In a new series, The Truth About Food, Emily Ashworth looks at the changing food trends and diets of today, and if they are environmentally sustainable and helping to keep the nation healthy. Here, nutritional psychiatrist Doctor Georgia Ede shares her views on veganism, sustainable farming and what she thinks we should be really eating.
They call it selective hearing, and as the saying goes, sometimes you only hear what you want to hear.
And this is something that could be true when it comes to how the public is currently reacting to the one of the most debated arguments of current times: is veganism the way forward?
Harvard-trained, board-certified psychiatrist Dr Ede has spent years researching nutrition, specialising in psychopharmacology – the study of the use of medications in treating mental health - college mental health, and nutrition science. She works with people around the world to address root causes of mental health disorders and reduce need for psychiatric medications using personalized nutrition and metabolic interventions.
And she says that there is much more common ground between those choosing plant-based and those who include animal produce, and that is if you are following either diet, both need to consist of whole foods, not processed.
“I’m one of the people who encourages people to look at plants with a little more scepticism,” says Dr Ede, who now works as a nutritional psychiatrist in Northampton, Massachusetts.
“If you switch to a whole foods diet, what both plant-based and animal-based diets have in common is that they take all the processed foods out.
“Plant-based diet components and those officials who promote it need to say it should be a whole-foods, plant-based diet.
“Most people don’t hear the ‘whole foods’ part, though. They hear plant-based and they think just by taking animal food out of their diet they’re going to obtain a specific health benefit and there has been absolutely no evidence to say that is true.”
But aside from the facts and figures, the way we eat is heavily driven by much more than our basic scientific bodily needs - it is a highly emotional part of our every day lives.
Dr Ede says: “How in the world do we survive without the natural cycle of life?
“The burden of being a human being is that we have a conscience and can reflect on these kinds of things, when other animals don’t.
“As a psychiatrist I’m aware of that internal conflict. Most of us who do understand that animal foods are important still wrestle with the uncomfortable truth that we must eat other creatures to survive ourselves.
“I could argue nutritional science all day long, but it doesn’t break through the emotional argument.
“It’s like talking about religion or politics.
“I’ve worked in settings where people were coming to talk about medication, and I would only bring up nutrition as an option and talk about it if they felt comfortable about it. If they didn’t, I left it alone because I learned the hard way - that many people really did not want to go there.
“[Food] is personal and people are attached to a particular way of eating.
“The science is irrefutable though - we need animal produce to survive and if we don’t include them, we have to supplement extremely carefully. It’s not just vitamin B12, it’s vitamin K2, zinc and iron, and you may need to plan your protein intake very carefully.”
Another huge impact on the way we chose to eat is the societal shift in health over the years. We have, says Dr Ede, become so unhealthy that everyone is ‘desperate for answers’ and seeking out solutions from ‘outside the box.’
“Doctors are giving us the wrong info and the Government is giving us the wrong info, so people are getting less and less healthy,” she says.
“Stories are very powerful – and if that person’s story solved a problem you happen to have, you’ll try it.
“Some people are finding answers outside of mainstream advice that works for them.
“And some people find that removing some types of animal foods from their diet works for them, I’ve seen that in my own practice.
“That’s not the advice that I generally give but the problem is this: many people are getting healthier by ignoring mainstream medicine advice so for example, some people are going low carb, or opting for the carnivore diet and people on each side of the animal versus plant-based argument are getting healthier.
“But this confuses people because they’re saying well, these people are getting healthier and they’re eating mostly plants, but these people say they’re getting healthier because they’re eating mostly animals.
“What do you do?”
But there has never been a clinical study to say that by purely removing animal foods from your diet that any marker of health improves in any way.
Human trials that have been conducted also have a variety of other factors that have affected the outcome - almost all the processed foods, refined carbs and junk food have been removed too.
She says: “They’ve also added exercise, reduced fat, reduced smoking – just on and on.
“There’s so many changes you can’t tell why that diet looked healthier, and they compare that to a standard Western diet that happens also to include animal foods.
“It’s not a fair comparison.
“And the number one rule of health is to get your insulin levels under control no matter what your diet – you can do this with both plant-based and animal produce diets, but it’s much easier with animal foods.”
But there are some basic biological principles that ‘apply to every single one of us’ and to ignore that could be detrimental.
She says: “There is no exception, for example, for the need for B12, regular protein intake or that we need fats to absorb vitamins.
“Then there’s individual differences which come from genetics, but also from what we’ve been exposed to such as antibiotics, trauma or experience.
“But they don’t change the basic biological composition.
“Some people tolerate dairy better than others and there are genetics behind that.”
Again, though, many aspects of our health are often overlooked by the masses, and by focusing more on those a lot of the problems that derive from them could be resolved. Gut health is, says Dr Ede, the most important determining factor in diet and if yours is not up to scratch, there will be many foods that you cannot tolerate.
“If you have a really healthy gut and immune system you should be able to tolerate a wider variety of foods,” she says.
“That’s where I think a lot of the differences arise. Many of us have lost that ability to tolerate whole foods.”
Education is also key, with fears that the message children are receiving in schools now, especially in the United States, is becoming a problem. She is witnessing increasing amounts of parents coming to her practice because their children from as young as age six are refusing to eat meat, fuelled by targeted leaflets the schools are handing out.
She says: “There are many risks people are not educated about. Vegan diets are being taught to children for compassionate, environment and health reasons.
“But nobody in schools are teaching children about the nutritional holes in vegan diets, and kids are developing vitamin deficiencies, becoming depressed and lethargic and having neurological difficulties because nobody told them they need to supplement a plant-based diet.
“That’s really irresponsible – you don’t get those developmental years back and it’s going to become a health problem.”
But the arguments that are currently circulating appear to make it very easy for people to make the switch to a plant-based diet, perhaps part of the widening appeal. But looking through a scientist’s eyes, Dr Ede says to ‘eliminate all animal foods’ is ‘lethal.’
“Human life cannot exist without animal foods or very, very careful supplementation,” she says.
“Not just vitamin B12 – that’s the easiest example of vitamin deficiency if you remove all animal products.
“The brain requires all of the essential nutrients, but it particularly requires B12.
“If we eliminate all animal foods, there will be no B12 or truly essential omega-3 fatty acids that the body and brain actually use, as oppose to the form of omega-3 found in plant foods which is of the wrong type, and this type is difficult for us to convert.
“If you don’t have enough animal fat when you’re an infant or pregnant, there may be significant damage done in terms of the developing brain.
“This is the critical time when we need to focus on nutrient deficiency. Adults can make their own choices and buy supplements.
“Certain nutrients are in the wrong form and have to jump through chemical hoops to be converted in to the correct form.
“This diet is not a diet compatible with human life and has to be really carefully constructed.
“If you’re including at least some animal food – it can be anything from shellfish to poultry – you’re getting all the nutrients you need in their proper form.
“We don’t know if supplementing a diet is as good as getting it from whole foods which is how we are designed to obtain our nutrients – we’ve just never done those experiments and they would take a long time to conduct.
“I’ve now been focusing on this for ten years and I’m still fascinated by it.”
Plant-based campaigns have grown over the decade and these messages have found their way in to our ‘guidelines, schools, prestigious universities and nutrition research programmes’ and Dr Ede fears it will continue, especially as trusted documents, research and reports are rolled out.
She targets The Eat Lancet Report, for example, which suggests the entire planet should dramatically reduce or eliminate animal produce but says there is no science behind it.
“If you read it the authors themselves acknowledge repeatedly that if you eat the way they’re recommending it will not be enough for infants, children, teen girls, pregnant women, anyone with insulin resistance or the elderly.
“But the message [to the public] ignores all of that.
“It’s a fascinating study in propaganda message.”
The resounding message from Dr Ede, though, is that both arguments have shared interests if you choose to see them, and only then can you enter into sensible conversation. But how do we responsibly move forwards?
She says: “We each need to take responsibility for our own health but how do you know who to trust now? You can’t trust the World Health Organisation to give you the facts about red meat and cancer; you can’t trust the Eat Lancet report which included Harvard professors; you can’t trust the USA dietary guideline committee to responsibly report on what they’ve supposedly read and its very difficult to figure out.
“If you experiment with your diet, make sure no matter what, to keep your blood sugar and insulin levels in a healthy range – I don’t think anyone can argue with that. That’s another piece of common ground.
“The sad truth is, there is no scientific study out there to truly show you what the best diet is for a human being to eat.
"You must go by anthropology and basic science and follow a whole foods diet whether plant based or animal.
"Do we need protein? Yes. Do we need fat? Yes. And if you follow those rules, you’re going to be healthier than 90 per cent of people on the planet.
“We’re all dependent on each other so you can’t say if we stop eating animals that’s going to solve all our problems, because how in the world will we feed the planet on a plant-based diet without destroying the soil?
“We need to take care of the animals because they take care of the planet, whether you eat them or not.”