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You can be a healthy vegan, but...

Being vegan seems to be the hip thing and advocated by quite a few celebrities which leads to many people ditching meat and dairy in hope of getting healthier, trim their waistline and improve their energy. But is it really good for you?

So, let’s have a look at what effect such a radical diet can have on our bodies. Is it possible to totally cut out several food groups and yet get all the nutrients you we need? The short answer is ‘yes’, but it’s a little bit less simple than you’d think and it definitely doesn’t mean it’s the best diet (if such a thing actually exists). If you’re considering becoming a vegan or already are one, you will benefit from reading on.

What’s all the bells and whistles

This plant based diet has risen in popularity over the years but at the same time has raised some concerns amongst healthcare professionals in respect of its suitability for young infants and children and as possibly being a way of masking eating disorders. However, these are wider issues surrounding the subject (not to forget mentioning other fundamental beliefs such as animal welfare and environmental damage caused by extensive animal farming) and essentially, it is my opinion that it is possible to have a healthy and well balanced plant based diet.

Most healthcare professional agree that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins is the foundation for a lean, strong body and optimal health. Much to the discontent of vegans and vegetarians, this has always included animal products, such as lean meat, poultry, seafood, and low-fat dairy products such as milk, eggs, and cheese.

But the vegan school of nutritional (as well as ethical and environmental) thought support a plant-based diet that eliminates many or all animal products (and to certain extent so does vegetarianism).

While some view a plant-based diet as eating almost all plants, along with some animal products (vegetarianism), others view a plant-based diet as one that is void of all animal products (veganism). As such, the term plant-based diet is often used interchangeably to mean vegan or vegetarian. The term many dietary experts use to describe a health promoting diet that consists of whole, unprocessed foods is “Whole Food Plant Based,” or simply WFPB. This term is used to describe a plant-based diet that is truly healthy, in recognition of the fact that a diet that is simply vegan or vegetarian may not necessarily always be healthy (depending on the food source, preparation, combinations etc.).

Is it all about veggies

While there are health benefits to switching to vegan diet, it’s crucial you make the right food choices because Contrary to popular belief, it’s still very easy to eat unhealthily on a vegan diet as sugar is allowed and there are no strict rules about obtaining from organic sources or processing. Rather than following a specific diet, the key is making healthy food choices. There are plenty of healthy non-vegans that feel great (such as myself). Therefore, it’s really important to plan your meals carefully and include a wide variety of highly nourishing foods.

If you are following a well-balanced and varied vegan diet, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to get all of the nutrients required for good health. Plenty of research shows people following a plant-based diet have healthier lifestyles than their meat-eaters. Not only are they less likely to be obese, vegans also enjoy a slimmer chance of becoming victim to serious conditions due to the large amount of fibre and antioxidants they get from their diet.

This means they generally have a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes – and may live longer, as a result. (However, it’s important to note a vegan diet won’t stop you developing these conditions - lifestyle plays an important role, too.)

But consider this: studies that take a pro- or anti-meat stance often miss the bigger picture. They overlook the fact that most meat eaters who participate in the studies that show harm from eating meat are also eating massive amounts of sugar and refined carbs alongside a highly processed, inflammatory diet. They certainly aren’t eating small to moderate amounts of grass-fed or organic meat along with a plate-full of colourful fruits and vegetables. Indeed, it would be almost impossible to perform an accurate study about meat. You would have to randomise people into a whole food, low-glycaemic, plant-rich diet with grass-fed or organic animal protein and compare them to those on a high-quality vegan diet. That study has never been done and I doubt its practicability.

Many of the studies demonising meat use subjects who are smokers, drink too much, eat way too much sugar and processed foods, eat very little fruits and vegetables and shy from exercise. Not to mention, they don’t take vitamins. So, is it a surprise that these meat eaters with bad habits and terrible diets are sicker and fatter! The story is not as simple as meat is bad, vegetables are good. The real question to ask is this: do organic sourced meat eaters, who also eat lots of healthy food, don’t smoke, exercise, and take vitamins have a higher risk or chronic health problems?

You may read more about my professional opinion in regards of eating meat here.

What else is there to take into account?

Going vegan doesn’t necessarily mean only eating vegetables, but exploring lots of plant-based foods including beans, pulses, lentils, tofu, rice, quinoa, tempeh, nuts and tahini. Not surprisingly, studies have shown vegan diets are more likely to contain greater amounts of fibre. Similarly, people who follow a vegan diet also tend to get a greater intake of certain key vitamins and nutrients. In addition, vegan diet is also likely to be very high in valuable plant compounds called phytonutrients, many of which not only give plants their colour but also help our body fight disease.

Whilst a vegan diet can be very healthy, the heavy restrictions on what you are allowed to eat may cause nutrition issues if meals are not planned well. Some of the issues to take into account involve iron, vitamin B12 and calcium which are two of the most concerning mineral losses that may be experienced by vegans.

Iron deficiency can cause anaemia leading to tiredness and fatigue. If left untreated, anaemia can lead to more serious health issues such as dizziness, shortness of breath and low blood pressure.

Intakes of iron are already very low among in teenage girls and to a slightly lesser extent in adult women, so starting with a vegan diet may be a particular issue for women as they are a greater risk of anaemia.

Calcium is important for bone health and this is very important for teenagers who are still developing.

Again, this is a key issue for women in particular, who may experience bone loss during the menopause, which can increase the risk of osteoporosis in older age. Calcium is also important for muscle and nerve function as well as blood clotting and low levels have also been linked to conditions such as PMS.

Omega 3 can also be an issue on a vegan diet. The richest source of omega 3 is found in oily fish and krill and although you can get some from plant foods such as dark green leafy vegetables and walnuts, the conversion in the body to a more usable form is not as good as you might hope for. Therefore, vegans should consider taking a (plant based) supplement.

If you are switching to a vegan diet, it’s likely you’ll initially consume fewer calories due to only eating plant-based foods. Although for many women this is a dream come true, you must not exclude fat from your diet. Foods high in energy and nutrients - such as nuts, olive oil, tahini, avocado and nut butter – are extremely important in order to maintain healthy weight and provide a wide range of nutrients such as iron, calcium, B vitamins and magnesium.

Don’t fall into the protein and other vital nutrients trap

Becoming a vegan (even switching from being a vegetarian) means cutting out eggs and dairy, which is likely to impact on levels of good quality protein. Removing all animal foods from the diet (including dairy) might mean that you could suddenly be deficient on calcium, iron, B12, zinc and omega 3.

In the short-term, lack of these would cause tiredness and fatigue, but there are also several long-term effects, such as on the heart. Protein is also important for keeping you not feeling hungry – and maintaining muscle mass. A lack of protein, especially if combined with a reduction in energy intake, could result in slight muscle wastage.

Although animal products contain a complete range of amino acids (the building blocks of protein in the body), the good news is you can still get enough protein on a vegan diet - as long as you’re eating a wide range of protein-based foods. These include: Quinoa, buckwheat (such as soba noodles), hemp seeds, chia seeds, Tofu, tempeh, edamame beans, Quorn and Ezekiel bread. Other good sources of protein for vegans include nut butters, beans, pulses, lentils, spirulina, nuts and seeds.

I don’t believe that there’s a need to include complete proteins at every meal, as long as there’s a sufficient supply of each amino acid across the day, which you can get by eating a wide range of foods. As always, the key word is ‘balance’.

Since iron is a potential issue, it’s important you consume plenty of iron-rich foods, such as pulses, nuts, seeds, fortified breakfast cereals, tofu, tempeh, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, molasses and dried spices. It’s also a good idea to add to your iron-rich foods a source of vitamin C as this will assist in increasing the absorption of iron in the body. A couple of examples would be having fruit juice with your breakfast cereals or serving pulses with plenty of vegetables (peppers are one of the highest in vitamin C though I personally have an intolerance to them). In addition, you should refrain from drinking tea with meals as compounds called tannins in the tea can inhibit iron absorption.

When it comes to calcium, dairy foods are not the only possible source in the diet and it’s very simple to get calcium from other sources. Good sources of calcium include tofu, almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds, tahini and fortified plant-milks (such as soya, nut or hemp). Eating two or three servings of calcium-rich foods on a daily basis is recommended.

Bottom line

A plant-based diet includes many plant foods in their whole, unprocessed form. This includes vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and small amounts of healthy fats. It may also include small amounts of animal products, but people that identify as vegans and vegetarians would insist that this would never include meat.

The Mediterranean and Asian regions have long followed plant-based diets. Regardless of the differences in total fat, all include large amounts of fruits, legumes, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts, and smaller amounts of red meats and refined grains. It is believed that these generally plant-based diets have contributed to greater longevity and lower incidences of coronary artery disease among these populations.

In my opinion plant-based diets should not be “all or nothing” diets, but instead need to be adjusted based on an individual’s specific health needs. For example, stricter forms of plant-based diets with little or no animal products often benefit individuals with advanced coronary heart disease, while a generally plant-based diet low in sodium may be ideal for those with hypertension.

One last word about food intolerances

Having mentioned so many types of healthy food options makes me feel that I should also mention that it would be a good idea to test yourself for food intolerances as not all healthy food is personally good for you and some can even be quite harmful and have cumulative bad affect over time. You can read more about food intolerance test here, and a promotion I have on it here.

As always, if you found this blog beneficial please share it with other and if you have any question please don’t hesitate to ask.

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