Is a Vegan Diet Unhealthy? We Asked an RD to Take on @SophieDietitian's Claims

U.K.-based dietitian Sophie Medlin recently blasted vegan diets as unsafe and inadequate—and her comments went viral. So we asked our go-to RD Abby Langer to weigh in

Fresh salad with tomatoes and avocado on a light background

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As a dietitian and professional, I like to follow the unwritten rule of never calling a colleague out in a public forum. Well, unless they say something like dietitian Sophie Medlin (a.k.a. @SophieDietitian) just did on Victoria Live, a British television show.

Medlin, who appears to be highly educated and intelligent, went on air and said she would never recommend a vegan diet to anyone because it’s “really, really hard to make a vegan diet healthy” and “very difficult, very challenging, to be nutritionally adequate on a fully vegan diet… most vegans need to take supplements.” She summed up her conclusion saying, “It’s very complicated to make sure your [vegan] diet is safe and gives you all the nutrition that you need.”

Now, maybe Medlin was nervous because she was on TV, so I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt. While I personally am not vegan, as a dietitian I fully support plant-based diets and my clients who are on them. I’d never want the general public to take Medlin’s comments to heart and end up avoiding a diet that might be beneficial!

So let’s look at some of @SophieDietitian’s claims—and allow me to debunk them.

Claim #1: It’s really hard to make a vegan diet healthy

Medlin and I must have different understandings of the definition of “healthy.” I’m assuming that like most other dietitians, Medlin likes to promote diets that have lots of fruits and vegetables. Vegan diet? Check.

She probably also believes in diets that contain little saturated fats. Vegan diet? Check.

And lean proteins. Vegan diet? Check. Now, before you get on my case with the  ever-common myth that vegans can’t possibly get enough protein, there are tons of plant-based protein options! Tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, seeds, nuts and nut butters, milk alternatives, vegan meat alternatives, seitan, even vegan protein powder for the times when a top-up might be needed. So yes, vegans can easily get protein in their diets. And another FYI: as long as vegans eat a varied diet with different protein sources throughout the day, there’s no need to combine proteins like we once thought.

As far as vitamins and minerals go, a well-planned vegan diet can contain iron from beans, lentils and leafy greens; calcium from tofu, beans, leafy greens and almonds; and zinc from oats, nuts and seeds.

Claim #2: Vegans need supplements to ensure their diet is adequate

The only nutrient that a vegan diet may be short in is vitamin B12, because it’s the only nutrient that’s exclusively found in animal products. If a person on a vegan diet doesn’t eat B12-fortified foods (I’m a fan of Yves Veggie products, for example) or nutritional yeast regularly, they may need a supplement. It’s a not big deal, though—and certainly not justification to say being vegan is unhealthy.

(As an aside, check out my recipe for vegan burgers with mango avocado radish salsa and chipotle sauce—it’s packed with energy-boosting B12.)  

Claim #3: It’s very complicated to make sure your vegan diet is safe

Safe, as in, not dangerous? I’m assuming Medlin means danger in terms of nutrient deficiencies, but in my 18 years of practice I don’t think I’ve ever seen a vegan (and I’ve seen a LOT of them) eating in a way that I’d call “dangerous.”

Do vegans need to be more organized about their diets, for the most part, than omnivores? Sure. Do they need to plan and cook more than meat-eaters? Probably. But safe? A well-planned vegan diet is very safe. Just as I described above, vegans can get all of their essential nutrients—micro and macro—from their diet. They just might have to think and plan a bit more than the average non-vegan.

Reality check: a vegan diet can easily be adequate, safe, nutritious—and healthy

Lots of research and large systemic reviews involving multiple studies show that plant-based diets may reduce risk of cancer and other diseases. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics agrees with that statement—and so does Dietitians of Canada.The British Dietetic Association (from the U.K., just like Medlin) also has a handy education sheet to guide vegetarians and vegans to eating an adequate diet. It’s one I’d like to direct Medin’s attention to because nowhere in it do they condemn or advise against vegan diets.

Bottom line: subscribing to a vegan diet may mean you need to be a bit more organized and plan your meals, but in my opinion, a vegan diet can be a fully adequate, safe choice.

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