Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Vegan Diet Increases Heart Disease Risk?

Image may or may not be dramatized.

For the last week or two, the internet has been abuzz with news of a vegan diet increasing your risk of heart disease. Say wha? Since when?

Here’s a quote from one of these news articles:

"The much hyped and the very perfect vegan diet have now exposed some loop holes. According to a study published in the journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry last month, Vegan diet increase heart risks by creating blood clots and stiffening arteries. These conditions makes one prone to heart attacks an strokes."

Vegan diets cause blood clots? Whoa! Slow down there, cowboy! What on earth would cause a reporter to say such a thing? Apparently,

“The main fault in the Vegan Diet which increases heart risk is it's deficiency in Omega3 fatty acids, Vitamin B12, iron and zinc."

Oh. So what you’re actually saying, then, is that diets deficient in omega-3s, vitamin B12, iron and zinc are at a higher risk of heart disease. And that if one takes care to include reliable sources of all of these nutrients, then a vegan diet can be perfectly safe. And you’re just scaring everyone away from a vegan diet for kicks. Gotcha.

Before you think I’m just pish-pishing this information, I happen to think it’s very important to include a reliable source of all of these nutrients, whether you’re vegan or not. Vegans are at risk of B12 deficiency ONLY if we don’t supplement it in our diet somehow – I drink a couple cups of a fortified non-dairy beverage, and a lot of folks choose to take a direct supplement. That’s cool. But considering how terrible B12 deficiency can be (we’re talking irreversible nerve damage), it’s important to take care.

Adequate omega-3 intake typically needs planning as well, but it really is as simple as a scoop or two of flax (or chia) seeds in your morning oats or swapping hemp oil for the olive oil in your salad dressing. Just because us vegans don’t eat fish doesn’t mean we have to be omega-3 deficient!

Adequate iron and zinc intakes can often be a problem for people. Not just vegans, not just vegetarians, but all people. Iron deficiency is the most common mineral deficiency in the world, striking omnivores and veg folk alike. I personally have found my iron intakes to be very good (usually in the 20-25mg range) just from eating a wide variety of plant foods – green leafies, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. Also, including some form of vitamin C along with your iron source greatly increases absorption of this mineral – having tomatoes sliced on top of your veggie burger, perhaps.

Foods high in iron often tend to be high in zinc, particularly nuts, seeds and legumes. Around my house, we can often be seen munching on some seasoned pumpkin seeds or even drinking pumpkin seed milk, which is a great way to get your zinc on!

So I do agree with these articles about the importance of getting enough of these nutrients. What I’m not cool with, however, is the implications that all vegans are deficient and that a vegan diet is ultimately dangerous. There’s a phrase for that…what is it, again? Oh yeah – scare mongering.

All of these flashy headlines have been spawned by a study performed in China, published in the January edition of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. This study (exerpt here) isn’t bashing veganism, it’s simply advising to consume the aforementioned nutrients, especially B12, since reliable sources of this crucial vitamin can’t be found in plant foods (it’s a bacteria that typically gets washed away in food cleaning).

The study also mentions that the omnivores observed have an increased risk of heart disease due to being heavier and having higher cholesterol and blood pressure than the vegetarians studied. There’s no reason to believe that a vegan who provides all of these nutrients in their diet couldn’t also enjoy a reduced risk of heart disease.

No matter if you’re an omnivore, vegetarian, raw foodist, or any of the zillion terms people have made up for their dietary habits, it’s so important to have a basic understanding of nutrition. Then you can ensure that you’re doing all you can to live a long, healthy and awesome life!

See you tomorrow with a creamy tahini sauce which is perfect for the ancient comfort food of noodles, veggies and tofu! Okay, maybe not ancient comfort food for those of European descent, but my kitchen is a diverse one. J

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