Am I a vegan? No. I don’t think I ever could be. It’s not that I couldn’t give up meat or animal products (although it would be hard), but more that I would be pretty malnourished if I did since I don’t tend to tolerate legumes that well. But that wasn’t the question. The question is, is a vegan diet as healthy as it is made out to be?
Veganism is a popular diet trend at the moment. Or more like a fad for some hoping to be healthier and lose weight. For many true vegans, they have grown up eating a plant-based diet or have chosen this way of eating for reasons such as preventing cruelty to animals and other ethical reasons. And this is totally acceptable to me. Everyone is entitled to eat how they choose. Unfortunately, a large number of people choosing to follow a vegan diet either don’t have the right intentions or have misconceptions about veganism. What may be a lifestyle or ethical choice to some, has become a recent social media trend or health kick fad for the majority.
The good news about this, is that overall people are far more aware of the importance of eating vegan (or vegetarian foods). For those of you reading this who aren’t vegan or vegetarian, you should be having a minimum of 2-3 veggie meals weekly, but ideally more. The trend has also led to more restaurants and supermarkets supplier more vegan and vegetarian options, which is great for vegans and vegetarians. The issues come in for those who do it for a weight loss or health reasons that don’t fully understand what this transition from being an omnivore to a herbivore really means. It’s not only eating more plant based foods (which yes, is a plus), but it might also mean severely lacking in many nutrients, including vitamin B12, folate and protein if you do not pick your foods wisely.
What is a vegan diet?
First, lets clear something up. The word “diet” in this sense refers to meal intake, and not a weight loss plan. It is someones daily food intake. Although for some, the vegan diet has landed up being a short term dieting plan in hopes of losing weight.
A vegan diet is one that involves eating plant-based foods only. This includes fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and plant-based milks and non-dairy products. No animal products such as meat, chicken, fish, dairy or eggs are consumed at all. This means that all plant-based foods need to make up in nutrients what would otherwise be provided by animal products. A little harder to do than you may think.
The Vegan vs The Vegetarian vs The Flexitarian – What is the difference?
Contrary to popular belief, veganism is not the same as vegetarianism. Being a vegetarian means that you do not eat the animal produce itself, but do make an exception for their byproducts such as eggs and dairy. Some people may call themselves vegans or vegetarians, who occasionally eat meat, fish or other animal products. These people are not truly vegans or vegetarians, but rather flexitarians who mostly eat vegan or vegetarian foods, but occasionally turn to their inner-carnivore.
What Does Being on a Vegan Diet Mean?
Following a vegan diet may come naturally to some and these people may be organised and plan their meals ahead of time. But it may be more challenging for others. Not only does it mean all food consumed needs to be plant-based, but it requires proper planning to ensure your body meets all of its nutritional requirements, including protein and all of its essential amino acids. This is not impossible to do, and all nutritional needs can be met. However, a large number of vegans (and vegetarians) lack nutritional knowledge or the food options enabling them to follow this properly, which can result in nutrient deficiencies. Note that many celebrities and professional athletes that eat a vegan diet have dietitians, nutritionists and chefs helping them plan or cook their meals to ensure they meet all of their nutritional needs.
What are the Benefits of Being Vegan?
There are many pros following a vegan diet. These benefits include:
1. Helping the Environment and Animals
A vegan diet is undoubtedly healthier for the environment. This is because farming of vegan-friendly plants requires fewer resources than the production of other types of foods. This means that there is a lower negative impact on natural resources like land and water. Some people believe that eating vegan helps significantly to reduce the risk of global warming. The fact that no animals are harmed in the process of manufacturing vegan meals is also noteworthy.
2. Fibre-Rich Diet
As a vegan eats plant-based food only, this means consuming a diet high in an important “nutrient”, fibre. Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds all contain fibre, both soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre can be broken down or dissolve in water, and is involved in thickening of the stools. It also helps prevent the absorption of fatty substances such as cholesterol and also helps in lowering blood sugar levels. Insoluble fibre is not able to be broken down like soluble fibre, and is important to help soften the stools, preventing constipation. It also slows down food digestion, bringing about fullness and taking away cravings and hunger pangs.
As this diet is rich in fibre, generally vegans have good bowel health, and are less likely to be overweight, as fibre is a great way to keep you feeling full and satisfied. Although this is not the only reason, it helps lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer too.
3. High Intake of Micronutrients
Having a “plant-based only” intake means that you will not only have a high fibre intake, but a high micronutrient intake too. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits (1). Generally, having a plant-based diet will provide you with plenty of these micronutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium and magnesium to name just a small handful.
Proper planning of meals is essential for vegans to get enough of all micronutrients as well as sufficient amounts of as macronutrients such as protein too. Without planning, deficiencies such as vitamin B12, iron, protein and other important nutrients are likely to occur. Therefore, for anyone following a vegan diet that is unsure if they are getting in enough nutrients, it is advised to speak to a health professional such as registered dietitian or well-trained nutritionist. Supplementation of certain nutrients such as vitamin B12 is usually advised.
4. Healthier Weight if followed properly
For the majority that follow a vegan diet, their weight and BMI (body mass index) are usually within a healthy range. This is not only because of eating foods rich in fibre that help keep one full, but generally because vegans tend to follow a healthier lifestyle overall. This may include low to no alcohol intake, less fatty foods and regular exercise. Another reason is that most plant-based foods are low in calories, and a healthy and lower calorie diet will usually result in weight loss or a healthy BMI. However, this will depend on the diet as a whole. Eating healthy plant foods is one thing, but consuming sugary snacks and processed food, even though they are plant-based can turn a supposedly healthy diet into an unhealthy one, making it hard to lose weight. Yes, that avocado chocolate mousse cake may seem healthy as it is “vegan”, but it’s probably loaded with calories.
Studies have been done to show the relationship between vegan and vegetarian diets and weight loss (2). Vegan diets, in particular, show weight loss as a health benefit, but not so much for vegetarians. However, further investigation to understand the effect of veganism and vegetarianism on weight loss is needed.
5. Lower risk of Chronic disease
Another of the many health benefits of a vegan diet includes possible prevention of certain illnesses and chronic diseases. These include:
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the UK and the USA. Almost a third of cancer could have been prevented through a healthier lifestyle and nutrition. Due to having a diet rich in fibre and micronutrients, including antioxidants, following a plant-based diet can lower your risk of cancers. Meat-eaters who have a high intake of red meat, processed meat and other processed foods, as well as a lower fibre, fruit and vegetable intake, are at a much higher risk of getting cancer, in particular, bowel cancer but some other types too. Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK and the fourth most common cancer to get (3).
As this diet can help maintain a healthy weight and BMI, it helps in lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes. Also, the high fibre intake helps to control blood sugar levels, which is especially helpful in people already living with diabetes.
Heart Disease and Blood Pressure
One of the main benefits of a vegan diet is the fact that they contain lower quantities of saturated fats, salt, red meat and processed foods. As mentioned above, it can also help with weight control. All of these factors, including a high BMI are contributors to heart disease. Thus following a vegan diet generally results in improved heart health. This includes lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
As this type of diet is rich in fibre, it helps to lower cholesterol levels, as soluble fibre prevents it from being absorbed into the bloodstream.
It is important to note that these risks of heart disease, raised cholesterol and blood pressure are only lowered if you are following a healthy vegan diet. Not all vegan diets are healthy, especially if high amounts of unhealthy processed snacks are consumed. Coconut oil is also something to be aware of. Many sweet and some savoury vegan foods in stores contain this, and it is very high in saturated fat (a whopping 87%). Even if you aren’t consuming any animal products, this can still contribute to a raised cholesterol level. This is not to say it is completely unhealthy, as coconut oil does offer some good fats too, but it something to be aware of and not go overboard.
The Drawbacks of Veganism
It has been medically proven that vegan diets have numerous health and general well-being benefits. However, there are a few cons also involved to take note of. They include:
1. Limited Food Choices
One of the main drawbacks of veganism is that it is a fairly restrictive diet. If you chose to switch to a vegan diet today, it would mean that you would have to get rid of so many items from your meal cart. All animal products, including dairy and eggs, would need to go. This includes many ready-meals and most baked goods too. Dining out at restaurants is also more difficult, as many menus cater mostly toward meat-eaters, and partially vegetarians. However, more supermarkets, local shops and restaurants are becoming more familiar with the trend, offering far more options than before. So this does not have to be an issue, but makes planning more important.
2. Micronutrient Deficiencies
Despite a vegan diet being loaded with most micro and macronutrients, it has its pitfalls too. If your meals are not carefully planned and thought out, nutritional deficiencies can occur. Some are common, for instance, vitamin B12. The main source of B12 is animal products, and as this is eliminated, a deficiency can occur which may result in vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia. Therefore, if you decide to start following a vegan diet, you will have to consider taking supplements for this, and possibly get your levels checked with your GP from time to time.
Other nutrients that may lack are calcium (due to avoiding dairy), iron, zinc, vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids. However, calcium, zinc and iron can be found in plant-based foods, and with proper planning or supplementation, you should be able to meet your needs. Omega 3 can be found in plant foods such as walnuts, rapeseed oil, linseed and flaxseed, and chia seeds in the form of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). However, much higher amounts of this are needed compared to the types of omega 3 found in oily fish (EPA and DHA). As for vitamin D, small amounts are found in mushrooms and some fortified plant-based milks. But mostly, it is found in animal sources such as egg yolks and oily fish. This is not much of a worry as foods, in general, don’t contain much vitamin D, and in the UK, it is recommended that everyone supplement this.
2. Protein Deficiency
The main macronutrient lacking in this type of diet is protein. Although plenty of protein can be found in legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans), tofu, nuts and seeds. The concern is that many vegans are not consuming complete protein. Complete protein means consuming all nine essential amino acids. Many plant proteins don’t contain all of these amino acids on their own, which means a couple or few protein sources may need to be eaten together or in larger amounts in the day. Some vegans add nutritional yeast to their meals, which is a complete protein, so this is a good option for vegans. Additionally, with proper planning of meals, meeting your full protein needs with all amino acids can be achieved.
3. Possible Depression and Anxiety
Between 2007 and 2018, multiple studies have looked into the relationship between veganism, vegetarianism and depression. Recently, a study was revealed by many news sources that vegans had a higher risk of depression and suicide compared with meat-eaters. While many of these studies done had similar findings, a few did not show any difference, or some the opposite. The link between the two is not fully understood, but according to Psychology Today, social factors may be involved. But also, it could possibly be deficiencies that can cause fatigue and anaemia that may lead to symptoms of feeling low or depressed.
4. Social outcast
While some vegans can adapt in many situations(depending on their personality), many vegans social lives do alter quite significantly when making the changeover. Eating out with friends can become more challenging, and invites over to a friend for dinner become less frequent. Some vegans won’t date someone who is not vegan, and some non-vegans find it too hard to date someone with different eating preferences, making the dating pool more limited. This can, for some, make life a little more lonely. It is also one of the main reasons why some people return to eating meat. A study showed that roughly 75% of people who changed to a vegan diet eventually changed back to eating meat. So for many, veganism and vegetarian is more of a phase than a longterm lifestyle change.
5. Processed food intake
Vegan diets are usually fairly natural and healthy with their high intake of fibre, fruit and veg. However, as veganism is becoming more of a popular trend, more companies are starting to produce vegan foods to substitute foods that non-vegans eat. These include plant-based mince, chicken, prawns and bacon to name a few. Although some ingredients may be healthy, these foods go through some heavy processing. Lots of ingredients and additives that you may never have heard of are added in, making these so-called healthy foods, not so healthy. If you want to be a healthy vegan, then limit or avoid these options, and make the food yourself if you can.
7. May not be suitable for those with IBS or struggle with too much fibre
As I mentioned in the beginning, I struggle with legumes. I can eat them, but the do cause some bloating that can often be quite painful and uncomfortable, especially if I eat these too much. As a vegan diet is high in fibre, people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or those who struggle with eating large doses of fibre may not tolerate a vegan diet. As a large amount of fruit, vegetables, legumes and grains are considered high FODMAP (fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols) foods, this can make the diet rather limiting, as these foods may trigger symptoms of IBS. Even for people not diagnosed with IBS may find they are unable to tolerate eating beans and other legumes too often as they bloat. Limiting legumes from the diet while trying. tobe vegan heavily restricts protein sources and may leave you with very few protein options.
The Final Question: Is being a Vegan More Healthy?
The answer is yes and no. It really depends on the vegan diet itself and how it is being followed. Generally, being vegan and eating balanced meals tends to be healthier, with lower risks of chronic illnesses, a healthier weight, better bowel habits and sometimes even more energy. It also offers positive effects on the environment and less animal cruelty as a bonus. But if it is not taken seriously and planning of meals is poor, then following a vegan diet might be the more unhealthy option. This results in nutrient deficiencies and therefore further health problems. It may also make your life a little harder, trying to find enjoyable foods to eat and may affect your social life.
The Final Word
A vegan diet requires a lot of diligence and planning. This is something to consider before making the transition over to the “V-World”. Some people find that it is too much work. Or once they change, found it too hard to continue for various reasons. But challenges aside, if you do veganism right, it offers many positive health benefits to you and our planet. Whether you decide this is for you or not, know that plant-based foods are important for your health. If you are not able to fully transition, try vegetarianism or at least aim for 2-3 plant-based meals (or more) a week for better health outcomes.