In the early 1980’s I was vegan. It was very rare – most people either hadn’t heard of it or didn’t know how to pronounce it.  After all, vegetarianism was only just starting to catch on. Cranks (which says it all really), was the first vegetarian restaurant to open in the UK, and had opened in London in 1961. Little was understood about vegan diets, and the emphasis was on animal rights rather than human nutrition. There was only one vegan recipe book with many meals based around (heated!) vegetable margarine and soya products, with just about everything flavoured with yeast extract, and rounded off with sugary puddings. Aaaagh!  At the time, I was working for Granada TV in Manchester, and I have fond memories of pioneering restaurants like On The Eight Day and Wild Oats, the former having a studenty, brown lentil and sandals vibe.

How things have changed. With the emphasis shifting from animal welfare to human health, and the bad wrap grains and meat have had in recent years, you now can’t open a Sunday supplement without recipes for healthy eating. The interest in the relationship between what you eat and health may be linked to the increase in food allergies and autoimmunity, and may also explain the popularity of the Paleo diet. A raw, vegan diet built around superfoods is catching on fast, especially amongst celebrities – which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Raw food nutrition expert David Wolfe, Dr Brian Clements of the Hippocrates Health Institute and Dr Gabriel Cousens of The Tree of Life Centers have documented spectacular recoveries from serious health problems when following a raw, plant based diet. There are many online suppliers of raw superfoods, and and restaurants are springing up which serve the most delicious organic, raw alternatives to commonly eaten foods including fermented nut and seed cheeses and chocolate cakes. If you want an idea of some of the innovative creations raw food chefs have come up with, Google ‘raw vegan’, and check out some of the books on www.medicineofthefuture.co.uk/books.

So, should we all be eating a raw, vegan diet? It appears that we originated in a forest environment eating a diet that was not only raw, but plant based, although it is inevitable that insects would have been consumed whether intentionally or unintentionally! Bacteria on plants, which are necessary for our own healthy bacteria, are destroyed by pesticides but would have been abundant in the ancestral diet, and would have been a source of vitamin B12. Cooking foods only became possible after we discovered fire, and this is thought to have occurred after at least 6 – 7 million years. And meat was off the menu until we had invented weapons to hunt and kill them. But before you conclude that this might be the best way of eating for you, it is important to consider that our bodies, our lifestyle, our environment and the foods available to us today are completely different.

Furthermore, selective breeding has significantly reduced the variety of foods available to us, with many species having died out altogether. Intensive farming has demineralised our soils, reducing the nutritional content by an average of 80% over the last 50 years, whilst at the same time toxin exposure has greatly increased our need for nutrients.

Our ancestors enjoyed an outdoor life with more exposure to sunlight, the best source of vitamin D. They were exclusively breast fed ,physically active, and had not had their microbiome damaged by low fibre diets, antibiotics and other chemicals. Gut bacteria play an important role in manufacturing vitamins and neurotransmitters, and in converting nutrients from plant foods to their active forms. Today, many of us lack the ability to effectively convert beta carotene to retinol, the active form of vitamin A. Vitamin K1, which is obtained from green leafy vegetables and has an important role in blood clotting regulation, needs to be converted to K2 for calcium metabolism. But in those who have genetic weaknesses in this conversion, or who lack the gut bacteria to do it for them, unless supplemented from animal sources such as meat, fish or dairy products, a vegan diet could result in connective tissue disorders and other problems.

Does a vegan diet produce enough B12?

B12 is not found in plant or animal foods. It is produced by bacteria. Cooking destroys between 30 – 90% of B12.

There is much controversy around B12 and veganism due in part to different ways of measuring B12 status. Elevated urinary methylmalonic acid is considered the most accurate way of assessing individual B12 needs, which are increased in those with methylation imbalances, compromised liver/gall bladder function, toxicity issues and chronic infections. Extra B12 is needed in pregnancy, in coffee and alcohol drinkers, and in those taking synthetic hormones such as the pill or HRT, or who supplement with vitamin C. And in these situations, the reference ranges may not be relevant.

In his excellent book Conscious Eating Dr Gabriel Cousens cites scientific studies showing no B12 deficiencies amongst vegans of long standing, but this was over 15 years ago. He concluded that nutrient needs are generally higher in those eating a cooked, animal based diet compared to those eating raw vegan. Some algae, along with foods such as brewer’s yeast, contain B12 producing bacteria. A study published in 2014 showed phytoplankton, a microalgae, rely on vitamin B12 to clean carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Our own bacteria in the nose, mouth and gut produce B12, and it is also obtained from bacteria found in unwashed, organic foods grown in bacteria-rich soil. But what if you are killing off your good bacteria with mouth washes? What if you have a chronic sinus infection? What if you have destroyed some of your gut bacteria from eating sugar, processed foods or from taking antibiotics?  What if you have inflammation in your small intestine where it is absorbed or eat food that contains pesticides? What if you carry a mobile in your pocket that microwaves your gut?

Since B12 needs to be obtained from bacteria, the question today should perhaps be ‘do any of us have enough bacteria to meet our B12 needs?’ rather than ‘can a vegan diet produce adequate B12?’ A high fibre, organic, raw plant based diet would certainly encourage the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

If you suffer from health problems, it may be safest to supplement with B12. B12 should ideally be taken separately using either a skin patch or nasal dropper, as B12 added to multivitamins generally converts to an analogue that we cannot utilise. Unless you know your methylation potential, the safest form to use would be hydroxycobalamine. Having said this, Dr Cousens says that raw food vegans are amongst the healthiest group he has seen, and he has not found B12 deficiencies in those who have followed a healthy, vegan diet for more than 20 years.

100% Raw?

There are many advantages to a raw diet. Plant foods retain their living energy field which boosts our own energy, and require less energy to digest. They are also high in enzymes. But for those with digestive systems weakened by processed foods, the high fibre content of a raw, plant based diet may be too difficult to handle and it may be necessary to start with juices and salads and to slowly introduce high fibre foods.

A raw, plant based diet may not be suitable for everyone in the winter although some raw foodists manage by increasing their fat intake and including warming herbs. Raw food advocates such as David Wolfe recommend an 80%  plant based diet and Gabriel Cousens suggests some people may be suited to 80% raw. Even though humans are the only species on the planet to denature their food by heating, and there is much documented evidence supporting the healing effects of a raw, organic plant based diet in the chronically ill, it is important to remember that different diets suit different people at different times. If you are interested in exploring this further, I recommend you read Gabriel Cousens and David Wolfe  and transition slowly by increasing the ratio of raw, plant based foods in your diet and just see how you feel.