We received a huge response to our article, "Why the shift away from veganism in the raw world?" A big thanks to all of you who shared your thoughts and experiences by commenting online – it makes very interesting reading, so do take a look if you haven’t already.
And thanks also to those of you who wrote to us privately to tell us of your very personal challenges, setbacks and frustrations in trying to find a diet that works for you.
Having read your comments, we decided it was necessary to go into this topic in greater depth. So we asked two experts with extensive knowledge of raw vegan diets – Dr Douglas Graham of FoodnSport.com and Thomas Billings of BeyondVeg.com – to answer our question, “Is 100% raw vegan our optimal diet?”
Those familiar with their work will be unsurprised to know they answered “yes” and “no” respectively. Today we bring you the articles they submitted to back up those positions. We gave them the opportunity to respond to what the other wrote - something they both did - and we bring you those responses, too. Topics discussed include:
- Whether there are any nutrients we need that we can’t get from plant foods
- The evidence that animal foods are bad for us
- What our ancestors ate
- Whether a raw vegan diet is the natural human diet
Thomas Billings was raw vegan between 1971 and 1996 and since then has followed a high-raw vegetarian diet. He is an avid reader of scientific texts and studies in the field of nutrition and has written extensively on the topic of raw, vegan and vegetarian diets.
You will notice this discussion gets a little heated! While these two writers agree on a great deal when it comes to nutrition and health, they are in strong disagreement about the point under discussion. The object of this exercise was to let them debate this topic in their own way and in their own words, and this they have done. They have each seen every word the other wrote, and the decision was made by all parties to let you, the reader, see those words, too, and make up your own mind. Please note that the views expressed here are the views of the writers featured and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Fresh Network.
Is 100% raw vegan our optimal diet?
says Douglas Graham
According to Dr. Michael Klaper, "The Vegan Doctor,” neither meat nor dairy provide essential nutrients that are unobtainable on a vegan diet, and the vegan diet is nutritionally complete. Renowned as one of the most respected of all nutrition researchers in the world, T. Colin Campbell concludes in his book The China Study that fruits and vegetables are the best foods for humans, and that raw foods are the most nutritious while also providing the fewest harmful agents. The China Study also brought to light a profound relationship between increases in animal protein consumption and increases in various diseases.
Many people touting animal protein point to specific nutrients which animal protein contains substantially more of than plants. Simply having more of something does not make it more nutritious however. Nine out of every ten nutrients known to be supplied by plants are completely absent in meat. Sure, meat is high in certain nutrients, but it is completely lacking in almost one million others. Let us not cloud the nutritional issue, either, by suggesting that 1% or 2% of the total diet should be meat, dairy or insect based; that this would somehow provide the nutritional “missing links” that vegans so desperately need. The maths simply do not support such a claim.
A healthy raw vegan regimen does not result in dietary insufficiency or excess. The macronutrients and micronutrients in a varied, low-fat, raw vegan diet are balanced perfectly for us. Minerals, vitamins, enzymes, coenzymes, water, fibre, antioxidants, and all phytonutrients are present in quantities matching yet not exceeding our requirements.
Meat and dairy eating, however, have been associated with a huge variety of nutritional excesses known to result in compromised health, from cholesterol, to saturated fats, to various fat-soluble vitamins, specific minerals, an ongoing list of growth hormones, stimulating “emergency” hormones, and a wide variety of environmental toxins known to concentrate in animal tissues. Meanwhile, the complete absence of fibre, vitamin C, carbohydrates, and a huge number of other nutrients only further the nutrient imbalances caused by eating animal protein.
"Everyone needs to find what works for them"
In spite of these scientific facts, the above phrase is one you will often hear from raw food promoters, more and more of whom are leaving veganism behind as they experiment with vegetarian or even omnivorous diets.
One of the trademark qualities of a successful diet is the ability of people to follow that diet for an extended period of time. If the dietary approach you are following is not satisfactory, you will eventually look elsewhere. To end up back where you started, eating cooked food or non-vegan food, only shows that the programme you were following wasn’t working. Raw vegan works, but only when we follow our species-specific, low-fat raw vegan diet. Just eating “raw” is not enough. The idea is to thrive, and not just to survive.
For more than 30 years I have been going against the current with my assertion that our anatomy and our physiology determine and dictate how we must live in order to experience a lifetime of health. When I mention that all species eat a diet that is specific unto themselves, I am often chided that such limited thinking does not apply to humans. I am told that I must have gone to school in the Dark Ages, or that I am being idealistic rather than realistic.
The main rationale against the species-specific diet is that there are potentially more than one million anatomical and physiological differences between one human and the next. I openly admit to these differences, but point out that between all humans there are also trillions of similarities, meaning there are literally millions of similarities for each and every difference. All other creatures eat according to their similarities, as they too show multiple in-species differences. I propose that we too must, by natural law, eat according to our similarities if we are to thrive.
Of course, those raw food promoters who disagree with my suggestion that the human species-specific diet is fruits and vegetables, saying that we do not have a specific diet, then go on to promote a specific diet of their own. Usually, this diet is one predominated by fat and grass, or a diet lacking adequate quantities of fresh food, being heavily composed of dehydrated foods, superfoods, condiments and supplements. These various leaders are the very ones that now say they didn’t succeed with vegan, and are going back to eating animal products. How sad that they put the blame upon the diet, rather than the way in which they practised and promoted the diet.
Our anatomy is that of a frugivore. We are built like all of the other frugivorous anthropoids that consume the majority of their calories from fruit. We have no claws, no fangs. Unlike all carnivorous mammals, we don’t produce litters of babies. We move slowly, injure ourselves easily, have thin, fragile skin that is prone to infections from scratches and bites, produce no venom, and without tools would have a difficult time catching a squirrel, let alone an animal large enough to feed a family.
When we see a flock of birds, a herd of gazelle, or a school of fish, no mouth-watering reactions occur. This alone should tell us enough about who we are. Put us in a field of strawberries, however, and we become like merry schoolchildren, happily picking our way to satiation.
Cows eat grass as their preferred food. Grass makes up the totality of their species-specific diet. Yet there are big cows and small cows, active cows and passive cows, cows with a large variety of blood types, and a host of other differences that exist from cow to cow. Yet they all eat grass. The same can be said for all species of animals, we are told; they eat their species-specific diet. Just go to the zoo, and see how the animals are fed. Each species gets specific foods. The largest, most active, hungriest of any species eats the exact same food as those in the group that eat the least. They all have a species-specific diet, we are told, yet still we want to believe that the only exceptions are people.
I wonder how babies survive the womb if each baby has unique nutritional requirements. I wonder also how it could be possible for a mother to breastfeed each of her children according to their unique nutritional requirements. We are told that a mother's milk offers her babies exactly what is needed for that baby to thrive. So how could the milk of another species, from a mother that never even met the eventual consumer of her milk, possibly offer the missing nutritional links lacking in a vegan diet for specific adult humans?
If it actually could be so, why did we lose our milk teeth, and why do many adults no longer produce lactase, the enzyme that allows us to digest milk's sugars? The consumption of dairy from our own species was supposed to stop in childhood. There is no valid rationale for the consumption of the milk of another species, other than perhaps threat of starvation itself.
Is 100% raw vegan our optimal diet?
says Thomas Billings
A 100% raw vegan diet – done intelligently – can work well for some people, but that does not mean it is optimal for everyone. Those attempting strict vegan diets are advised to pay close attention to their nutrition, as there are a number of nutrients which are either not present in plant foods, or difficult to obtain at the levels necessary for optimal health.
A vegan diet needs a reliable source of vitamin B-12. Plant foods alone are not a reliable source (Billings 19991). A group of vegan nutritionists recommends that vegans take B-12 supplements or consume (processed) foods fortified with B-12 (Walsh 20012).
It can be difficult to get adequate amounts of essential fatty acids (EFAs) on vegan diets. The EFAs vegans and vegetarians need to be most concerned about are the long-chain metabolites EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
A large body of research shows that EPA and DHA are extremely important for health, and that vegans and vegetarians typically have lower levels of these than non-vegetarians (Davis & Kris-Etherton 2003)3. These long-chain fatty acids are available directly in many animal foods, especially cold-water fish, but generally not in plant foods (though seaweed and some algaes may contain small quantities).
The essential fatty acids alpha linolenic acid (omega-3) and linoleic acid (omega-6) are available on a vegan diet and the body can make EPA and DHA from these, but how much it can make depends on many factors, including the omega-6/omega-3 ratio in the diet. Because the conversion is at best inefficient, some researchers suggest vegetarians and vegans need twice as much omega-3 as omnivores.
Genetics may be an obstacle for some individuals in the conversion to EPA and DHA. Individuals descended from populations that consumed significant quantities of fish (fresh and/or salt-water) over a long evolutionary period of time might not produce adequate levels of the enzymes required for conversion (Simopolous 19994). This may be relevant to, for example, some people from: Ireland (McQuade & O'Donnell 20075), Britain (Richards et al. 20056, 20067; Bocherens & Drucker 20068) and Northern Spain (Adán et al. 20099). Those who cannot convert adequate amounts of plant-based EFAs into EPA/DHA must get a direct source. This is still possible on a vegan diet, but requires supplementation (with vegan forms of EPA and DHA derived from algae).
That low-fat vegan diets may fail to provide adequate EFA intakes is demonstrated in Doug Graham’s book The 80/10/10 Diet10; on page 118 he gives a sample day’s menu that fails to meet a man’s Adequate Intake for omega-3 and barely meets a woman’s11. If we follow the recommendation to double the Adequate Intake for omega-3 for vegetarians, Graham’s sample menu provides a mere 41% of recommended omega-3 levels for men and 59% for women. One wonders what risks are implied in insufficient omega-3 intake over the long term, especially in those who have poor conversion to EPA/DHA. Unfortunately, the current anti-fat phobia in the raw vegan community discourages some raw fooders from consuming adequate essential fats.
There is a very large body of research demonstrating that EPA and DHA promote and support health – for example, they provide cardiovascular protection and triglyceride regulation, and are necessary for optimal nervous system, brain and visual health. Given that preformed DHA and EPA are not provided in a vegan diet, vegans must decide: supplement to promote optimal health, or rely on your own synthesis (the effectiveness of which is not easy to ascertain).
Other supplementation may be appropriate for optimal health:
- Choline is important for certain brain functions and lipid transport/metabolism. Most fruits and vegetables are low in choline (Zeisel & Niculescu 200612) and strict vegans should consume choline-rich vegan foods (legumes, grains) or consider supplements.
- Vitamin D: Modern lifestyles make it difficult to get adequate vitamin D from sunshine-based synthesis, and this is less likely to be possible the further from the equator one lives. From a purely dietary perspective, raw vegans are at the highest risk for vitamin D deficiency as the only plant foods which are a good source of vitamin D are fortified vegan foods/drinks, which are invariably processed. The likelihood that the Adequate Intake for vitamin D is too low is currently a “hot topic” in nutrition research, as are the numerous essential roles this nutrient plays in our physical and mental health. Vegan vitamin D supplements are available.
- Calcium is present but has low bioavailability in many green vegetables and some seeds.
- Zinc and iron may be concerns on restricted diets.
Vegan advocacy: rhetoric vs. reality
Model diets cited by vegan advocates are almost invariably non-vegan. The traditional diet of Okinawa is sometimes cited by vegetarians and vegans as a diet that promotes health and longevity. But the Okinawa diet is non-vegetarian and includes fish and meat. (Sho 200113). The diets of Abkhasia, Vilcabamba and the Hunza Valley are also cited as model diets by vegan advocates but they are not vegan either; they are whole foods diets based mainly on plant foods but containing some animal foods.
Vegan advocates often cite research studies which show that vegans/vegetarians are healthier than non-vegetarians. However, just as there are many different vegan diets, so too there are many different omnivorous diets. Results of research on people following the standard Western diet (SWD) are often interpreted as a proxy for all omnivorous diets. This is misleading and inaccurate; it is well-known that the SWD is unhealthy and too high in calories, fat, sugar and salt. An omnivorous diet with a low level of animal products can be based primarily on unprocessed or minimally processed foods and be a healthy diet.
Can you see the contradiction and irony here: based on studies that looked at the standard Western diet, some vegan advocates condemn all omnivorous diets (an obvious logical fallacy), while at the same time presenting the healthy omnivorous diets of Okinawa, Abkhasia (and other locales) as model “vegan” diets.
Results from biomedical research studies on self-identified vegetarians also can be misleading. Individuals who eat limited amounts of fish and meat often self-identify as vegetarians (Barr et al, 200214; Haddad and Tanzman, 200315). This means that many studies that compare the SWD to self-identified vegetarians are actually comparing a higher-meat group to a lower-meat group!
Vegan naturalism: realistic or idealistic?
Raw vegan diets are often promoted as the “most natural” diet. Such claims are based on a view of nature that is naive, idealistic and inaccurate, such as that humans don't need tools to acquire or consume their natural diet. A more realistic view is to observe that the range of our natural diet is defined by evolution, which for humans includes tool use. The natural human diet is a hybrid between the hunter-gatherer diet archaelogical records show was consumed by humans and their ancestors for over four million years and the more plant-based diets that replaced this with the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 years ago. Where each individual falls in that range will vary according to genetics and other factors.
An important reminder: the fact that some of your genes were inherited from hunter-gatherers does not justify a diet based on modern feedlot meats. We are alive here and now; the relevant question is: what sustainable diet(s) can work well for us? A false, Edenic view of nature is not helpful in answering this important question.
If 100% raw vegan does not work for you, options available include supplementation, increasing consumption of cooked foods, and/or including non-vegan foods in your diet. Remember that your diet should serve you, and not the other way around.
Read on for the responses...
References (T.Billings)1. Billings TE, 1999. Vitamin B-12: Rhetoric and Reality, part 4 of: Comparative Anatomy and Physiology Brought Up to Date, on the website Beyond Vegetarianism; URL:http://www.beyondveg.com/billings-t/comp-anat/comp-anat-7d.shtml
2. Walsh S. What Every Vegan Should Know About Vitamin B12, on the website Beyond Vegetarianism; URL: http://www.beyondveg.com/walsh-s/vitamin-b12/vegans-1.shtml
3. Davis BC, Kris-Etherton PM, 2003. Achieving optimal essential fatty acid status in vegetarians: current knowledge and practical implications. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(3): pp. 640S-646S. Full text freely available at the URL: http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/reprint/78/3/640S.pdf
4. Simopoulos AP, 1999. Essential fatty acids in health and chronic disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70(suppl): pp. 560S-569S.
5. McQuade M, O'Donnell L, 2007. Late Mesolithic fish traps from the Liffey estuary, Dublin, Ireland. Antiquity, 81(313), pp. 569-584.
6. Richards MP, Jacobi R, Cook J, Pettitt PB, Stringer CB, 2005. Isotope evidence for the intensive use of marine foods by Late Upper Palaeolithic humans. Journal of Human Evolution, 49(3): pp. 390-394
7. Richards MP, Jacobi R, Cook J, Pettitt PB, Stringer CB, 2006. Marine diets in the European late Upper Paleolithic: A reply to Bocherens and Drucker (2006). Journal of Human Evolution, 51(4), pp. 443-444.
8. Bocherens H, Drucker DG, 2006. Isotope evidence for paleodiet of late Upper Paleolithic humans in Great Britain: A response to Richards et al. (2005). Journal of Human Evolution, 51(4): pp. 440-442.
9. Adán GE, Álvarez-Lao D, Turrero P, Arbizu M, García-Vázquez E, 2009. Fish as diet resource in North Spain during the Upper Paleolithic. Journal of Archaeological Science, 36(3), pp. 895-899.
10. Graham DN, 2008. The 80/10/10 Diet. Foodnsport Press, Decatur, Georgia, USA.
11. The Institute of Medicine suggests adequate intakes (AI) for ALA (omega-3) of 1.6 and 1.1 grams/day for men and women respectively. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, 2005. Dietary Reference Intakes: energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein and amino acids: National Academies Press, Washington, DC, USA. Available at the URL: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10490 with EFA AI values at: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10490&page=423
12. Zeisel SH, Niculesci MD, 2006. Choline and Phosphatidylcholine, ch. 32 (pp. 525-533) in Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease, Tenth Edition, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia, Pensylvania, USA.
13. Sho H, 2001.History and characteristics of Okinawan longevity food. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 10(2): pp. 159–164. Full text freely available at the URL: http://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/APJCN/Volume10/vol10.2/Sho.pdf
14. Barr SI et. al., 2002. Perceptions and practices of self-defined current vegetarian, former vegetarian, and non-vegetarian women. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Mar 2002 102(3): 354-360.
15. Haddad EH, Tanzman JS, 2003. What do vegetarians in the United States eat? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2003 Sep;78(3 Suppl):626S-632S. Full text freely available at the URL: http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/reprint/78/3/626S
Both writers reviewed the other's primary article and they submitted the following responses:
I do not see where in Billings’s argument he demonstrates that the raw vegan diet is not our optimal diet. In my supporting article, I openly demonstrated that it is, and believe the burden of proof lies on him to show us otherwise. He failed to do so, in my estimation.
Billings asserts that certain nutrients are not present in vegan fare. His inference that “more is better” underscores his denial of the facts when it comes to nutrition. Optimum nutrition comes from hitting the middle of the ideal nutrient range for each nutrient, not getting the most, nor the least, of any specific nutrient factor. I found nothing substantive in the remainder of Billings’s essay, but will briefly review it and include my comments.
Neither plants nor animals produce B-12. There are 21 different genera of bacteria that produce B-12. These bacteria are found in the human gut, in our nasal and throat passages, and on the surfaces of almost all organically grown plants. B-12 deficiency is as common in meat eaters as it is in vegans.
Do I really need to respond to allegations of fat deficiencies in the vegan diet? Avocado, durian, nuts, seeds, olives, akee, and many other fatty fruits give us more than enough EFAs. A diet composed solely of non-fatty fruits and vegetables will supply roughly 7% of its calories from fats, and will give us enough EFAs, in proper combinations, without giving us too much. Too much fat is the problem we are discussing, and animal protein invariably leaves us eating too much fat.
Billings claims that “other supplementation may be appropriate for optimal health”. Once again Billings misses the point of nutrition by asserting that more is better, relying upon fear tactics rather than science. Nuts, seeds, mushrooms, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, avocado, citrus, berries, and bananas all contain choline.
Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is still available to all people willing to go outside during the daytime. If they are unwilling or unable to go outdoors, no amount of vitamin D supplementation will result in health.
Calcium is widely present in fruits and vegetables, invalidating Billing’s argument. Are you really worried about getting enough zinc? Do you know many people with zinc deficiencies? I don’t. One ounce of tahini supplies 20% of your daily zinc requirement. Based on a diet of three equal meals per day, a meal of blackberries will meet your zinc requirements for an entire day. We aren’t looking to exceed our zinc needs, only to satisfy them. Billings states that deficiencies of zinc and iron “may” be a concern on a “restricted diet.” When did low-fat raw vegan become restricted, and what sort of restrictions is he referring to? One can only wonder.
Billings’s arguments against the raw vegan diet are exceptionally weak, at best, and embarrassingly ludicrous at worst. They are also vaporous, vague, indirect, convoluted, lacking in substance, and reliably based upon disinformation, misdirection and outright fiction.
Whole, fresh, ripe, raw, organic fruits and vegetables have and always will prove out as the most nutritious of all food for human beings. The higher the percentage of these foods in our diet, the better it is for us. If we eat the most nutritious of health foods, to the exclusion of all other foods, we are eating by definition the healthiest of all possible diets. Indeed, the low-fat, raw vegan diet is undeniably our species-specific diet.
Thomas Billings responds
Graham's article includes material that is irrelevant to the question posed. This response focuses on the material that is relevant.
Graham’s claim that Dr. Michael Klaper says vegan diets are nutritionally complete is incorrect. Dr. Klaper recommends that vegans supplement (for example, here1). In a separate interview, Dr. Klaper repeats the suggestion to supplement, and makes the interesting remark: "...we see most people do quite well on vegan diets. But, there are some folks who will lose muscle mass, experience lower energy levels and not feel at their best eating a vegan diet." (Klaper as quoted in Horton, 20092).
The original China Study is an ecological study (an epidemiological study in which the unit of analysis is a population rather than an individual). Such studies may generate hypotheses but they prove nothing. The China Study report lists only sixstatistically significant correlations between meat eating and disease mortality. Further, four of those correlations are negative, which indicates that the mortality rate for that disease decreased as meat consumption increased. The direct evidence of the study is hardly the condemnation of meat consumption that vegan advocates may claim it to be (Billings 19993).
Graham makes numeric claims but provides no backing for those claims, e.g., the reference to meat "completely lacking in almost one million" nutrients. Graham’s unsupported claims (note the complete lack of references in his article) greatly diminish his credibility.
Graham identifies the trademark of a successful diet as one that people can follow for an extended period of time. By this measure, 100% raw vegan cannot be considered a successful diet as few stick to it long term let alone thrive on it long term (and those who do almost invariably supplement). High-raw omnivorous diets have a much higher long-term success rate than 100% raw vegan. This is not surprising considering (a) raw vegan is not our natural diet but only part of it; (b) it does not provide all the nutrients we need.
Graham repeats the “humans are frugivores” claim. It is hard to understand why this claim is so important to some vegans when one considers that non-human primate frugivores are generally non-vegetarian. That is, even if humans are frugivores, it does not mean that we are natural vegetarians. Chimpanzees and bonobos are frugivores and they are non-vegetarian. Hunting by chimpanzees is common and well-documented; less well known is that bonobos also hunt animals for food.
The idea that humans cannot eat animal foods because we lack claws and fangs is invalid because tool use made those adaptations unnecessary. Humans have used tools since our inception as a species.
The claim that humans are obligate frugivores adapted to high-fruit vegan diets falls apart under cursory examination:
- A highly specialized diet would mean we are adapted only to a narrow ecological niche, and we should not have succeeded outside the tropics.
- Over the course of evolution, human tribes that adopted fruit-based diets should have out-reproduced the tribes who ate animal foods, i.e. fruit-based diets should be the norm. This is clearly not the case.
- Long-term success should be the norm on high-fruit diets; instead we see a high failure rate.
- In order to pick the fruit that is supposed to be the basis of our diet, humans should be quadrupedal (like chimps) and have the special adaptations for tree climbing that many non-human primates have.
With so many obvious fallacies in the “humans are obligate frugivores” claim, why does anyone promote such misinformation? The reality is that our species-specific dietary range is defined by evolution. Humans are generalists who not only have survived, but thrived and colonized the entire planet (land area, excluding Antarctica). Because of our evolutionary history – diverse environments, cultures and foods – humans have adapted to a range of diets.
In closing, let’s return to the important question posed in my article: what sustainable diet(s) can work well for us? If you thrive on them, then raw, vegan or vegetarian diets may be part of your answer to this question. However, consider that you may need to supplement and/or modify your diet to thrive long term.
References (T. Billings)
1. Klaper M. Vegan Health Tips with Michael Klaper, M.D. URL: http://www.vegfamily.com/michael-klaper/tip11.htm
2. Horton D, 2009. Interview with Dr Michael Klaper. URL: http://www.abolitionist-online.com/09_michael_klaper.shtml
3. Billings T, 1999. The Cornell China Project: Authoritative Proof, or Misinterpretation by Dietary Advocates? in Comparative Anatomy and Physiology Brought Up to Date, on the website Beyond Vegetarianism. URL: http://www.beyondveg.com/billings-t/comp-anat/comp-anat-8e.shtml
We'd love to know what YOU think. Is the 100% raw vegan diet our optimal diet? Do you have any insight or information to add? Why not join the debate now by leaving your comment.