Part 1: Is A Vegan Diet Healthy for You?
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.