Skip to content

LETTER: Plant-based diets can be 'extremely healthy'

Associate professors from Lakehead University respond to nutritionist's claims about vegan diets
Stock photo

The following letter from two Lakehead University associate professors is in response to a column regarding vegan diets, published Feb. 21:

The popularity of plant-based diets has grown rapidly in the last 10 years, especially among young people, so the opinion piece recently reprinted here may resonate with readers. Given the amount of misinformation it contains, however, we felt it important to respond.

First, there’s no reason to worry about people who are denouncing meat and dairy products — and certainly no need to put them on antidepressants. It’s perfectly fine to seek alternatives.

In the Canada Food Guide, for instance, meat is no longer a separate category but listed alongside nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, peas, and soy products as “protein foods.” In fact, the guide recommends people “try to choose protein foods that come from plants every day. Plant-based protein foods can provide more fibre and less saturated fat than other types of protein foods. This can be beneficial for your heart health.” See, no need to panic.

Besides lack of energy, none of the problems listed have been causally linked to plant-based diets. None. This is especially true of mental health issues, which seem to be mentioned to fuel the letter writer’s misplaced panic.

While it’s true that plant-based diets can make people feel tired, this has been clearly linked to the decrease in vitamin B12 that comes from avoiding animal products. The Canada Food Guide mentions this as well. Luckily, there are many foods fortified with B12, or a supplement can be taken. The fact remains: Every vitamin and nutrient required for healthy living can be achieved through a diet free from animal products.

Plant-based diets imply whole foods from plants. This includes pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits and — yes — even grains and oils. Poor food choices can be made in any diet; a diet of Oreos and orange juice would technically be vegan but it would likely also lead to health complications. This is why the Canada Food Guide recommends consuming a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein foods. If someone only eats cereal and almond milk, that doesn’t make them vegan; that makes them malnourished.

It’s sad to hear the author has never met a “healthy, vibrant vegan.” Maybe go to your local vegan restaurant, enjoy a wonderful meal, and ask around. (We’re lucky to have the folks from Shine here in Orillia). It’s also unfortunate that the author suffered health consequences when trying a raw food diet. But that’s very different from regular plant-based diets and indeed not for everyone.

In fact, and as an example, no one should ever eat raw or undercooked pulses. As nutritious as they are, pulses like chickpeas, lentils and dried beans contain toxins that only become edible after thorough cooking. Raw by no means equals healthy.

Contrary to the position in the article, scientific studies show that a plant-based diet can be very good for you. For instance, researchers have found plant-based diets help lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, treat and prevent Type 2 diabetes, and reduce the risk of stroke. And for people currently on cholesterol medication: Food-based cholesterol only comes from animal sources, so it’s no surprise a plant-based diet has been consistently proven to lower cholesterol. Taken together, the facts are clear: Plant-based diets can be extremely healthy lifestyle choices.

It’s ultimately important to do what’s right for you. But let others do the same. The Canada Food Guide provides several useful recommendations for how to eat healthy — and it includes entirely plant-based options in its guidelines.

Ryan McVeigh, PhD (sociology)
Thamara Laredo, PhD (chemistry)