To Me, Vegan Diets Aren’t Ideal for People With Sickle Cell Disease
I can barely watch five minutes of television before an advertisement for a new vegan food pops up. They’re even more frequent on social media, as every other photo I see seems to be sponsored content for mock meats, protein powders, or a vegan version of a dairy product.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not entirely averse to vegan diets. I followed a vegan diet for three years, after all! I felt fantastic for over two years before my health began to go downhill and I had to quit — very reluctantly, I should add. There’s a certain pride one feels when excluding animal foods from the diet when one is a part of the vegan community.
If you’ve followed popular proponents of veganism, you’ll find that many end up with similar stories as mine. It may start well, they might feel terrific, and they can’t help but tell everyone who cares (or doesn’t) about this new diet, and why others need to try it ASAP.
They might feel fantastic for a few years or even longer, and then all of the health problems might begin to kick in, such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies, kidney stones, hair loss, brain fog, extreme fatigue, and more. That said, it’s not doom and gloom for everyone, as some people claim to thrive on a whole-food, plant-based vegan diet.
A whole-food, plant-based vegan diet focuses on eating whole, unprocessed foods. It includes whole grains, starchy and leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, fruits, nuts, and seeds, with no animal product or byproducts.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly known as the American Dietetic Association, stated that a properly planned vegan diet can be healthy for people of all ages. Apart from the fact that a properly planned vegan diet is challenging to achieve, even for a trained health professional, much less the average person with minimal nutritional knowledge, health professionals don’t specify if it is also healthy for people with underlying conditions.
In addition to the pain and the inflammation that come with sickle cell disease, it also places people at a high risk of malnutrition. Research suggests that people with sickle cell disease have significantly higher caloric, protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements than healthy individuals.
The average person can just about meet the recommended protein requirements when eating a vegan diet. If they stick to eating whole foods, most of the protein in their diet likely will come from legumes, or beans and lentils.
I know the discomfort and pain that comes with eating legumes frequently — it is not fun. Most (honest) people can attest to that.
Besides, legumes are low-calorie and keep you feeling full for long periods. If you have a small appetite, which some people with sickle cell do, especially during a crisis, it is unlikely you’ll be able to eat enough calories and protein to keep you healthy.
Eating a whole foods vegan diet also means you’ll naturally eat very high quantities of fiber. While good for you, excess fiber also drastically reduces the number of calories you can eat, which may eventually cause weight loss. If weight loss is unintended, that could be problematic.
Moreover, you will need to eat plenty of vegetables to get nutrients readily available from small quantities of animal products. Some vegetables and legumes are rich in compounds called phytates and oxalates. In small quantities, phytates have health benefits. In large amounts, however, they can be detrimental by preventing the body from absorbing crucial minerals such as zinc, iron, and calcium. Oxalates can cause kidney stones in susceptible people.
Many of these adverse health effects occur in otherwise healthy people. I dread thinking about what could happen in someone with sickle cell disease.
Everyone is different, and my fears could very well be unfounded. If this is a lifestyle you’ve chosen and you’re thriving, keep it going. For me, a plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet is a much better and balanced approach.
Somi Igbene, PhD, ANutr, is a registered associate nutritionist and biomedical scientist in London. She has worked with several medical communications agencies in London and has helped various clients improve their health with diet. She writes about caregiving for her toddler son as he thrives with sickle cell.
Note: Sickle Cell Disease News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Sickle Cell Disease News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to sickle cell disease.