Humans don’t need animal products to be healthy - Official scientific stance
Specifying the argument
Given the complexity and controversy of this issue, it’s important that we consider one argument at a time, in this article I will discuss this very argument and not others:
Invalid argument: humans need to consume animal products in order to be healthy.
If humans are omnivores that means we can get nutrients from animal sources and plant sources; but it doesn’t mean that we need to get nutrients from both sources.
Obviously, a person can eat a few animal products and still be healthy, but what I want to explain is why we can be healthy without consuming animal products. The strict vegetarian diet does not include animal products, and by-products such as eggs, dairy products, honey, etc. A strict vegetarian diet is also known as a vegan diet or can be referred to as plant-based diet.
Identifying the flaws
Some people affirm that a vegetarian diet is not healthy, but this statement is not supported by an official declaration of any professional association of nutrition. Many times those people appeal to the common “a doctor told me that vegetarianism is unhealthy", “I heard about a vegetarian who died” or "I read about a vegetarian with anemia".
Others can say that a vegetarian diet is in fact healthy for adults, but it doesn’t supply the proper nourishment for the physical and intellectual development of kids or babies. However, that statement is not supported by any declaration of a professional association of nutrition either, they are saying it because they heard about the existence of cases of malnutrition and death among infants and children in a vegetarian diet. Well, we could also list similar cases of malnourished non-vegetarian children, so why should we consider this argument as valid?
Contradicting the science of nutrition:
We have to be careful distinguishing between an official stance of a professional association of nutrition and a rumor or the existence of individual cases. Let’s see what are the official positions of the most important associations of nutrition, and why this particular anti-vegetarianism argument is in principle contradicting the science of nutrition:
Well planned vegetarian diets can be both nutritious and healthy. Many important associations of nutrition, specialized nutrition magazines, etc. have publicly declared that a balanced strict vegetarian diet (plant-based diet) is perfectly healthy: The United Nations (UN), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the American Dietetic Association (ADA), Dietitians of Canada (DC), Dietitians NZ, The New Zealand Dietetic Association (NZDA), The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), The World Health Organization (WHO), World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), etc. and they not just claimed that a balanced strict vegetarian diet is healthy but also mentioned the benefits of it in the prevention and treatment of some diseases, from cardiovascular prevention to cancer and other chronic ailments such as diabetes and some degenerative diseases.
2015 Dietary VEGAN Guidelines for Americans?!
Below I list some of the declarations of these associations about a balanced strict vegetarian diet:
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is the United States' largest organisation of food and nutrition professionals, with close to 72,000 members.
“Appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.”
The stance of 2009 is an update to its 2003 position, and the latter in turn is an update of a previous stance, published in the same journal in 1997. And the1997 one, in turn, is another update to 1983 supplementing another of 1980. We thus get an idea of how long has the ADA been insisting on these issues. That is virtually three decades saying we can live perfectly well without eating animal products.
In 1997, the New Zealand Dietetic Association (Dietitians NZ) endorsed the position of the American Dietetic Association on vegetarian diets:
"The New Zealand Dietetic Association (NZDA) has adopted and endorsed the position paper of the American Dietetic Association (ADA)". “Vegetarian Diets”, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association 1997; 97: 1317– 21"
In 2006, the journal Proceedings of the Nutrition Society published a study titled "Symposium on 'Plant foods and public health' Health effects of vegetarian and vegan diets" which states:
“Overall, the data suggest that the health of Western vegetarians is good and similar to that of comparable non-vegetarians.”
"Nutritional scientists agree that at all ages and stages of life, well-planned plant-based and plant-only diets that incorporate the principles of adequacy, balance, and moderation can be nutritious and healthful".
In 1981, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published an article entitled "Nutrient intake and health status of vegans. Chemical analyses of diets using the duplicate portion sampling technique" where the following is said:
"No clinical signs of nutritional deficiency Were Observed in the vegans"
In August 2011 the British Dietetic Association, (BDA) published a fact sheet Food Factsheet on vegetarian food titled "Vegetarian diets - Keeping a healthy balance" written by dietician Lynne Garton. It reads as follows:
"Well planned vegetarian diets can be both nutritious and healthy. They have been associated with lower risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, certain types of cancer and lower blood cholesterol levels." (...) "Well planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of life. While there are many benefits to eating a vegetarian diet, there’s more to it than just giving up meat."
If you knew you can live healthier without animal products, would you stop consuming them?
Is Veganism Really Healthy? Michael Greger M.D. sharing science based information
In conclusion, even when it’s true that some people have suffered from malnutrition and even died after following a poorly planned vegan diet, we need to consider that those are isolated cases. There are also non-vegetarian people suffering from malnutrition, millions of vegetarians of all ages who are healthy and there is empirical evidence of professional athletes who follow a strict vegetarian diet.
The cause of malnutrition is not due to a vegetarian diet but to misinformation or lack of financial resources which can be found on any type of diet. We have to distinguish between the science of nutrition and the existence of individual cases to take informed decisions.