You’ve heard of a vegetarian diet – no meat, fish, or poultry. But vegans take it a step further by cutting out all animal products. What’s the upside to this strict diet? About seven million Americans have chosen to go completely vegetarian and eliminate all animal products from their diet. If one eats only plant foods, are there really any additional health benefits? What about risks? The research studies point to a better quality of health for the total vegetarian, or vegan. What’s the upside to this strict diet? Read on to find out its pros and cons.
The Advantages of a Vegan Diet
Increased vitamin intake. Vegan diets are richer in dietary fiber, higher in potassium and magnesium, folic acid, the antioxidant vitamins C and E, and the health-promoting phytochemicals. Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts have all shown protective characteristics against the major chronic diseases.
Decreased risk of disease. Those who consume high levels of these plant foods show lower levels of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, and some cancers, compared with those of omnivores. In addition, the use of spices such as garlic, ginger, turmeric, and onions to flavor food helps protect against cancer, stroke and heart disease. Studies show that vegans are significantly thinner, their blood pressure levels are lower, and they have lower blood cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels than other vegetarians and much lower levels than those who eat meat. These factors all translate into a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
A lifestyle choice. Many people choose to adopt the vegan diet because of their love for animals and their desire for animals to live a humane life. Vegan values are focused on concern for the environment. Vegans support sustainable agriculture, organic farming, and reducing the carbon footprint associated with meat-producing operations.
Increases antioxidant intake. Vegan eating typically increases the intake of wholesome foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes and whole grains, which is an excellent way to get plentiful antioxidants, dietary fiber and vitamins and minerals. Antioxidants are important because they have the ability to protect your cells from free radicals caused by a number of things including pollutants in the air, such as exhaust from cars and buildings, tobacco smoke, and radiation.
Cost savings. Vegan diets can be economical. Many vegans center their diet on grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds, all of which can be purchased cheaply in bulk. In-season fruits and vegetables are relatively inexpensive. There are a lot of simple and delicious options for eating vegan on a budget. An added benefit to a plant-based diet- by preventing and reversing chronic diseases, the money you spend on doctor’s visits and medication will decrease.
The Disadvantages of a Vegan Diet
Iron deficiency. Iron is necessary for carrying oxygen in the hemoglobin of your red blood cells. These cells carry oxygen throughout your body, giving you energy. Iron deficiency is a concern for everyone, especially women of childbearing age. Cutting meat and animal products from your diet increases your risk of anemia. If you follow a vegan diet, it is important to carefully balance your diet and introduce supplements to give you the nutrients you need.
Decreased omega-3 fatty acid status. Long chain omega-3 fatty acids are important for cardiovascular health as well as brain and eye function. The fatty acids can be obtained from fish. A vegan diet is void of all meat, poultry and fish, making it difficult to ensure a healthful balance of EFA’s. Vegans can obtain the omega-3 fatty acid DHA by taking microalgae supplements. In addition, flax seed, canola oil, walnuts, tofu, soy beverages, and soy products contain alpha-linolenic acid, which the body can convert into the fatty omega-3 fatty acid DHA.
Vitamin B12 deficiency. A major concern for those who subsist solely on plant foods has been vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 only occurs naturally in animal foods. B12 deficiency is very common in vegans, with studies showing up to 92% of vegans are deficient in this critical nutrient. This water-soluble vitamin is involved in the function of every cell in the body. A B12 deficiency can have serious consequences, such as early dementia, lack of coordination, forgetfulness, nerve dysfunction, memory loss, disorientation, difficulty with concentration, and difficulty with one’s balance when walking.
A lack of protein. A healthy diet should incorporate some form of protein into every meal. Since vegans forego typical protein sources like meat and eggs, they have to incorporate it through different means. Giving up a food group leaves a hole in your diet that must be replaced with something that fills the nutritional void. If you are thinking about going vegan, it is time to stock up on soy, quinoa, lentils, and beans. As always, carefully read labels. Overly processed meat substitutes can be packed with sodium and preservatives.
It is feasible to adjust your food selections to successfully eliminate all animal products and follow a vegan diet. This lifestyle change requires making nutritionally sound choices and incorporating supplements into your diet. An unwise selection of foods can leave you lacking certain nutrients and may induce deficiency symptoms and adverse health outcomes.