Why veganism is not always such a good idea
Veganism is becoming a popular idea. It's a complicated question that involves health aspects, moral aspects and philosophical aspects.
First of all, there are a few questions that you should be aware of in terms of health aspects: There are a few essential nutrients for the human body that are difficult to get just from vegetables. We can see that there is no historical example of societies voluntarily abstaining from all animal sources. In Vedic societies people would extensively use milk, and in most other societies people would eat fish or meat. Srila Prabhupada mentions that uncivilized people kill animals and eat their flesh, while civilized societies get nutrition in the form of milk.
Three important factors are the ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 fats, the difficulty in getting some essential vitamins (A, D and B12 especially) and the absorption of essential minerals. A vegan that uses a lot of refined vegetable oils and doesn't supplement vitamins may endup with serious problems.
Practically, no plant-based source supplies any amount of omega 3. This is a particular type of fat that is found only in animals. What plants have is alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) , a precursor that can be converted in the active forms of omega 3 (EPA and DHA) by our body. The problem is that this conversion is very limited and inefficient, therefore only very small quantities are effectively converted. As a result, a vegetarian will always have only small amounts of omega 3, even if he eats large amounts of chia seeds or walnuts. Although milk products offer a relatively small percentage of omega 3, it comes in the active form, serving as a good complement. This is also another reason to avoid refined vegetable oils: they are rich in omega 6, which competes with the omega 3.
The only way to consume more omega 6 without harm to our health is to simultaneously also consume more omega 3, something that is very difficult for vegetarians, and even more for vegans.
A second problem is the lack of vitamins A, D and B12. Vegetable sources include only beta-carotene, that (although called "vitamin A") is an inactive form that needs to be first converted by the body. The problem is that, again, this conversion is very inefficient and only small quantities are produced. To make matters worse, many people have difficulty converting any quantity at all. These usually struggle in a vegan diet, unless they supplement with pills. Milk, on the other hand, contains vitamin A in its active form, that can be absorbed by everyone.
Although called a "vitamin", vitamin D is actually a hormone that is only used by animals. Plants don't have any use for vitamin D and don't produce any. Human beings are capable of producing vitamin D when they take sun, but this produces only small amounts of vitamin D, and the process works only when one takes direct sun, for at least 10 minutes, and still it doesn't work on higher latitudes. One that lives in Saint Petersburg or in Finland, for example, will hardly produce any vitamin D at all. Milk contains good amounts of vitamin D, serving as a reliable source for vegetarians. Since vitamin D (as well as vitamin A) is actually present in the fat of the milk, butter and ghee have it in a concentrated form. One that has difficulty in digesting milk can get vitamin A and D (as well as omega 3) by using these.
Nowadays it's possible to get vitamin D in the form of pills, but in past eras the only reliable dietary source for vegetarians would be the milk. Frequently, people that didn't have a cow or some other reliable source of milk would struggle with poor health.
Next, we have the question of vitamin B12. This is a problem for both vegetarians and vegans, since vegetables don’t offer this important nutrient. Again, milk offers good quantities of B12, therefore a lacto-vegetarian is going to get a sufficient amount in most cases. Vegans will always have to take supplements of vitamin B12.
Milk and milk products are also an important source of essential amino-acids, high-quality fats, minerals, like magnesium and zinc (from which most of us are critically deficient) as well as most vitamins. In fact, good quality milk is an almost complete food. Even if one has a bad diet, he may still be able to remain healthy if he drinks a sufficient quantity of good quality milk.
Milk and milk products are also an important source of iodine. Nowadays, iodine is mixed in the commercial salt in most parts of the world, therefore it stopped being a problem in the largest part, but traditionally iodine would be a serious problem for vegetarians, since the main sources of this mineral are fish and seafood. Unless one would have the opportunity of eating seaweed frequently, iodine would be a problem. Again, milk offers good amounts of iodine (about 59 to 119% of the RDA per cup), serving as a reliable source for lacto-vegetarians.
In conclusion, a vegan can also be healthy, it’s just that it’s more difficult to fulfill all the body’s nutritional requirements without milk products. One that has time to research and maintain a proper diet, combined with the appropriate supplements, can do fine, but one that just takes out milk products from his diet, putting in its place things like refined vegetable oils and soy products can end-up worse than the meat-eaters. Another observation is that the need for supplements make the vegan diet very much entangled with the modern lifestyle of industry and supermarkets. It makes less sense as soon as one starts to think about retiring from modern civilization and going to live in a natural environment.
Next, we have the moral perspective. Milk is important from both a health and spiritual perspective. There is nothing wrong in maintaining a cow and taking milk from her. This is a beneficial relationship for both. In fact, humans and bovines have been living in a symbiotic relationship since the beginning of creation. There is no question of brahminical culture without cows and milk.
The problem is not the milk, but the way cows are treated. When one becomes aware of the fact that dairy cows are sold to the slaughterhouse after stopping giving milk, the first reaction is to want to stop completely and go for a vegan diet. However, this is not beneficial to the cows (which are still going to be slaughtered), nor for us, who lose the benefits of the milk. The positive solution is not to stop using milk but to implement or support programs of cow protection, so we can produce our own ahimsa milk.
What to do if this is not a viable option? A devotee that has been working with cows for a long time once shared an idea that seems like a reasonable middle ground for devotees that live in cities and don't have the option of buying milk from protected cows. He explained that ahimsa milk costs about two times more than regular milk, since one needs to keep taking care of the cow after she stops giving milk. That's one of the reasons cow protection programs have a difficult time: they simply can't compete financially with the dairy industry. To survive, they need funding. He suggested that any concerned devotee can set aside the same amount he pays for the milk products he buys and donate it to an ISKCON cow protection program, so they can take care of more cows. This way one can repay his debt, maintaining a cow that can't give milk, even though not necessarily the same cow.
There is also the consideration on how the cows are treated. In some countries, most farms use an industrial system where the cows are kept in small spaces, fed only grains, and treated with antibiotics. This type of milk should be completely avoided. Not only is this treatment of the cows unacceptable, but the milk is also not very healthy. Cows that are fed only grains are essentially diseased cows, and the extensive use of antibiotics doesn’t help either. This type of milk is lower on nutrients, rich in omega 6, and contains various contaminants.
Another type is milk from pasture-raised cows, where the cows have freedom to roam around a large area and feed on grass. The treatment of the cows is much better, much less antibiotics are used, and the milk is much healthier. This is the type of milk that may be acceptable to consume when there is no option of ahimsa milk available. One can find this information based on where the milk was produced. Some brands nowadays offer a QR code that allows one to see from which exact property the milk came.
Another question is how much processing the milk goes through. Milk taken directly from a cow is very different from powdered milk, for example. The more the milk is processed, the more it's properties are lost.
Raw, unpasteurized milk from a pasture-raised cow has about 4.5% fat and, as mentioned, is rich in essential nutrients, such as omega 3 fats, vitamin D, vitamin A and so on. It’s also a good source of good bacteria for the gut (that's the reason raw cow's milk becomes yogurt when it becomes old, instead of rotting). In its original state, milk is a living food, full of nutrients.
First there is homogenization, where the droplets of fat in the milk are dissolved by a mechanical process, so it becomes a homogeneous fluid. After the milk is homogenized, the cream will not rise to the top (therefore you can't use it to make butter) and the fat becomes quickly absorbed by the body, which creates a few negative effects.
Next there is pasteurization, which kills all the beneficial bacteria in the milk and destroys some of the nutrients. The resulting milk is still good, but more properties are lost.
Most of the milk sold nowadays, even the so-called "full-fat" milk is actually toned milk, that has part of the fat removed. Instead of 4.5%, we are given 3 or 3.2%, the rest is transformed into butter and sold separately. The most important nutrients of the milk (vitamin A, D, E, omega 3, magnesium, etc.) are dissolved in the fat, therefore when the fat content is reduced, part of the nutrients are lost). The lower the fat content, the biggest is the loss. When it goes down to skimmed milk (that has 0.5% fat or less) it's already practically useless. Take away: if you can't get real whole milk, at least get full-fat. Don't go for low-fat or skimmed milk, they are worse in every way. Without the fat, milk becomes just a juice of sugars and protein, losing most of its properties.
Finally, there is the UHT process (where the milk is heated to above 135°C and then cooled down and put in a carton. More nutrients are destroyed and the milk becomes essentially dead. UHT milk is at the bottom of the chart. You may still consume if there is no other option, but as far as possible it's better to go with raw or at most pasteurized milk (you can usually find it in pouches in the refrigerated session of the supermarket).
One way to “revive” UHT milk is to transform it into yogurt. By introducing a milk culture and allowing it to reproduce, many of the negative qualities of the UHT milk are nullified and it again becomes a nutritional, alive food. This also helps in many cases where people have difficulty digesting the milk, since yogurt contains far less lactose. An easy way to make yogurt is to get a kefir culture. This way you can get fresh yogurt every day.
Finally, we have the philosophical perspective, which leads us to the goal of “simple living, high thinking.” One of the biggest difficulties for most of us is that we are trying to practice Krsna Consciousness in hostile territory, living in big cities, working in offices and factories, and living an artificial lifestyle. Such an environment fosters the influence of the modes of passion and ignorance and the result is that our minds become very agitated and spiritual practice becomes a struggle.
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura was speaking about the importance of varnasrama, but we frequently fail to understand what it means. We think that varnasrama means ladies with covered heads, but this is just one of the external aspects. The essential aspect of the varnasrama system is people living in a simple environment, in contact with the land and with the cows. Such an environment fosters the mode of goodness, and allows one to easily progress in spiritual life. Srila Prabhupada captured the essence in his saying “Simple living, high thinking.” We can see that Srila Prabhupada emphasized the establishment of self-sustainable rural communities, and that’s a part of his instructions that we are largely not being able to follow. Only when we find a model of rural communities, where people can live peacefully and quickly advance in spiritual life, will our movement be well-established. That’s our future as a society. We can see that cows and milk are very much part of this future. A devotee may follow a vegan diet temporarily, when ahimsa milk is not available, but it doesn't work very well as a collective, long term solution for our movement.