Combine the popularity of food documentaries such as Netflix’s Cowspiracy and What the Health, with celebrity fad dieting and let’s not forget, influencers flooding your social media feeds with their ‘food is thy medicine’ taglines, you’d be forgiven for feeling confused when it comes to what’s good and what’s not in the wellness world.
Although this is a conversation that rises to the surface frequently, the latest incident that has sent the internet into a frenzy involves Instagram blogger @vanelja. Talking exclusively to the Daily Mail, Virpi Mikkonen reveals that her vegan lifestyle has resulted in numerous health problems, including the onset of early menopause at the age of 37—and as a result, she has been advised to start incorporating animal products back into her diet.
“At the beginning of 2018, I started getting health problems. I had daily headaches, irregular heartbeats, my body ached and I was feeling blue. And more came: my menstruation stopped and I started to have hot flashes and insomnia,” Mikkonen shared in an Instagram post to her 165k followers.
“My doctor found out that my FSH hormone levels (indicating menopause) were skyrocketing. She suggested I might be going through premature menopause and needed to start taking hormone therapy. I was 37. And shocked.”
Admitting to favouring a more natural approach, Virpi shares in the same Instagram post that she sought a second opinion from a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) specialist.
“Her diagnosis: I was having a burnout—or how TCM sees it, I had run out of YIN energy. She recommended me to start a fatty diet with only warm foods, like fully cooked veggies and local organic animal products. I have a strong trust in the ancient wisdom of TCM so I followed her instructions. Most of my health issues melted away within two months. Hot flashes stopped, my FSH levels went down and what’s best: my periods came back.”
“I believe that my work stress, exercising, the Nordic climate combined with a plant-based diet was not a good combo for me.”
The Finnish blogger isn’t the only one that has found herself in the spotlight recently. Raw vegan YouTuber, Yovana Mendoza Ayre, better known as @rawvana, was slammed after ‘accidentally’ being spotted eating fish in a Bali restaurant. She then recorded a 30-minute apology video (below) expressing to her fans that she was “really sorry about the way the news was communicated and how [they] had to find out” before proceeding to say that she “was not planning on hiding this and was planning on telling [her audience].
Popular food blogger @deliciouslyella is another who received backlash after changing her plant-based approach to include meat in her London deli.
In the celebrity scene, Anne Hathaway has too moved away from her vegan lifestyle to a more balanced approached. “So I had a piece of salmon and my brain felt like a computer rebooting,” the actress was quoted saying in an interview with Tatler magazine.
Just to be clear, I’m not writing from a position where I’m totally opposed to veganism, nor am I mocking those who choose to be vegan. As an undergrad nutritionist, I understand and appreciate the benefits that come with following a predominantly plant-based diet in terms of health, ethics and environmental impact. What is of more concern here, is the potential health risks placed upon people who are vulnerable to fad dieting or extreme eating philosophies.
“Being an influencer doesn’t mean that your vegan diet is nutritionally complete,” Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Chloe McLeod tells TrainSrilanka. “If someone wants to promote a vegan diet, that is fine, as long as the information they are providing to their followers is correct, and encourages being vegan in a healthy manner.”
“In some cases, promotion of any type of diet may be an eating disorder in disguise—if this is the case then I think there needs to be responsibility taken for information that is being promoted, because of the risk of incorrect, or restrictive messages being provided to the population—particularly given that we know that eating disorders are on the rise, as is incorrect information being spruiked by influencers.”
Wanting to get a dietitian’s perspective on the matter, we throw some questions Chloe’s way:
“A vegan diet can be highly nutritious, and if someone chooses to follow this style of diet, it is up to them. I’d recommend it if they are easily able to meet all their nutrition needs from this style of diet. It is important to be careful to meet all nutrient needs, as it can be challenging to consume enough of some nutrients.”
“Benefits include reduced risk of a number of chronic health conditions, including cancer due to the reduction in intake of animal protein. It’s important to note though that you don’t need to be vegan to see these benefits. Often an increase in vegetables is seen as well, which most people would benefit from. Environmentally, it can also be beneficial.”
“It can be difficult to meet some nutrient needs. B12 in particular, but also iron, calcium and protein can be challenging to consume enough of, and it is important to ensure adequate intake of all of these. I work with lots of individuals with food intolerances, and for some, it can be difficult to be vegan alongside managing their intolerances well—in these cases a sense of flexibility is really important. For example, someone requiring the low FODMAP diet who doesn’t tolerate legumes well may struggle to get enough protein, so being flexible and including other sources of protein (such as eggs) can make meeting nutrient needs significantly easier.”
“If a client comes to see me wanting to follow a vegan diet, I will support them through this. There are some situations where I might discuss this—there is some evidence around vegan diets and conditions like rheumatoid arthritis where there have been benefits seen from vegan diets. I would always discuss with the person though, and is something that they could try—but there are also other things the person could try.”
“When the advice is incorrect. There is so much ‘bro-science‘ and half-truths being pushed, it is no wonder everyone ends up so confused!”
The key takeaways? Firstly, not everything is as it seems on Instagram. Secondly, you should always consult a healthcare professional before making dietary changes. Having hundreds of thousands of followers does not automatically make someone an expert in nutrition.
In fact, according to a recent study from the University of Glasgow, just 1 out of 9 ‘health and weight-loss bloggers and influencers’ are actually credible when it comes to science-backed advice. You can read more about that here.