Dietary Iron – the surprising truth

When I went to the doctor for my annual physical after adopting a vegan diet, I was a little surprised that he wanted to check my iron levels to make sure I didn’t have anemia.

My iron levels were fine, but the truth behind dietary iron is surprising. While my doctor was concerned about anemia, it turns out that iron overload is now becoming more common in the United States than iron deficiency.

Non-heme iron better than heme iron

There are two types of iron: heme iron that is only found in meat and non-heme iron that is the only kind found in plants.

Heme iron is found in shellfish, red meat, poultry, and fish with the darkest meats containing the most iron. It is the most readily absorbed form of iron and you generally absorb between 15% to 35% of the heme iron you consume. However its uptake is unregulated – so consuming too much meat, especially red meat, can eventually lead to iron overload.

Non heme iron, is the only form of iron found in plants, but is also present in eggs, milk and meat. It is less easily absorbed with only 2% to 20% being absorbed. Unlike heme iron its uptake is regulated; your body will only use the iron it needs. So a vegan diet avoids the risk of iron overload.

Iron deficiency is no more common in vegans than in the normal population presumably because typical vegan foods contain high amounts of non-heme iron.

Too much iron is bad for you

Too much iron creates free radicals which in turn wreak havoc within your body. Elevated iron stores have been associated with many diseases including inflammation, arthritis, diabetes, gall stones, cancer and heart disease.

Your stores of iron accumulate with the absorption of dietary iron, but your body has no mechanism for excreting excess iron. Although regular loss of blood though blood donation or menstruation can offer some protection against iron overload.

Studies have shown an almost linear increase of iron stores with age in men eating a typical diet. Iron stores in vegans tend to be lower, lowering their risk of disease without making them any more prone to deficiency.

Another risk to consider is that one in every two hundred people have the genetic mutation for hereditary hemochromatosis – this often undiagnosed condition results in two to three times as much dietary iron being absorbed than normal.

Making the most of your iron

Foods such as beans and greens contain plenty of safe non-heme iron whereas supplements contain potentially dangerous heme iron. So to meet your iron needs I would recommend eating plenty of iron rich plant foods and avoiding supplements containing iron unless you are undergoing treatment for a diagnosed iron deficiency.

Some foods containing phytates (whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds), polyphenols (coffee, tea, red wine) and calcium supplements can inhibit non-heme iron absorption. However vitamin C (plentiful in greens and fruit) can increase iron absorption by as much as 30%.

You need to replace 0.9 mg per day of iron lost through bodily processes . Menstruating females need to replace an additional 0.4 mg per day. Pregnancy or lactation requires an additional 4 mg per day.

Recommended Daily Intake

Given the range of absorption levels, the daily recommended intake may not be very accurate for you personally. The recommendations are 1.8 times higher for vegans and vegetarians. However, as is often the case with these kinds of recommendations, a worst case diet (biased towards inhibitors) was assumed.

Institute of Medicine Iron RDI (omnivore/vegetarian):

  • Men and post-menopausal women (8mg/14.4mg)
  • Menstruating Females (18mg/32.5mg)
  • Breastfeeding (9mg/16.2mg)
  • Pregnancy (27mg/48.6mg)

Generally if you are eating a healthy vegan diet you will be getting plenty of non-heme iron.

You can optimize your intake by:

  • Eating lots of iron rich plant foods such as legumes and greens
  • Avoiding tea, coffee and calcium supplements during meals
  • Including vitamin C rich foods such as greens and fruit in your meals
Posted in Health | 2 Comments

B12 for vegans

If you are switching from a standard American diet to a plant-based diet you will almost certainly be adopting a more nutritionally complete diet. And while you might be inspired to do some fine tuning – you can generally rest easy knowing that your nutritional needs are being met.

Except, that is, for vitamin B12.

What is B12

B12 which is also known as cobalamin, is a water soluble vitamin essential for the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, and for the formation of blood. It is the largest and most complicated vitamin and can only be produced by certain bacteria.

B12 from animal products

B12 is present in meat and milk because animals either consume food contaminated with B12 producing bacteria (they don’t worry about grabbing a mouth full of earth with their food) or they are ruminants (cows) that can get B12 from bacteria in their gut.

However even the levels of B12 in animal meat and milk can be a concern. B12 in milk is depleted by sterilization (pasteurization or ultra-heat treatment). Most farm animals are fed corn or grain grown on sterilized soil supplemented by inorganic NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) fertilizers – soil that is likely devoid of the B12 producing bacteria. And modern factory farmed animals are pumped full of antibiotics which may inhibit the B12 producing bacteria in their guts.

Some recent studies have shown that B12 deficiencies are actually more prevalent or as prevalent in people on a standard American diet. With maybe two thirds of the population flirting with B12 deficiencies.

Also the ability to absorb sufficient B12 from animal products seems to be an issue especially as people age – with a recommendation that everyone over the age of 50 should take supplemental B12.

B12 From Plants

It has been suggested that B12 can be found in a number of plant food sources such as tempeh, nutritional yeast, spirulina and seaweed. However no reliable plant source of B12 has yet been found.

B12 has been found in batches of mushrooms, seaweeds and fermented foods, but the presence of B12 in these foods is not considered reliable enough for you to bet your health on it.

Spirulina and other algae are of special interest because they contain a pseudo-B12 and these inactive B12 analogues do not work as B12 in humans. In fact its presence can act as a false positive in the immunoassay test used for testing B12. So if you consume spirulina and get a standard B12 blood test – the test could falsely show high levels of B12, but you might actually be deficient in B12.

Nutritional Yeast only contains B12 when it has been artificially fortified with B12 and not all nutritional yeast is fortified so you need to check the nutrition label.

Natural Diet Advocates

Some evangelists really like the idea that a vegan diet is a naturally healthy diet that shouldn’t require supplementation.

However the consensus of the vegan community and the medical evidence show that B12 deficiency is a real risk for vegans who do not supplement.

There maybe cases of vegan’s thriving without B12 supplementation, however these are in the minority and we don’t know the specifics. Maybe they are highly efficient at processing B12, maybe they are consuming B12 supplemented foods without realizing it, maybe they are consuming food contaminated with B12 producing bacteria.

Up to 30 years of B12 can be stored in the body, so maybe some people are just living off their reserves and storing up trouble for the future.

It may be, as some suggest, that most healthy individuals don’t require B12 supplementation and all cases of B12 deficiency in humans are due to some other confounding factor.

However, supplementation with B12 is safe and easy and a B12 deficiency can result in permanent neurological damage, so it would seem that the sensible option would be supplementation.

B12 Supplements

B12 can be found in most supplements and many foods such as soy milk are fortified with B12.

The regular form of B12 (cobalamin) used in supplements is cyanocobalamin – which is an inactive form of B12 bound to cyanide. This is broken down by metabolism into methylcobalamin and cyanide. Cyanide is a poison but is assumed to be tolerable at these small doses except for people who exhibit cyanide sensitivities. Flushing the cyanide out of your system does use up some antioxidants so this form of B12 may be putting a slight additional strain on your body.

A number of quality supplements contain an active form of B12 methylcobalamin that does not need to be metabolized making it more bioavailable which could be an advantage for people with certain health issues. It also has the advantage of not exposing you to that small dose of cyanide.

The natural form of B12 is hydroxocobalamin and can be intravenously injected to treat diagnosed B12 vitamin deficiencies.

B12 can also be absorbed sublingually (under your tongue). This method bypasses the digestive system so it may be more suitable for people with serious digestive disorders.

My Conclusion

Based on my research I have chosen to take a supplement that contains the high quality form of B12 methylcobalamin. I expect any form of B12 supplimentation would be sufficient, but I have been able to find this potentially better form of B12 in a quality multivitamin which keeps my life simple.

I take Dr Fuhrman’s Gentle Care Formula Vegan Multivitamin, but there are hundreds of other methylcobalamine B12 products on Amazon.

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99 cent Ultimate Vegan Guide

So far on this blog we have discussed the advantages of a healthy vegan diet, but we haven’t spent much time on the basics of how exactly to go about eating a vegan diet.

99c Kindle download

Well I have just heard that Erik Marcus of fame has released an updated 2011 edition of his popular Ultimate Vegan Guide.

Even better he has made it available as a 99 cent download for Kindle. I have downloaded my copy already!

Survival Guide

This book is a great little how to guide for people wanting to go vegan. The first 20% of the book briefly covers the health, environmental and ethical reasons to go vegan. The rest of the book is a straight forward survival guide for vegans covering basics such as getting started, nutrition, shopping, eating out and more.

Short and sweet

Each chapter is similar in length to a good blog post, which makes it a great little resource, but be aware that it is only about a third the length of some other vegan books I have read. Erik informed me that the paperback version is 172 pages.

Other reading options

If you don’t have a Kindle there are two other options available, you could pick up a paperback for $8.95 or you could read it for free on the blog.

What are you waiting for?

With options from free to paperback there should be an option to suit everyone:

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Vegan Conflict

There is a conflict over what we eat going on between the vegan advocates and the meat and dairy promoters. With the recent release of the film Forks Over Knives raising the ante.

Vegan advocates are excited to promote a vegan diet that:

  • appears to be considerably healthier than the standard American diet
  • doesn’t require us to exploit animals
  • puts less of a burden on our environment

However are some going a little to far in their enthusiasm to spread the message to a larger audience?

Herbivore or Carnivore

Some vegan advocates have suggested that we are natural herbivores whilst meat eaters have argued that we are natural carnivores. These are false dichotomies – the truth is more complex.

Here are some arguments from the herbivores:

  • Our intestines are designed for digesting plants not meat
  • Meat eating is a recent development in human evolution that we haven’t adapted to
  • Herbivores and plant eating primates like gorillas do fine just eating plants

And here are some counter arguments from the carnivores:

  • Humans were made to eat animals
  • Primitive man ate a diet primarily of meat
  • Humans cannot survive without nutrients only found in meat

Let’s take a look at the facts behind these arguments.

Digestive Systems

Herbivores have long digestive systems optimized for breaking down cellulose whereas carnivores have short highly acidic digestives systems optimized for the quick processing and elimination of meat.

Our digestive system is indeed longer and considerably less acidic than those of carnivores, but it is also different than those of herbivores. Our digestive systems are shorter than those of herbivores, we do not ruminate like cows, we don’t regurgitate like rabbits and gorillas and we don’t have an extra large cecums like horses.

We have the intestines of an omnivore, a highly flexible digestive system that can deal with both plants and meat. However nothing in nature is black and white and in our case we don’t have the herbivores ability to break down foods with a high cellulose content and we don’t have the high acidity which allows carnivores to safely consume raw meat and carrion.

So we are biased towards more easily digestible plants, but we can consume higher cellulose foods and meat through cooking.

Human evolution

Archeological evidence shows that our ancestors have generally consumed some amount of animal products throughout our entire evolution. For most of that time meat consumption was probably very similar to our closest cousins the chimps at about 5% of calories.

About 35 thousand years ago Cro-Magnons managed to thrive in the cold climate of Europe through big game hunting. During this period and the coldest years of the Ice Age, meat consumption may have risen to as much as 50% of calories.

With the advent of agriculture in the Neolithic age meat consumption dropped back down to around 10% of calories.

And with the standard American diet we now consume about 69% of calories from animal sources.

The ability to eat plants when they were plentiful and eat meat during hard times has been a highly beneficial adaptation.

Herbivores, Primates and B12

Herbivores have specific adaptations which allow them to digest foods with a high cellulose content. They also have B12 rich bacteria in their gut which is absorbed through rumination and regurgitation. So whilst they clearly demonstrate that strong healthy animals can thrive on a 100% plant diet, they are not an ideal human comparison.

If we look at our closest cousins, the primates, we see that they have a number of mechanisms which allow them to get B12. Most monkeys including chimps eat meat. Those that do not eat meat have herbivore like digestive systems and also tend to consume B12 rich insects and bacteria along with the plants that they eat.

Gorilla’s, possibly the closest to vegan of the primates, regurgitate their food, eat insects and sometimes eat their own feces. Interestingly there have been some reports of wild animals kept in captivity and fed sterilized diets developing B12 deficiencies.

As for humans we are very efficient at utilizing and recycling B12 and we may even have as much as a 30 year reserve of B12. In the past bacterial contamination of our food with B12 rich strains of bacteria may have been sufficient to meet our B12 dietary needs even without animal sources.

The highly sterilized food sources of today may not provide us with a reliable source of B12. This last point is still somewhat controversial as most B12 deficiencies tend to present with confounding factors such as other dietary deficiencies or absorption problems. However most vegan coaches recommend some form of B12 supplementation just in case.

Shades of Grey

A lot of the arguments out there for or against a vegan diet tend to be black and white. As always the truth as always is more complex and what we need to focus on is the affect that modern food has on modern humans.

There is mounting evidence that the standard American diet with its high animal product and processed food content and low whole plant food content is harmful over the long run.

I choose a vegan diet, because it has been personally beneficial for me, it falls within the range of diets that are likely to be optimally healthy based on the current evidence available and because I find it easier and more enjoyable to eat a healthy vegan diet.

Are there other arguments for or against veganism that you have heard?

Posted in Health | 4 Comments

Are cherries the new superfood?

With cherry season almost upon us it is interesting to note that cherries are a particularly healthy fruit.

But don’t panic if you miss out this season.

The health benefits of cherries

According to Joel Fuhrman’s blog Disease Proof we should eat cherries for a healthy heart.

The benefits that Deana Ferreri cites in the post are:

  • Cherries protect against oxidative stress
  • Cherries reduce inflammation
  • Cherries act as a natural painkiller
  • Cherries may help you sleep

It is nice to know that such a tasty fruit has all these interesting health benefits.

The case for variety

The reality is that all fruits and vegetables contain innumerable antioxidants and phytochemicals that are beneficial to health. It is fun to observe the latest health benefits attributed to a particular plant, but remember that the best approach is to eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables.

Superfood media frenzy

It is hard to get a balanced understanding of nutrition listening to the media because what makes for a good news article (or blog post) doesn’t provide the most balanced view.

It is typical to see news stories about some food, say cherries, being touted as the latest superfood because research sponsored by some interested party, say the California Cherry Advisory Board, identifies some health benefit.

I expect that with sufficient funding research could be done to show that any food has a health benefit. For example any food fed to malnourished children in Kenya is likely to be beneficial.

We are still learning

Over the last one hundred years we have discovered the importance of the macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, fat) and then vitamins (A, B, C etc.) to health. And recently we have started to realize the importance of the thousands of phytochemicals (flavonoids, phytoestrogens, Lycopene etc.) in plants – many of which are destroyed by food processing.

We are at an exciting time for nutrition where there is as much to discover as is already known. Your best chance for maximizing your health is to not obsess over the details and focus on the general trend.

If you don’t get your hands on any cherries this season, don’t panic, just remember to eat a nice variety of fruits and vegetables. I’m sure Dr Fuhrman would agree.

Posted in Food | 1 Comment

Can you ignore total cholesterol if your HDL is high enough?

When trying to understand your cholesterol numbers you will come across two distinct pieces of advice – lower your overall cholesterol and make sure your total cholesterol to HDL ratio is good. However you seldom see these two pieces of advice discussed together. So what should you do if your overall cholesterol level is high, but so is your HDL?

Focus on HDL and total cholesterol

The simple answer is you need to focus on both. To minimize your chance of atherosclerosis and heart disease you need to keep your total cholesterol low and your HDL high. Just having a good HDL is not sufficient to protect you from heart disease.

If you want to reduce your risk to near zero then:

  • Keep your total cholesterol below 150
  • Keep your HDL above 45
  • Keep your LDL below 80

The cooperative lipoprotein phenotyping study

A good example of why just focusing on your HDL ratio is insufficient can been seen in the data from the cooperative lipoprotein phenotyping study. This study of 6,859 Americans was one of the first to show that coronary heart disease was not just correlated with high total cholesterol but also inversely correlated with high HDL.

In this study we can clearly see that those with a high total cholesterol and high HDL are at higher risk of heart disease than those with low total cholesterol and low HDL. And the lowest risk is for those with low total cholesterol and high HDL.

However because this study was done in America LDL less than 140 is considered to be low, so we don’t see what the impact of exceptionally low LDL levels would be.

The china study

To examine the impact of even lower cholesterol levels we can look at epidemiological studies in other countries, the most famous of which is probably the china study. In China where the average total cholesterol is 127 the risk of dying from heart disease is considerably less than in the US and is some areas the risk is near zero.

If we look at the areas with extremely low mortality rates from ischemic heart diseases we see two things:

  • The majority have total cholesterol lower than 150
  • Of those with total cholesterol greater than 150 (but less than 182) the majority have high HDL (>48)

In fact Dr William Castelli (former director of the Framingham study) noted that no one who maintained a cholesterol level lower than 150 in Framingham has had a heart attack.

Heart Attack Proof

The standard recommendation from the American Heart Association is to keep your total cholesterol below 200 mg/dL in order to lower your risk of heart disease – despite the fact that one in four heart attacks occur in people in the 180 to 210 range. One reason that this higher number is chosen is because this number is still attainable by people on a standard American diet and they do not believe that the dietary changes necessary to reach a lower more protective number would be acceptable to most Americans.

They may well be correct, however a number of medical professionals now believe that we should provide people with the information not just to reduce their heart attack risk, but to eliminate it. This includes people like Caldwell B. Esselstyn (author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease) his son Rip Esselstyn author of The Engine 2 Diet and T. Colin Campbell (author of The China Study).

Personally I am choosing to virtually eliminate the chance of heart disease by adopting a healthy plant-based diet.


HDL cholesterol and other lipids in coronary heart disease. The cooperative lipoprotein phenotyping study
Castelli et al. 55 (5): 767. (1977)

The China Study II (1989)
Monograph on Chinese ecological study

Posted in Health | 5 Comments

Forks Over Knives

A new documentary Forks Over Knives is due to release starting May 6th in select North American cities. I’m really looking forward to seeing this movie as it directly addresses the health benefits of a vegan diet. It examines the claim that most, if not all, of the so-called “diseases of affluence” that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting animal-based and processed foods in favor of a plant-based diet.

The main interviews are with T. Colin Campbell (author of The China Study) and Caldwell B. Esselstyn (author of Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease). There is also a professional appearance from John McDougall (author of The McDougall Plan) among others.

Forks Over Knives Showings

Here are the current showings at time of writing, check out the Forks Over Knives website for updates.

UPDATE 4/29/2001: New Premiere locations added
NYC Premiere (April 26)
San Jose Premiere (May 3)
Seattle Premiere (May 4)
Phoenix Premiere (May 5)
Chicago Premiere (May 10)
San Diego Premiere (May 16)
Minneapolis Premiere (May 18)
Philadelphia Premiere (May 19)
Washington DC Premiere (May 11)

ATLANTA, GA (Begins May 20)
Midtown Art Cinema (Landmark), 931 Monroe Drive, Atlanta, GA 30308
AUSTIN, TX (Begins May 13)
Arbor Cinema (Regal), 9828 Great Hills Trail, Austin, TX 78759
BOSTON, MA (Begins May 13)
Kendall Square Cinema (Landmark), 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA 02139
CHICAGO, IL (Begins May 13) | Chicago Premiere (May 10)
Webster Place 11 (Regal), 1471 W. Webster Ave., Chicago, IL 60614
Century Theaters (Cinemark), 1715 Maple Ave., Evanston, IL 60201
DALLAS, TX (Begins May 13)
The Magnolia (Landmark), 3699 McKinney Ave., Dallas, TX 75204
DENVER, CO (Begins May 20)
Chez Artiste (Landmark), 2800 South Colorado Blvd., Denver, CO 80222
DETROIT, MI (Begins May 20)
Main Art Theater (Landmark), 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak, MI 48067
Sunrise Cinema at Sunrise 11, 4321 Northwest 88th Avenue, Sunrise, FL 33351
HOUSTON, TX (Begins May 13)
Edwards Greenway Palace 24 (Regal), 3839 Weslayan, Houston, TX 77027
LOS ANGELES, CA including Pasadena & Orange County (Begins May 6)
Sunset 5 (Laemmle), 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90046
Regent (Landmark), 1045 Broxton Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Monica 4 (Laemmle), 1332 2nd Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Playhouse 7 (Laemmle), 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, CA 91101
Edwards University Town Center 6 (Regal), 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, CA 92612
MIAMI BEACH, FL (Begins May 13)
South Beach Cinema 18 (Regal), 1120 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach, FL 33139
MINNEAPOLIS, MN (Begins May 20) | Minneapolis Premiere (May 18)
Lagoon Cinema (Landmark), 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis, MN 55408
NEW YORK, NY (Begins May 6) | NYC Premiere (April 26)
Sunshine Cinema (Landmark), 143 East Houston Street, New York, NY 10002
PHILADELPHIA, PA (Begins May 20) | Philadelphia Premiere (May 19)
Ritz at the Bourse (Landmark), 400 Ranstead Street. Philadelphia, PA 19106
Ritz Center, 900 Haddonfield-Berlin Road, Voorhees, NJ 08043
PHOENIX, AZ (Begins May 13) | Phoenix Premiere (May 5)
Camelview 5, 7001 E. Highland Ave., Scottsdale, AZ 85251
SAN DIEGO, CA (Begins May 20) | San Diego Premiere (May 16)
Hillcrest Cinemas (Landmark), 3965 5th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103
SAN FRANCISCO, CA including Marin County & Pleasant Hill (Begins May 13 & 20)
Bridge (Landmark), 3010 Geary Blvd. at Blake, San Francisco, CA 94118 (Beg. May 13)
Shattuck Cinemas (Landmark), 2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA 94704 (Beg. May 13)
Regency 6 (Cinemark), 280 Smith Ranch Rd, San Rafael, CA 94903 (Beg. May 20)
Cinearts @ Pleasant Hill (Cinemark), 2314 Monument, Pleasant Hill, CA 94523 (May 20)
SAN JOSE, CA (Begins May 13) | San Jose Premiere (May 3)
Santana Row (Cinemark), 3088 Olsen Drive, San Jose, CA 95128
SEATTLE, WA (Begins May 13) | Seattle Premiere (May 4)
Varsity Theater (Landmark), 4329 University Way, N.E., Seattle, WA 98104
TORONTO, ON (Begins May 20)
Cumberland 4 (Alliance Cinemas), 159 Cumberland Street, Toronto, ON, Canada
VANCOUVER, BC (Begins May 20)
International Village Cinemas, 88 West Pender, Vancouver, BC, Canada
WASHINGTON DC (Begins May 13) | Washington Premiere (May 11)
E Street Cinema (Landmark), 555 11th St NW. Washington, DC 20004
Shirlington 7 (AMC), 2772 South Randolph St., Arlington, VA 22206

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Earth Day – make a surprisingly large difference

Friday is Earth Day and we are being encouraged to each make our small contribution to ‘a billion acts of green’.

Have you thought about how you might contribute to earth day?

The view of a cynic

I’ve always been a bit of a cynic when it comes to environmentalism. I do worry that our current way of life is unsustainable, but is recycling a few batteries or planting a tree really going to make a difference? It just doesn’t seem like there is much that I could do personally that would offset my outrageously large footprint on the planet.

The economics

You see I think it’s all about the economics. For example, the only way that people are going to drive more sustainable vehicles is if those vehicles offer more benefits to the people that drive them. And lets face it an eight-seater SUV that can be filled up with gas in a few minutes is just a whole lot more useful than a pokey little all electric vehicle that takes hours to recharge.

Now an eight seater all electric SUV that charges in minutes and costs less to run than a gas guzzler – that’s going to make a difference. Of course where the electricity comes from is another matter entirely.

Can the government help?

Now the government could help by putting certain incentives in place. But politicians need to be elected and elections take money and the incumbent industries have plenty of money with which to influence the politicians. So I don’t expect to see huge changes coming from the government – unless, of course, it benefits someone else with lots of money to throw around.

Vote with your dollars

The thing that we can do, is vote with our dollars. Spend your money on things that have less impact on the environment. I’m not suggesting that you go out and stock up on organic cotton underwear and hemp sandals – unless you want to of course. I think there is a great win-win solution – something that benefits you and the environment.

Go vegan for earth day

Now given the name of this blog is VeganHealthAndFitness you may not be entirely surprised that I am suggesting a vegan diet. But I think you will be surprised at what an astounding difference that one change could make.

The environmental cost

It takes about 5200 gallons of water to make just one pound of beef. You’re not going to save that much water unless you stop showering for an entire year!

It takes 285 barrels of oil to make the fertilizer for the corn to feed a cow – that’s half a barrel of oil per pound of beef. It takes 25 times as much fossil fuel to produce a pound of beef than it does to grow a pound of soy.

Livestock are responsible for 18 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, more than cars, planes and all other forms of transport put together. So giving up meat and dairy would actually reduce greenhouse gases more than buying that electric car.

I could go on and on about pollution from factory farm effluent, topsoil erosion and antibiotic resistant bacteria but I think you get the point.

Good for your health

And as I discussed in my red pill post, adopting a plant based diet will help you to lose weight, avoid chronic disease and live longer.

Not a bad trade for being nice to the environment.

Posted in Environment | 3 Comments

Take the red pill – to lose weight, be healthy and live longer

Popularized by movies like The Matrix and Total Recall the term red pill represents embracing the painful truth of reality whereas taking the blue pill represents remaining in blissful ignorance. Becoming vegan feels very much like taking the red pill – your friends may not be ready to join you on the journey, but the deeper you dig the more it seems like everyone else is stuck in a false mental model.

Eat more weigh less

The standard American diet is packed full of foods which are calorie dense and low in nutritional value. These foods tap into our desire for fat and sugar but don’t provide the same amount of fiber and nutrients as the whole foods our ancestors would have eaten.

The high calorie density means that you are likely to consume too many calories in an effort to fill up. The low nutrient value and the stimulant effect of refined foods is likely to leave your body craving more food. As we have all experienced it’s way too easy to consume too many calories from these foods.

In contrast a healthy vegan diet centered around whole foods has a low calorie density, lots of fiber and high nutritional value. These foods fill you up, satisfy your need for nutrients and release sugars more slowly. You can eat more food, consume less calories and be free of food cravings.

Be unusually healthy

When you eat a standard American diet you become as disease prone as the standard American. Whilst that may be good for the $2.5 trillion American health care industry, it’s not good for you. The standard American diet leads to a whole host of preventable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, diverticulitis, dementia, macular degeneration etc.

These diseases are a result of too much of the bad stuff and not enough of the good stuff in your diet. In fact these diseases of affluence have been shown to be directly related to the increased availability of meat, dairy and processed foods in society.

I know – unbelievable right? How come no one mentioned this before now? Red pill remember!

Live longer

According to gerontologists the lifestyle factors affecting longevity are: a plant-based-diet rich in antioxidants and other phytochemicals, frequent consumption of nuts and legumes, a low calorie intake, low to normal BMI and regular exercise. As you might expect smoking and excessive alcohol consumption shorten life expectancy.

Perhaps the most interesting thing though is that a healthy vegan diet in combination with regular exercise can stave of the degenerative diseases commonly associated with old age. There’s a good chance you can avoid the bone, muscle and mental acuity losses normally associated with aging. You can remain strong and fit and healthy until the day you die.

However you probably will die sometime before you reach 125, although medical science doesn’t quite understand why yet. But I’ll take another 60 years of good health over a painful and expensive decline.

Take the vegan red pill

So if you take the red pill and combine a healthy vegan diet with exercise you can be slim, healthy and remain strong to the end of a surprisingly long life. If you take the blue pill you can continue to eat the standard American diet but you may end up paying for it with your waistline, your health, your money and ultimately your life.

A couple of books that cover these topics in more depth are The China Study and Eat to Live.

Posted in Weight Management | 6 Comments

Reducing calorie overload through a vegan diet

In my last couple of posts we looked at how to estimate your calorie expenditure and your calorie consumption. If like most people on a standard american diet you are getting a little heavier every year, then there will be a gap between those two numbers – your calorie overload. Now you need a strategy to reduce that number.

Calorie Restriction

The first approach I used to try and to lose weight was simple calorie restriction. I cut out some of the high calorie junk food I was eating such as frequent treats from the Starbucks pastry case. I also tried eating half as much food at lunch time, or choosing more healthy looking options in restaurants. This worked and it did help me lose half of the weight I had gained over the years, but it was a constant struggle.

A simple calorie restriction approach or a diet program is a constant strain on your willpower. Scientific studies have shown that willpower is actually a limited resource that you use up throughout the day. So if you observed restraint at the office by maintaining your composure in the midst of annoying colleges and stressful situations, you may not have enough willpower left to resist that ice cream in the freezer when you get home.

Change your lifestyle

The main problem with diets for most people is that they are temporary – you lose the weight, feel good and then put it all back on again. In fact studies have shown that two thirds of people put all of the weight they lost back on and then some. So what you need is not a new diet but a permanent lifestyle change. The lifestyle change that worked for me was becoming vegan.

Making a big change

An effective way to avoid the willpower problem is to make a big decision up front. Once you have committed to a big change your subconscious brain will actually be working in the background to make that change happen.

When you make the big decision to become vegan, you have implicitly made lots of small choices about what to eat at the same time. When you see an ice cream desert your subconscious brain is already saying to you – I am a vegan and vegan’s don’t eat dairy products. Choosing to eat the ice cream would create cognitive dissonance which offsets our desire to consume sugar and fat. The end result being that you don’t require as much willpower and over time, as being vegan becomes a part of your identity, it wont require any willpower at all.

A plant based diet

It is still possible to put on weight and eat badly whilst being vegan. Your goal should be to eat a plant based diet getting most of your calories from whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains whilst avoiding processed foods, meat and diary. A new term coined by Joel Fuhrman for this kind of dietary vegan is nutritarian, but your fiends and the waitress at the restaurant are going to be more familiar with the term vegan.

In future posts I will explain why such a vegan diet is so much better for your health and your waistline than the standard American diet.

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