If you’re a vegan, and perhaps even if you’re not, you’ve probably come across the passionate people of Instagram, YouTube and beyond who fervidly promote a particular “type” of vegan or “plant-based” diet. From high-fat “gourmet” raw vegans to Freelee the Banana Girl and Durianrider’s “Raw Till 4” program, there is no shortage of internet personalities who claim that they have the solution to humankind’s diet and health concerns.
Many of these programs focus on pushing a certain diet based on an “ideal” macronutrient ratio (carbohydrate/protein/fat). Dr. Doug Graham, for example, advocates an “80/10/10” diet. This raw food diet stresses obtaining at least 80% of your total calories from carbohydrates (mostly fruits) while restricting both fat and protein to less than 10% of total calories each.
Similarly, Dr. John McDougall’s “Starch Solution” lifestyle, is a very high-carb, low fat, low protein diet focused on starchy carbs (rice, potatoes, etc) as the staple . “Failure to follow the starch-based diet that is the natural one for humans is the reason more than a billion people are overweight and sick today,” Dr. McDougall writes in his lauded book The Starch Solution.
Both Dr. Graham and Dr. McDougall have tens of thousands of fans from a multitude of backgrounds, many of whom have made a name for themselves on social media by repackaging and promoting their own version of his program.
On the surface, these diets have everything going from them. They’re “hip”, internet-approved and even “let” you eat more than you might usually eat. The dark side of this weight- and imaged-obsessed online community is the thousands of people, mostly young women, who blindly follow “one-size-fits-all” internet opinion leaders, then don’t get the result they want, gaining weight and/or losing their health (physical, mental and or/social). A few minutes spent browsing YouTube or Instagram will yield thousands of confessional comments from people who’ve rapidly jumped on one bandwagon or another, and for one reason or another have not found success.
Even big names in vegan nutrition like Dr. T. Colin Campbell (The China Study) and Dr. Greger (NutritionFacts.com) have joined the debate about certain macronutrient diets working (or not working) for certain people. Dr. Campbell, who himself advocates a high-carb vegan diet, has spoken out against the idea of “metabolic damage”. Metabolic damage is the supposed damage from past improper diets that the body must heal (through weight gain for an indefinite period of time) in order to then become slim and healthy. Metabolic damage is a “truth” spouted by certain plant-based diet personalities like Durianrider, who say metabolic damage and its associated weight gain is often (but not always) an expected, necessary but non-permanent state the body must pass through to heal.
“I think that’s hocus-pocus,” Dr. Campbell said about metabolic damage in an interview. “I really don’t think there’s any basis to that claim whatsoever.” Citing studies and examples of people from dieting backgrounds who’ve taken on a balanced, high-carb vegan diet, Dr. Campbell says, “their problems resolved so fast and so well. They lose weight, they don’t gain weight.”
The problem with these “all or nothing” lifestyles is that there’s rarely room for healthy, two-sided discussion – with the general public or even those more qualified to give nutritional advice. And it’s the vulnerable and desperate who suffer.
Amanda Benham is a vegan dietician and nutritionist who has over 20 years’ experience guiding people to health on plant-based diets. Her two adult children are both lifelong vegans, and she’s helped countless people to live healthfully and happily on a vegan diet – albeit without the Instagram fame. Benham says intense focus on macronutrient ratios isn’t entirely justified.
“It is actually our micronutrient intake (vitamins, minerals) that is more important than our macronutrient ratios, as micronutrient deficiencies will generally have a greater impact on health,” she says.
So is there a “correct” diet to follow? Or can it depend on the individual person? How would people determine which diet suits them best?
“There is no ‘correct’ macronutrient ratio,” Benham says. “And the ratio of macronutrients that best suits a person will depend on a variety of factors, such as their appetite, tastes, metabolism, genetic predispositions, health issues, activity level, and so on. The quality of the macronutrients is actually more important that the ratios: with the emphasis on starches rather than sugars as carbohydrate sources, unsaturated fats rather than saturated fats, and on overall protein quality, not just quantity.”
Benham recommends that health-conscious vegans focus on a more balanced way at looking at their diet and overall health.
“I recommend vegans eat a diet of mostly whole plant foods, including legumes, whole grains, fruit and vegetables, and minimising processed and refined foods, added fats and added sugars,” she says.
“Those who have a tendency towards unwanted weight gain may need to not only avoid oils but also be wary of high fat plant foods such as avocado, nuts and seeds. (Doing this will result in a low fat diet.) On the other hand, active people, people with small appetites and those with no weight issues can include higher fat plant foods to help meet their energy needs. Of course all health-conscious people should minimise their intake of “empty calories” from foods and drinks high in added sugars, fats or oils. This is more important than agonising over macronutrient ratios.”
When it comes to both vegans and non-vegans who are struggling to maintain good nutrition, or who are just uncertain if they are, Benham echoes the advice of many vegan nutrition experts: your GP may not be the best place to seek advice.
“GP’s tend to be under-informed about nutrition, and many tend to be wary of vegan diets, especially if they have read reports of nutritional problems in vegans in the medical literature. For specialised advice it’s recommended that a nutrition professional such as an Accredited Practising Dietitian be consulted to assess your nutritional health and advise on meal planning, supplementation and so on.”
Benham also reminds people to be wary of self-proclaimed “experts” disseminating nutritional advice online.
“Unfortunately misinformation about vegan nutrition is abundant (especially on the internet) so it’s wise to check sources carefully and avoid taking advice from unqualified people and those selling nutritional products.”
Based on her work and experience, however, Benham does have some general advice for vegans.
“I recommend that new vegans start supplementing with vitamin B12 as soon as they go vegan, and taking a multivitamin is a good idea too. (Our soils are depleted of many nutrients and getting recommended intakes of some nutrients is challenging, even on the best of diets.)
“Rather than simply cutting out animal products, it’s important to introduce more nutritious foods into the daily diet such as legumes, soy products, whole grains, green vegetables and nuts and seeds. Vegan convenience foods such as “fake meats”, vegan cheeses and so son are handy transition foods but it is not recommended that they become dietary staples, as many are of poor nutritional quality. Learning about essential nutrients and learning how to cook tasty whole plant food meals will help vegans experience the health benefits of well-planned vegan eating.”
Amanda Benham is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Accredited Nutritionist who has over 20 years’ experience in been helping people adopt healthy plant-based diets. She is available for consultations via Skype (worldwide), phone (Australia-wide) or face-to-face (in Brisbane, Australia). Find out more by visiting her website at: humanherbivore.com