Is Vegan the healthiest way to eat?
Updated: Aug 12, 2019
"Hi Gary, Firstly good luck at the WC, I admire your tenacity and positivity- as well as your strength and fitness. 2ndly we were visiting kiwi friends in Oz- she has had years of auto immune & bowel issues and has been on serious drug programme with the Australian health System (which seems to be streets ahead of NZ’s). XXX- has completed a PHD in health science or something similar so is fully aware of what was happening to her body. Her weight was alarming- down to 43kg at one stage! She did a lot of research and as a last resort after years of pain and suffering slowly dropped her medication. She changed her diet completely (but has always been a healthy eater, non drinker etc). Part of the process was a fasting diet for 7 days!!- (and on-going every 4 months or so) Then returning to a Vegan diet. Fast forward 1-2 years she is healthy, has heaps of energy and lives a normal life!
A very good story- but what is even more amazing is she told us about a couple she met (you might of them anyway, Alan Murray and Janette Murray-Wakelin. BTW Janette told me she’s from Lower Hutt!). After being diagnosed with breast cancer she gave up medication, turned vegan, and was clear after 6 months, then firstly ran a marathon a day around NZ- 50 days! Then 6 or so years later ran around Oz- 366 consecutive marathons- surviving on fruit and vegetables! An amazing story. If you haven’t seen the DVD (for me it was inspiring) I can loan you mine when you’re back- if you’re interested. https://rawveganpath.com/running-raw-around-australia/ Very inspiring. Go hard Gary and say hi to Alofa"
(Name supplied but withheld and permission to publish obtained)
This email raises the question about whether a vegan diet is the holy grail for health and longevity? I think not and say the same about other diets such as the Paleo and Keto diets. All have their merits but none are the Holy Grail. Actually, I have made fun of the Paleo Diet in the past: http://blog.garymoller.com/2013/04/bone-broth-one-of-wholefoods-nutrient.html
Health and longevity comes not from extreme diets of any form but from some proven basics including:
Home or locally grown/raised foods that are prepared from their basic, raw ingredients.
Regular, moderate exercise such as walking and digging the garden.
Strong family and community ties.
Okinawa Centenarian Research Study
I've been following this study of the Centenarians of Okinawa for the best part of 40 years. We can learn a lot about what it takes to have a long, productive and satisfying life. The formula is actually quite simple and does not include dietary extremes. Nor does it include medication.
You can read about the Centenarian Study here:
Dietary guidelines that are based on the Okinawa lifestyle can be found here:
Rather than go to extremes, I ask people to consider what their ancestors ate over the Millennia and to do their best to replicate this and to include some daily exercise that conditions the entire body (digging and walking, when combined, are pretty much spot-on). I, for example, am aware of my Scottish and Danish ancestry, whereas my partner, Alofa, has her Samoan ancestry to consider. Our shared daily foods when at home take both backgrounds into account.
When it comes to determining how much of anything to eat this is highly influenced by one's daily activity. I'm presently participating in intense mountain bike racing of less than two hours which requires extremes of endurance and power. The biggest race of my life happens in just a few weeks from now. So, I'm doing hours and hours of hard training right now. There will be no time for any fasting over the next few weeks.
My diet must be rich in protein and dense with micro-nutrients, while supplying the right amount and composition of energy. This will assist my recovery before the next hard training session.
A diet, like keto, that is chronically low in carbohydrates may compromise the ability of an athlete to generate sustained power, thus limiting top-end performance. A diet that is low in fat and protein, like vegan, may compromise power and strength. Both diets may be fine for long, slow endurance, but is this way of eating "healthy?
The raw vegan movement has an enthusiastic following. Is it healthy? I do not recommend it because human beings do not have the enzymes or digestive tract structure for extracting all of the nutrients from many raw foods. Since the invention of cooking food many thousands of years ago we have lost the ability to digest raw foods the way cows and gorillas do.
Gut issues, including nutrient deficiencies, are very common among vegans, especially if going completely raw, which is hardly surprising. Especially if one is exercising a lot she must eat huge amounts of vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit to get both the energy and the nutrients to be healthy and this is a burden on the gut. Fruit is a wonderful food for bugs like Candida. In the letter above it is not clear whether the woman with the gut issues was returning to a vegan diet or commencing this way of eating for the first time.
Nutritionally, the rule of thumb for food preparation is 30% raw - 70% cooked.
Do extraordinary feats of endurance equate to "Good Health"?
"Surviving on fruit and vegetables". "Surviving" may be the key word here. I'd prefer people to be "thriving".
I do not like to watch ultra-running. Too many of the participants simply look terrible. It is like being in the midst of a concentration camp. I find it upsetting.
The performances of the elite marathon runners are something to admire and behold, but is it "healthy" and what is the cost to the athlete decades later in life?
I've decided that the key to a long and healthy life is to play the Long Game. If I sense that an activity is doing more harm than good, I'll stop. For example, I ran my last of 13 marathons (PB: 2hrs 34 mins) at age of 29. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. Today, my joints are in a better state of health than when I was in my 20's. I reckon I can still run a fast marathon but I won't. A fast 5 km will suffice.
Some of the most unhealthy people I have ever met are good endurance athletes. Some of the most healthy people I have ever met do little more exercise than some gardening and walking.
We should not make the mistake of equating feats of great endurance with good health. It is like comparing a Middle-Eastern donkey that labours away every day of its life with that of a thorough-bred stallion that spends most of its days cavorting with the fillies in the back paddock.
When working with athletes across a wide range of sports I can see that there is a generalised difference in their health, in their physical appearance and when nutritionally tested. This is a reflection of the general demands of the sport they are participating in:
On a par with competitive body-builders, the least healthy are very long distance runners, often emaciated in appearance, and testing shows they are usually running on empty, like our Middle-Eastern donkey.
Mountain bikers tend to be more muscular and healthy.
One of the healthiest sporting groups I can think of are kayak and waka paddlers who come across as being very well-muscled and glowing with good health.
You could say that as power goes up and duration goes down, eating improves in terms of nutrient density, and there is more fat and protein and less sugar, while there is less running of oneself into the dirt through excessive exercise.
As power goes up and distance/time decreases, measures and appearance of health tend to improve.
Does a vegan diet and fasting improve gut health?
I agree but with qualifications.
The worst diet for the gut is one that is high in processed foods, including preserved meats, and eating every few hours of waking. This is the kind of diet that has been promoted heavily in popular media, probably driven by the desire to sell more convenience foods such as snack bars. Endurance athletes are among the worst for this kind of eating.
Food colourings, flavourings, preservatives and emulsifiers that are found in processed foods have the potential to irritate and damage the gut. Read the food labels, look for additives and avoid them.
For example, emulsifiers, such as those found in your favourite yogurt, ice cream and protein snack bar may dissolve the mucus layer that protects your delicate gut lining.
Think about what this is doing to your children, many of whom are being almost exclusively raised on what is better described as "Party Food"!
Most medications, including those prescribed for gut issues end up damaging the gut over the long term.
When a person goes vegan and/or takes up fasting, it is hardly a surprise that they feel much better than before and most chronic, inflammation-driven health problems improve or resolve.
Fasting and going vegan for a short while is like hitting the Big Red Reset Button:
Fasting gives the organs of digestion a rest and the opportunity to repair damage such as ulcerations of the gut.
By default, a bland vegan diet eliminates processed foods and their associated chemicals, which is good.
Getting off drugs, including caffeine, alcohol and prescription meds lifts a huge, toxic burden off the liver.
Fasting deprives pathogens, like yeast, of their food. They go to sleep. These bugs love you to be snacking every few hours! When they are dormant this is the opportunity for your immune system to get the upper hand.
It is, therefore, hardly a surprise that fasting has been shown to reduce gut and systemic inflammation. Some studies do confirm that fasting reduces inflammation and, therefore the symptoms and progression of autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis: https://examine.com/nutrition/keto-and-fasting/
The resetting of the digestion is one of the first go-to measures for restoring good health. But I recommend moderation:
Fasting for no longer than 24 hours at a time.
No snack eating. Just two to three substantial and nutrient-dense meals per day and no snacking between unless doing extremes of physical activity.
Gradually reintroducing rich supplies of fresh fats and proteins from both animal and vegetable sources once the gut has settled.
Keeping as best one can to a diet that is relatively bland and preferably prepared from locally grown sources.