There are many health benefits to eating a vegan diet. However, like every diet you choose it needs to be well-balanced, containing all the macro and micronutrients your body requires to function optimally. While veganism has many advantages, it can be difficult to follow a plant-based diet in western society that for centuries has been based on eating animal products.
History of Veganism
Some people think that veganism is a modern fad but in fact it dates back many centuries to for example the 7th BC in Jainism, an Indian religion, which preached non-violence to animals and humans. Furthermore, ancient Taoist and Buddhist monks and nuns ate meat free diets as it was believed that animals like humans have immortal souls. China for this reason has many non-meat alternatives like tofu, seitan and meat alternatives made from root vegetables and starch. In Japan the consumption of animal products was banned by the emperor Tenmu in 675. The ban on shellfish was lifted in 737 however throughout the 17th to the 19th centuries a Japanese diet consisted of rice vegetables and beans while fish was only eaten on special occasions. Another example is Hinduism, where in the great legal text Manusmriti states `There is no sin in eating meat…. but abstention brings great reward`. In the west the first vegetarian society was formed in England in 1847 and in America in 1850. The term ‘vegan’ was formed by Donald Watson in 1944 by an Englishman who thought people would start to avoid dairy milk and meat after a bout of tuberculosis in cows. There were 25 subscribers to his Vegan society.
The Benefits of a Vegan Diet
There are many reasons why one might want to become vegan. A few of these benefits include weight loss, control of diabetes, heart health, protection against cancer and arthritis. A South Carolina based study showed that people who followed a vegan diet for 6 months decreased there saturated and unsaturated fat levels, lowered their BMI and had improved their macronutrient levels.1. Another study which was done by the George Washington University School of Medicine, placed diabetic participants on either a low-fat vegan diet, or group B put on a diet suggested by the American Diabetes Association. The conclusion made was that while both the diets improved glycaemic and lipid levels; `improvements were greater with a low-fat vegan diet`. 2. As for heart health, due to lower cholesterol and sugar levels, as well as vegans being 75% less likely to develop high blood pressure, a vegan diet is more effective at maintaining heart health.
Protection against cancer is another good reason to become vegan. Dairy products, smoked meats, processed meats and meats cooked at high temperature have all been linked to a variety of cancers. On the other hand, eating large amounts of legumes, fruit and vegetables have all been linked to a reduction in cancer. While no particular study has been done, a review on 96 scientific studies suggests that as a vegan diet avoids dairy and meat products and eats a plant-based diet, therefore vegans are 15% less likely to be at risk of several types of cancer.3. Adopting a vegan diet may also help those with arthritis. One study done by Michigan State University College of Human Medicine put half their arthritic patients on a whole food plant-based diet and the other half on a normal diet. After 6 weeks patients reported better energy levels and physical functioning.4.
As a plant-based diet relies on legumes, peas, vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and seeds to replace animal products, a balanced vegan diet in much higher in antioxidants, fibre, magnesium, folate, potassium, Vitamin A, C and E. A friend of mine suggested to me the other day that vegans are always running around with bottles of supplements. As vegans get more macro and micronutrients than omnivores this cannot be further from the truth. Like all diets however if they are not well balanced and not based on whole foods but instead on junk food, then they are unhealthy for you. Common mistakes made by some include eating too many cookies and cakes or eating vegan versions of meat and cheese which have lots of additives, drinking high sugar non-dairy milk or too many protein bars that are ladened with refined sugar or corn syrup. Like any diet rich in these foods, you are putting your health at risk.
Whole food plant-based eating not only has a long history but also has many health values that can not only protect you from disease, but also transitioning can help reduce symptoms of pre-existing illnesses.
Part 2: Benefits and Awareness on a Vegan Diet
There are countless reasons why a plant-based diet is good for you. Not only for your body but also for your soul. There are however a few points you have to be aware of when you eat a vegan diet and for this reason, like all diets, it must be well-balanced, covering all the macro and micronutrients that your body needs.
Environmental and Moral benefits
We all impact this earth in the food choices we make. A study done by the University of Oxford stated that the best thing we as humans can do to improve carbon emissions, global acidification and reduce the use of land and water, would be to turn to a plant-based diet. Furthermore, the study found that you can reduce your carbon footprint by 75% by becoming vegan, which is significantly more impactful than buying an electric car. The production of dairy and meat is thought to account for 60% of greenhouse gases, although it equates to only 20% of our dietary requirements.
Many people follow a vegan diet for moral reasons. This could be as they love animals and are disturbed by the fact, they are killed for food. For others it may be a sentimental connection to animals or it could be the poor standards they see on farms where animals are kept. Others believe that it is unnecessary to kill an animal for consumption, when plant-based food is easily sourced.
Macronutrients on a Vegan Diet
The main macronutrients we take into our body are carbohydrates, protein and fat. The percentage of each required varies according to your body type and if you are following a particular type of weight loss plan. Carbohydrates are the sugars, fibre and starches that you find in your food, they are essential for survival as they are responsible for energy storage and production, building macromolecules like DNA, RNA and ATP and the metabolization of fats. In a standard moderate carb diet about 45 to 65% of your diet comes from carbs. Fats too are essential although they have a bad reputation. Healthy fats, such as omega 3 fatty acids contribute to eyes, brain and heart health, while certain vitamins are fat soluble, meaning they need the presence of fat in order to be absorbed, and healthy fats also have anti-inflammatory properties. For a moderate diet about 20-25% of your diet comes from fat. Finally, we have protein which are the building block of muscle and tissue, essential for hormone synthesis and the production of certain enzymes. On average a woman should get about 46 to 75g of protein a day, while men 56 to 91g. Getting enough protein on a vegan diet is important and therefore a well-balanced diet with a plant-based protein source in each meal is essential.
Micronutrients on a Vegan Diet
Micronutrients that need to be looked at on a vegan diet include omega 3, Vitamin B12, iron and calcium. Calcium is needed for bone health, blood clotting and muscle contraction. High sources include broccoli, kale, tofu, beans and calcium fortified plant-based milks. Omega 3 as mentioned above is important for heart, brain and eye health as well as improving insulin resistance. Good sources of omega 3’s include linseed, hemp and chia seeds as well as walnuts. Vitamin B12 is needed for adequate functioning of blood cells and nerves and together with iron for the building of blood. Vegan’s need to pay extra attention to B12 and iron. Iron in particular is best absorbed when it is animal based. While you can get some iron from plants, I recommend taking a B complex and iron supplement.
Pregnant Women and Children
Both pregnant women and children have different nutritional requirements compared to adults. Pregnant women require a large quantity of iron for the healthy development of their baby. In fact, I always recommend expecting mothers to take a good multivitamin, which will of course have iron in it. While 18mg of iron is recommended for women, pregnant women need about 27mg. Another important vitamin is folic acid, or folate in its natural form, which is also recommended as a supplement, however, you can also add it to your diet by eating spinach, lentils, kidney beans and asparagus. Omega 3 is important for the development of the foetal brain and retina. Food sources include eating seeds high in omega 3 although I also recommend taking a supplement in times of high nutrient demand.
A vegan diet in babies or children is controversial. It is not a decision to be taken lightly when putting your child on a vegan diet and in fact some countries ban it. Infants have very high nutrient and energy requirements for growth and development and a vegan diet can fall short if not properly balanced. One should always seek advice from a professional dietician to ensure you child is getting enough nutrients. DHA is another essential fatty acid that is not found in fish and fish oils. The only plant source is found in microalgae. It is crucial for brain development and as it is not made by the body, it needs to come from your diet.
When deciding to become vegan it is essential that you inform yourself on how to follow a well-balanced diet and therefore, I suggest seeking professional help to ensure a balanced and healthy body and mind.