Is a vegan diet healthy?

Yes, it is possible to eat a vegan diet just the way your body needs it – a sensible way to rid your body of unhealthy, highly processed foods and welcome in power-packed vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and legumes. And it might just save your life. That’s some legit motivation.


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But (and there is always a but, right?) there is a caveat – some conditions with the very healthy carrot.

Veganism – often also (if inconsistently) called a plant-based diet – can sometimes be placed on the latest diet pedestal as the better or only good on you. But that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, it is more important to know your own needs and focus on what is really helpful for body, says registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD.

“Going vegan can be a very healthy way to live, but we can’t say it’s the only way,” says Zumpano. “What we can say is that the overall health benefits will be maximized by focusing on whole foods and incorporating a strong variety of plant-based foods into your eating style — and processed foods and processed meats also subtract. But we should acknowledge that this is true whether you choose to eat meat and dairy or not.”

Let’s talk a little more about the ins and outs of having a vegan lifestyle for eating (Zumpano’s favorite term over diet) able to work for you and your family.

Is a vegan diet healthier than other options?

First, a reminder about the difference between veganism and vegetarianism.

First of all, neither is as popular as it seems – less than 5% of US adults say they are vegetarian and about 1% say they are vegan (percentages that have been pretty steady over the past decade ).

That said, several reports show that veganism is clearly on the rise, not only in the United States, but also around the world.

And since both focus on a plant-based diet, here are the main differences:

  • A vegetarian usually does not eat meat, poultry or seafood, but does eat eggs and dairy products (also known as an egg-lacto-vegetarian).
  • There are also a number of other vegetarian variants: Ovarian vegetarians eat eggs but avoid all other animal foods, including dairy; and vegetarians eat dairy foods but exclude eggs, meat, poultry and seafood.
  • On the other hand, a vegan does not eat any animal, fish or poultry or any of their products. So, that also means not eating eggs, dairy or honey.

Any of those plant-based eating styles – with the emphasis on eating true food (often food you cut not just shopping)—they are inherently a healthier choice than the eating styles many of us follow, says Zumpano.

They certainly pale in comparison to the Standard American Diet (SAD) or the Western Diet. This is often criticized as a rampant eating habit, it is extremely high in fat, sodium and sugar and very low in fruit and vegetables.

However, it is good to question what happens to your body when you go vegan or make any dramatic change, notes Zumpano. And you may be questioning which is healthier, vegan or vegetarian? And even asking a broader question – what is the healthiest diet for people?

“These are the right questions to ask,” she asserts. “Anyone considering a radical change in their eating style would do best to consult with their health care provider — a dietitian, if possible — to map out and monitor their strategy. A lot of people won’t go that far, of course, which is why we try to communicate in other ways that people can access – like blog posts!”

In any case, ditching SAD and joining a “vegan team” is almost always a winning strategy, Zumpano says.

“A healthy eating style focusing on whole foods and making sure you’re getting enough protein can have many benefits.”

Health benefits of a plant-based diet

Many clinical studies show the benefit of a plant-based diet in preventing cardiovascular events – including death. Benefits of adopting a vegetarian or vegan eating style include:

  • It may help you maintain healthy blood pressure and prevent Type 2 diabetes, as fruits and vegetables are lower in sodium (salt). Consuming too much sodium is a risk factor for high blood pressure (hypertension).
  • It may help lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart attack, heart failure and peripheral artery disease by reducing levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL). (Remember, plant-based protein sources do not contain cholesterol, the fatty substance that can build up in your blood vessels and affect your blood flow).
  • It may even help lower the risk of cancer, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and reduce the symptoms of arthritis, including pain and swelling in the joints.
  • It may lead to improved digestion. A healthy vegan diet includes plenty of high-fibre foods – think fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes (beans, peas and lentils) – which can boost the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
  • And it could even help to maintain a healthy weight or help with weight loss.

How healthy is a vegan diet?

Time to circle back to that caveat.

If you are going to follow a vegan eating style, you should be aware that you could put yourself at risk of losing healthy levels of vitamin B12, iron, zinc or calcium, unless you take the appropriate measures to counter call them. deficiencies.

One study, for example, found that more than half of vegan men had a B12 deficiency, compared to less than 1% of men who ate both meat and vegetables (an omnivore diet). B12, found only naturally in animal products such as meat and dairy, is an important nutrient that helps your body keep your nerve and blood cells healthy. It also helps your body make DNA, the genetic material in all your cells.

So wait – is it bad to go vegan?

No, if you know your needs and follow a plan to meet them, Zumpano clarifies.

“And everyone has different needs,” she continues. “What may be healthy for many, may be unhealthy for some. Take someone who cannot eat grains or beans. This would make it very difficult to get all the necessary nutrients with a vegan diet alone. So, they should talk to their dietitian about other foods that would meet their needs, or supplements, or maybe an omnivore diet would work better for them.”

Zumpano notes that one of the reasons it’s best to work with a healthcare provider to map out a vegan (or any eating style) strategy is that “everyone’s tolerance is different and so is their family history, genetics and personal history .”

There’s a long list of processed foods that are considered vegan, like cookies and chips, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for you, warns Zumpano.

“Now more than ever, there is a wide range of plant-based meats available but remember that these are highly processed and should be avoided,” she says. “Best to avoid the chicken.less nuggets and plant burgers except on rare occasions or when your options are limited.”

Finally, some research suggests that not getting the right nutrition can make depression worse in some cases. On the other hand, some research also reports that any high quality diet, vegan or otherwise, can be eaten reduction symptoms of depression.

Again, talking to your dietitian and other health care providers is your best bet when making any lifestyle eating choices or changes.

The importance of whole foods and nutrients

This brings us back to what you should be eating to make the vegan eating style work for your body (assuming you’re not gluten free and can’t have whole grains or cruciferous vegetables like broccoli eat).

Your kitchen may already have good sources of plant-based protein such as tofu, nut butters, beans, seeds and quinoa. And you can find omega-3 fatty acids in unsaturated fats in avocados, nuts and green leafy vegetables.

Foods rich in iron include spinach, edamame and broccoli. Also be sure to eat plant-based iron ​​​​with foods high in vitamin C (such as bell peppers, spinach and sweet potatoes), as they help absorption.

And If you usually get your calcium from dairy, look to nuts, beans and dark leafy greens as a substitute or choose calcium-fortified tofu and dairy-free milk options.

Is going vegan safe for everyone – even children?

You may also be wondering if a diet that cuts out all animal products is good for your children. There are strong arguments for that question.

Some organizations argue that a vegan diet can “support healthy living in people of all ages (including children). But some research asserts that there is direct and indirect evidence that a plant-only diet “may be associated with serious risks to brain and body development in fetuses and children” – or at least, that it makes them more likely to will be overweight.

Zumpano recommends a sensible approach and a well-balanced diet. She also recommends having a qualified dietitian evaluate and track any changes in your child, both from your own observations and from a health care provider.

“Children’s nutritional needs are essential for proper growth and development,” she says. “You have to ask the serious question, ‘Is your child meeting their nutritional needs on a vegan diet?’ Not getting enough protein, B12 and calcium (among many other nutrients) can lead to serious negative developmental outcomes.”

Zumpano – who has been vegan and vegetarian at various points in her life but also followed an omnivorous eating style – recommends being open to including meat in a child’s diet, if appropriate (or yours, for that matter).

“Especially if your child likes meat and feels good after eating it,” she encourages. “We want them to look at food as fuel, so that it’s healthy, not just restrictive, and that meat is dense in nutrients that they really need, especially protein.”

And protein is essential to ensure your child reaches their full height potential, so making sure he or she is getting enough is key.

The bottom line?

As a final word, Zumpano returns to the idea of ​​balance and whole foods. Whether it’s for yourself or if you’re teaching your children to follow a vegan diet, it’s important to include a good variety of whole grains and whole fruits and vegetables.

“Whatever eating style you decide is right for you, you need to focus on balance and good nutrition,” she reiterates. “And eat real food for fuel!”

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