Out of curiosity, I was browsing the bios here at the vegan body building site: http://www.veganbodybuilding.com/?page=bios and noticed a huge variation on nutritional regimes between the individuals. Certainly some things said are things we in the paleo community would disagree with, but other things in some of the bios sounded familiarly paleo, like avoiding processed foods, sugars, and starches, eating healthy fats like coconut and avocado, keeping carb intake low, etc. All of this got me to thinking, given a good understanding of what the body really needs and with a lot of planning and discipline, would it be possible to be a very healthy athletic vegan? Maybe vegans have problems at least in part because of lack of understanding about the necesity for saturated fat and the dangers of high carb and high grain intake. Or perhaps is there something special about meat that really can't be replicated no matter how much planning and brain power goes into the attempt? What do you all think?
Is it possible to be a very healthy vegan?
In a word: No.
You can certainly be healthiER as a vegan than you can following the Standard American Diet. But that's not saying much. I could eat nothing but steak, butter, cod liver oil, and water for the next 2 weeks and be healthier than someone on SAD.
Of course, I would also not be deficient in saturated fats, vitamins A, D, and K, B12, and heme iron at the end of those two weeks, either.
You can't get vitamin A from plant foods. You can only get beta carotene, and not everybody can convert that well enough. You can't get the right form of B12. You have to consume tropical oils to get saturated fats from plants, and that's not always an ideal solution. The plant form of vitamin K is not as bioavailable. I'm not sure where you would ever find D in the plant kingdom, either. [checks real quick] Mushrooms. That's it. You can get vitamin D from mushrooms. (Which aren't even technically plants!) Fine, unless you're allergic to fungus, and it seems like every other vegan I run into is allergic to something.
The trouble with being vegan in terms of how healthy you feel is that you don't suffer from these shortages immediately. It's not like going without food and water. Your body builds up mineral and fat-soluble vitamin stores wherever and whenever it can, so a lot of people live off their stores for a period of time before they begin feeling the not-so-healthy effects of a vegan diet. B12 can also be stored in the body, and eventually runs out--again, a problem that will have to be addressed at some point.
I would never tell someone that being vegan is the ideal way to be healthy. We're not meant to be herbivores. Only a species-appropriate diet is going to help us thrive in the long run. Primates are an insectivorous class, and if you're not going to eat bugs then get the closest that you can to that nutrient profile.
So this is very unscientific reasoning, but anyway: I've done several survival trips, and one of the very first things I learn every time is that conserving (personal) energy is of supreme importance. The necessary tasks involved in staying alive don't use up energy in the same way that a crossfit workout does, but in a survival situation everything you do (including doing nothing) depletes your energy reserves and it all has to be made up somehow. In practice this means that out of your initial energy "budget" must come actions specifically to feed you. What actions you choose to take to feed yourself has a very real relation to whether you live or die over the long term.
In the short term, eating vegetation is nice and easy, using up little of your energy, but it gets you little energy back. It feels initially satisfying, but after about a day, I have to force myself to consume any more vegetation, because just looking at it makes me feel sick. It just doesn't abate the hunger or weakness (although certain plants do actually abate hunger or stimulate energy as part of their medicinal effects). I find the same holds true of mushrooms.
Eating plant roots is satisfying for maybe one or two more days at most. It takes more energy to get them, and often takes some cooking to make them digestible, and they give you some much needed energy. But this is not a lasting boost of energy and after a while this hits the point of diminishing returns as well, and my body makes me not want to eat any of it.
The most energetically expensive food to get is animal food (although collecting certain shellfish and seafood items can be pretty easy). It's also often dangerous (especially in a survival situation) whether you're making impromptu weapons or setting up traps. However, on day three of any survival trip, it is pretty much the only wild food source which remains desirable. One tiny little snail has meant more to me than five pounds of leaves and stalks or roots and berries. I've been on trips with other people where we have actually shared a snail between us, and it was still more satisfying than all the plant foods we had collected.
Now hunting and trapping - especially with primitive and improvised tools - is very tiring and very much a gamble. It seems to me that if it were possible to healthfully feed yourself from nothing but plants, then that would have been the most successful strategy in our evolutionary history. If it were possible to be a healthy vegan, we should see virtually every pre-agricultural tribe being vegan. Instead, what we actually see, to the best of my knowledge, is that none of them were. Because of this, I cannot but believe that it is not possible to be a healthy vegan.
I think Patrik is right. It is unlikely. I do think it is possible, but it depends on what you mean by "healthy." Are you talking "better than average?" or "Optimal?" [Edit: Also, to make a long story short: I think a more interesting question is not whether it is possible for a vegan to be very healthy -- of course! -- but rather whether a large group of vegans will be healthy relative to the SAD (yes) or relative to Paleo (I don't think so).]
There are genetic freaks out there. Some of them can eat nothing but rancid Doritos and Diet Coke, smoke unfiltered cigarettes, watch soap operas all day, and still live to be 100 years old. Some of them can walk into the gym after being sedentary for a few months and still lift more weight, run faster and longer, jump higher than you can.
These people will outlive and outperform many of us, even those of us who work pretty hard at it.
That doesn't mean that their diet or lifestyle or training regimen is optimal.
Perhaps if these freaks switched to a Paleo-ish diet, they would live even longer and experience an even higher quality of life. Maybe they would become even better at their sport. Maybe their sex lives would get better, they'd be happier, their energy levels would be higher. Who knows.
Ultimately, it is pretty hard to prove what is "optimal". It also probably depends on your definition of optimal (do you want to favor athletic performance, or longevity and long-term health?). Any self-evaluation of your diet and lifestyle choices is necessarily subjective and prone to distortion.
Vegans can have have reasonable or even excellent health outcomes, whether they follow (what we would consider) healthy diets or not -- at the individual level.
You also need to consider what "vegan" really means. Vegan diets can range from wheat + soybean + soybean oil, to soaked/sprouted lentils, no wheat, coconut oil only. You can bet the farm that there will be a LARGE difference in health outcomes there.
Now, at the group level, take hardcore 1000 vegans vs. 1000 hardcore Paleo/Primal eaters and let's compare health outcomes over the next 50-75 years.
To be fair, let's assume the vegans all supplement B12, zinc, omega-3 algae oil, etc. religiously and get lots of sunlight. (I don't know all the main things that vegans need to supplement, but you get the idea.) They eat local organic produce. They soak, sprout, ferment, grind their beans and lentils, and avoid wheat. They cook everything in organic, unrefined coconut oil, avoiding vegetable oils of all kinds. The only stipulation is that they eat no fish, no meat, no animal products whatsoever. Honey is fine.
Let's also assume the Paleo group eats exclusively grass-fed meats and lots of fresh, healthy seafood, eats local organic produce, supplements anything necessary, etc. etc. etc.
Basically, let's compare the healthiest possible vegan diet to the healthiest possible Paleo diet.
My money is still on the Paleo group in terms of longevity, quality of life, and health outcomes. I can't prove it in a court of law, but I think the observational evidence is suggestive, from studies of ethnic and religious groups that are mostly vegetarian or ostensibly vegan, compared to studies of hunter-gatherer groups.
I do think the vegan group would still have improved health outcomes vs. a control SAD group.
This is the wrong question. Is it possible for otherwise-healthy adult individuals to be vegan and healthy? Numerous scientific studies support that with proper supplementation it probably is. I have a relative who has been vegan for 30 years and is just as healthy as my other relatives.
Where it's murkier is:
What I'd suggest to vegans is
Perhaps off topic but.... diets designed for athletes- in this case body builders- are NOT a healthy diet for the average person. Too many people, most of them dietitians beeive that if a diet is good for an athlete, it should be great for us. IT AIN"T. In fact, it can be very very wrong. Many body builders become diabetic when they retire because of the massive demands they put on their diet to fuel their body and sport. Maybe a vegan approach is better to those body building- maybe not but in either case, what is good for a competitive athlete id NOT for us
Eva...great question. I have never been a vege but have enjoyed expanding my vege palette through paleo. We have adopted a small measure of compromise by joining the Meatless Monday bunch. I heard about it on Gavan Murphy's blog "The Healthy Irishman". It sounded reasonable and worth a try...
I truly thing meat is a part of what our bodies need to remain in good health...but with some creative cooking and planning it does not have to be an everyday necessity. Our paleo ancestors certainly had bad days when their luck didn't "bring home the bacon"!
Consume most of your calories from coconut, low w-6 nuts and starchy vegetables; supplement with b-12 and krill or algae oil as needed.
I had a raw vegan roommate a while back who I thought was surprisingly healthy. Her staples included soups made from pureed plants (leeks, tomato and squash usually), whole coconuts and ice cream made from cashew & coconut.
She also had a weakness for sushi, so we got her out for fish maybe once or twice a month.
I think it is essentially impossible to be very healthy without including animal products in your diet, because of the essential fats, proteins, and other nutrients they provide. Nonetheless, there are certainly more and less healthy ways to be vegan. A grain and fruit-based vegan diet, for example, would be worse than one than was based on plant sources of saturated and mono-unsaturated fats, with careful supplementation of known deficiencies.