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Vegan Health FAQ

Don't vegans need to be careful? Are there some people who can't be vegan?


Dr. Michael Greger
©Doris Lin 2012, licensed to About.com, Inc.
Updated July 05, 2012

I spoke with vegan advocate, medical doctor and author Dr. Michael Greger at the 2012 Vegetarian Summerfest.

If you had 60 seconds to explain the health benefits of a vegan diet to someone, what would you say?

I would say that the number one killer, regardless of all the other benefits, the number one killer of men and women in the United States, in fact, every year since 1918, is heart disease. And heart disease can not just be prevented, can not just be stopped in its tracks, but can be reversed with a plant-based diet. Number one killer can be reversed by this diet. What else do you need?

What about people who say, "Vegans need to be careful"?

Everyone needs to be careful. I mean, the top killers in the U.S. are diet and lifestyle related. Everyone has to be careful but vegans have to be less careful. We don't have to worry about getting our fiber. Everyone else has to worry about getting their fiber. We don't have to worry about getting our folate, phytonutrients, and vitamin C. I mean there's a wide variety of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals that are found in whole plant foods. People say, "Where do you get your protein?" I say, "Where do you get your fiber?" It's the standard American diet. They're the ones who have to be very, very careful, cause they're dropping dead in droves because of what they're eating.

We've all heard of the friend of a friend who almost died after going vegan. What's your take on that?

Is this the friend of a friend who got visited by Martians? I mean it sounds like an urban legend. That's not to say that one doesn't have to be careful. The most important thing is vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is not made by plants. It's not made by animals, either. It's made by little microbes that blanket the earth. So we used to get all that we need drinking out of a mountain stream or well water. But now, we chlorinate our water supply to kill off any bacteria. So we don't get a lot of B12 in our water any more. We don't get a lot of cholera either. That's a good thing. But because of the way that we live in our sanitized world, we need a source of B12 from somewhere. People who eat meat and other bacteria-laden foods can get some from that source, but people who eat clean, healthy diets need to get B12 from either fortified foods or supplements. If you don't, you really can run into serious problems, but it's still quite rare and I still doubt too many friends of friends are running into that problem.

Are there some people who can't be vegan?

In one in 20,000 births there's an enzyme deficiency. A carnitine deficiency. There have been a few cases reported in the literature.

So they're like human cats?

Indeed. There's a number of things that we need to survive and the reason they're not considered essential is that our body makes them. But there have been very rare cases. Some people don't make these nutrients so they need to either eat someone that does or they can take a supplement. Even in that case, that one in 20,000, they can just take a carnitine supplement, and they're fine.

What's your favorite healthy vegan meal?

It changes all the time. One of my favorite healthy vegan snacks recently, just because it's soooo cheap, simple, easy, yummy, quick, is these collard green burrito wraps, which is basically just steaming some big collard greens. Take some canned refried beans, and some jarred salsa - you just have it around - and just microwave it. And just have this bean burrito rolled up in a collard green leaf and it's something I can eat with one hand and type with the other, keeping busy. That's my latest favorite. I'm sure I'll get sick of those in a week and eat something else.

I think I saw you skipping to lunch today at the Vegetarian Summerfest. You're really excited about the food here.

It's all that energy! That energy from a healthy diet! But there's fantastic food here. And it's so great to be in a place where you just have a smorgasbord of healthy options that are good for the planet and good for us.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I would encourage people if they're interested to go to NutritionFacts.org, where there are hundreds of videos on more than a thousand topics. Everything's free, science-based, noncommercial, with the latest discoveries in nutrition.

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