Over the past 2 weeks at least a dozen potential clients, many of them athletes, have contacted me looking for guidance on switching to a vegan diet. Why the sudden upsurge to plant-based diets? I am predicting the new documentary “What the Health” is responsible. Some of these potential clients have even named the documentary during initial contact. I thought I would share some of my thoughts about these types of documentaries, as well as some of my reactions to this film, in particular.
First, this is one of many documentaries that focuses on blaming one food group or nutrient on diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Other films include Fast Food Nation, Forks over Knives, Food Inc., Cowspiracy, and King Corn. While these films can be informational, there are a few things I ask clients to keep in mind:
So, what did I think of What the Health, specifically? The film’s main argument is that meat and dairy products cause diseases such as obesity, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Sadly, it is simply not that easy. These are complicated disease with many factors in play… what you are eating is just one piece of the puzzle. Everyone has that friend who runs marathons, eats a vegan diet, and doesn’t touch alcohol; but still gets lung cancer. And how is it that small children get cancer when they haven’t been exposed to the same foods and beverages we have as adults. My point being, these diseases are way more complicated that just what we eat.
I am a proponent of plant based diets, but I just do not believe that eating some dairy products and leaner cuts of meat will put you at risk for developing diabetes. Of course, it’s all relative… if you are eating red meat and hot dogs at every meal, yes you could potentially be putting yourself in danger. But if you are enjoying a burger at a 4th of July barbecue with friends once a year, you are more than likely not increasing your risk at all.
Another problem I had with the film is some of the opinions and false information portrayed. For example, one expert in the film says that sugar plays no role in the development of diabetes… this makes me wonder which associations they are affiliated with. We are all entitled to our own opinion, but please do not take these words as factual or reliable just because these people are on film, or have MD or PhD after their name.
Absolutely, these films can give watchers some good information and warnings, like the fact that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages with every meal can contribute to obesity and diabetes. However, I urge watchers to do the research on both sides of the argument and come up with their own conclusions and solutions that work with the lifestyle they want to live. Maybe instead of going vegan cold turkey you could decide to cut back on red meat to once a month or switch to almond milk while still enjoying some cheese. Please don’t take these films at face value and do your research to decide what is best for you and your family. As always, if you have any questions or need help with your plant based diet, you can reach out at Allison@altnutrition.net.
Are you thinking about becoming a vegan? Many athletes I work with have considered or have become vegan. The problem is, starting out they have a really hard time figuring out what exactly to eat. It can be a very complicated matter; however, it is not impossible and athletes are more than able to fuel correctly on a vegan diet. Well planned plant based diets can be adequate for athletes; however, there are some nutrients of concern and foods that are a must to incorporate into their daily diets.
Protein – because animal proteins, such as eggs, dairy products, poultry, and meat are considered the most high quality and bioavailable, vegan diets can sometimes lack in protein if not eating the right foods. One important protein in particular that can be limited in a vegan diet is lysine. The highest plant sources of lysine include tofu, tempeh, soy, lentils, and seitan; therefore, a vegan diet needs to include these foods on a daily basis.
Vitamin B12 – this is the micronutrient that I worry about the most for vegans, because it is typically found only in animal foods. This nutrient plays many key roles and contributes many functions in the body; therefore, it is important for vegans to include vitamin B12 fortified foods in their daily diet, including nutritional yeast, breakfast cereals, and some meat alternatives.
Calcium –because vegans are avoiding all animal products they are not consuming any dairy products, which are the foods that contain the most readily absorbed calcium. Foods that vegans should include in their diets include milk substitutes, fortified juices, tofu, and a variety of leafy greens.
Vitamin D – just like calcium, vitamin D plays an important role in bone health. Just as important for athletes is the importance vitamin D plays in the immune system, as well as muscle function. In food, vitamin D is really only present in fish, cheese, and egg yolks – all foods that vegans avoid. The best way for a vegan athlete to get adequate vitamin D is through sun exposure and fortified foods like milk substitutes and orange juice.
Omega-3 fatty acids – again, because vegans avoid all animal products, including fish, their diets may lack in omega-3 fatty acids. Some foods that vegans should include on a daily basis include flaxseeds, walnuts, soy foods, and canola oil.
Iron – this mineral is essential for oxygen transportation in the body; therefore, a deficiency can cause fatigue and decreased performance. There are two types of iron – heme iron, which is found in animal products like fish and poultry – and non-heme iron, which is found in plant foods like beans and lentils. The problem is, non-heme iron is less bioavailable, so vegans must make sure to significantly increase their consumption of non-heme iron foods.
If you are considering becoming a vegan and are confused about what foods to buy, below is a list of my must-have vegan foods:
If you need help planning your vegan diet, please contact me!
Allison Tropf, MS, RD, CSSD
Allison is a Sports Dietitian in Michigan. She enjoys helping others reach their nutrition and fitness goals through reliable and trustworthy recommendations.
ALT Performance Nutrition