­ple the recent study by the Veg­an Soci­ety in the UK.


Veg­an bbq, jummie!

At the same time, diets that are relat­ed to veg­an­ism are receiv­ing a lot of crit­i­cism. Last week I read that the Dutch nutri­tion author­i­ty warns against a diet called ‘The Green Hap­pi­ness’, because it would con­tain too lit­tle pro­tein and cal­ci­um. A while ago, there was news about a bill in Italy that could put par­ents in jail if they raise their kids vegan.

In my view, chil­dren who grow up on veg­an food don’t have a high­er risk of mal­nu­tri­tion than oth­er chil­dren. There’s just as much rea­son to say that they might be health­i­er. In most cas­es, they have very lit­tle chance of obe­si­ty and car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease because the aver­age veg­an or veg­e­tar­i­an diet con­tains less sat­u­rat­ed fat and cho­les­terol than a meat-based diet. Obe­si­ty is a form of mal­nu­tri­tion that is just as dan­ger­ous as stunt­ing and under­weight. Accord­ing to the Glob­al Nutri­tion Report pub­lished in June this year, the num­ber of chil­dren under 5 who are over­weight is approach­ing the num­ber who are underweight.


Of course any diet has to be bal­anced, whether with or with­out dairy. The prob­lems of mal­nour­ish­ment in Italy can be a symp­tom of a rapid­ly grow­ing move­ment that is not yet sup­port­ed by main­stream health care. After all, we have been con­sum­ing meat and dairy since time immemo­r­i­al, and our think­ing is shaped by the par­a­digm that these prod­ucts are essen­tial. In that envi­ron­ment, par­ents who make oth­er choic­es can­not get advice about the diet of their child from their GP.

There is suf­fi­cient sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence for the ade­qua­cy of a veg­an diet, but new knowl­edge always needs time to seep into the text­books of uni­ver­si­ties. In 2003, Joan Sabaté wrote an arti­cle about the par­a­digm shift that accord­ing to him has tak­en place when it comes to the assess­ment of veg­e­tar­i­an and veg­an diets. The assump­tions about which nutri­ents are essen­tial are changing:

Plant foods, such as fruits, veg­eta­bles, legumes, nuts, and whole grains, pro­vide active sub­stances on which human metab­o­lism is depen­dent. How­ev­er, only a few of those to date have been labeled as “essen­tial nutrients.”

I think that this par­a­digm shift still has to hap­pen in many places in soci­ety. For exam­ple, we talk about “meat sub­sti­tutes” but I think it is more log­i­cal to take a neu­tral start­ing posi­tion. Whether or not you eat meat and dairy, every­one should make sure to take in enough nutri­ents and not too much fat and sug­ar. I believe that whether or not some­one is fol­low­ing a veg­an diet does not say any­thing about their over­all health.

The grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of veg­an­ism gives me hope that the knowl­edge about this diet will spread more wide­ly. Doc­tors and dieti­cians will be bet­ter able to give good advice to veg­ans. And if good infor­ma­tion gives con­fi­dence to  peo­ple to reduce their meat and dairy intake, few­er ani­mals will have to sac­ri­fice their lives or their chil­dren to us. Now that is good news for Ani­mal Day!



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