A few posts ago, I showed some objective data from the China Study data set that from a vegan versus meat eaters view seemed to greatly favour the idea that being vegan might be rather bad for your health. Although I don’t have any moral issues with eating animals, especially if the data shows that eating animal flesh should objectively be beneficial to my health, it becomes quite a different picture when we factor in the ecological aspects.
When we look at the steep part of the meat mortality correlation from my earlier post, and if we look at the world meat production, than people are eating significantly more meat than would be justified purely by the mortality numbers. If you purely follow the data, than eating 2 grams of meat for every 3kg of body mass should be a healthy level. If every person on earth would follow that eating pattern, the world production of meat could more than half. Something that by itself should be a good move in the right direction would it not be for other nutritional health issues regarding fats and issues with respect to macro splits and protein production. Basically there is a fundamental protein and ecology issue with both vertebrate based protein sources and plant based protein sources that is often downplayed by plant based food proponents. In earlier posts I talked about the use of insects as sustainable source of protein, showing that some species of insects provide for a more ecologically sustainable source of protein than for example soy beans. But lets discard the macro split issues for now and look at what options a vegan would have to avoid becoming part of the mortality statistics that seem to show a vegan diet may lead to a premature death.
I can imagine the reaction of many a vegan when I mention that cholesterol levels could be contributing to higher mortality for people who eat less meat and saturated fats than the most of us. But guess what, other than what we have been bombarded with for decades by processed oil vendors and cholesterol lowering drug producers, high cholesterol isn’t the only cholesterol level problem that is linked to increased mortality. Low cholesterol is actually an other, possibly much more dangerous problem. Vegans like to point out that people in China have far lower mortality from heart disease, and have lower cholesterol levels, and that is true, but if we look at the data from the China Study II data set, we see a trend that is the opposite of the one we see in the west: Higher plasma cholesterol is linked to seriously lower mortality rates. People with low cholesterol are dying in significantly larger numbers than people with normal and slightly elevated cholesterol levels. When looking at other sources, it becomes evident that this is not just a Chinese anomaly. Low cholesterol is really really dangerous and greatly increases a wide range of mortality causes. But indeed, not ischaemic heart disease. Other unexpected causes including even things such such suicide and accidents are unmistakingly linked with very low cholesterol levels. Does it really matter what causes your death when your total risk of dying prematurely goes up dramatically when your plasma cholesterol is very low?
As you see in the graph, coronary heart disease really does follow the pattern we have all been told to worry about. But when we look at all cause mortality, and cholesterol levels below 180, the picture becomes quite a different one. Below 160 the different picture becomes quite dramatic, and given the slope of the mortality correlation, at extremely low levels say below 140, low cholesterol clearly becomes a truly formidable health risk.
To put it into perspective, in the China Study II data set, in some regions the average serum cholesterol is below 130. and the highest average for a Xiang in the data set is in the 180 range. Safe to say thus that in China, low cholesterol is a serious health risk. Now if we look at the health results related to meat and saturated fat consumption and look at how these are correlated in our data set, we must conclude that part of our results could be explained simply by the fact that low serum cholesterol levels are a serious health risk associated with a diet low in animal foods. Now if we look at other sources for information about this, we see some worrying numbers when it comes to vegans.
Vegans in general have shockingly low serum cholesterol levels. In fact, almost half of all vegans according to this table seem to be below the worrisome 140 mark. With sigma at about 30, and given the slope of our mortality correlation, this should put groups making up multiple percent of all of vegans at extremely high mortality risks, comparable if not exceeding those of morbidly obese with hypercholesterolemia and high blood pressure. So what could vegans do to overcome these risks? First of all, having your cholesterol checked is probably a good idea. Anything below 150 should be serious cause for worries.
And secondly, we already know that saturated fats raise cholesterol levels. Coconut oil is a completely vegan healthy source of cholesterol raising fat.Next to raising cholesterol, being a saturated fat it is much less sensitive to damage from heat than many alternative fats, thus as a cooking oil it reduces the amount of toxic oxidised fat you consume. So as a vegan, unless you suffer from familial hypercholesterolemia, replacing mostly unsaturated cooking oil with coconut oil is probably a good idea for more than two thirds of all vegans if the above numbers are correct. For those that worry about coconut oil being solid at room temperature, consider that it is fluid at body temperature.
A second issue with the vegan diet, at least if we look at the China Study II data seems to stem from high levels of polyunsaturated fat. So are polyunsaturated fats bad? No, not if you consume them in a balanced way. Problem though with the Chinese diet, and also with the modern western diet, the polysats are far from balanced. Ideally you should want to have a 1 to 1 upto 1 to 4 ratio of omega 3 versus omega 6 fatty acids. At an unbalance towards a 7.5 ratio, higher levels of polyunsaturated fats are strongly linked to higher mortality rates. With grass fed beef, meat eaters in China have both a lower overall polyunsaturated fat intake and also a slightly better omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. So how do we improve our ratio without eating non-vegan fish-oil capsules or something like it ? Well the answer is quite simple again. Just add one simple totally vegan product to your diet: crushed flax seed. Flax seed is very high in omega 3 and is a very simple way to improve your fatty acid split on a vegan diet. Add them to your vegetable smoothy. If you are an oats person, add them to your oats. You can mix them into your salad dressing. or stir them through your stew with some coconut oil. Flax seeds are an amazing whole food that should be an every day food item in every vegans diet.
Not being a big fan of suplements, the data shows there is no way around it for vegans. While protein sources are available, they are often very one sided in single foods. The data from my earlier post showed clearly that a one sided amino acid profile protein source could potentially be a health concern. Apart from this, if you are an active person who works out with weights on a regular basis (if you don’t. than you should), it is hard to get a high enough macro split for your proteins. Mixed legumes are probably the best single source whole food protein source that you can get, but supplementing with mixed vegan protein powders should be a good idea. Turn your flax seed enhances dmoothy into a protein shake by adding mixed source protein powders and you will not only ensure a healthy amino-acid profile that could possibly prevent premature death, you will also recover better from your workout, get stronger and acquire a better physique. Finally, of-cause the obvious one you probably already know about: B12. Recent research has shown the importance of o combination of B12 and folic acid in the reduction of homocysteine, an important cardiovascular risk reduction factor for cardiovascular disease. For most vegans folic acid won’t be a problem, but B12 is definitely a major concern. There is no getting around it: as a vegan, take B12 suplements! A third supplement that I highly recomend, is carnitine. Meat is not just fat and protein, it also comes with some other substances that have been shown to have great health benefits, especially when combined with going to the gym. There are absolute reasons to believe that carnitine might be a contributing factor to the observed positive effect of meat consumption, and purely vegan carnitine suplements are widely available.
Avoid processed fats and carbs.
Unfortunately there is no getting around processed protein, that is unless you don’t lift (something I can’t recommend), it is still a good idea to avoid processed carbs and fats. Highly processed oils are often high in omega 6 and mess up your omega 6 omega 3 ratio, but next to that, they are often made from GMO crops and are produced using industrial techniques borrowed from the petrochemical industry. Stick with cold pressed oils rich in monounsaturated fats. Get fat from whole foods like nuts and advocados and ban all vegetable oils and any oil that is industrially produces. As for processed carbs, avoid dried and salt preserved carb sources such as raisins, canned veggies, etc, and avoid any fine grain flower based product. Whole grain may sound healthy, if you can’t actually feel the individual coarse particles of grain, chances are its really unhealthy stuff. The finer the particles the unhealthier the products made from them. Don’t allow grains to become a staple food.
Limit starchy tubers and fruit.
The data I showed in a previous post clearly showed issues with high levels of starchy tuber consumption. While starchy tubers and fruit are healthy in small amounts, again these foods are apparently ill suited as staple food. The case against starchy tuber as staple food is stronger than against fruit. In the China Study II study for example, fruit consumption is so low that no useful info can be extracted. Studies often look at fruits and vegetables as if the two were the same thing and differentiation would be folly. However looking at the nutrients and sugar contained in fruit and studies looking at sugar consumption, it would be safest to conclude that fruit requirements for a person consuming high amounts of vegetables are relatively low. Most of the fruits available in stores are far removed from their natural ancestors. Their sugar levels are extremely high while serving no other purpose than satisfying our sweat tooth. A banana for example, no longer able to reproduce with seeds, and many times as sweet as its seed baring ancestor, is a mutant clone that can only reproduce by us making an exact copy of the parent plant. You really don’t want to use such unnatural food sources as staple food.
I hope the above guidelines show how it is perfectly possible to counteract the negative effects the China Study II data set showed with regards to a vegan diet versus a diet with substantial amounts of meat. By adding a small handful of plant based foods and supplement and by not allowing an other handful of foods to become staple foods, minimizing mortality risk on a purely vegan diet should be totally possible. I hope the above article shows I am not trying to bash a vegan lifestyle in my engineers approach to diet and workout and it shows that looking at the data carefully can provide solid alternatives to what at first glance seem like undeniable truths.