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Evaluating Health Information

As a vegan, I’m regularly being told by my friends and family that they’re worried about my health. They think there are health dangers with being vegan based on health information they read or hear about. I’m not concerned as I feel great and I get other feedback from long-term vegans (people who have been vegan for like 25 years) who are healthy and happy.

Here I look at a recommended source of reliable health information only to eventually find that it appears to be deliberately misleading. Another example of the use of advertising to give us a certain impression just to increase our chance of buying products. Let’s explore.

evaluating health information

A new source of health information

Recently, a good friend of mine who knows that I’ve been vegan for the past 18 months now, sent me a link to a page that a doctor told her about. The page was this one – http://www.thefooddoctor.com/Veganism–what-to-eat…-Ahealth_experts_veganism/. I opened this page with an open mind, expecting to learn something, and one of the first things I read was this;

What you’re not getting enough of
The removal of animal products from one’s diet means a lack of ready available sources of Vitamin D, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Zinc, Iron, Protein, Calcium and Vitamin B12 and as a result there is a likelihood of experiencing deficiencies. It is therefore important that vegans are aware of the vitamins and minerals they could be lacking in their diet.

My initial reaction to this was ARRGGHH!!!  Let me explain.

First they mention vitamin D. From what I understand, the most important source of vitamin D is the sun’s rays. In this page from mercola.com the sources of vitamin D are listed as “sensible sun exposure, a tanning bed (restrict your use of tanning beds to those that use electronic ballasts), vitamin D-containing foods, and/or vitamin D supplements”. And on this page he says “Healthy Sun Exposure Is Your Best Source of Vitamin D“.

They also mention protein, which a lot of people think you only get from meat. This is a myth. Protein is everywhere. It’s true that animal proteins may be different nutritionally than plant proteins, but protein without meat is plentiful. The current guide for protein intake is about 0.8 grams of protein per day for each kilo of body weight (some people say we only need 0.5 grams per kilo). For me, this means I need about 70 grams of protein per day. Here are some ways I can get that (source);

  • Spirulina (an edible blue-green algae) – 4 grams from a single teaspoon
  • Pumpkin seeds – 32 grams per cup
  • Lentils – 18 grams per cup
  • Tempeh – 12 grams per cup
  • Chick peas – 12 grams per cup
  • Green peas – 8 grams per cup
  • Spinach – 5 grams per cup
  • Broccoli – 4 grams in just 1 cup (plus 30 percent of your daily calcium needs, along with vitamin C, fiber, and B vitamins for only 30 calories)
  • Asparagus – 4 grams per cup
  • Green beans – 4 grams per cup
  • Tahini – 4 grams in a single tablespoon

Compare this to 24 grams of protein in 100 grams of an average steak. There are plenty of easily digestible protein alternatives in the vegan world.

On thefooddoctor.com webpage, they list the following alternatives;

Protein alternatives –
We need protein for growth and development and to support a healthy digestive system. There are lots of other great alternatives to meat, including tofu, quinoa, beans, pulses, lentils, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, and edamame beans. The Food Doctor Easy Grains Bio-Organic Quinoa is a great meat-free protein source. Quinoa is a complete protein, which means that it contains an adequate promotion of all 9 essential amino acids.

Initially, converting can be challenging, however it opens up avenues to explore the variety of different sources of protein and avoids the consumption of too much red meat.

I’m surprised they don’t mention spirulina, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, etc. Some of the easiest and nicest alternatives are missing. It shouldn’t be a surprise though because they have a Quinoa product they are trying to sell, something called The Food Doctor Easy Grains Bio-Organic Quinoa. This is bad news. They are trying to provide health information, but they’re allowing their sales desires to bias that information.

One last thing I’d like to focus on is calcium. They say a vegan diet results in a lack of ready available sources of calcium and they go on to list these alternatives;

Sources of Calcium –
Calcium is essential for keeping our bones strong and for healthy nerve transmissions. Dairy-free milks (e.g. hemp, almond, cashew, coconut or rice), tofu, tahini and dark green leafy vegetables are great sources of calcium. Although these milks contain a generous amount of protein and iron, as well as added calcium, it is important to be careful as many of them are high in sugar. We recommend making your own nut milk, it not only tastes better but avoids the harmful preservatives and additives that are often added to shop bought varieties. There are many online tutorials that will guide you through the process.

Notice how they mention dark leafy greens but still almost ignore them. This isn’t very good health information. Here’s a list of some of the best sources of calcium of which need about 1000 mg per day roughly (source);

  • Rhubarb (cooked) – 350 mg per cup
  • Bean Sprouts – 320 mg per cup
  • Figs (dried) – 300 mg per cup
  • Spinach – 250 mg per cup
  • Kale – 180 mg per cup
  • Almonds – 95 mg per quarter cup
  • Quinoa – 80 mg per cup
  • Chickpeas – 80 mg per cup
  • Prunes – 75 mg per cup
  • Tahini – 65 mg per teaspoon
  • Kiwi fruit – 60 mg per cup
  • Brazil nuts – 55 mg per quarter cup
  • Broccoli – 45 mg per cup
  • Celery – 40 mg per cup

Based on the foods I currently eat (most things on the above list), I’m pretty sure I’m getting plenty of calcium without having any type of milk at all. The health information in the article from thefooddoctor.com makes it sound like this would be almost impossible for a vegan. This is misleading. Simple vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds will provide all the calcium we need.

I could go on about more of the dangers listed by thefooddoctor.com, like omega-3 fatty acids, zinc and iron, but I won’t. These aren’t a problem for vegans. The only one on their list that could be a problem is vitamin B12. I haven’t done enough research on this yet to comment properly, but that appears to be the one vitamin that vegans might find hard to source. Apparently, gorillas (almost pure vegans) get vitamin B12 because their fruits and vegetables still have dirt on them when they eat them. Because we clean our foods so much, we wash away the organisms in the dirt that help us get vitamin B12. Anyway, I need to research this more.

Another thing that annoyed me about the article from thefooddoctor.com is this paragraph;

What to remember
Many vegans miss out on essential nutrients in their diets as they tend to consume refined carbohydrates such as chips and vegan cakes, as it is the easy and more viable option. If you are a vegan or are interested in following a vegan diet, then it is important that you are aware of what you may be lacking in your diet. Try to include wholegrains, healthy fats and a variety of protein sources into regular meals.

This isn’t good health information and it rubs me up the wrong way because it sounds so condescending. They make it sound like being vegan is so dangerous and then they push wholegrains. Of all the vegan options, I’d be wary of eating too many grains. From the research I’m doing, it seems that grains do more harm than good. I’m pretty sure that to be a healthy vegan, we don’t need to eat many grains.

evaluating health information

Taking advantage of the term “doctor” even though they aren’t doctors.

Who is thefooddoctor.com?

Now I’m getting suspicious about thefooddoctor.com so I took a look at their “About Us” page. This is what it says (the coloured highlights are mine);

The Food Doctor was founded in 1999 by Ian Marber and Vicki Edgson, two of the UK’s pioneering nutritional therapists, to provide the nation with ‘nutritionally balanced foods’ and unparalleled, impartial nutritional advice. The approach to nutritional health is founded on 10 core principles that have stood the test of time – not faddy – just good sense!

There is a great deal of helpful advice here on The Food Doctor website, but we also run one-to-one consultations at our clinic in Harley Street.

Our 10 Principles:

  • Combine Food
    • Always eat complex carbohydrates, such as grains and pulses, with proteins at every meal. Together they break down more slowly creating a steady flow of energy that helps keep you powered up and feeling satisfied for longer.
  • Stay Hydrated
    • Drinking water and non-alcoholic liquids throughout the day encourages your body to function better and can help keep you focused and alert. Herbal teas, juices and soups work well; though avoid carbonated drinks, especially those with sweeteners.
  • Mix & Match
    • Variety is the spice of life and by eating a wider range of wholesome foods you are more likely to get the nutrients your body needs. Try a new food every week to make life more interesting and keep you motivated to eat better forever.
  • Little & Often
    • Eating just three main meals a day can lead to those all too familiar energy highs and lows. By eating smaller amounts more often your glucose levels, and therefore energy, should remain steady so you feel satisfied for longer.
  • Start Smart
    • Always eat breakfast to wake up your body and kick-start your digestion with fresh fruits and whole grains that provide sustained slow-release energy. Don’t forget your protein, so add in seeds, yogurt or an egg everyday.
  • Cut it Out
    • As tasty as it can be, sugar in all its forms creates excess energy far too quickly, which can end up being stored as fat. Be careful; sugar is hidden in many foods and avoid sweeteners too as they just tend to reinforce the habit.
  • Act Now
    • Regular exercise helps your body function more effectively, even while you’re at rest. Keep what you do varied so that you don’t get bored and remember, any activity that raises your heart rate is good, from a brisk walk to a full workout.
  • Eat 80:20
    • No foods are forbidden; otherwise you’ll just end up craving the things you’ve denied yourself. But when you do give yourself a treat make sure it’s as wholesome as possible – even high cocoa chocolate has beneficial nutrients, just try to avoid sugars.
  • Stop & Eat
    • Taking time out to eat will help you enjoy your food more whilst getting the maximum goodness and pleasure from your meals. Chewing slowly also helps aid digestion, so don’t rush it.
  • Love Fat
    • ‘Essential’ or ‘Omega’ fats found in oily fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds are vital for the cells in our bodies and in the conversion of food into energy. These unsaturated fats are also beneficial for our skin, nails and hair, and can help you feel good from the inside out.

Our purpose

  • To provide a healthier way to eat what you want.
  • By making wholesome foods that adhere to our principles. These principles provide a simple, practical guide to keeping fit and healthy.
  • We make all kinds of healthy foods that don’t disappoint when you taste them or find out what’s in them.

Our values

  • Honesty and integrity in all we do
  • Making the complex simple
  • Enjoying food and not being too precious

There is some good health information here, but a lot that worries me. The “Little & Often” section, I disagree with. I know there’s a big debate about this but, in my opinion, we eat too much and too often. It’s better to give our body a break from constantly digesting food and dealing with glucose in the blood stream. Also, the line “No foods are forbidden; otherwise you’ll just end up craving the things you’ve denied yourself.” is just untrue based on my experience. When I give up a food I’m used to, I initially crave it but, after a few days, I don’t anymore. I’m over it. It is really important to completely eliminate bad things from your diet.

Being hoodwinked by health information

evaluating health information

Emphasising the “doctor” angle, showing their Harley Street Clinic door.

But now, when I look at the pink highlights in the text above, I see more clearly what’s going on here. This is a company that’s selling food products but they’d like us to think that they are doctor’s with great health information who then make it easy for us by selling us their food products. Let’s look at the evidence;

  1. They call themselves “The Food Doctor” but they are nutritional therapists, not doctors. They are cashing in on the feeling that the word “doctor” conjures up in us.
  2. They have a “Harley Street” clinic. Again cashing in on the implication of being a trusted doctor.
  3. Some of the notes made above show them promoting things that will help sell their products but aren’t really sound nutritional advice.
  4. They show that you can buy their products in Tesco and Waitrose (on their “Where to Buy” page) – they are selling in the big market – their food product sales income must be significant.

It must be very difficult to run two businesses at the same time, (1) a business offering nutritional advice, and (2) a business selling food products. It must be hard when the desire to sell food products doesn’t match with good health information. It must be hard for the health information to remain independent.

The Final Verdict

evaluating health information

Actively pushing their food product sales on their website.

I checked out a number of the products for sale by thefooddoctor.com and they aren’t too bad. They’re doing a pretty good job. In a couple of their products I noticed rapeseed oil that I don’t like, and I also saw “yeast extract” in a couple. Yeast extract can be another name for MSG, so that’s a little concerning. But overall, their products seem to be free of most of the nasty additives that are found in nearly all processed foods.

My guess is that thefooddoctor.com is a company trying to do a good job with their health information and nutritional advice, but they’ve lost their way a little and have allowed their desire to sell food products to become their main goal.

We need companies that are transparent and clear with their intentions. The best companies are ones that are doing something that’s good for the general population. Doing something that’s helping us make progress. Especially when providing health information, this should be devoid of any business imperative. Health information should not be twisted to improve profits. Good, transparent, honest companies should attract the most customers and make reasonable profits. It’s a pity when we allow ourselves to be attracted to companies with the best marketing rather than the most honest, open and good companies, but that can change.

Am I being fair in this article? Do you know of any similar situations?

evaluating health information

Really! Snack yourself thin!? How can they promote that? Oh yes, sales are the most important thing.

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