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July 24, 2012

The Vegan Myth

Could the so-called healthiest diet in the world actually make you sick - and fat? Jessica Girdwain investigates the scary side of extreme eating.

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While veganism's draw is clear--ranging from the moral argument against eating animals to the health impact of overconsuming red meat--for many women, one motive is to lose weight. Trade the meat-packed standard American diet for plant-based foods and you'll slim down like you just stepped out of a fat suit. A small percentage of the American population eats animal-free (no eggs, fish, dairy, gelatin, etc.), but the number may be growing as proponents like Michelle Pfeiffer and a dramatically slimmer Bill Clinton praise its virtues. So why have other die-hard vegans like Ginnifer Goodwin and Megan Fox recently defected and (presumably) gone back to ordering medium-rare?

There's no question that a balanced, well-planned vegan diet can be healthy. "Studies show that vegans have lower BMIs and a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer," notes Vandana Sheth, a Los Angeles--based dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who frequently works with vegan clients. But balanced is the key. In our weight-loss-obsessed, too-busy-to-plan-meals culture, many women cut out the cheeseburgers (along with fish and skim milk) without considering the nutritional deficit. Between the lack of fresh, quality options in the food deserts of America and the challenges of chowing down in social settings (even in cities like New York, L.A., and Chicago, vegan restaurants are sparse), practitioners may turn to not-so-healthy processed foods like fake cheese and soy patties. "There are some people who may become vegan simply to eat more junk food," says Stella Volpe, R.D., professor and chair of the department of nutrition sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "As a vegan, you need to spend a large part of your life planning what to eat," warns Dr. Michael D. Gershon, chairman of the department of anatomy and cell biology at New York's Columbia University. While it is possible to get the nutrients you need, it's difficult."Vegans are more vulnerable to certain nutritional deficiencies," he says, referring to vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D--all critical for, among other things, energy and mood.

That said, whole-food sources of soy, like edamame and tofu, along with legumes and grains like quinoa, can provide plenty of the protein you need. Still, even nutrition professionals find vegan diets hard to regulate. Elite runner and personal chef Devon Crosby Helms, 30, felt "fantastic" for the first six months of her vegan diet. However, because she was already gluten-, bean-, and soy-free (due to allergies), nixing meat was the tipping point to poor health. Suffering from "overwhelming and constant fatigue, muscle loss, and weight gain," Crosby Helms' doctor diagnosed her with hypo-thyroidism, adrenal fatigue, and anemia. With limited food choices, "being vegan created a great deal of anxiety," she says.

Indeed, "totally revamping your diet requires an intense mental adjustment. Any diet that requires you to cut out entire food groups will generally trigger cravings," explains Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. "An extreme diet [of any kind] can often trigger disordered eating and sometimes even an eating disorder." During 26-year-old Pamela Stubbart's final six months as a vegan, the NYC resident experienced blood sugar spikes and intense cravings. "I couldn't focus on anything else but whether or not to eat an egg. It would go on for hours," she says.


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