This case should serve as a cautionary note among those who are into extreme fad diets and end up trusting social media advisories over basic nutritional logic. Vegan influencer Zhanna Samsonova, who has consistently been promoting raw foods on social media, has reportedly “died of starvation” after living off a jackfruit diet, according to a report in New York Post, which quoted friends and family.
Most would have known the 39-year-old influencer from her handle Zhanna D’Art, and many users had already noticed how she was progressively getting emaciated in her posts. Though she finally died during a tour in Southeast Asia, a close friend quoted by the New York Post said she had “swollen legs oozing lymph. They sent her home to seek treatment. However, she ran away again. When I saw her in Phuket, I was horrified.” Samsonova’s mother said she succumbed to a “cholera-like infection.” Samsonova, in her own words, survived on a “completely raw vegan diet” for the last four years, consuming just “fruits, sunflower seed sprouts, fruit smoothies and juices.” She claimed that it brought about a body transformation and helped her look younger than her peers. But what she considered healthy turned out to be the unhealthiest of them all.
“Purely going by what she posted, it’s a miracle that she survived that long. Considering that she was living only on raw jackfruit, she was clearly suffering from a severe deficiency of protein, iron, calcium and vitamin B12,” says Ritika Samaddar, Regional Head, Nutrition And Dietetics, Max Super Speciality Hospital, New Delhi.
No nutritionist would ever recommend a fully vegan diet because it cannot ensure a balance of both macronutrients and micronutrients. That would have to be made up with supplementation of some sort, of course, under the supervision of a nutritionist. “Please understand that a vegan diet is only about plant foods and no dairy products. This means that the sources of protein are really restricted. And when you are having a raw vegan diet, the sources of essential nutrients are restricted further. Anybody pursuing a vegan diet in India would primarily depend on lentils for protein because almond milk, being expensive, cannot be accessible for all. Now if you are a raw food vegan with fruits and vegetables, you have further restricted proteins in your diet. The currency of such raw diets are extremely short-term as they expectedly help you lose weight, improve your cholesterol and lipid levels. But over the long-term, you can sustain your healthy body markers only when you have balanced meals with enough in-between time to digest them fully,” says Samaddar.
Besides, she argued, we cannot leave out any of the other macronutrients as well, namely carbohydrates and fats. “We should get at least 25 per cent of our energy from fats. In the absence of fats from an uncooked diet, fat-soluble vitamins, like vitamins A, E, D and B12, won’t get absorbed by the body. There could be a severe deficiency of micronutrients like iron and calcium. Remember that iron, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B 12, which are crucial for smooth functioning of body processes, are only available from non-vegetarian or dairy sources. Calcium and Vitamin D determine your bone health. Sub-optimal levels of vitamin B12 can result in anaemia, nervous system damage, infertility and heart disease. In their absence from your dietary sources, you would need supplements to stay healthy. One study found that all those who lived only on a raw vegan diet had less than the recommended 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12 per day,” says Samaddar.
A comprehensive review, published in the medical journal, Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases, in September 2022, found that the vegan diet was often promoted as being good for heart health but eliminating consumption of animal products caused nutritional deficiencies and could lead to negative consequences. “As fundamental as diet is to health, you need to keep in mind the diet for which we’ve been adapted genetically,” said James O’Keefe, MD, the study’s lead author and director of preventive cardiology at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute. “Animal-based foods have been an important part of the human diet for at least three million years. Eliminating all animal foods would be like deciding you’re going to feed a tiger tofu and expect that it’s going to be healthy. If you want an organism to thrive, you should feed it the diet for which it’s been genetically adapted via evolution down through the ages.” That’s why the review advocated a plant-forward omnivorous whole foods diet, which consists of natural, unprocessed foods, rich in vegetables, nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, berries, and other fruits, along with whole grains and legumes. Animal foods such as wild-caught seafood, pasture-raised meats, eggs, and unsweetened dairy are also essential to the diet, the researchers added.
Samaddar says that there is much misinformation about raw food diets. “Yes they lead to weight loss, improved heart health and lower the risk of diabetes in the short term. But weight loss has to be a sustainable model. And that can only happen with a balanced diet,” says Samaddar.
She even advises a nutritionist-guided approach to transitioning to a vegan diet. “A normal vegan diet, which talks about plant-based foods, encourages you to take a lot of lentils, beans, nuts and seeds as well as vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms to meet your protein needs. Also supplements are suggested to prevent any micronutrient deficiencies. If one wants to follow a vegan diet, I would suggest consulting a qualified nutritionist who can plan it to avoid deficiencies.
Plant-based food must be taken in the right balance and follow a calibrated method to cover the recommended daily allowance for the human body. In the Indian context, where milk is the main source of protein and calcium for vegetarians, the alternative food choices are that much more limited. We don’t get fortified foods here. Also broccoli and almond milk are not a part of a common man’s diet. Nuts and seeds are good sources of fat and protein but not commonly taken due to high costs. Avocados are again not a part of the Indian diet. I have been involved in a short-term study of a vegan diet for cardiac patients. We saw good results but that was for a particular population. Besides the actual accurate vegan diet was prescribed, the patients were followed up regularly and supplements given to prevent deficiencies,” says Samaddar.