Some folks assume that because I am a butter eater, I am “anti” plant-food diets. Let me ay first that I can guarantee I probably eat as many plants as a person on a plant based diet does. (I just don’t eat sugar, starches and grains.) Does that mean that I am against plant-based diets for others? Nope. It’s not like there are only two choices folks…all plant or all animal. I believe a healthy diet, for me anyways, includes both. Whatever diet you choose, that helps you achieved optimal health, and here is the key…AS EVIDENCED BY NORMAL HEALTH MARKERS, then I’m all for it. To each his/her own. If you are not checking your health markers but just assuming your diet is healthy because it is plant-based, I’m concerned for you…
Can you “do” low carb on a plant based diet? Here are my thoughts…
Let me say first that I highly respect everyone’s right to choose what they think is best for their health and what coincides with their beliefs and values. When I began this page, I specifically had in mind trying to help people like me. So I have not actively PROMOTED plant based diets. For me, a total plant based diet would be a health disaster. Because I cannot consume grains, starches, legumes or fruit without unsafe rises in blood sugar, a plant based diet for me would consist almost entirely of non-starchy vegetables (plus nuts and oils.) This would be extremely nutritionally deficient for my needs. I would not be able to live and thrive. Yet many CAN thrive on a plant based diet. So I think the key is to, once again, respect each other’s right to choose without all of the judgement that often takes place between the herbivore and omnivore communities.
How do I personally feel about being a vegetarian or vegan? I am going to approach this from a nutritional standpoint only. Many feel there is no way to humanely eat animal products. This is an area where I will have to agree to disagree. These are my girls. Their names are Hennifer, Hennary and Henjamin. They are fed organically, they roam freely on a large grassy yard during the day and have shelter at night. They are loved as pets and pampered. Do I have any ethical dilemmas about eating their eggs? Absolutely not. I tell them thank you for every one of them. If I did not eat their eggs, some other animal would, or the world would be over-run with chicken eggs ;). So I’m not going to get deeply into the “ethical” aspect of eating animal products. I think there are ways to do this humanely. If you disagree, that is your right. I respect that.
There are also misconceptions that plant based diets are “healthier.” That statement in itself makes no sense. Healthier than what? Healthier for whom? There is no one single diet that is the absolute healthiest diet for every living human being. So is it “healthier” eating a plant based diet? Here are a few well researched articles that address this assertion.
So what are my concerns with vegetarian or vegan lifestyles? Obviously, you can see by the name of this page, I believe carb restriction is a key to good health. This is hard to achieve on a plant based diet. As a healthcare professional, I am concerned about the health risks of excessive carbohydrates, especially simple, processed and refined carbohydrates. My biggest concern is, as you guessed, blood glucose and metabolic health markers. When the diet is low in animal products, it is typically higher in carbohydrates. In addition, when protein sources in the diet come paired with high amounts of carbohydrates, as with plant based proteins, these can cause serious health concerns for those that have metabolic challenges (overweight, obese, insulin resistant, pre-diabetes, Type 2 diabetes, high “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides, hypertension, etc.)
I also have concerns about the lack of dietary cholesterol and limited sources of heart healthy saturated fats (yes I believe that getting cholesterol and saturated fat from our diet is very important.) Cholesterol is a vital substance in the body. While our body can make much of the cholesterol it needs, getting it from the diet is, IMHO, very important. Here is a quote from Dr. David Perlmutter, Empowering Neurologist and author of “Grain Brain” and “Brain Maker”: “We all make up to 2,000mg of cholesterol daily because we desperately need it, and this is several times the amount found in our diets. But despite this amazing ability, it is critical to obtain cholesterol from dietary sources. Our bodies much prefer that we “spoon feed” our cholesterol from the foods we eat rather than manufacture it internally, which is a complex, multistep biological process that taxes the liver. Dietary cholesterol is so important that your body absorbs as much as it can for use.” How does one achieve this on a plant based diet? (For more on the health benefits of cholesterol and saturated fat, go HERE.)
Overall, I have less concerns over vegetarian lifestyle, particularly one that allows eggs. Some of my concerns about nutritional deficiencies and lack of dietary cholesterol are resolved with adding eggs. Adding dairy is also a helpful way to obtain additional healthy fats, although I fully understand that dairy is not a dietary requirement, nor is it good for everyone. For those that follow a pescatarian lifestyle (plant based, but allowing fish and some other seafood), this is also allays some of my concerns. So a vegetarian diet that includes some animal products, is not a huge concern to me, IF it is based on real, whole, unprocessed foods and you can tolerate such a diet while maintaining normal health markers.
I have my biggest concerns over a vegan lifestyle, the avoidance of all animal products. Once again, I highly respect each person’s right to choose. But nutritionally speaking, and considering blood glucose and other health markers, there are too many concerns with this lifestyle for me to feel good about it. I have seen many vegans eat high amounts of processed soy junk foods and refined grains, thinking that because it says “vegan” on the label, it’s healthy. Processed foods and refined grains are not good for ANYONE. Saying “vegan” on the label is no more healthy than seeing other misleading health statements, like: “low fat,” “gluten free,” “cholesterol free,” and “sugar free.” My standard dietary advice of cutting processed food and refined grains applies to EVERYONE. This is a food pyramid I found on a website of an organization promoting a vegan lifestyle. I was utterly shocked. Please tell me this is not real 😦 The majority of this pyramid is processed, refined, simple carbohydrates, including a whole bunch of sugar!
So if one adopts a vegan lifestyle, the first step, just like any other healthy lifestyle, is ditching the processed and refined foods. So, how about a real, whole food, vegan lifestyle? That would be a good start. When you cut processed and refined foods, you almost by definition, become somewhat “low carb.” Next, make sure that you are getting enough fat. You need saturated fat as well. If you are vegetarian and can eat real butter, add this to your diet. Add coconut and olive oil as well. (Make sure you are getting real olive oil, which you probably can’t get in a regular grocery store. Many oils marketed as olive oil are not real olive oil, regardless of what the label says. You may need to do some research.) If you are vegetarian, and eat eggs, eat them liberally. If you are vegan, stick to generous amounts of the coconut and olive oil. What next?
Assuming we have cut processed foods and added healthy fats, what is my advice to those that wish to follow a plant based diet? First, I say, monitor your health markers, particularly glucose and insulin levels, but also cholesterol/triglyceride parameters. Also check for any vitamin, protein or iron deficiencies. Just because a person “feels good” or even if a person is not overweight, this does NOT mean they are healthy. (Great Video HERE). I have had several normal weight, physically active (some even athletes), vegetarian and vegan patients with uncontrolled Type 2 diabetes. Please don’t think this can’t happen to you.
Next, I would highly recommend consulting with a qualified dietitian who is up to date on CURRENT nutritional research to help design a diet that can meet your nutritional needs. I highly recommend this book if you are seeking vegetarian/vegan options for a lower carb, whole food lifestyle (true “low carb,” <100g, might be difficult to achieve, but it may be low enough for your needs.) While a plant based diet is not the focus of this book, she gives some excellent vegetarian/vegan options.
If you can meet all of your nutritional needs and maintain optimal blood glucose and other health markers over a long period of time, then I think you should live whatever lifestyle helps you maintain those goals and aligns with your beliefs and values. The key is that our lifestyle should be a sustainable one that creates long term health.
Finally, I say, I respect your choice; please respect mine.
Good health to you 😉
More resources for Low Carb Vegans / Vegetarians here:
Dr. David Perlmutter on whole unprocessed, non-gluten grains HERE.
Vegetarian compatible with Grain Brain / Brain Maker Lifestyle? HERE.
More resources for low carb vegetarians HERE.