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Is it Healthy to Go Vegan?

The debate over whether a vegan diet is healthier than a diet that includes animal products has been going on for decades. Both sides have presented opposing information, which is confusing for anyone trying to decide which side of the argument makes more sense. However, the truth is muddied when either side exaggerates or misrepresents facts to bolster their beliefs.

In my practice, I’ve been seeing an increasing number of young vegans who are experiencing a range of health problems, from hormonal imbalances caused by incredibly low cholesterol to anxiety stemming from poor blood sugar management. I don’t challenge their choice to be vegan – most do it for completely understandable reasons, whether religious or over animal welfare, environmental or health concerns – and I work with them to restore their health within their chosen dietary parameters.

If you’re trying to decide whether to go vegan like approximately two million other Americans have, there’s more to consider than how to get enough protein through non-meat sources. First, let me state that I’m not advocating for or against following a vegan lifestyle, but it’s important to understand the known health concerns associated with any dietary shift before embarking on it.

Vegan is different from vegetarian in that a vegan diet not only eliminates all meats and fish, it also excludes any and all products from meat or fish sources, such as dairy (cheese, milk, yogurt, etc.), eggs, gelatin, and so on. While plant-based diets are generally associated with lower cholesterol, lower risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure and the like, these health benefits are achieved only through “appropriately planned diets”, as stated by the American Dietetic Association.

One of the pitfalls people can fall into on a vegan diet is not getting enough of the important nutrients that are provided by animal products. Protein, of course, is one of the primary deficiencies vegans can face if they don’t have a complete understanding of the difference between plant and animal proteins as well as their body’s protein requirements. Because plant proteins are different from animal proteins, vegans may need to take in more grams of plant protein than would be required from animal proteins. Also, it’s important to get plant proteins from a variety of sources, such as nuts, beans, seeds, whole grains, lentils, and more.

Because the heme iron in animal products is better absorbed by the body than the non-heme iron in plant sources, a sufficient amount of vitamin C needs to be included in the vegan diet, which increases absorption of non-heme iron. On the other hand, consideration should be given to the fact that phytic acid in the same plant protein sources – lentils, whole grains, nuts, beans – can inhibit non-heme iron absorption.

Another important nutrient found mainly in animal and dairy products is vitamin B12, which helps to regulate the nervous system. Deficiencies in this vital vitamin can cause health problems that range from fatigue and immune system disorders to pernicious anemia and neurological issues. Vegans need to make sure they choose foods fortified with vitamin B12 and/or take B12 supplements (always check with your functional medicine doctor to make sure any supplements you take are pure and that you take the right amount for you personally).

Omega-3 fatty acids, derived mainly from fish and eggs, is an important nutrient in many ways, including controlling blood pressure and contributing to heart health. If your diet is missing or low in Omega-3s, you may experience symptoms like fatigue, poor concentration, dryness of hair, nails, eyes and skin, sleep problems, moodiness, irritability, joint discomfort, lower energy, and others. A high-quality Omega-3 supplement as well as including flaxseed and walnuts in your diet is important to avoid these issues as well as other long-range health problems.

One final note: Sometimes people following what they consider to be a healthy diet forget that they also need to be vigilant about the amount of added refined sugars they ingest. Vegan snacks and desserts, especially if they’re processed, may fit within the scope of a vegan diet, but if consumed too frequently, they can still cause health problems. Similarly, soda may be vegan, but it’s an unhealthy beverage choice for anyone and should be avoided.

Find out what you need to know about your thyroid hormone or health disorder diagnosis today, and get health news updates via Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and The Wellness Essentials newsletter.

If you’d like to leave a question for me to answer in a future blog, you can do that via social media or email.

For more information about my clinic in Oradell, NJ, including Functional Medicine, Neurology & Nutrition, and The Grassroots Medicine Initiative, please call (201) 261-5430.

HIIT Exercise Improves Mitochondrial Health

We all know that exercise is important to a healthy body, and as we age, it becomes even more important for many reasons. From maintaining muscle tone and achieving optimal blood sugar levels to stronger bones and better mental health, physical activity and exercise are crucial to living a healthier life.

Throughout our lives, changes continually take place in our bodies from the skin to the cellular level, but these changes become more severe with age. Cells in older people have accumulated years of damage; these cells are weaker and their energy-producing mitochondria don’t regenerate as quickly or easily. And while most doctors and scientists understand the overall positive impact of exercise on the adult body, there has been no real knowledge about what types of exercise could possibly regenerate cells and those all-important mitochondria.

However, a study was recently conducted at the Mayo Clinic comparing the results of specific types of exercise on 72 sedentary but healthy volunteers consisting of two age groups:

  • ages 18-30
  • ages 65-80

People from both age groups were divided into four subdivisions. Three of these subdivisions were assigned a different type of exercise regimen:

  • high intensity interval training (HIIT) – short bursts of intense stationary bike pedaling
  • weight workouts twice a week
  • stationary bike exercise with weight workouts on alternate days

The fourth group was given no exercises at all and functioned as the control group.

These exercise regimens were followed for three months. Expected outcomes in all participants were realized, such as increased endurance, improved blood sugar levels and increased muscle mass.

But new information was discovered when results from the HIIT group showed that the mitochondria in cells had improved. Younger participants showed improvements in 274 genes, and older participants showed improvements in astounding 400 genes. (The two groups with weightlifting regimens also showed gene-related improvements, but to a far lesser degree.) Older participants’ cells showed a reversal in the decline of muscle-building proteins as well as improvements in mitochondrial health, increases in mitochondrial numbers and rejuvenation of the protein building blocks called ribosomes. All of which means that HIIT exercising actually halted aging at the cellular level by enabling cells to increase protein production for energy-producing mitochondria and protein-building ribosomes.

This study confirms the fact that you’re never too old to improve your health; in fact, the right types of vigorous exercise can reverse aging at the cellular level even more in older adults. For younger adults, incorporating high intensity interval training into their daily exercise routine can help slow the effects of aging and, quite possibly, make them healthier and more active as they age.

Before starting any exercise routine, including one of high intensity aerobic exercises, talk to your doctor about the safest way to approach exercising for your body and health; this is especially important if your lifestyle is generally more sedentary.

Find out what you need to know about your thyroid hormone or health disorder diagnosis today, and get health news updates via Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and The Wellness Essentials newsletter.

If you’d like to leave a question for me to answer in a future blog, you can do that via social media or email.

For more information about my clinic in Oradell, NJ, including Functional Medicine, Neurology & Nutrition, and The Grassroots Medicine Initiative, please call (201) 261-5430.