I am a big proponent of eating a large variety of plants (roots, herbs, spices, veggies, fruits, nuts, etc) for their amazing health benefits from phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, and other essential nutrients.
However, I am also very well aware that missing out on beneficial saturated fats, collagen proteins, vitamin K2, vitamin B12, DHA/EPA, and other vital nutrients that vegans and vegetarians are often low or deficient in can accelerate aging in people that choose to eat this way. You’ll also see in this article how the types of foods that vegetarians and vegans often replace meats with (more grains and beans) can also accelerate aging in their bodies by contributing additional digestive irritants, as well as spiking blood sugar too often, and causing excessive “glycation” of cells due to the excess constant blood sugar.
As Nutritionists, we try to educate people that eating strict vegan has serious health consequences over time…and that including high quality fish, and at least some other animal-based foods is very important to achieve optimal health and slow aging. There are many bioavailable and usable proteins, vitamins, minerals and fats that you can only get from animal-based foods—as well as avoiding the blood sugar highs and lows of the starchy, grain and carbohydrate-heavy diet that’s typical of vegetarians.
A look at a typical vegetarian diet would show a diet high in plant-based vegetable oils which are primarily omega 6 fats. Omega 6 fats have been known to increase inflammation in the body, including in the joints—contributing to arthritis, and in the blood vessel linings—exacerbating and increasing the chances for heart attacks and strokes as well as contributing to weight gain (belly fat), and even cancer.
I know a lot of vegans and vegetarians, and these days with all the issues surrounding climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental mess that large-scale industrial meat and dairy farms (factory farms) create—in addition to the poor quality nutrition that commercialized factory farmed meat and dairy provides—it can certainly sound like a good idea to try a vegetarian diet on the surface, but that ignores the FACT that there are good options for meats raised in a healthy manner, that eat the correct foods for their species, and are also raised in environmentally-friendly ways. This is a very important distinction that most vegans and vegetarians ignore.
For every diet, there are a hundred different variations. There are healthy versions, and there are unhealthy versions. Vegans and vegetarians need to be especially vigilant in their dietary choices, or there can be unpleasant health consequences that can actually contribute to disease and aging, in spite of all the healthy advantages of eating a diet high in plant foods, fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.
I can actually say this from experience, because I was a vegan for almost 15 years, and although I thought I was making educated and healthy choices in my diet, I ended up with quite a few health issues as a result. While I still eat a diet that is high in healthy plant foods, I avoid grains and get the essential protein, nutrients and fats that can only be found in animal foods like grass fed butter, raw cheese, and pasture raised meat and eggs. There is just no better substitute, period.
It is true that many vegetarians actually age FASTER than their meat-eating counterparts, in part because of very vital missing nutrients or because the body cannot efficiently utilize or transform the plant-based version of these nutrients into usable nutrients. I actually noticed this in a good friend of mine who had decided to become vegan.
In just 4 short years, she not only had gained weight and said she was “famished all the time”, but her skin looked dry, wrinkly, and saggy. Her hair was dull and dry and grew very slowly. She said she had very little energy and actually quit her triathlon training that she had been doing as a meat-eater. She recently switched back about a year ago to a more Paleo-style diet and her skin now looks smooth, clear and glowing—and she lost weight and has tons of energy again! (Did I mention this lady is 62 years old? And she’s THRIVING on a more balanced Paleo diet that includes healthy plants, but also plenty of healthy animal-based options, whereas eating vegan was making her look and feel terrible)
Let’s take a look at why some vegans and vegetarians actually age faster than their omnivorous counterparts:
1. Missing essential dietary fats necessary for healthy joints, proper heart and brain function, anti-inflammatory effects throughout the body, and smooth glowing skin
Standard nutritional recommendations call for at least 500, with upwards of a 1,000-5,000 mg of omega 3 containing the vital components of EPA and DHA as being optimal for good health. EPA or Eicosapentaenoic Acid, and DHA or Docosahexaenoic Acid, work together as a team playing a structural and integral role in the composition of our cell membranes, our immune system, brain function, nerve function, fetal development, and cardiovascular and lung function. These two also work to reduce inflammation in joints, blood vessels, and skin.
The big issue with omega 3 fats is that the most bioavailable omega 3’s come from oily, cold water fish, or egg yolks. Of course, vegetarians and vegans do not eat fish or seafood and must get their omega-3 fats from a plant-based source such as flax seed or chia seed. This type of omega 3 fat comes in the form of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is the plant-based version of omega 3 that must be converted in the body to the usable forms of DHA and EPA.
While it is possible for the body to convert the plant-based ALA into some amounts of EPA and DHA, research studies show that only a very small amount of ALA can actually be converted. One study shows only 2-10% of ALA can be converted, and many studies show even less at around 1%, or even less than 1%.
Since many vegetarians rely on grains, soy and vegetable oils in their diet, this actually increases their need for omega 3, because omega 6 fats (in grains, soy and vegetable oils) compete in the body with omega 3 fats. The more omega 6 fats in the diet, the more omega 3 fats are needed. On top of that, deficiencies of B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc—common deficiencies in vegetarians—inhibit this conversion even more. Add in other factors such as age, genetics, poor digestion, protein deficiencies, and other health conditions, and it makes the conversion even more difficult!
Diets deficient in omega 3’s, DHA and EPA have noticeable effects on aging. The skin looks drier, it lacks its normal elasticity, and is missing the natural oils that keep it soft and supple. Surface wrinkles appear and the skin will look rough, blotchy, bumpy and dry, and hair may end up looking dull, lifeless and brittle, along with a sprinkling of dandruff. Not a real pretty picture!
Lack of properly metabolized omega 3’s may also exacerbate acne, eczema and psoriasis as well. Low levels of DHA and EPA also contribute to arthritis, asthma, heart disease, hypertension, osteoporosis, depression/anxiety, and ADD, too.
One of the other vital fats often missing from vegetarians’ diets is saturated fat, found in butter, egg yolks, red meat, and also in coconut oil. Saturated fats play similarly significant roles in the body’s chemistry. These fats strengthen the immune system and are involved in inter-cellular communication which involves our immunity and ability to fight cancer, among other things. Saturated fats also play a vital role in helping cell membranes work properly, including the cell receptors for insulin, which protects against diabetes. Our lungs actually cannot function very well without saturated fats. Children raised on a diet that includes real butter and full-fat milk have been shown to have less incidents of asthma, ADD/ADHD and other behavioral problems, than children on a low fat diet. Saturated fats are also necessary for testosterone production as well as estrogen and progesterone, so avoiding these fats will also deplete your essential sex hormones, which affect energy, fertility, mood and sex drive.
Saturated fats are most definitely required for nerves and the nervous system to function properly, and did you know that the majority of the brain is made up of saturated fats? That is why avoiding fatty acids can actually cause serious issues in your moods. It is theorized that many mental health issues such as bipolar, depression, OCD and schizophrenia have strong connections to a lack of essential fats.
One other important thing about saturated fats–saturated animal fats are an absolute necessity for utilization of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D , E, and K2. A great example of this is my good friend who was a strict vegan. She refused to eat fat, thinking it would make her fat. As a result, she developed a serious vitamin A deficiency and even though she was eating tons of fruit and veggies packed with the beta-carotene version of vitamin A, her body couldn’t use it! Her skin actually turned a bright orange as all that beta carotene built up in her body, but without the necessary saturated fats, it was totally unusable!
If you have any of these ‘old age’ symptoms you most likely have a fatty acid deficiency instead:
- achy joints
- symptoms of ADD
- brittle, peeling nails
- dry, dull, hair
- cold intolerance symptoms
- cracked skin on heels
- eczema, dry scaly skin
- excessive thirst
- gastrointestinal problems
- irregular bowel movements
- low concentration/brain fog
- depression or anxiety
- learning disability
- lowered immunity
- low body weight
- poor memory
- poor wound healing
- weakness and lack of energy
One more comment on essential fatty acids, primarily omega 3’s—when you look at DNA strands of people who are aging more quickly than their younger counterparts, you will find that the telomeres, or the ends of the DNA strands on people who are aging faster are shorter and fraying. Guess what main dietary substance dramatically slows this fraying? You guessed it—omega 3 fatty acids!
2. AGE’s and aging from a diet high in carbohydrates consisting of grains (often highly refined), starchy carbohydrates and refined, ‘fake’ foods like artificial meat.
AGE’s are Advanced Glycation Endproducts. AGE’s can be either in the food you eat or formed within your body. AGE’s occur when sugar molecules attach to protein or fat molecules without an enzyme. AGE’s are a serious promoter of aging in the body, as well as initiating many chronic diseases. In fact AGE’s can be one of the biggest factors in the development of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimers’.
AGE’s form a sticky plaque-like substance in the brain, nerve tissue, and the rest of the body. It is reported that when AGE’s are consumed, about 10-30% are absorbed into the body. The body’s ability to eliminate these once they are absorbed is very limited, meaning that once these gunky, gooey, nasty things get in human cells, it’s damage that cannot be undone.
AGE’s are responsible for wrinkly, sagging skin, damage to virtually every known organ system in the body. Simple, processed carbs break down into sugar in the body, which in turn breaks down collagen and elastin, creating wrinkly, sagging skin.
Advanced Glycation End products can come from two primary sources:
• From our diet (Exogenous AGE’s)
• Internally produced in the body (Endogenous AGE’s)
AGE’s have a direct tie to our blood sugar levels. A measurement of blood sugar over a period of time using the Hemoglobin A1c test will show that a diet high in carbohydrates (even ‘unrefined’ carbs) increases the HbA1c measure. Unfortunately, this is what vegans and vegetarians tend to concentrate on in their diets, or eat more of in order to fulfill their calorie needs since they’re avoiding animal-based foods. Avoiding animal-based proteins means that you have to eat a diet high in grain, beans, and starchy carbohydrates to get adequate protein.
And what about those vegetarian ‘meat’ products and veggie burgers? Well, here’s an ingredient list of one popular ‘fake’ meat—full of junk and refined carbs:
Water, wheat gluten, tofu, canola oil, natural flavors [including MSG], corn starch, white bean flour, garbanzo bean flour, lemon juice and seasonings.
Endogenous (or internally formed) AGE’s occur in the body from the sugar and carbohydrates from food. Since vegetarians typically eat a diet that is primarily carbohydrate-based, these carbs quickly turn into glucose (sugar) in the body and create glycation in the cells. People on diets with chronically elevated blood sugar are subject to the most damage from AGE’s—and unfortunately vegetarians are definitely in that group. Certain types of sugars such as fructose, are much more likely (as much as 10x more likely) to glycate. Vegetarians eat more fruit than most people, often in excessive quantities. Small amounts of fruit are healthy, but you CAN eat too much!
For optimal aging, your A1C levels (whether diabetic or not) should be less than 5%, which would mean keeping an average blood sugar level of about 90 mg/dl. While that seems fairly low by some conventional medical standards, this percentage is easily attainable if you eat a low-glycemic diet that contains healthy fats and protein to keep blood sugar stable.
3. Depleted collagen—One of the more obvious places you will see collagen deficiency is in the skin. Collagen helps give the skin resilience, so if eggs, dairy, fish, and meat are eliminated from the diet, you will see this deficiency every time you look in the mirror!
“A lot of people who eliminate meat and animal products are attempting to be healthier, but you really have to know how to eat right to make being a vegetarian work for you,” says Susan Blum, MD, MPH.
Aside from your actual age, the condition of your skin reflects your overall health and nutrition. “Being a vegan can be aging,” says Vargas, a famous New York dermatologist. “I see 27-year-old vegans who don’t have good skin elasticity. There’s no snap-back to their skin because they’re not getting enough protein and collagen.”
Collagen is the new popular supplement—for very good reason. Collagen is a very specific type of protein that is naturally produced in the body and used in connective tissues. It provides a scaffolding framework for skin, keeping it plump-looking and young. It is the primary ingredient in hair and nails, it keeps them strong and smooth, and a vital factor in joint health, being the necessary ingredient for bone cartilage, tendons and ligaments.
Collagen is vital to cell structure and has to be in the body in sufficient quantities to rebuild: hair, skin, nails, eyes, teeth, cartilage, bones, tendons, organs, arteries, blood vessels, hemoglobin, immune cells and the immune system. Collagen is responsible for 80% of all connective tissue and 75% percent of the skin!
However, internal collagen production slows down as we age, and it begins to accelerate somewhere in our mid to late 20’s. By age 40 or so, your body has already lost approximately 15% of its natural collagen stores. If you aren’t putting collagen back into your body, you will quickly use up any stores you have and become collagen-deficient, as is the case for vegans and vegetarians. Vegetarians often try to include pro-collagen (plant-based) sources for collagen, but without the correct synergistic nutrients, it goes unused in the body. The results include wrinkles, thinning, saggy skin, brittle hair and nails, insomnia, increased anxiety, joint aches and inflammation (arthritis), increased injuries due to tight and inflamed tendons and ligaments, and slow recovery from exercise, among others.
Other anti-aging benefits of collagen include improving gut integrity by enhancing digestive enzyme secretion, and restoring a healthy mucosal lining in the stomach. Gelatin also absorbs water and helps keep fluid in the digestive tract, preventing constipation and helping regularity. Consuming collagen helps to heal a “leaky gut”, and unfortunately, vegans and vegetarians are prone to leaky gut by consuming excessive amounts of gut irritants from beans and grains. This is another reason that eating a Paleo style Diet (avoiding grains and beans), can help to heal leaky gut, and improve overall digestive system health.
The traditional way to get gelatin and collagen is by eating bone broth, chicken feet, chicken skin (yes, pasture raised chicken skin IS actually good for you!), and gelatinous meats. Unfortunately for vegetarians and vegans, it is pretty much impossible to get usable gelatin and collagen from a plant-based diet (sorry vegans…there’s just no other way around this one) — Gelatin and collagen is only found in animal foods that come from the body of an animal itself.
To close out this discussion—I realize that many people who are vegans or vegetarians have important philosophical or spiritual reasons for being vegetarian, and I respect that. But if you want to remain truly healthy and young-looking on this type of diet, it is absolutely vital that you supplement your diet with at least some essential nutrients either by taking supplements or allowing yourself to eat a few select animal products… These could include omega 3 fats & saturated fats from cold water fish, pasture-raised eggs, grass-fed butter and other dairy, animal-sourced supplemental gelatin, and avoiding grains, ‘fake’ meat, and refined processed starchy foods.
Vitamins K2, D3, and B12 are also extremely important for vegans and vegetarians to attempt to consume more of, either through supplements or at least eating “some” animal products on a regular basis. Remember that organ meats are the MOST nutrient dense of all animal foods, so for a vegetarian that doesn’t want to consume a lot of animal products, the best bet is to eat a little bit of organ meats to obtain all the nutrients they need. I recently found a duck liver sausage that was amazing, and is absolutely loaded with vitally important vitamins and minerals!
Our favorite website that my wife and I have found delicious organ meat sausages and other grass-fed meats is here. We absolutely LOVE so many of their products and order often!
To your health and longevity!
PS — As a nutritionist, I will also say that vegetarianism CAN be done right…If a vegetarian chooses to eat at least some eggs, grass-fed dairy, and/or fish (eating fish and plants is called a pescatarian diet), they can prevent any deficiencies at all, and if they also keep refined grains, gluten, and inflammatory vegetable oils to a minimum (instead of being a substitute to replace the lack of calories from meat), then they CAN certainly have incredible health on a vegetarian diet. [Note that vegans are always going to have deficiencies if they don’t at least have some eggs, dairy, or fish.] Vegetarians may still end up low in dietary collagen if they only eat eggs, dairy and/or fish, but overall, they can prevent deficiencies and still have great health and longevity.