Food for Thought: The Pros and Cons of a Vegan Diet

With all the talk about negative health and environmental issues around the typical American diet (heavy on the meat, dairy and processed food), you may be hearing a lot of people say they’re going vegan. Before you roll your eyes- vegans are not just old hippies and tree-huggers anymore— you might give the vegan diet a chance. There’s actually tons of evidence that plant-based diets are better for overall long-term health, not to mention the health of the planet. But there is still plenty of debate on the subject too, so you might be seeing lots of confusing information. Like any other lifestyle change, switching to a vegan diet will have an impact on your health and your life (and inevitably, some friends will ask when you became pals with Natalie Portman), so it’s important to learn what being a vegan really means. Then you can evaluate the pros and cons for yourself.

First of all, what’s the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian? Don’t worry, it’s not a stupid question. Veganism, which focuses on a diet of fruits and veggies, nuts, grains and other plant-based foods, is sometimes considered one type of vegetarianism, but these days most vegans prefer to distinguish the diet in its own right. There are actually many different forms of vegetarianism and veganism (pick up any celebrity tabloid to hear all about them). Suffice to say that both vegetarians and vegans, in general, do not eat animal flesh (so ixnay on the chicken, cow, pig, seafood and any other animals). But vegans also don’t eat other animal products, like eggs or dairy, so check them off the list as well.

What’s wrong with eggs and dairy? This is one of the key differences of veganism and speaks to the core values of the diet. While both vegetarians and vegans eat a primarily plant-based diet, vegans take this a step further and eschew all animal-based products. So, they also don’t use products made with fur or leather (never fear, there are lots of great vegan leather products these days for you shoe lovers out there). Their concerns center on the cruelty of the dairy industry and worry over the environment. Vegans support sustainable agriculture, reducing carbon-footprint associated with meat-production and oppose inhumane treatment of livestock. (This is not to say that some vegetarians don’t avoid these products or note concerns about these practices too—can you say ovo-vegetarian, --they don’t eat meat, fish or dairy, but they do eat eggs.)

The science on the healthfulness of a vegan diet over one with animal proteins is still hotly debated. There’s significant research noting the negative health effects of nutrients like casein (a protein found in milk) as well as the saturated fat and higher calories of a conventional diet. But opponents of a vegan diet discount these concerns and note issues around inadequate protein and calcium consumption and nutrient depletion.

Arguments aside, it is now well established (and even noted by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) that properly planned vegan diets are nutritionally wholesome and can help prevent chronic diseases. The operative words here are “properly planned.” So here are a few suggestions on how to shift to a vegan diet and plan properly so you know what to expect and don’t fall short on nutrition.

Eat consciously: Vegans in particular need to be aware of the potential for deficiencies in certain micronutrients, including vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and zinc. With no meat or fish in the diet, it does require careful planning to ensure adequate intake of these nutritional compounds.  Here are some tips:

  • Boost B12 by eating foods fortified with the vitamin, like vegan protein bars and organic snacks, along with dairy alternatives and products containing yeast extracts.
  • Increase your iron intake with pulses, organic whole grains, dried fruits--think figs and apricots, as well as those green leafy vegetables—you just can’t get away from them.
  • Pump up the protein with vegan protein sources like chickpeas, lentils, and nuts. You can find these ingredients in nutrition bars or make your own quick healthy snacks.
  • Amp your omega-3s with plant-based sources, like nuts, oils and seeds from chia, flax, and walnuts. But keep in mind, the sources only contain Alpha linolenic acid (ALA), which is not active in the body and so must be converted to the other forms of omega-3s --eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and is not very efficient. So make these foods a regular staple in your diet to ensure you are getting enough.

Vegan isn’t automatically healthy: Just because a food is vegan friendly doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to be healthy. Do your research and check a product’s ingredient list for red flags like lots of sugar, fat or salt—even vegan-friendly junk food will leave you hungry, add on the pounds, and make you grumpy to boot. Chips or cookies made with coconut oil, for example, are vegan but remember coconut oil also contains high saturated fat. So just like any other treat, products made with this ingredient should be enjoyed in moderation. Better bets are raw energy bars, keto bars and organic snacks.

Keep it simple: You don’t need to add lots of pressure to your life (who doesn’t have enough of that already?). The fact that you are looking at your diet and working to be your best self is a great step, so give yourself a little credit. Stick to recipes that are easy to make and not super elaborate (you don’t have to be Rachel Ray!). And if you’re worried about the treatment of animals, then its ok to treat yourself with kindness—a little self-pampering is always in order. Ultimately, that means doing the best you can, one day at a time.

Be a plant person: This doesn’t mean you have to live in a tent, grow all your own food, and unplug from your cell phone (although that might not be a bad idea once in a while). You don’t even have to go all-out vegan. But the evidence is pretty clear that reducing consumption of animal proteins is advisable for the health of both humans and the Earth. So boosting your plant intake, even if you still eat meat or dairy now and then, is a great platform for an overall healthy lifestyle. Beyond that, it doesn’t much matter whether you’re vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian- all the same rules apply—eat a wide variety of foods and be extra diligent about those nutrients that you might need more of. Then just relax- be mindful of what works well for you. And always keep in mind, this as a life-long journey not a sprint.

 

Sources

Vegan Vs. vegetarian—What’s the difference [and is there beef?]. Vegan Motivation.com https://www.veganmotivation.com/vegan-vs-vegetarian/

Is a vegan diet healthy. Jamie Oliver.com. Dec. 2014. https://www.jamieoliver.com/news-and-features/features/vegan-diet-healthy/

Would we be healthier with a vegan diet? Sept. 2012. Wall Street Journal. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10000872396390444184704577587174077811182