After a nutrition professor spoke her mind on live TV, a tweetstorm raged on social media. We asked nutritionists for their take on the animal product vs. plant-based diet debate.
People who eat meat and those who don't often argue about which diet is healthier. So it wasn't exactly a surprise this morning when a UK nutrition professor gave veganism a thumbs-down on live television . . . and Twitter hit back hard in response.
“It’s really hard work to make a vegan diet healthy,” said Sophie Medlin, RD, a lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at King's College in London, during a BBC segment on the rise of veganism. “You have to think very carefully about what you’re eating all the time. I have never recommended any of my patients follow a vegan diet; I can’t see myself ever changing that. It’s very complicated to make sure your diet is safe and gives you all the nutrition you need.”
Twitter instantly lit up with responses, strongly defending vegan eating and questioning Medlin’s expertise.
During the TV segment, Medlin went on to explain that she’s been a nutritional scientist for about 14 years, and even with her knowledge, she thinks she would struggle to meet her nutritional requirements on a vegan diet. “Most people would need to take some supplements. It’s very difficult and very challenging to be fully nutritionally adequate on a vegan diet,” she said.
The meat eater vs. vegan debate can get pretty heated, so to set the record straight, we ran Medlin's comments by Health contributing nutrition editor Cynthia Sass, RD. Her take? Medlin wasn't totally right, but she made some worthy points.
“You can be healthy and meet all your nutrient needs on a vegan diet, but it does take knowledge and planning,” says Sass. “It all comes back to quality and balance. There are junk food, nutrient-deficient vegan diets and junk food, nutrient-deficient omnivore diets. If you are committed to knowing how and where to obtain the right nutrients in the amounts you need, and you are doing so in the right balance, a vegan diet can be incredibly healthy.”
Sass's thoughts fall in line with the position the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics takes: "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."
Atlanta–based nutritionist Marisa Moore, RD, agrees. "You can absolutely be healthy on a vegan diet," Moore says. "You can make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need by educating yourself on key nutrients for vegan diets, careful planning, and willingness to try new foods. If you cut out all animal products and don’t replace them with foods that supply similar or better nutrients, you may do your body a disservice."
It is true that vegans can struggle to meet certain nutritional requirements, particularly those that involve nutrients more likely to be found in animal products, like vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and protein, says Sass.
“When a vegan cuts out all animal foods, it's important to know which foods to eat to replace these nutrients, or how to supplement properly,” Sass says. You can get this information by meeting with a dietician or making use of credible resources on veganism.
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"Knowledge is key," adds Moore. "Knowing, for example, that nutritional yeast and some fortified cereals are good ways to get B12 may mean you don’t have to spend lots of money on supplements."
Whether you’re plant-based or not, remember that different diets work for different people, and what and how you eat is a personal choice. Still, based on the blowback Medlin received, we doubt the debate between vegan vs. animal products is going too cool off anytime soon.