Q&A with Dr. Fogarty: Vegan vs Omnivorous—a Nutritionist Weighs In

Dr. Fogarty, a nutrition and exercise expert from the UK, talks to Spinaca on the science behind how eating a vegetable-based rainbow diet can help you live a longer, healthier life.

Mark Fogarty earned a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology and Biochemistry at the University of Ulster in the United Kingdom where he has been researching, publishing and lecturing on natural nutritional intervention in the context of exercise stress for over a decade.

Spinaca Farms: Right now vegan and even raw vegan diets are super trendy but is a vegan diet healthier than an omnivorous diet—for our bodies and our planet?

Dr. Fogarty: Let me just clarify this at the start—I’m not a vegan. I’m not even a vegetarian. I eat chicken and beef that is free range and sold by our village butcher whose farm is not ten minutes from my house. It’s a small farm and the animals are loved and looked after until the point where they go to meet their maker.

We have chicken once a week and beef once a week (sometimes less) so for me it’s all about my meat being sustainably produced, cared for and the best quality I can get with low food miles. That is my personal position on consuming meat, and I think from a personal health point of view and also the impact on the environment, if you’re going to eat meat, this is the best possible approach. If the farmer/butcher knows the cow’s name and it lives outside most of the year then it’s as good as it can get.

So my first concern about a vegan diet has nothing to do with the ‘vegan’ part. It’s the ‘diet’ part, and here is the dictionary definition of the word diet to consider:

di· et | \ ˈdī-ət \
a special course of food to which a person restricts themselves, either to lose weight or for medical reasons (I guess we should also add—for ethical or moral reasons as well.)

The concept of restricting the intake of key macro or micronutrients (unless for medical reasons) does not sit well with me and in my mind can’t ever be particularly healthy because it means our bodies will missing key components that we need to help provide us with energy, make things and generally function as, you know, humans.

So, you’re right to point out humans are omnivorous—and that is not my opinion, but fact rooted in millions of years of evolution. We can digest and extract the nutrients from both vegetable and meat sources. I would go one step further and say it means we should extract our nutrients from both sources and not restrict the intake of one of the other.

Spinaca Farms: What are the specific benefits of eating an omnivorous diet?

Dr. Fogarty: Vegetables (and fruit of course) give us a rich source of vitamins, fibre, and some sources have lots of carbohydrates. Meat or products made from animal sources (milk, cheese, eggs, etc) give us lots of protein but also calcium and iron.

Can we survive on vegetables alone? Yes, of course, we can, but extra care must be taken to ensure we still deliver enough protein and calcium and iron to replace what meat will provide easily. So that means vegans need a very broad range of vegetables to deliver those nutrients and it’s all to do with amino acids.

There are 20 amino acids in total and we can make 11 of those internally from our RNA, but the other 9 we must consume and extract from the food we eat—and guess what? Meat has all 9 already in there—what we call a complete protein source. There are no vegetables that have all 9 essential amino acids in one source ready to go, so if you don’t take enough care and attention to find out which amino acids are missing from the vegetables you eat, you can become deficient pretty quickly. Even meat alternative products are largely made from mushroom proteins. Although they offer a good total protein hit, they will be missing some key amino acids.

The same can be said for calcium and iron—people living on a vegan diet are generally not getting anywhere near the correct amount of calcium which we know to be really important for bone health. Veganism is something I’d seriously consider avoiding in early and teenage years when our bones are developing the most. Soy and nut-based milks just don’t contain anywhere near the same amount of calcium as cow’s milk. Iron is perhaps less of an issue because green salads like spinach and rocket [Arugula in the US] have absolutely truckloads of iron in there.

Don’t get me wrong—I get the ethical view with the vegan approach, but the environmental argument doesn’t stack up and there are a lot of misconceptions about the capacity of these diets to save the planet. The idea that soy can be farmed sustainably to deliver enough milk for the world is mental. How much rainforest has already been cut down to the plant soy? Cows use lots of water—yes they do but you also have to water the crops. Almond trees grown to produce almond milk require the same if not more water than a herd of dairy cows, ok almond trees don’t produce methane in the truckload but what I’m saying is it’s not a clear cut argument that is always presented.

However, for the sake of a balanced argument lets flip this on its head:

Can you survive on a purely carnivorous diet? No, absolutely not! You would die a horrible disease like gout or cardiovascular disease very very quickly.

Spinaca Farms: Raw diets are also huge right now. What are your thoughts on raw vegan diets?

Dr. Fogarty: I’m not sure raw anything is ever a good idea. Is it healthier than cooked vegan? Probably not!

A big step in the evolutionary process was the discovery of fire, with fire came the potential to cook food! By cooking food, we begin the digestive process a lot earlier making the chemical extraction of nutrients much more efficient. This is of particular importance for protein. So if we consider the amino acid issues I discussed above, if we’re vegan we want to get as much protein from amino acids as possible so a light boil, shallow fry/sauté or gentle steam is highly recommended.

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