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#BLOG – Why are so many people falling off the vegan-wagon?

By Tymèle Deydier

You might have seen on social media that, recently, the vegan community has lost some of its major and most popular supporters, including Miley Cyrus, Maddie Lymburner and Jon Venus. And I’m sure you’re just as heartbroken as I am…

So, what on earth is happening to vegans right now? Or rather, ex-vegans (we do love a bit of drama). Did they finally come to their senses and realize that veganism was just a conspiracy? Did they go back to a carnivore diet cold turkey? Let’s investigate…

What struck me it that there seemed to be one food in particular that ex-vegans first reintroduced into their diet: fish. And for most of them, it was actually the only animal product they chose to consume again. This might come as a surprise to some of you. Perhaps you thought they would have gone for cheese instead? Or maybe chicken? But the most common reason that ex-vegans gave for reintroducing fish into their diet wasn’t a specific craving, but rather the lack a group of essential nutrients that can be found in fish that was causing their brain to not function optimally. And these nutriments are none other than Omega-3s.

“My brain wasn’t functioning properly”

Miley cyrus

So, what are Omega-3s and what do they have to do with vegans’ brains?

I’m sure most of you are already familiar with the term Omega-3 and have probably heard it in relation to some kinds of health benefits. But for the sake of this article, I’m just going to succinctly explain what they are. Omega-3s are essential fatty acids, aka building blocks of the fat in our food and in our bodies and major structural components of our cells’ membranes. They’re called essential because, although there are necessary to the good functioning of our brain, the body cannot synthesize them and thus we must get them from our diet.

There are 3 different types of Omega-3s:

  • ALA (α-Linolenic acid)
  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)

DHA helps with cell signaling, i.e. facilitates communication between cells of the brain, and EPA reduces inflammation. ALA decreases inflammation and oxidation, improves communication between cells in the brain and promotes neurogenesis (creation of new brain cells and new connections between neurons). Omega-3s have also been linked with reduced risk of depression and slower brain aging.

The adequate intake of ALA recommended by the Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board and the European Food Safety Authority is 1.3-1.6 grams for men and around 1 gram for women over 14 (1.4 and 1.3 grams during pregnancy and lactation respectively). If you’re vegan and not supplementing in DHA and EPA, then it is suggested to double this recommendation to 2.6-3.2 grams for men and 2 grams for women. Just to give an idea of how achievable that is, 100 grams of tofu provide about 0.2 grams of ALA while a tablespoon of chia seeds and a handful of walnuts (20g) each provide about 1.8 grams of ALA. Recommended amounts of DHA and EPA range between 200 and 500 milligram of a combination of both per day. The American Dietetic Association recommends consuming 500 milligrams per day of a combination of EPA and DHA, while in the UK, the British Dietetic Association and the British Nutrition Foundation recommends 450 milligrams and 200 milligrams per day of EPA + DHA respectively. In Europe, the European Food Safety Authority recommends consuming 250 milligrams per day of EPA + DHA.

So, now we know why we need these fatty acids, how much of them we need to consume and we’re even starting to grasp why a deficiency in Omega-3s can be quite damaging to our brains. But where do we get Omega-3s from in the first place? Anti-vegans, now is probably a good time to wake up from your nap induced by the rather boring introduction to Omega-3s. Although ALA is found in abundance in plants (e.g. flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, seaweed, leafy green vegetables and soy foods), DHA and EPA are mainly found in … You guessed it, fish. That’s it, she said it, being vegan is totally unhealthy! Hang on a minute. It’s actually not just found in fish, but also in algae (and that’s actually where the fish themselves get it from, hehe). As we’ve seen, DHA and EPA are absolutely essential to our brain functioning, among other things, and thus they must be part of our diet. And this can be achieved in three different ways:  

  1. Eating fish
  2. Having fish-based DHA & EPA supplement
  3. Having algae-based DHA & EPA supplement

It is well accepted in the scientific community that the body actually converts ALA into DHA and EPA. The thing is, scientists don’t seem to agree on the conversion rate, which is estimated to range anywhere between 0.5 to 15%. So, if you don’t eat fish but eat tons of ALA-rich foods (e.g. chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, dark leafy greens…), depending on your own body’s conversion rate, you might actually get enough DHA and EPA. Maybe. I personally wouldn’t take the risk, and that’s why I supplement in algae-based DHA and EPA, just to stay on the safe side.

Flaxseeds, chia seeds and walnuts are a great source of ALA

“Yeah but supplements aren’t natural!” I hear you say. Maybe. But supplementing with algae based DHA and EPA isn’t contributing to fish exploitation and marine destruction. Plus, it’s actually getting Omega-3s at source, without all the antibiotics and nasty chemicals, minerals and plastics that fish ingest. So, it’s kind of a shortcut through the food chain really. Plus, I’m not convinced that there is anything natural about the fish you get from the supermarket and the way it’s been farmed and/or fished.

So, is it possible to get enough Omega-3s on a vegan diet (thus without eating fish) and not feel like your brain isn’t working properly? Of course.

Now onto the controversial part of this article… My personal opinion is that if Omega-3s really were the reason someone goes back to eating fish they might as well have gone for the algae-based supplements together with increasing their ALA-rich foods intake. That way they get their essential Omega-3s, keeping their brain and body healthy without causing pain to sentient beings or destroying the environment. A win-win situation really.

I’m very much aware that I’m not a doctor (although many doctors and nutritionists shared my opinion), and that there might potentially be extreme health cases where it was necessary for the person to eat fish. But probably not in most cases.

Of course, one’s health must always be one’s priority. ALWAYS. But that makes me question how well these people actually knew about plant-based nutrition in the first place. Had they known about the importance of Omega-3s and supplemented with algae-based DHA and EPA right when they went vegan, perhaps they wouldn’t have had these brain and concentration issues and would have stuck to a plant-based diet, for all its ethical and environmental benefits?

The consequences of overfishing

In their defense, although vitamins B12 and D have received a lot of attention, the same cannot be said of Omega-3s. And if I’m completely honest, I myself didn’t know about DHA and EPA and thought I could get all my Omega-3s from nuts and seeds, and thus didn’t supplement when I first went vegan (ouch…). And this is also what makes me angry, as I believe this is the kind of information everyone should have the right to know about. Because this isn’t just about vegans. It concerns anyone who doesn’t eat fish on a regular basis. But again, the information is there if you’re looking for it, so perhaps you should have looked harder Timmy.

In conclusion, this article isn’t about lynching people for their dietary choices. Absolutely not. Each to their own. There is no such thing as a perfect diet. There is no one diet that is suitable for everyone. I guess this was a call to one, stop the haters from using these ex-vegans as examples of how unhealthy veganism is and two, to ask all vegans who transitioned without educating themselves on the importance of nutrition or/and who thought that they didn’t need any supplements to get their crap together and actually make sure they’re properly feeding themselves before they go on giving advice to other people. Although that’s just as applicable to non-vegan on poorly nutritive diets.

So yes, just like with any other diets, there are vegans who are putting themselves (and even others) at risk because of the way they eat. And that’s unfortunate (or a goldmine for all the haters/anti-vegans). But this doesn’t mean that a plant-based diet is intrinsically unhealthy. There are proven numerous benefits to the consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and legumes. It all comes back to finding reliable sources of information, keeping up to date with this information, and not following random people’s advice (mine included).

Obviously, I chose to discuss here one of the main reasons people ditched veganism which can easily be argued or discussed. I don’t plan on even attempting to argue over other personal reasons such as finding a plant-based diet too restrictive to stick to, or specific health conditions that make it difficult to be vegan, just because I am not a doctor nor a nutritionist and don’t feel qualified whatsoever to talk about it.

Lastly, I know that it was making you all anxious, so please be reassured, I am still very much vegan! (Phew!)

More than happy to hear your thoughts about this piece in the comments below or by email at T.M.P.Deydier@lboro.ac.uk.

Resources:

Abdelhamid AS et al. (2020). Omega-3 fatty acids for the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020;3:CD003177. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003177.pub5.

Cao, D. et al. (2009). Docosahexaenoic acid promotes hippocampal neuronal development and synaptic function. Journal of Neurochemistry. 111: 510-521. doi:10.1111/j.1471-4159.2009.06335.x

European Food Safety Authority (2017). Overview on Dietary Reference Values for the EU population as derived by the EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA). Available at: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/sites/default/files/assets/DRV_Summary_tables_jan_17.pdf [Accessed Oct 2020].

Harris W.S. et al. (2008), Omega-3 fatty acids and coronary heart disease risk: Clinical and mechanistic perspectives. Atherosclerosis. 2008;197(1):12-24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2007.11.008.

Harris W.S. (2010). Omega-3 fatty acids. In: Coates PM, Betz JM, Blackman MR, et al., eds. Encyclopedia of Dietary Supplements. 2nd ed. London and New York: Informa Healthcare; 2010:577-86.

Hever J. and Cronise R.J. (2018). Plant-Based Nutrition. 2nd ed. Alpha Books.

Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary reference intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids (macronutrients). Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2005.

Jacka FN et al. (2010). Association of Western and traditional diets with depression and anxiety in women. Am J Psychiatry. 2010 Mar;167(3):305-11. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2009.09060881. Epub 2010 Jan 4. PMID: 20048020.

Kidd P.M. (2007). Omega-3 DHA and EPA for Cognition, Behavior, and Mood: Clinical Findings and StructuralFunctional Synergies with Cell Membrane Phospholipids. Altern Med Rev. 2007;12(3):207-227.

Miley Cyrus quits veganism (Sept 2020) YouTube video added by Earthling Ed [Online]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5urIeEcuvA.

National Institutes of Health (2020). Omega-3 Fatty Acids [Online]. Available at: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional  [Accessed Oct 2020].

Sanders T.A. (2014). Plant compared with marine n-3 fatty acid effects on cardiovascular risk factors and outcomes: what is the verdict? Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jul;100 Suppl 1:453S-8S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.071555.

Surge (2020). Is Fish a Health Food? [Online] Available at: https://www.surgeactivism.org/isfishhealthy [Accessed Oct 2020].

Surge (2020). The Environmental Impact of Eating Fish [Online]. Available at: https://www.surgeactivism.org/fishandtheenvironment [Accessed Oct 2020].

William S. H. (2014). Achieving optimal n–3 fatty acid status: the vegetarian’s challenge… or not. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 100, Issue suppl_1, July 2014, Pages 449S–452S, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.113.071324.

Wilson K. (2020). How To Build A Healthy Brain: Reduce Stress, Anxiety And Depression And Future-Proof Your Brain. Yellow Kite.

Tymele Deydier

Doctoral Researcher in Chemical Engineering
PhD SSN Chair 2020-21
Tymele Deydier

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