The Vegan Diet:
More and more people worldwide are shunning animal foods in their diets for various reasons. These include concerns about their impact on the environment, ethics, and their own health. Hence, this trend contributes to the growing popularity of the vegan diet.
Some people may think vegan food is healthier than traditional food, which may be why vegan cooking is gaining in popularity. Traditional foods may be seen as containing more food components that can cause chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer. So, is going vegan genuinely the best diet to move toward? How beneficial can it be to your health?
As you continue reading this article, the following are the essential points that will be covered:
- What is a vegan diet?
- What distinguishes vegans from vegetarians?
- What are the benefits and downsides of following a vegan diet?
- What are the foods you can eat on the vegan diet?
- What are the foods that you should avoid on the vegan diet?
- Who can benefit from following the vegan diet?
- Who shouldn’t try the vegan diet?
What is a Vegan Diet?
The vegan diet includes only plant-based foods, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, seeds, and legumes. In the context of food practices, it refers to eliminating anything entirely or partially derived from animal sources.
The vegan diet is the strictest kind of vegetarianism because it avoids not only all forms of meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs but also less obvious animal-sourced products such as gelatin, butter, and even honey.
What Distinguishes Vegans from Vegetarians?
Another thing that sets the vegan diet apart is how it goes beyond merely what a person eats and into their daily life. That lifestyle is called veganism.
By definition, veganism is a way of life that rejects using animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose. The welfare of the animals is considered first and foremost, and vegans advocate for and support the creation and widespread adoption of cruelty-free alternatives.
For instance, someone who follows a vegan diet would abstain from buying commercial goods like makeup or cosmetic products that have been tested on animals, as well as silk clothing, down coats and blankets, and leather bags or shoes because they include animal-derived substances. They would also refrain from participating in any use of animals for entertainment, such as dolphin shows, rodeos, and zoos.
On the other hand, when we talk about vegetarian diets, certain animal products are consumed. Eggs and dairy products are acceptable for some vegetarians; others refrain from eating eggs. All vegetarian diets exclude eating the flesh of living things, including meat, poultry, and seafood.
What are the Benefits and Downsides of Following a Vegan Diet?
Plant-based diets have been linked to various health benefits for their adherents. On the other hand, vegan diets also have some downsides to consider.
First, let’s see the difference between a whole-food plant-based diet and a junk-food vegan diet.
Whole-food Plant-based (WFPB) Diet
WFPB diets are characterized by the following:
- Whole plant foods
- Exclude animal products for consumption
- Emphasis on plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, and nuts
- Minimal processed food consumption and only those that are minimally processed (e.g., tofu, maple syrup)
- Exclude added sugar, white flour and rice, preservatives, chemicals, and processed oils
- Promote locally sourced and organic foods when possible
- Typically low in salt
Junk-food Vegan Diet (Ultra-processed Foods)
Ultra-processed foods are defined as those low in nutritional content, rich in calories and added sugar, salt, and fats, and processed with low-cost industrial additives. These foods are frequently found in the Standard American Diet in the form of prepackaged, fast food. In the case of the vegan diet, this often includes meat substitutes that are high in fat and sodium.
According to the NOVA classification system, which classifies meals based on how much processing they undergo in a factory, many plant-based and other food items might be considered “junk” food. These include:
- Commercially-made baked goods
- Carbonated and other packaged drinks
- Prepackaged frozen, canned, or shelf-stable foods
- Flavored dairy drinks
- Breakfast cereals
- Energy bars
- Meat alternatives
The Pros of a Vegan Diet
Here’s what researchers have discovered about the vegan diet.
#1 It supports weight loss.
Research has demonstrated that body mass index (BMI) and weight are typically lower among vegans compared to their meat-eating and other vegetarian counterparts. This may be why more and more individuals are turning to vegan diets to get rid of excess weight.
Since only plant foods contain fiber, an increase in dietary fiber consumption contributes to satiety and may account for the vegan (especially the WFPB) diet’s ability to reduce calories while leaving its adherents feeling full and satisfied.
The biggest question with every diet plan is whether or not the dieter will actually stick to it. Some people lose weight initially on a diet, only to regain it when they return to their former eating habits after the plan has ended. The BROAD study looked at people with overweight and obesity who followed a WFPB diet for 3 months. Not only did the WFPB group lose significant weight, but a recheck on those folks at 6 months (3 months after the study ended) showed further weight loss! And when they checked in again at 12 months, they had maintained that weight reduction as well as the improvements in cholesterol, blood sugar, and quality of life.
#2 It helps keep your blood sugar in check.
Along with other plant-predominant diets, people who follow a vegan diet can potentially reduce their hemoglobin A1C levels by up to 0.8%. The hemoglobin A1C level is a good sign of long-term blood sugar control since it reflects blood glucose levels over the preceding 3 months.
#3 It can keep your heart healthy.
One study found that those who followed a healthy plant-based diet had better heart health. Compared to a variety of omnivorous control diets, the vegetarian diets resulted in significantly lower blood concentrations of total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and non-HDL cholesterol.
#4 It lowers cardiometabolic risks.
In addition to making your heart healthier, a healthy vegan diet improves many of your risk factors for cardiovascular disease. It offers fewer calories and less saturated fat than an omnivorous control diet, and it is linked to a favorable cardiometabolic risk profile, which includes reduced levels of body weight, LDL cholesterol, fasting blood glucose, blood pressure, and triglycerides. These findings support other research that plant-based diets have the potential to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Related to following the WFPB diet, the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) is significantly reduced by increasing one’s intake of healthier plant foods. On the other hand, eating less healthy plant foods will more likely increase CHD risk. And as the vegan diet can help lower one’s BMI, blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels, it’s helpful to know one large pooled study showed interventions that lower those parameters reduce the risk of heart disease by up to 46%.
#5 It reduces your risk of cancer.
Since the vegan diet comes from plants, that means it contains higher levels of antioxidants and other phytonutrients. Bioactive substances such as vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, polyphenols, and phenolic acids are abundant in plant-based diets. These compounds contain antioxidative properties that can aid in oxidant defense and prevent inflammation.
A research review of 96 studies revealed that the incidence of all types of cancer is 15% lower in vegans. Another study supports the idea that following a healthy plant-based diet can help lower the chance of developing breast cancer.
#6 It supports kidney health.
Plant-based diets can prevent kidney disease from worsening. According to research, a healthy plant-based or vegetarian diet was linked to improved outcomes related to kidney disease.
#7 It lowers your blood pressure.
Diets predominantly composed of plant foods have been utilized for the treatment of hypertension for quite some time. Research supports that following a plant-based diet under the guidance of your health care clinician is a safe and effective strategy to manage high blood pressure (BP) without the adverse effects of antihypertensive drugs.
#8 It improves your brain function.
Fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that may help slow down age-related cognitive decline and lower one’s chance of acquiring neurodegenerative illnesses.
Plant-based diets contain a greater quantity of beneficial phytonutrients, also known as nutraceuticals, which have been found to delay the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and restore cognitive function.
But you’ll want to eat whole plant foods to get the full effect of this intervention. In a study of over 72,000 participants, it was shown that consumption of ultraprocessed food (UPF) was associated with an increased risk of dementia, while replacing UPF with whole or minimally processed foods was associated with a reduced risk of dementia.
#9 It benefits your intestinal microbiome.
Plant-based foods are generally rich in fiber. And fiber is crucial for maintaining gut health. Consuming sufficient amounts can help the body eliminate waste more easily and even prevent constipation.
It also supports a balanced gut microbiome. Research suggests that a plant-based diet may serve as an effective method to enhance a diversified ecology of beneficial microorganisms in the gut to promote general health.
Furthermore, a study discovered that those who follow a vegan diet were found to have a lower abundance of potentially harmful metabolites and a higher occurrence of potentially beneficial metabolites, unlike their nonvegan counterparts.
#10 It promotes healthy aging.
Telomere shortening is a popular aging theory. Telomeres are sections of DNA located at the ends of your chromosomes, protecting them from damage. Shorter telomeres are linked to a reduced life expectancy and an increase in the prevalence of age-related chronic diseases.
There is a connection between oxidative stress and all types of DNA damage, particularly as we age. Studies suggest that eating foods high in antioxidants, which are mostly found in plants, can promote positive health effects by preventing damage to the genetic structure of your cells.
#11 It reduces your risk of death.
A 2019 research study found that cardiovascular disease, mortality, and morbidity were shown to be lower in people whose diets were higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods. Furthermore, adherence to a healthy plant-based diet was linked with an 11% lower risk of death from all causes.
#12 It is environmentally sustainable and ethical.
Unlike diets high in animal products, plant-based diets put much less strain on the environment, requiring the use of fewer natural resources.
The raising of animals for consumption demands a large proportion of resources, including water, land, and crops for feed. In addition, the requirement for grain to sustain the growth of animals destined for slaughter contributes to the destruction of forest habitats.
Moreover, veganism may appeal to certain people since it encourages a more cruelty-free way of life than the standard omnivore diet.
The Downsides of Following a Vegan Diet
It is crucial for everyone to consume a well-planned diet that restricts the consumption of processed foods, substituting them with foods rich in the nutrients required by the body.
It’s essential to be mindful of certain nutrients when switching to a vegan diet, even though it can be quite nutrient-dense. However, this does not mean that omnivores are not also at-risk for certain nutrient deficiencies. Having said that, individuals who follow vegan diets that are not well planned or consist of a high proportion of processed foods are in danger of specific nutrient deficiencies.
The following are the downsides of embracing the vegan diet:
#1 Your protein options are limited.
Amino acids, the structural components of proteins, are essential for the proper functioning of your muscles, organs, and other body structures. The term “essential” refers to amino acids that cannot be produced by the human body and must be obtained through diet.
In contrast to animal proteins, certain plant proteins may lack one or more of the nine essential amino acids. Therefore, a little planning is needed because consuming a wide range of protein-rich foods is necessary to obtain the full complement of essential amino acids.
#2 You need to be aware of the risk for specific nutrient deficiencies.
If you’re following a vegan diet and finding it challenging to get all the nutrients you need from food alone, you may want to consult a trained dietitian or nutritionist to help determine if you should take dietary supplements to make up the difference. These are some of the nutrients that vegans need to be concerned about and the health consequences of a deficiency in some of these nutrients.
Vitamin B12 deficiency
Vitamin B12 is essential for maintaining healthy blood and nerve cells and is also required for synthesizing DNA, the genetic material of every cell in the body. It also aids in the prevention of megaloblastic anemia, a blood disorder that causes fatigue and weakness.
Meat, eggs, and dairy products are excellent sources of vitamin B12. Deficiencies can occur for many reasons, including having certain chronic gastrointestinal and autoimmune conditions, and it is common in the aging population. Since animal products are the primary source of vitamin B-12, a deficiency is more likely to occur in vegans, and almost all need to take a supplement to make sure and maintain normal levels.
Vitamin D deficiency
Even for those who aren’t vegan, getting enough vitamin D can be tricky. According to a study analyzing national health data without consideration for dietary choices, 41.6% of participants were found to be vitamin D deficient. Research looking at vegans and vegetarians generally showed higher levels of vitamin D deficiency.
Among its many functions in the body, vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium, which is one of the primary building blocks for strong bones. Together with calcium, vitamin D helps protect against osteoporosis.
Iodine is required by the body to produce thyroid hormones. These hormones regulate its metabolism and various other vital processes. Normal thyroid hormone levels are also necessary during pregnancy and infancy to ensure appropriate bone and brain development.
People who do not have enough iodine cannot produce adequate thyroid hormone. In pregnant women, severe iodine insufficiency can permanently impair the fetus by causing stunted growth, intellectual incapacity, and delayed sexual development. A goiter, or enlargement of the thyroid gland, is frequently the first noticeable sign of iodine deficiency.
As a result of the low iodine concentration in soil, the amount of iodine found in foods that come from plants is significantly less than that from animals.
When compared with individuals who follow less restricted diets, vegans appear to be at a higher risk of poor iodine status. Furthermore, the risk of iodine deficiency may be higher for those vegans or vegetarians who live in places where this condition is prevalent.
The body needs iron for growth and development. Iron is utilized to create the proteins hemoglobin and myoglobin that work in the red blood cells to transport oxygen from the lungs to the organs and tissues.
Iron deficiency anemia, which can be caused by low iron storage or iron depletion, is more common in vegetarians than in nonvegetarians.
As a mineral needed for teeth, nerves, bones, and muscles, calcium is best absorbed in the presence of vitamin D. Leafy greens like kale and broccoli contain this vitamin, but only in trace amounts.
According to a systematic review, lower bone mineral density and higher fracture rates were found among people who followed a vegan or vegetarian diet.
However, it is still feasible to get adequate calcium if you’re on a plant-based diet. Almonds, calcium-fortified plant milk, chia seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, tofu, legumes, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale), edamame, and sweet potatoes are all good plant-based calcium sources.
Zinc aids the immune system in its fight against invading germs and viruses. It is essential in the synthesis of proteins and DNA and growth and development during pregnancy, infancy, and childhood. Additionally, zinc promotes wound healing and is necessary for healthy senses such as taste and smell.
With a lack of proper dietary planning, vegans can be prone to zinc deficiency. Vegetarians can compensate for zinc shortages by increasing their zinc absorption and retention. Phytates in plant foods affect zinc absorption. They can be reduced through different food preparation techniques such as soaking, heating, sprouting, fermenting, and leavening.
#2 You can’t eat out as easily.
The restrictions of such a diet often make going out to eat, traveling, and hanging out with friends difficult. If you’re looking for something to eat at most restaurants, you might be disappointed to learn that their only vegan choices are rice, beans, salads, and fries. However, more restaurants are offering vegan options, and for those that do not, a careful selection of salads or side dishes can make it possible for you to assemble a vegan meal. You should check with the kitchen to be sure that no animal products are used in making the dish.
It can be difficult for you to participate fully in some cultural events and celebrations because of the prevalence of nonvegan practices.
#3 Your food options are limited.
The term vegan refers to the strictest level of vegetarianism. For some people, that may be too much of a constraint for their daily lives. Keep in mind that vegans choose not to consume anything made with animal products.
Many common dishes, groceries, and cuisines served in restaurants contain some form of animal product. Vegans can attest that there is plenty of food available to them on their diet. However, you may find it difficult at first because of the drastic changes in your available choices.
What are the Foods You Can Eat on the Vegan Diet?
Vegans only consume plant-based products, such as those listed below.
- Grains, cereals, bread, pasta
- Plant-based milks such as soymilk, coconut milk, and almond milk
- Oils derived from vegetables
- Soy-based products such as tofu and tempeh
- Algae such as spirulina and chlorella
- Sprouted and fermented plant foods
What are the Foods That You Should Avoid on the Vegan Diet?
Vegans choose not to eat any foods derived from animals, such as the following:
- Meats from all animals
- Fish or shellfish, such as crabs, clams, and mussels
- Poultry products, such as chicken, duck, and turkey
- Eggs or products made from eggs, like mayonnaise
- Dairy products, such as cheese, butter, milk, cream, yogurt, and ice cream
- Bee products, such as honey or royal jelly
- Products containing animal-based ingredients, such as whey, casein, lactose, cochineal or carmine, isinglass, shellac, egg white albumen, gelatin, L-cysteine, animal-derived vitamin D3, and fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids
Our Take Away
Veganism as a lifestyle choice has recently risen in popularity. People opt for the vegan way of life for ethical, environmental, and health reasons. According to published guidelines for health professionals, plant-based diets are safe for all stages of life, including pregnancy and the childhood years.
Some vegans are more likely to fall short of crucial nutrient requirements, particularly those not following a WFPB diet who tend to eat more junk food alternatives. Supplementing vitamin B12 is recommended for all vegans. And it may be necessary for vegans to take other supplements when they cannot get all the nutrients they need from diet alone.
Following a healthy vegan whole-food diet is associated with an astounding number of health benefits, from the prevention of cancer and other chronic diseases to reducing the risk of death from all causes. It has been shown to have beneficial effects on many body processes throughout the lifespan, including those contributing to aging and cognitive decline.
Various physician-based resources are available for those interested in finding out more about the vegan or whole-food plant-based diet, such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and NutritionFacts.org. Guidelines have also been published with recommendations for medical professionals. The American Society for Nutrition has published articles related to the diets’ benefits. And the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position statement on vegetarian diets is packed with information related to individuals in all stages of life.