There are a million and one questions surrounding ‘Veganism’, and about a million of them may remain unanswered for a lifetime.. Unfortunately, it’s often the misfortune of ill health, mistreatment of animals, or the realization of how greenhouse gas emissions negatively affect our environment, that prompts an immediate inquiry into a vegan diet. We’ll Google every article, read every e-book, and watch every documentary to try and educate ourselves, but sometimes, especially when it comes to our health, it’s better to get facts from a professional.
We recently sat down with Dr Mark D. Emerson, Author, Speaker and Doctor of Chiropractic who specializes in Nutrition Based Lifestyle Medicine, in an attempt to separate fact from fiction. Dr Emerson provides expert health & wellness consulting to individuals, groups, companies, restaurants, and hotels around the world. He has been a health & wellness consultant to players and personnel of the NFL, PGA Tour, USA Track and Field and NCAA. Additionally, he provides private physician services to celebrities and Fortune 500 CEO’s. We presented him with all the FAQ’s we’ve received on the topic, and even some questions we needed answered. Here’s what he came back with, and everything you need to know about ‘going vegan’:
- What does it mean to be ‘Vegan’?
Generally the term “vegan” describes people who do not eat any animal based foods in their diet. There are very strict “vegans” who do not consume animal foods and do not use animal based products or clothing such as leather or fur.
- What is the difference between a ‘Vegan’ and a ‘Whole Food / Plant Based’ diet?
They can be very similar and very different depending on what foods make up the meals. There are a lot of vegan foods that are highly processed and not very healthy. They may not have animal based foods in them, but they are processed refined junk foods. Whole Food Plant Based (WFPB) literally means, a Plant based diet (vegan) that is comprised of WHOLE FOODS meaning, No refined sugars, oils or processed foods. When a patient tells me they are “vegan”, they have only told me what they don’t eat, not what they do eat.
- Who benefits most from a plant based/ whole food diet?
Essentially, everyone. Human physiology does very well on a high nutrient, high fiber whole food plant based diet. Our digestive system is made to eat whole Foods. It was not designed to eat highly processed, refined foods and fake food products.
- What is the first change people commonly notice when transitioning to a vegan diet?
They poop better and feel lighter. ; )
- What is a common misconception surrounding veganism?
The “protein myth”; As long as you are eating enough calories from a variety of plant foods, getting adequate protein on a plant-based diet is easy! Protein is abundant in plant based foods.
- As a health professional, do you encourage a plant based diet as a means of achieving optimum health?
Absolutely, the more nutrient dense foods the better. These are also the foods that help prevent and even reverse disease.
- Can you still achieve optimum health by consuming animal by-products?
Not really, animal by-products are just that, by-products and these non-healthy “foods” are really dangerous to our health. It is similar to refined sugar. Refined sugar is not a food or natural, it’s a product. If you can find a refined sugar packet tree, let me know. I would like to see it. ; )
- How does a plant based diet effect men and women differently?
We need to eat for energy, nourishment and repair. Whether you are a man or a woman, once your body has the essential nutrients it needs, it works efficiently to do everything it was designed to do. When men and women eat a whole food plant based diet, the necessary nutrients are delivered and good health is achieved.
- We’ve heard you can lose muscle mass quite easily when on a plant based diet, what is a sure way to avoid this?
A loss of muscle mass is usually due to inadequate calorie intake regardless of the type of diet. Think of “calorie restriction diets” to lose weight. Most of the weight loss is muscle mass and water, not fat. However, switching to a WFPB diet will usually decrease inflammation, which will make you leaner which can be misconstrued as the loss of muscle mass. As long as you are eating enough healthy food each day and exercising regularly, muscle mass loss is really not an issue.
- Can you clarify the misconception re. getting adequate protein/iron/calcium/vitamin D/vitamin B12 on a vegan diet? How can this effect our energy levels, and what is the solution?
As long as a person eats a healthy amount of food each day and doesn’t try to restrict calories then protein, iron and calcium are not a problem on a WFPB diet as the foods are packed with all the nutrients needed. For Vitamin D, (the sunshine vitamin) everyone should get plenty of sunshine since our body makes vitamin D with exposure to the sun. 10-15 minutes per day is usually enough. Mushrooms such as Shiitake contain vitamin D and other anti-cancer properties. B-12 is essential for good health and brain function, I recommend a B-12 supplement to all my patients, not just vegans. It is an easy way to ensure good vitamin B-12 health.
- Are there certain supplements or vitamins we should take if we decide to change our diet to plant based?
As mentioned B-12 is a must. Most other nutrients do not need to be supplemented with a WFPB diet. However, it is important to eat foods that are high in vitamins and minerals such as beans, greens like kale, spinach, mixed greens, broccoli, and berries; raspberries, blueberries and strawberries.
- What are some beginner tips/ gradual changes we can make to our diet now, without having to ‘give up’ everything at once?
Simply add in more whole plant based food more often. For example instead of white rice, eat brown rice, whole grain pasta instead of white pasta, instead of potato chips, snack on a handful of raw walnuts or almonds. Eat more greens, more fresh fruit and vegetables. Focus on eating more healthy foods rather than trying to eliminate other foods. The goal is to eat more nutrients more often and soon, you will discover you are eating healthier foods more often, which is great!
- Is it true that a vegan only diet is bad for younger people or children? How can people safely introduce a plant based diet to their children?
Not true at all; a healthy whole food vegan diet is healthy for young people and children. Health issues arise if it becomes a highly processes junk food vegan diet similar to the Standard American Diet. I raised 4 healthy children on a whole food vegan diet without any health issues or concerns.
- Is it safe for pregnant women to consume a vegan only diet, or adopt one during pregnancy? What are your tips for doing this?
It is safe and can be very healthy. A WFPB diet can deliver all the needed and important nutrients for pregnancy without any worry. I do recommend a prenatal supplement during pregnancy regardless of the eating habits of the mommy to be.
- What is the overall effects or benefits of a plant based diet?
Improved health, weight loss, lower risk of disease, improved energy, better skin just to name a few.
- Why should we make the change?
Your health is your greatest treasure. If you have good health especially if you are young, DO NOT take it for granted, it’s a gift.
- Do you have any reputable book/documentary recommendations we can look at for further information?
How Not To Die, by Dr. Michael Greger a wonderful book highlighting the science and evidence of a WFPB diet.
- What are the negative effects of meat and dairy products?
Think of foods with a risk and reward equation in mind. It is well documented that meat and dairy foods are high in fat, cholesterol, inflammatory compounds and promote chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and obesity. They are also void of fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients, which are essential to immune function and health. So the exchange of nutrients compared to the exchange of health risk is not good. And be honest with yourself, you don’t feel healthy with high energy after eating a double cheeseburger.
- What about Fish?
The dangers of mercury and industrial pollutants in fish is real and a health concern. Heavy metal toxins store in fat and unfortunately, the meat of fish contains fat and these environmental toxins.
- Are there any exceptions of animal products or animal by-products that are considered ‘ok’ to consume as part of a healthy diet? i.e Eggs, yoghurt, fish.
It depends on how often they are consumed and what is your health status. If you are healthy, once or twice a week is probably ok, but these are not really health promoting foods.
- What about Honey?!
Honey is ok in limited amounts. Use it as a sweetener and in limited recipes. But use caution. 1 cup of honey has 1,031 calories. Strict vegans will not use it since it is made by bees.
- Having a super busy lifestyle can make the idea of adopting a plant based diet seem extremely inconvenient and time consuming… Do you have any tips on how to make this easier, especially for those with a family and/or hectic work life?
It’s easier than it seems once you get the hang of it and it doesn’t take long to adapt. It just takes a little shift in kitchen habits. Batch cooking and making large amounts for leftovers is very helpful especially for families. Many of the WFPB foods don’t need a lot of labor as fresh fruits, veggies, greens, nuts/seeds can be eaten raw and don’t require much prep time.
- As a health professional, what would you say is the most significant and important aspect/benefit of consuming a plant based diet?
The reversal of the disease process by stopping the daily damage created by traditional harmful dietary foods. If you hit your leg on the coffee table it would hurt like hell but in a couple days it would heal. BUT If you hit your leg on the table, 3 times a day every 4-5 hours, it would never heal. If you eat foods that cause damage 3 times a day every 4-5 hours, everyday of your life. You will never heal. Remember HEALTH has HEAL as its first 4 letters! ; )
Read more about why Natasha went vegan.
- Disclaimer: These are the findings from one professional. We suggest consulting your doctor before major dietary and lifestyle changes.