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More Thoughts on Earthlings Documentary, Including Potential Problems with a Strict Vegan Diet

This article was originally published in March of 2007.

I'm grateful that my recent blog entry on the documentary Earthlings generated widespread interest (more than 12,000 unique views within 48 hours of its posting), and that it caused many of our readers to consider the impact that all of our daily food and lifestyle choices have on other living creatures.

The following comment left by a reader named Mike Lautermilch gives voice to what I feel is one of the main messages of Earthlings:

"When we feel we must kill an animal for some legitimate purpose, death should be instantaneous, unsuspected, and as non-traumatic as possible. If at any time, for any reason, it looks as though a quick, non-traumatic death of an animal is not possible to deliver, then it should be postponed until it IS possible."

I'm confident that Mr. Lautermilch would agree that this philosophy of minimizing unnecessary suffering is also applicable to how living creatures should be treated at all times, not just to how they should be treated in the moment before they are about to die.

A handful of readers wrote in to ask why I believe that it is difficult for most people to experience their best health while following a 100 percent vegan diet for more than several years.

I have come to this belief through my own personal experiences and also through my experiences as a health care provider.

For some of the reasons mentioned in Earthlings plus personal health purposes, I chose to adopt a 100 percent vegan diet in the summer of 1999 following a 14-day water fast. I stayed on this diet for close to four years. But I only felt like I was optimally supporting my health for the first two of those years. The last two years were marked by low energy, constant cravings for some animal foods, skin breakouts, and emotional lows that I had never previously experienced.

My strict vegan diet consisted of plenty of fresh leafy greens, tomatoes, bell peppers, cucumbers, celery, sprouts, many varieties of steamed greens, steamed root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, hard squashes, carrots, and red beets, whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, a wide variety of fruits (including avocados), legumes like chickpeas and red beans, and small amounts of raw nuts and seeds. I also drank fresh lettuce-based vegetable juices a few times a week.

Why did I stick with this diet for the two years during which I suffered with health challenges? Because I had faith in the books that I had read on this topic, and in the guidance that a few prominent physicians had given me. If these doctors and the folks I read about in books could be healthy on a pure vegan diet for decades, I was convinced that I could follow their footsteps.

At some point during my trials as a non-thriving strict vegan, I found a series of articles by natural health writer, Chet Day, that outlined some of the potential problems with being on a pure vegan diet for the long term. These articles were a real turning point for my health, as they helped me to finally snap out of my cloud of unquestioning faith in people who insist that a pure vegan diet is the best diet for everyone.

I added organic eggs from free-range birds, cod liver oil, and a small amount of fish to my diet. Over a period of about three months, this minor adjustment to my diet led to significant health improvement. My energy came back, my cravings disappeared, I stopped having skin breakouts, and most notably, I felt physically strong again. I vividly remember going from being able to do about 3 sets of 10 pull-ups before getting exhausted to being able to do 100 full body weight pull-ups within 20-30 minutes (in sets, with rest in between sets). To have my stamina and strength come back in such a short period of time was a remarkable experience.

Shortly after restoring my health by adding a few clean animal foods to my diet, I discovered that the folks who had originally convinced me to follow a pure vegan diet actually added small amounts of raw, organic cheese and, in one case, organic eggs to their meals. To put it simply, I was astonished that they felt that "sprinkling a little goat's cheese on my salad" was not an important point to share with folks who are desperate for comprehensive guidance on how to recover from serious health conditions.

To this day, I cannot understand how some people can pound home the message of being 100 percent vegan for optimal health while they include small amounts of animal foods in their diets at home. The only explanation that I can think of is that they might feel that by admitting to using small amounts of animal foods, their philosophies are not as tight as they would like them to be, which might cause people to take the idea of "everything in moderation" in the wrong direction. Put another way, maybe these folks feel that if they say that there is a little room for animal foods, then people will go from eating small amounts here and there to going right back to a meat-based, sugar-laden, standard North American diet, which is clearly not a health-promoting diet. But who knows what these folks are really thinking - I'm just speculating on what might motivate such incongruent behavior.

I would like to add that I know people who I believe have been 100 percent strict vegans for many years, some approaching two decades. But the folks I know who fall into this category have always been honest about health challenges that they have. I respect these people because I know that they are deeply committed to being strict vegans even in the face of having health challenges that I believe are partly associated with being on a strict vegan diet. I can't say that all of them attribute their health challenges to a strict vegan diet, but the point is that they are honest about their diet and health.

Which brings me to an important point: if you are thriving on a strict vegan diet (no animal foods ever, including eggs and dairy), I am happy for you. Truly, if I could thrive on a 100 percent vegan diet, I would go back to it this instant. How could I not after having watched Earthlings?

If you wish to adopt a strict vegan diet because Earthlings has moved you to do so, I wish you the very best, and I hope that you thrive in the short and long term.

I also hope that if you develop chronic health problems like low energy, skin breakouts, weak teeth and gums, brittle hair, weak nails, or unusual emotional instability, you do not stick to a 100 percent vegan diet over the long term just because someone has told you that you are just detoxing or that you just need to work at handling stress in a healthier way. Yes, it is possible to experience beneficial cleansing reactions while on a strict vegan diet, but there is a difference between cleansing over a range of a few days to a couple of years versus having long standing health problems related to malnourishment. And malnourishment can happen with any type of diet, including a strict vegan diet.

Bottom line on this point: don't let another person's opinion overpower the realities of your health status; if you are having health problems while on a strict vegan diet, look to make some adjustments that make sense to you. By all means, try to make non-dietary lifestyle adjustments first, like getting more sleep or regularly engaging in meditation/prayer/relaxation sessions. But if you continue to have health problems despite going through a fair trial of such lifestyle adjustments, please don't ignore the possibility that some dietary modifications may help you like they have helped me, dozens of people who have visited my clinic for guidance on this issue, and many other former strict vegans.

What follows is a list of nutrients that people on 100 percent vegan diets stand a greater-than-normal chance of becoming deficient in over the long term:

Vitamin B12

Similar compounds found in algae are known as vitamin B12 analogues. While vitamin B12 analogues may behave as vitamin B12 does in humans, it's probably wise to ensure optimal B12 status by including small amounts of vitamin B12-rich animal foods in your diet.

Vitamin B12 that is produced by bacteria that live in your intestines is mainly produced in your large intestine (colon). Since absorption of nutrients occurs in the upper third of your small intestine, most vitamin B12 that is produced by intestinal bacteria cannot make it into your blood to nourish your cells.

Animal foods are the most reliable, concentrated dietary sources of naturally occurring vitamin B12.

DHA and EPA

DHA and EPA are omega-3 fatty acids that are not found in plant foods, with the exception of seaweed. Yes, your body is capable of converting an omega-3 fatty acid called ALA, found in many plant foods, to DHA and EPA. But the conversion from ALA to DHA and EPA is not always an efficient process for some people. For more information on this topic, view the following article: Making Sense of Omega-3 Fatty Acids.

Vitamin A

There are no plant foods that contain vitamin A. A variety of plant foods contain antioxidants called carotenoids that can be converted to vitamin A in your blood, but there is evidence that indicates that carotenoids are not always efficiently absorbed, which can result in a vitamin A deficiency if you do not eat any foods that contain actual vitamin A. For more information on this topic, view the following article: Healthy Foods that Contain Vitamin A.

Cholesterol and Saturated Fats

Undamaged cholesterol and saturated fats are needed by your body for many important functions. For more information on this topic, view the following article:
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fats and Oils

Although there are trace amounts of cholesterol and some saturated fats in plant foods, a strict vegan diet is typically low in dietary cholesterol and saturated fats, unless palm oil and/or coconut oil are staples.

Although your body can manufacture cholesterol from other nutrients, if your saturated fat intake is low, you stand a good chance of having low blood cholesterol, which can increase your risk of suffering from a variety of health challenges, many of them related to endocrine dysfunction, as cholesterol is needed to manufacture reproductive and stress-related hormones.

Zinc, Iron and Calcium

Strict vegans who regularly eat whole grains that have not been soaked, fermented, or sprouted stand a higher-than-average risk of developing mineral deficiencies, the most common of which are zinc, iron, and calcium deficiencies.

Whole grains that are not soaked, fermented, or sprouted have high levels of phytic acid in their bran, which can bind onto these minerals in your small intestine, preventing them from getting absorbed into your bloodstream.

Based on my personal and professional experiences, I have come to believe that a plant-based diet is a health-promoting diet for the vast majority of people in our world. Plant-based means fresh vegetables, fresh fruits, properly prepared whole grains (gluten-free are best), legumes, and small amounts of nuts and seeds. Add to such a diet small amounts of clean animal foods, and I think you have a well balanced and nutritionally complete diet for most people.

If you wish to avoid all flesh meats for reasons cited in Earthlings, then perhaps you can consider organic eggs from birds that are humanely treated as your source of animal-based nutrients. If you can tolerate dairy products, you can also consider organic varieties, preferably those that are raw and from cows, goats, or sheep that are allowed to live in relative peace.

Going beyond the realm of our food choices, let's remember that the clothes and shoes that we choose to wear, the accessories, furniture, and toys that we choose to use, the pets that we choose to acquire/adopt, and the entertainment that we seek are choices that can also contribute to unnecessary suffering of animals.

 
 

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Comments

I too can't watch this video, I'm ashamed to be part of the human race as it is. I watched another much easier to view "A Peacable Kingdom". No animals are seen killed but the message is still very strong.

Getting enough protein is a deeply engrained myth in our society (perpetuated by powerful meat and dairy industry marketing/lobbying)that goes hand in hand with our rapidly declinging health.

I have recently switched to eating about 90% raw fruits and greens, nuts etc. because it is the cooking of our food that destroys the valuable nutrients and protein and my physical and mental health has improved to such an extent in a few short months I can hardly believe it myself.

G Chapman
Toronto

I am on Doug Graham's 80/10/10 raw vegan diet now for the last 3 months (before that I was on the traditional raw diet for 1.5 years). I do not know what other people's experiences would be like but this low fat diet which includes only raw fruits and certain easy to digest raw vegetables with a small amount of nuts and seeds seems to keep most people very healthy for years. I have completely cured my digestive problems which the medical community consider an uncurable disease, I have enough energy to work out at the gym at least 6 days a week, before this diet I was too tired to leave my bed once I got home from work, my skin is much clearer than ever, I never need deodorants as there is no toxic smell when I perspire, even when I wake up in the mornings I do no get that disgusting film on my teeth like I used to when I was not on this diet. Doug has been eating this way for over 25 years and he is a symbol of health. I looked for the best diet for the human species for the last 6 years and I believe that I have finally found it.

Of course your mileage may vary!

Ian

Dear Dr. Kim,

Thanks for your article on your thoughts regarding the Earthlings documentary. You've helped me to realize that this whole animal cruelty issue is not necessarily about veganism vs. omnivorism. (Is omnivorism a word?) It's about doing the best we can in the choices we make, and diet is just a part of the picture. You really hit it home with the point that we need to consider our choices regarding, not only diet, but also entertainment, the pets we choose to have, and the things we buy. It's not about judging others, as we are all "sinners" and "sinning" in some form or another when it comes to animal cruelty, as the harm we do to the environment negatively/cruelly affects all of the living creatures on the earth.

Thanks for your insights.

I watched portions of the the documentary "Earthlings" as well as the video clip on the massacre of the dolphins. Needless to say I was horrified by the brutality exhibited. But how can we be surprised by these actions when so many don't value human life. If we are willing to kill our own kind, why are we surprised when animals are the next in line. I believe we should be outraged with the brutality that is done on any life, be it animal or human. I believe that life is a gift and we need to protect all species of life from those who believe otherwise.

Although the treatment of dolphins is shocking and heartbreaking, is it not wrong of all of us to condemn this, when most of us continue to buy meat that is the result of unspeakable and unimaginable suffering? I would ask anyone who had poultry, pork or beef in the last week to consider carefully which life they would chose for themselves: the dolphin or the factory farm animal? The dolphin at least lived most of its life in freedom and beauty. The factory farm animal suffers everyday. It is almost beyond belief how their lives unfold: animals in tiny cages; many in complete darkness; unable to even turn around; debeaked, declawed, forcefed; highly medicated because their horrible conditions cause disease; bred out of any semblence of their original form, and so forth- all for our convenience and economy. Yet, we continue to buy this meat. I was physically ill after watching the video about the dolphins, but how can we be outraged by the Japanese, when in every county of this country we are -not only killing animals- we are inflicting a degree of suffering upon them -everyday of their lives- that we can't even comprehend? We must not point the finger at the farmers or the Japanese; we must -each- look into our own heart for the change that is so desparately needed.

Thank you for your open-minded insightful response. I am Japanese and it always bothers me when the finger is pointed to us. I believe it is part of the food chain to eat other life forms, though I believe causing the animals to live in misery is wrong. They lie about selling dolphin meat as whale meat because the world got on them about killing whales. I guess in a way they are pleasing the rest of the world and their own people's desires to eat whale meat. Whatever you do, you're always bound to bother somebody.

i think genetics plays a major role in how a persons body reacts to dietary inclinations.every person is different,even people from within the same family the gene pool is diverse.
considering there is a purpose for every creature on earth,we must respect their place.

Maureen Jack hit the nail on the head.
finger pointing and blame IS NOT the answer
to the horrible realities exposed in the documentary. We must each look in the mirror and determine what we can do to help allieviate the suffering of not only animals but also humans. We have the abilities to eliminate all suffering and cruelty in the world. A shift in collective consciousness would be a great start.

Please stop mistreating dolphins and any other animal please I am begging you. Animals feel all the pain that we feel.

I have always been one for animals and gave up eating tuna a long time ago beacause of all the other life that was lost during the capture of tuna but I don't think alot of people realize the cows, chickens, and pigs die as well everyday so they can eat a steak, bacon. I don't think people see beyond the grocery store shelf and what these poor creatures had to endure before it reaches thier table. I on the other had will not eat one more piece of meat again. I was completly heart broken after watching it and I don't point the finger at the japenese I point the finger at the demand for product they are only making a living to take care of their own families. You can lead a completly healthy life without meat of any kind. i hope that other people will see this and realize that the meat is pretty on the shelf. but at one time what your eating had a face and suffered a terrible death to fill your belly...

Come on people!
This is absurd! I totally agree that animals should not be treated cruely, but God gave us meat to eat. I eat meat at least 1-2 times per week and eat read meat about once a month. So yes, i am one of "them". I wish people would start putting human life over animals who do NOT have souls. No one likes to see anything suffer, and i wish that they would do a better job at keeping suffering down but reality is....It will probably never be 100% no suffering. Period. Get over it. The person who mentioned that these people do this to feel their familys?....Well yeah, i would kill a dolphin to feed my family if i had to. Bottom line - People should put more of their energys into saving newborn babies and aborted babies than on animals.
Peace.

Probably the reason why so many don't place a high value on human life ('killing our own kind') is because we have none for the animal kingdom that has no match for our appetite and brutality. If we first respect the least of animals soul or no soul (souls cannot be scientifically proven but life is all around you at this very moment), if we could but respect the very least of living species, then it stands to reason that respect for our own kind would be unavoidable. If we can ever grasp that we share in the fabric of life all essential components of the greater whole, we could overcome many of the horrendous obstacles that face life on earth today. We are what we eat, we eat brutally mutilated animal species and expect that we shall be superior??? Such expectations stem from the insanity that comes from eating all this harm. I'm not endorsing strict vegan, I do eat some meat and enjoy it, but I do not believe the human mind was ever intended to reign superior with barbarism although it is surely infected. Our race is the cancer of planet earth. Don't believe it? Meanwhile Polan is being threatened with nuclear annihilation...

It doesn't say anywhere in the bible that animals don't have souls. In the book of Leviticus there is a rule that says "you can't eat the blood of an animal because the blood is the soul."

The Catholic Church and the council of Nicea took at vote a few hundreds years after the death of Christ of whether women and animals had souls or not. They decided after fierce debate that women had souls and animals didn't. But nowhere in any religion does any prophet or divine being state "animals have no souls". It's simply not written anywhere.

As for saving new born babies. I agree with you! A cow weighs a few hundred more pounds than a small infant and eats up a lot more food. Free up the food that is being eaten by cows and start giving it to starving babies! I'd rather humans eat our farm food then billions of pigs and cows.

Sorry to disagree with you, Holly...but animals most DEFINITELY DO HAVE 'Souls'....and with great respect...I think it's very arrogant of humans to think that they don't!

Holly,
The inter-connectedness of all organisms upon each other, be they animal, human, or otherwise is a known fact. Your facts which place human beings at the top of the heap, is a dangerous and ill conceived notion. Perhaps you should spend some time delving into the sciences as opposed to your religious dogma, which by the way, not all of the worlds religions agree with. Thank GOD.

Inhumane treatment of animals is a raw subject in our household this week. We just had to put down our beloved faithful dog Noble yesterday. It would have been cruel to let him linger suffering as he was.

While everyone should abhor inhumane treatment of any of God’s creatures, and we should all do what we are able to join in loud voices to keep those things from happening; it is a proven fact that online petitions have no value whatsoever. Most “hoax” sites will be glad to provide a message for you to that effect if you visit their site and do a search for online petitions.

We would be better served to take the name and address provided here and write our own heartfelt message. One personal well stated message would carry more impact than a thousand online “canned” messages.

Thank you for your comments and suggestions. Protein is a major factor in failure to succeed in a vegan diet. I have found that tofu and tempeh have successfully allowed me to make the switch from an animal based diet.

To the person who said animals do not have a soul, how would you know that? Anyone who has ever bonded with an animal would say otherwise.

My husband and I shop at many health food stores and noticed years ago that many of the people who shop there, if not a majority, instead of looking vibrant and healthy, look weak, sick and puny. At first we did not understand why this was so. You need only to use your eyes. And as a doctor friend of mine said, many vegans can be very militant in insisting that the vegan type of eating is the only way to go.

Humanity has not yet reached the stage when they are not needlessly cruel to people AND animals. Hopefully, we will evolve someday.

I was a vegan for 10 years and, although I tried my hardest, I don't think my health was fully supported. It took a mental toll on me. I definitely developed a food obsession. I knew I wanted to stress out less about food, but I felt so morally commited to being a vegan.

Now I occasionally eat fish and dairy. My weight had dropped. I feel great and eat less in general and feel fuller when I eat.

I felt guilty for a while, but I am trying to keep my moral commitments and nutritional commitments in balance. Thank you for this article!

Hello,
i was too a vegan for 10 years, and i eat now like a vegetarian, but I have even included for some days some Nuoc Mam, wich is fermented fishs. I feel better now than during these years of veganism. I believe that i could live thanks to the mental, but to the end, the health couldn't follow. I'm happier now.
Bye,
fred

Dear Dr. Kim,

I also happened to see the documentary Earthlings and thats how I came to your site.
I feel going 100% vegetarian or vegan wont help becuase we will have to destroy our jungles to make room for agriculture. I feel a balanced approach is a must. If we must eat meat and have to kill the animal, lets kill the animal by making its death as quick and least painfull. There are religious doctrines in the world which makes a certain kind of slaughter forbidden for consumption. The approach to kill the animal in those doctrines is very cruel ( I am sure you know what I am talking about). My appeal to people is to follow their conscinece and not blind faith, kill the animal not by sliting its throat and waiting for it to die. Just kill it in the most humane way possible.

The lifestyle change that we need is a "Humane" lifestyle that's it.

I disagree that if the whole world went vegetarian/vegan that we would have to start clearing out "our jungles to make room for agriculture." In fact, one of the greatest causes of deforestation today is the meat industry.

A cow weighs more than a human and requires more food. The food you're feeding a cow could be used to feed dozens of people. Therefore, animal farms actually clear more rainforest than people on a vegetarian diet.

You're making an assumption that cows are grazed on arable land (i.e. land that can grow crops that humans can eat.) This is not always the case. A lot of cattle are grown on land that cannot support grains that humans can eat.

Thank you Dr Kim for your thoughtful comments on vegetarian nutrition. I have had similar experiences and am currently supplementing my vegetarian diet with pasture raised organic eggs, fish oil, royal jelly and an organic collagen protein powder. I monitor my progress with labwork from a functional medicine clinic. I still search to find acupuncture services from a provider who is sensitive to the concerns of vegetarians. Recently, I stopped consulting a Doctor of Oriental Medicine who practiced 8-Constition Medicine because the diet I was expected to follow was so constricting, specifying the best source of protein for my 'body type' as beef or pork and prohibiting most green vegetables and all berries, among other things. He kept referring to the difference between Western medicine and Oriental medicine whenever I brought up my concerns regarding these restrictions. It is always amazing to me how diverse the field of nutrition and healing is and how little evaluation practitioners need to undergo on a continuing basis. As a public school teacher, I am evaluated by several administrators every year. I have tried many nutritional approaches over the years and have come to recognize that nutrition is intimately connected to social, cultural and spiritual values and every nutritional change is a journey through these windows of perception.

 

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