Top-ten reasons to go plant-based/vegan that actually aren't.
Let me begin this rather long blog post with a bit of a warning. If you are a vegan and have been for longer than two years or so, stop reading now! This post will only anger and frustrate you. This post is not for you. It is meant for those contemplating a fully plant-based diet, or those who have recently changed to a plant-based diet and haven't made vegan part of their identity yet. It is also meant for those with family and friends of those that fit the above description. Hopefully, this post can help provide some info you might use to help you help them help themselves into not getting into a plant-based lifestyle for the wrong reasons.
Top-ten reasons to go plant-based/vegan that actually aren't.
As someone with a rather complicated health history, I have a great interest in nutrition. I've been using much of my time and much of my engineering and data skills and knowledge to find and eliminate those parts of my diet that are hurting me and find, increase and/or introduce those parts that are lacking, in order for me to maximize my personal survival probability. As someone concerned with not just my own health, but also the health of our planet, I've also put quite some time looking into the environmental consequences of my dietary choices. I've been down a few dead-end roads. So far the biggest health disaster in terms of diet for me has been a low protein low-fat high carbohydrate diet. A second problematic road for me was the road where I tried getting most of my proteins from legumes. A third, and significantly less disastrous road for me, but still one that had undesired consequences, was trying a diet without meat, fish, and dairy. All of these dead-end roads share one thing. They all were diets that in essence were mostly plant-based.
- Low protein combined with rinse and repeat dieting gave me severe mobility problems.
- A higher protein diet with most of the protein from legumes gave me severe headaches.
- A higher protein diet with most of the protein from plants, eggs and insects (no dairy, meat or fish) gave me gum disease.
Each of these causal links took me years to discover, and I had my data skills, engineering skills, and training in causal inference at my disposal to find them. Most people would either end up with a wide range of medication and therapy, not considering diet might play a role in their health issues, or use naive non-repeated elimination techniques to identify the problem, resulting in many additional false positives.
Today, with plant-based diet becoming trendy, and with plant-based eating advocates becoming both more vocal and more organized, and the message becomes more polished, it saddens me to see increasing numbers of people blindly running into a diet that is likely to lead to one or more health issues. While dietary requirements differ greatly from person to person, and yes, some people might benefit from a mostly plant-based diet while others will suffer because of it, the message used to get people to go plant-based is multi-faceted, and regretfully, based mostly on old refuted science and myths. In this post I want to, next to warning people about the importance of individually tuned diets, making a diet fit for one person a health disaster for the next, adress my top ten of most misleading plant-based or vegan myths. I hope, after reading this count down, you will think twice before opting for a plant-based diet for the wrong reasons.
Note that, because this is a top ten list, I won't go into the subjects too deeply and I won't try to turn this into an external link monstrosity. I trust that armed with this list you will be able to reason and research and make up your mind. Remember, this blog post is pure narrative as is the vegan narrative it argues against. Try to learn about complex system mechanics, engineering, causal inference and statistics and seek out the data yourself before trusting anyone narrative, including mine!
10: Myth:There is no need to eat "non-essential" nutrients.
You will have heard the story, plant-based foods have all the essential nutrients we need. But what does essential actually mean? An essential nutrient is a nutrient that we can't make inside of our body through the biochemical processes our body provides. Nine out of twentyone amino acids are essential amino acids. The polyunsaturated fats, alpha-Linolenic acid (ALA, an omega 3 faty acid) and Linoleic acid (LA, an omega 6 fatty acid) are essential, other fatty acids are not. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the two other omega 3 faty acids are created in the body from alpha-linolenic acid. But while conversion from alpha-linolenic acid to eicosapentaenoic acid shouldn't be a problem for anyone, our conversion rate from alpha-linolenic acid to docosahexaenoic acid is severely restricted. Similar pathways exist for example between carotenoids and retinoids (vit A), between phytomenadione and menaquinone (vit K). And an important aspect of some of these pathways is that their conversion rates aren't universal. Person A might be doing just dandy on vitamin K eating shitloads of kale and spinach while person B might need significant sources of menaquinone in his or her diet. Not all non-essential nutrients are actually non-essential for everyone. A low or zero level of non-essential nutrients is non-optimal for many. If you cut out non-essential nutrients from your diet, you risk your conversion pathways being insufficient to provide sufficient levels of the non-essential nutrients from the essential nutrients.
9: Myth: It is "easy" to get enough protein of a plant-based diet.
When looking at health risks, there are two important thresholds age in your life that determine a huge chunk of the overall risk of premature death. If you want to minimize your risk of dying prematurely during middle age, you should aim to enter middle age with a low waist circumference. Vegan and plant-based dieters that don't watch their protein age good on that one, usually. Potentially lacking proper levels of non-essential nutrients and often lacking proper levels of protein and an unbalanced amino acid profile, vegans are at a higher risk of being malnourished than they are at being fat. But then we get to the second threshold. If you want to minimize your risk of dying prematurely during old age, you should aim to enter old age with maximum lean body mass. The survival rate of health events for strong high LBM elderly is many times higher than the survival rate of health events for frail low LBM elderly. In order to maximize LBM in an individually appropriate way, getting an optimal level of protein is essential, as is some level of resistance training. While the optimal level differs from one person to the next, the optimal level appears to be somewhere between 2.0 and 2.5 grams for each kg of lean body mass. There is no harm in playing it safe and opting for a safe margin of 2.5g per kg of LBM. This means that if you weigh 70 kg and have a body fat percentage of 15%, your target daily protein intake should be around 150 grams. It is possible that 120g would be enough for you, but it is likely it won't be optimal. There are ways to test your personal optimal level and I would suggest anyone going plant-based who are afraid of protein supplements, to use these to figure it out for themselves, but for most of us, going for the 2.5 should give you a safe target to work with.
This optimal level isn't 'easy' to get by any means. Not for a non-vegan and certainly not for a vegan. If your diet is high in fat, high in carbohydrates, or worst of all, high in both, chances are you aren't getting optimal protein. Getting optimal levels of protein in the twenty-first century is quite a challenge for people on a regular omnivore diet. Cut out important lean sources of protein, and it gets even harder. As such, no, it isn't in any way easy to get enough protein on a plant-based diet. Chances are that if you don't want to be planing every meal, days in advance to meet your protein targets, you should supplement your proteins when going plant-based.
8: Myth: Animal-sourced food is intrinsically bad for the environment, plant-based intrinsically good.
Now for the environment. We shall discard greenhouse gasses for now (we will visit that one later on in this list) and focus on other important environmental impact factors of food production. Lets start by looking at our prime environmental concerns:
- fertilizer washout
- biodiversity loss
- soil depletion
- soil burning
- water usage
- land conversion
- invasive species
A top ten within our top ten, so let's be quick. Different types of agriculture have different levels of impact on each of the above ten environmental aspects. It is important, as we will see later when we get to discussing the world population and agricultural land efficiency when creating an honest view on the impact of different types of agriculture that we look at the per acre impact of these types of agriculture. Not the per weight impact or the per kcal impact.
When looking at it fairly, we see that land use by native hunter-gatherer tribes has the lowest environmental footprint, followed quite closely by similar tribes who also practice agriculture without the concept of permanent plots and by migratory tribes who travel large distances with their livestock, following seasonal patterns.
On the other side of the spectrum, we see soil depleting mono-crop agriculture with little to no land rotation, heavy use of pesticides, herbicides, GMO crops, and fertilizers, reaping environmental havoc. It is important to recognize here that extremely low yield, mostly animal agriculture has by far the lowest footprint per acre and that extremely high yield plant agriculture has the biggest footprint per acre. Pesticides that destroy biodiversity. Herbicides teamed up with GMO crops that pollute way beyond the fields they are used in and threaten not just local plant biodiversity but whole ecosystems. Fertilizers that both burn the soil, and through washout contribute to red-tide dead zones in our seas. Soil depletion, that we will later touch on, contributes to other problems. High usage of groundwater, depending on the region, aggravating problems with invasive species of pests from other continents, and when land is converted, conversion to mono-crop land tends to have the highest negative impact on the environment of all types of land conversion.
An argument that is often used by plant-based advocates is that quite a large part of the world's mono-crop land (about 30%) is used for feeding cattle. While this is true, as we will see later when discussing population size, we will see this fact actually attenuates some of the indirect negative effects of mono-cropping. More on that later. The bottom line is, when it comes to the environmental impact of land usage, mono-crop plant agriculture leads by a huge distance. If we want to decrease the environmental impact of land, we will need to move the usage of that land away from fertilizer/pesticides/herbicides/GMO/soil-depletion heavy plant mono-cropping and closer to the low yield land usage of native tribes. But we should do so in a way that makes economic sense to the people living on the land.
Boycotting Brazilian beef because the way cattle farmers use the land is two steps backward from the way native tribes use the land isn't the answer if doing so creates an economic incentive to turn the newly created open forest type pastures into fields of mono-crops. What the Amazon needs is a fair-trade ecologically-sound equivalent of truffles from the Piedmont area in Italy, even if that equivalent is pickled Capybara liver. What the amazon doesn't need is a boycott of its beef by a tribe of misguided millennial hipsters who really feel they are saving the world from doom by doing so.
7: Myth: Animal-sourced foods cause CVD
Back to the topic of health. Cardiovascular disease. This one comes down to an old and very much disputed hypothesis turned to public health policy, turned to a convenient factoid for the vegan community. The hypothesis is that diet, serum lipoprotein levels and cardiovascular disease are causally related, and that:
- Consuming either cholesterol or saturated fat increases low-density lipoprotein levels.
- Elevated low-density lipoprotein levels, regardless of the reason for low-density lipoprotein levels being elevated, causes CVD.
In the last decade, and to al lesser extend the decade before that, this hypothesis has been increasingly been questioned, but what is more, alternative diet responsive bio markers with much stronger predictive power than low-density lipoprotein levels are giving us quite a different picture of what dietary patterns might be risk increasing patterns. For example, the ratio between the serum triglyceride level and the serum high-density lipoprotein level is significantly more predictive of CVD risk than LDL levels.
Please note that neither RR implies direct causality. Both biomarkers are very much surrogates for real endpoints, and it is very possible for both RRs to not be in a direct causal path.
The interesting thing is though, the marker with the stronger RR is associated not with a diet high in meat, eggs, SFA and cholesterol, but with a diet high in processed plant-based carbohydrates and processed plant-based polyunsaturated cooking oils. The evidence that plant-based seed oils and plant-based processed carbs cause CVD, while not conclusive, is much stronger than the evidence for the original diet-heart hypothesis has ever been. We can not say with certainty that saturated fat doesn't cause CVD in the same way that we can not say with certainty that Russel's teapot isn't orbiting around our sun somewhere in our solar system. We can say though that neither is very likely given the actual evidence and given what we know about the actual mechanisms of CVD. The Insulin Resistance model of CVD, the inflammation model of CVD and for some specific cased coagulation each currently have stronger and more internally consistent evidence than the old diet-heart hypothesis. Especially as LDL lowering through any no non-statin method has ever been shown beneficial to cardiovascular mortality. And even for statins the evidence is increasingly being challenged. Look up Michel de Lorgeril, David Diamond and Ivor Cummings for more info on alternative models and the questionable outcomes earlier statin trials to find out more about this subject.
Bottom line: a diet high in whole animal food sourced fat and cholesterol and low in processed carbs and seed oils is more likely to prevent CVD than to cause it.
6: Myth: Animal sourced foods are a major contributor to global warming.
Here is where things become fun. Global warming. According to vegan gobshites like Kip Anderson and his documentaries, cows are a major contributor to global warming. If you have been following recent media attention, recently 11,000 climate scientists, including the venerable Professor Mickey Mouse, signed a "tell it like it is" editorial telling us amongst other things that burping and farting killer cows are about to destroy our planet. But are they?
To understand the topic it is important to distinguish between global temperature and global warming. If a factor contributes to global temperature, and another factor contributes to global warming, those two things are quite distinct effects indeed. Another important aspect to take into account is cycle length. If cycle length is really short, effects from short-cycle processes can not be weighed on the same scale as long cycle processes.
To illustrate let's look at a fictitious example.
Imagine a humanitarian crisis in North America. Much of the population of North America has Europen roots, so if North Americans with European roots flee to Europe as refugees, given that their ancestors migrated to North America before, you could look at these refugees as a long-cycle inflow of people, contributing both to the population size and the population growth of Europe, at least during the humanitarian crisis.
Now imagine elderly European couples. They have a pretty decent pension, and what they do is, they travel. Short trips, ten, twelve times a year. Thede elderly couples contribute to the population size of Europe. They might even, due to health care usage at their advanced age and lifestyle, make disproportionate use of healthcare public services and thus contribute disproportionately more to the indirect cost of the population size. One thing they do not however do is contribute to population growth.
But in comes the new European millennial anti-boomer hipster party (EMABHP) and funds anti-boomer research into population growth. They measure the inflow of people at European borders and airports and what happens? They discover that only 30% of all people entering Europe are refugees, while 40% are elderly couples returning from short trips. Conclusion: boomer pensioners contribute more to population growth than North American refugees.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But for some reason when this scenario is applied to greenhouse gas emissions where the never-ending flow of refugees are fossil and fossil-derived GHG emissions and the elderly couples are stable-size hurds of free-range grass-fed bovine, many people get confused. It's the problem of getting too close to see. When counting people at the airport, an elderly couple coming back from a short trip and a refugee elderly couple could be as similar as a fossil methane molecule and a cow-burp methane molecule, and if you don't zoom out and look at cycle length, it's easy to miss how two indistinguishable things can have such different effects from a systems perspective.
Yes, cows influence the temperature, but not the rise in temperature. Global temperature, not global warming. Unless you grasp the essential difference between those two concepts, you end up allowing yourself to be duped by the slick vegan narrative.
5: Myth: We need to shift to a more plant-based diet to feed the almost 10 billion people the world will soon house.
Remember the native tribes in the amazon and their diet? How about the nomadic herdsmen? Low food yield from the land they occupy and as a result a low population density. Now look at places in the world like India and Bangladesh and consider how their traditional dishes, their traditional diet, and the agricultural system contributed to the population density. Notice a pattern? Low food yield land usage, a higher percentage of animal-sourced foods, lower population density, lower environmental footprint. High food yield land usage, a lower percentage of animal-sourced foods, higher population density, higher environmental footprint. Land use efficiency drives both population size and environmental footprint.
Interesting then that the approaching population size of almost 10,000,000,000 people on this planet is being used as a justification for a global diet that moves even more towards a dominantly plant-based diet. Doubling down on the very thing that quite reasonably can be labeled as the cause of your problems, thinking that doing so is going to be the solution to the very problems it caused, doesn't exactly appear to be a smart move.
But this is the narrative the plant-based advocates are actually using. We need to move to a mostly plant-based diet in order to stop deforestation, forgetting that this very deforestation happens to be caused by the same level of land food-yield economics as the ones that favor mono-crops over partures.
It is a narrative, also that shows a total lack of understanding of the basic principles of economics and game theory. You don't stop people from using their land in ways you don't approve of by boycotting the use of their products, you do so by paying a fair price for products they can produce on that same land in a way you would approve of. It's the truffles vs soybean example. Low yield low impact high price vs high yield high impact low price.
And no, advocating low yield land usage doesn't mean I'm advocating deforestation, letting people go hungry, or any other strawman that Twitter vegans like to bring up when I point them to these realities. I am not proposing any solution here, I am just showing that using what boils down to doubling up on the cause of the problem can only shortly alleviate the problem, before making it much and much worse. Think you have a problem feeding 10 billion people soon? Think in 80 or 120 years when we've all switched to a vegan diet, allowing the population to grow to 40..50 billion, those problems will have become easier to solve? No, they won't be, and at that population size, it will be impossible to do what today we could still aim for: Slowly but steadily do the exact opposite. Move away from high yield agriculture, slowly shrinking our population size to one sustainable on lower yield land usage.
4: Myth: Eating plants results in less animal cruelty and fewer animal deaths than eating animal-sourced foods.
This is a tough one. It is the ethical reason most vegans are vegan, and pretty much the core of vegan identity. The problem though is that the body count for most mono-crop plant agriculture, including that for the production of many plant-based proteins, isn't exactly zero. But also that the way many of the animals die in monocropping isn't close to as humane as the way modern-day slaughter happens for animals like cows and sheep. Yes, there are exceptions, and some of these vegan shared movies aren't staged by PETA idiots, but these are exceptions. This while baby rodents starving after their parents were poisoned isn't an exception. Specifically not in countries where these rodents are an invasive species from another continent, turned into a regular infestation because of plant mono-cropping. The sea creatures suffocating from red tide caused by fertilizer washout isn't an exception either. Neither are the deaths and suffering from pesticides amongst birds. We'll discount lower animals like snails and insects for now, as the question of sentience makes those a difficult nut to crack. The baseline is that a typical omnivore diet using FRGF cows for meat will relatively humanely kill less than two grass-fed cows per person per decade. That same typical omnivore diet, consuming mono-crop staples, will kill significantly more than two birds and rodents alone per decade. It might be possible to eat vegan in a cruelty-free zero (sentient) body-count way, cutting out both animal products and mono-crop products, but keeping only one of these two, cutting out mono-crop products will have by far the bigger impact. Further, getting optimal full and balanced AA-spectrum protein, on a 100% cruelty-free diet with a zero body count should prove quite a challenge.
3: Myth: he meat, egg and dairy industry is corrupting nutrition science, real science points to animal-sourced foods being unhealthy.
Seen The Game Changers on Netflix? James Cameron, like many plant-based advocates, loves to point out that the food industry, specifically the meat, egg, and dairy industry, is corrupting science by funding research into the health effects of animal products. And you know what? He is right. Big food is meddling with science, the same way big petro is, and the same way big pharma is. There is no reason to believe the meat, egg, and dairy industry aren't playing this game also. But how well are they succeeding? One important question to ask is, who benefits from what outcomes, and how much profits are they making?
On one side we have the meat, egg and dairy farmers. They don't make that much money, just like the soy farmers don't, the corn farmers don't, so we can discard these.
On the other side, we have the food processing and packaging companies. There is quite some money flowing there, but interestingly enough, the profits these companies make increase if they manage to replace low yield ingredients like beef, with high yield alternatives such as pea protein. By the way, a product that the director of The Game Changers is a huge stakeholder in, making The Game Changers basically one very well made informercial for big food. Cameron is big-food, so his stab at big food for corrupting science and comparing it to the tobacco industry is, let's call it interesting. Remember the manly man adds for Malboro cigarettes? Cameron has a stab at our manhood too in his movie, playing into the insecurities of men to get them to eat his pea protein? Hmm.
But let's look closer at big food. Have a look at the companies behind the EAT initiative. A pseudoscientific initiative with a big food agenda they don't even try to hide. The list of big food companies even lists companies that today rely greatly on animal-sourced ingredients. If people switch from milk-based desserts to plant-based desserts, their profit margins increase.
But the plant-based narrative doesn't stop being profitable at the borders of big food. It stretches way beyond. Plant-based advocates and big food love to perpetuate the idea that cholesterol is bad and animal-sourced fats are unhealthy. But they are not the only ones for who that narrative is profitable. While science is casting increasingly more doubt on the causal role of low-density lipoprotein in cardiovascular disease, the farmaceutical industry is still making billions on newer generations of cholesterol-lowering drugs. Big food and big pharma both need you tho think your own body is trying to kill you with LDL particles.
Similar to climate science. Big petrol will love you to believe cows are of greater concern than fossil fuel when it comes to the climate.
So yes, corruption of science is very much real, and the plant-based narrative is pretty much where four sources of corruption converge in a convenient for all narrative. One scapegoat and billions upon billions in lobbying, marketing and study funding to support that narrative. Beef farmers could never fund a professionally made piece of propaganda like the one Cameron created for himself and his big food buddies.
2: Myth: Plant-based diet is safe for people of all ages and all life stages.
We are at the runner up in our top ten. Number two, and my personal pet peeve in this list. To be frank, if you are old enough to vote, not pregnant, not breastfeeding, and if after reading this top ten you still feel it a good idea to go on a 100% plant-based diet, go right ahead, it's your own choice, I won't mind a bit. It's quite a different thing though when it's not just you. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, or if you are coercing or persuading your young child into adopting those same dietary choices. Where it is hard for an adult to figure out exactly what nonessential nutrients they can truly do without or do with very little of, doing so for a child who isn't yet born or isn't able yet to form a coherent sentence of more than a hand full of words, is quite impossible. There are literally dozens of case studies of parents causing stunted growth, severe irreversible brain damage or even death by giving their unborn or young kids a one-sided vegan or vegan adjacent diet inappropriate for their stage of development. While a few (irresponsible) organizations claim a well planned vegan diet is appropriate for all ages and all stages of life, it is essential to realize that without full-time monitoring by nutritional experts, very few people are actually capable of either planning or executing such a well planned vegan diet for their children.
Apart from pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children, there is a third group for who a vegan diet is potentially very dangerous. Young adults. There are climbing youth suicide rates as well as climbing numbers of vegan young adults. While an association doesn't equal causation, there are mechanistic pathways that do make a causal link likely. We shouldn't assume causation yet, no, but it is also way too early to claim that a vegan diet is safe for young adults.
1: Myth: A mostly plant based diet is associated with longevity.
Now for the big one. Longevity. Vegans like to claim their diet is a longevity diet. A diet that prevents heart disease, diabetes, cancer, everything except dying in a plane crash basically. But is it, really?
A while back I did this analysis of longevity in the China Study data set. I took food intake of different food stufs, normalized for body weight, looked how that food intake correlated to the longevity metric of the probability of living to an age of 80 years old, and guess what? Counter to what Campbell would have us believe, the foodstuff most positively associated with longevity were:
- Saturated fat
- Monounsaturated fat
- Red meat
- Animal protein
While the foodstuff most negatively associated with longevity were:
- Plant food
Can we claim that either SFA, cholesterol, meat or animal protein contributes to increased longevity? No, that would be a way too strong claim based on this data. We can say though that it is very unlikely any of the top X variables, including SFA, cholesterol, animal protein and meat has a significant detrimental effect on longevity.
In other words, there is no reason to assume a 100% plant-based diet will have a positive effect on longevity.