NATIONAL POST - 26 Sept 2019

By Luke Mintz

A new BMJ report warning that vegans may be risking serious nutritional deficiency could be a wake-up call.

It was just a few months ago that experts were declaring the end of meat. Earlier this year, consultancy firm AT Kearney predicted that by 2040, animal products will have become so socially and environmentally unacceptable that most “meat” eaten across the globe will come in the form of plant- based or lab-grown substitutes.
But a major study released last week just might put the brakes on the rapidly accelerating plant- based trend. According to Oxford University research, published in the British Medical Journal, vegetarians and vegans have a 20 per cent higher risk of stroke than those who regularly tuck into a plate of bacon and sausages. The authors of the study, which tracked almost 50,000 Britons for 18 years, said this might be because veggies did not have enough cholesterol in their blood.

The finding flies in the face of much conventional wisdom, which says that vegetarianism is a healthy alternative to a carnivorous lifestyle. Nutritionists say the increased risk of stroke is just one of the many health risks that any would-be vegetarian should be made aware of before they take the plunge.

Helen Bond, a registered dietitian, says the largescale Oxford study should be taken seriously, although she notes that the increased risk of 20 per cent is actually “quite small” once the sample size is taken into account ( it equates to three more cases of stroke per 1,000 people over 10 years). She says that those who cut out meat entirely don’t always understand the full health implications of their lifestyle choice: “I think people shouldn’t just embark on a vegan diet because it’s on trend, and they’re following some Instagram guru. They should delve deeper and understand that there are nutrient shortfalls.”
Last week, nutritionist Emma Derbyshire told the BMJ that vegans may find themselves deficient in choline, a crucial nutrient for brain health commonly found in eggs, milk and beef that influences memory, mood and muscle control. With planning, the British Dietetic Association said, it was possible for vegans to reach requisite levels, but not everyone who avoids meat plans carefully enough.

Such diets, Bond adds, are usually devoid of vitamin B12, which is found only in animal products. Without it, you run a greater risk of becoming fatigued and your immune system can be weakened, although she says “full-blown B12 deficiency is not very common in today’s society.” More concerning is getting enough vitamin D, the so- called “sunshine vitamin,” which is important for our bones, teeth and immune system, and can be difficult to include in your diet if you are vegetarian, and very difficult if you are vegan. “Vitamin D-rich foods are mainly oily fish, eggs and things like that,” Bond says.
“There is some in mushrooms, but sadly it is in very few foods.”

As countless studies have suggested, Bond thinks the biggest health benefits actually come from a Mediterranean-style diet, which combines lots of vegetables with modest amounts of ( mostly white) meat, plus pulses and oily fish, which are rich in omega-3 fats and help to reduce blood pressure.

Ian Marber, a nutritionist, adds that vegetarians and vegans might miss out on some of their essential amino acids, a source of protein. A lack of protein can mean weight loss; skin, hair and nail problems; and increased risk of bone fractures.
Although it is usually vegans whose culinary choices make headlines, he thinks they are usually better prepared than vegetarians, with a steady supply of vitamin supplements lining their cupboards. “I find that vegans tend to be quite motivated and do it quite well — they are aware that they need omega- 3 fats, for example. Vegetarianism tends not to be done with the same attention to detail.” Previously, his clutch of vegan clients “knew what they were doing;” now that meat- free numbers have swelled, he finds himself more frequently doling out advice on how to stay healthy and plantbased at the same time.
Many new vegans have also noted cognitive effects — “brain fog” — and there’s science to back that up, according to Sophie Medlin, a lecturer in nutrition at King’s College London. “Anyone following a plant- based diet is likely to have suboptimal levels of vitamin B12 and an essential fatty acid called DHA,” she says. “These are vital for the health of our neurons or brain cells. When we are deficient, we suffer symptoms such as brain fog, short-term memory loss, changes in mood, difficulty sleeping, agitation, and anxiety.”

It’s not all bad news for the plant lovers, though. As well as showing an increased risk of stroke, the Oxford study also found that vegetarians had a 22-per-cent lower risk of heart disease compared to meat eaters. Experts said the difference might be because vegetarians have lower weights and blood pressures, and thus are less likely to have diabetes. Studies have shown that those who avoid red meat see a reduced risk of bowel cancer.
“In the battle between meat eaters and non- meat eaters, everyone’s looking for one answer,” says Ian Marber. “If we can only declare that one’s better than the other. But it’s not better, it’s just different.”

When I first went back to eating fish — a salmon salad — after a year spent being a strict vegan, I noticed the effect quite fast. I felt more alert and aware, as though someone had woken me up.

My experience replicated that of actor Anne Hathaway, who said she felt like her brain had “rebooted” when she returned to eating fish after years eschewing it for a plant-based diet.Nor are we recovering vegans alone.

Ellen Degeneres has added fish and eggs into her formerly strict diet. Tim Shieff, a vegan Youtuber and influencer, has admitted adding meat back on to his plate as a tonic for symptoms such as “digestion issues ... fatigue, brain fog, depression, lack of recovery, lack of energy, yawning all the time” and “waking up stiff.”
And a new BMJ report warning that vegans may be risking serious nutritional deficiency and storing up a litany of health problems could be a wake- up call for those who follow a plant-only diet.

I gave up fish, dairy and eggs in a moment of desperation. Having suffered merciless irritable bowel syndrome ( IBS) for years, I wanted to see if being vegan could end the unpredictable but regular bouts of spasms.
Having already experimented with antispasmodic drugs, hypnotherapy, peppermint pills and so much more, this was about the only thing I hadn’t tried. So I played around with various “milks” made of almonds, hazelnuts and cashews until I found oat milk, which suited my taste buds. I liked its sour cream substitute, too.

My grocery basket filled up with marinated tofu and quarter- pound vegan burgers from the Linda Mccartney’s range, and sacks of kale and spinach. And I tapped into a vegan network online where you learn what treat foods you can eat: salt- andvinegar Pringles, Bourbon biscuits and Fry’s chocolate creams, since you ask.
My family were, for the most part, content. I swapped the macaroni cheese, Spanish omelets and creamy fish pies for Thai green curries with cashews, Mexican three- bean chilis and pasta with aubergines and courgettes.
At first, I lost weight. And I noticed my IBS was improving.
But my skin was not happy, with regular breakouts, and my nails crumbled away. I added in a vitamin B spray and ate vegan calcium tablets and kept going. Around the time boredom kicked in — Christmas, somewhat inevitably — I realized I wasn’t losing weight any more and indeed, the pounds were creeping back on.

This seemed like the breaking of an unwritten contract that if you restrict your diet in such a draconian way, you can sneakily diet without having to think about it. I realized I was becoming hugely bread and peanut butter- reliant. Calories, it seems, don’t care if you are vegan or not.

Now I’m “veganesque”. The meat- free family meals we enjoyed — the chilis and curries — are still on the menu.
I’ve probably upped my fruit and veg intake to seven or eight portions a day with ease. But I no longer have to pretend that vegan “cheeses” are edible. Sorry, they’re not. Pass the Comte.

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