Avoiding the Dangers of a Vegan Diet

Submitted on May 25, 2010 - 3:44pm

A diet that avoids all animal products including meat, fish, fowl, eggs and dairy products is called a vegan diet. Despite the proven benefits derived from avoiding the use of animal products in the diet, many vegans do not fare as well as they might. Not all vegan diets are created equally. Eliminating animal products from the diet does not guarantee a health promoting diet. Much of the benefit derived from eliminating the risks of animal products in the diet can be offset if the diet is not a health-promoting diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, raw nuts and seeds and sprouts and the variable addition of minimally processed whole grains and beans. Potato chips, french fries, alcohol, soda pop and chocolate might all be vegan but that hardly qualifies them as healthy. Vegetarians and vegans often consume large quantities of highly processed foods containing large amounts of oil, sugar, flour and salt. If they believe that their avoidance of animal products alone will grant them dispensation from the devastating consequences of the dietary pleasure trap, they may be sadly disappointed. They say that some vegans get headaches from their halos being too tight. A vegan diet may be undertaken for many reasons: health, social, environmental and/or spiritual. A vegan diet may help you get into heaven, but it will not delay how quickly you get there, unless you avoid some potential pitfalls. In addition to the problems caused by the dietary pleasure trap resulting in the consumption of highly processed foods, vegans are subject to the deficiency of two important nutrients.

Vitamin B12 deficiency Vitamin B12 is produced only by bacteria. Rich sources of bacteria, including animal products, contain large quantities of this essential nutrient. The elimination of animal products in conjunction with modern Hygienic standards reduces the exposure to bacteria and thus vitamin B12. The reduced intake of vitamin B12 can lead to a depletion of vitamin B12 stores and eventually to vitamin B12 deficiency. Although it may take years or even decades to deplete body stores of vitamin B12, we have found this to be common in long-term vegan who do not supplement. A vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to numerous symptoms including neurological disturbances, and increased blood levels of the protein homocysteine. This elevated level of homocysteine causes inflammation in the blood vessels and increases the risk of heart disease. The most accurate way to assess the vitamin B12 status is to perform a blood test measuring homocysteine or methylmalonic acid. These two metabolites will increase when vitamin B12 deficiency is present. Oral supplementation of vitamin B12 in the form of methylcobalamin is thought to be the most efficient way to correct deficiency. A single, daily 1000 mcg tablet is sufficient to correct a B12 deficiency and maintain normal B12 status in most patients.

Vitamin D deficiency Vitamin D is a hormone that is formed naturally when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Thirty minutes of full body exposure can result in the formation of up to 10,000 IU of vitamin D and there is no risk of excess vitamin D forming from this natural route. There is a risk from sunburn from overexposure and burns should be avoided by carefully limiting your exposure to the sun. Sunburn can increase your risk of the formation of skin cancer and can contribute to the premature aging of the skin. The best way to insure optimum vitamin D levels of 35-50 units is by getting regular sunshine. If you cannot get adequate sun exposure a sun lamp may be the best alternative. If for some reason this does not result in a normal level of vitamin D then supplementation of vitamin D is an option. It is important to avoid excess vitamin D supplementation as excess vitamin D from supplements can be toxic. Most individuals can restore their levels with 1000 to 4000 IU per day of vitamin D3 (from either Lichen or sheep's wool). Some individuals may require higher doses in order to replenish depleted body stores. Once normal levels have been achieved, supplementation should be discontinued or reduced to the lowest levels needed to sustain optimum blood values. If at all possible, sunshine or a sunlamp should be used to sustain normal levels. Problems from vitamin D deficiency include: osteoporosis, immune suppression, chronic pain and some cancers, etc. The blood test for vitamin D status is 25-dehydroxy vitamin D. We suggest that vitamin B12 and vitamin D be routinely evaluated by including a homocysteine and 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test with each individual's periodic health checkup. Alan Goldhamer, D.C., is the founder of TrueNorth Health Center in California. He is the author of the Health Promoting Cookbook and co-author of The Pleasure Trap. Jennifer Marano, D.C., is the co-founder of TrueNorth Health Center. Contact the authors at: www.healthpromoting.com or at 707-586-5555