Is the Vegan Diet Really a Game Changer?
After a recent Netflix documentary “Game Changers” was released many individuals were influenced to turn to a vegan diet: no meat, eggs, fish, milk and absolutely zero animal products. The documentary was convincing given the use of accolades from famous athletes, various doctors, and numerous research studies claiming the dangers of animal products to our health. In some ways the documentary was accurate. Factory farmed and processed meats can be bad news for our blood work, body composition and toxin levels. However, organic, pasture raised, free range and grass fed meats can be a saving grace to our health. These meats have high protein levels that maintain muscle mass, healthy fats that fuel our brains and tons of vitamins and minerals to promote a healthy wellbeing. So why the misconception and what should I really know about a balanced diet that includes animal products?
First, vegans and vegetarians have a greater risk of depressive and mental disorders. A 2012 study in Germany found that vegetarians had a two times higher risk of having a mental disorder. Looking at the study in the other direction, subjects who had depression, anxiety and eating disorders consumed less meat than people without a mental disorder – with strict vegetarians having a 15 percent greater rate of mental disorder than non-vegetarians. Why would this be? Vegan and vegetarian diets are generally deficient in EPA and DHA fish oil, vitamin B12, creatine, zinc and vitamin D. These are all nutrients that directly impact brain function.
Second, vegans and vegetarians could see negative body composition changes with strength training. This is due to the lower consumption of quality protein. Plant based proteins do not contain the full amino acid profile that is found in meat. Leucine is the primary amino acid that stimulates protein synthesis and is generally very low in plant based proteins.
Lastly, reduced athletic performance is a huge risk for plant based diets. There are certain performance nutrients that are only available in animal foods. Creatine is only found in meat and fish. It acts as an energy reserve for short intense training and supports improved cognition and brain health. Carnosine improves lactate buffering (that awful burn while pulling a sled) and is completely lacking in vegetarian diets. Carnitine is another nutrient found only in meat that has a huge impact on energy production and using fat for fuel.
Bottom line, if you are choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet for health reasons and not because of religious practice, consider adding foods rich in Omega-3s and healthy nutrients, like organic, grass fed meats, wild caught fish and free range chicken and eggs. Your brain and body will thank you! If you are restricted to a vegetarian or vegan diet, supplement with any or all of the following: pea protein, EPA/DHA Fish Oil, creatine, carnitine beta alenine, B12, zinc and vitamin D.
Craddock, J., et al. Vegetarian and Omnivorous Nutrition – Comparing Physical Performance. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2016. 26(3):212-20.
Editorial Staff, Poliquin Group. “Three Surprising Dangers of a Vegetarian Diet.” Poliquin Group, 19 July 2017, main.poliquingroup.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Articles/Article/2616/_Three_Surprising_Dangers_of_A_Vegetarian_Diet.aspx
Micalak, J., et al. Vegetarian diet and mental disorders: results from a representative community survey. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2012. 9:67.
Venderley, A., Campbell, W. Vegetarian Diets: Nutritional Considerations For Athletes. Sports Medicine. 2006; 36 (4): 293-305.