Exploring the Health Benefits and Shortfalls of a Vegan Diet
In recent years, vegan diets are gaining popularity all around the world, and it comes as no surprise. A growing number of people are waking up to the devastating effects meat and dairy consumption has, not just on the environment, but on health too.
The reason to go vegan differs vastly from person to person. But whether it is for health or ethics, one thing is perfectly clear—vegan diets offer a multitude of health benefits that an omnivorous diet simply cannot match.
Before outlining the many health benefits of a vegan diet, it’s important to distinguish between vegan, vegetarian and omnivorous diets. It’s pretty straightforward—vegetarians do not eat any animal flesh, but consume dairy products like cheese, milk and butter.
Vegans, in addition to not eating any animal meat, do not consume eggs, dairy products, or any other product derived from animals. Omnivores consume food of both plant and animal origin.
Although vegetarian diets are believed to be far healthier than omnivorous diets, there are a number of health risks associated with dairy products. For this reason, many believe the vegan diet to be healthiest among them all.
But that’s not to say meat and dairy don’t have any nutritional value. Lean meats, yogurt, cheese, and other animal products can be a part of a healthy diet. Research shows us that eliminating all animal products from a diet can result in nutritional deficiencies.
Health Benefits of a Vegan Diet
There’s no denying the fact that a diet rich in plant-based, unprocessed foods is a healthy diet. Low in unhealthy fats, and high in fibre, phytochemicals, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, vegan diets can boost overall health and prevent illness at any age. Vegan diets have been associated with longevity and a lower rate of chronic health conditions.
Compared with vegetarians and omnivores, vegans have a low intake of saturated fat and cholesterol, but a high dietary fibre intake. On average, vegans tend to be thinner, have lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, and ultimately a lower risk of heart disease than both vegetarians and omnivores.
Due to a high intake of fruits and vegetables, vegan diets are associated with lower blood cholesterol levels. Vegan diets are also linked to a lower incidence of stroke as well as a lower rate of death caused by stroke and cardiovascular disease. Vegans consume more whole grains, soy and nuts than omnivores, and all these foods have benefits for the heart.
According to a study by researchers at the Loma Linda University, vegans have lower rates of cancer than both omnivores.
The study shows vegan women had 34 percent lower chance of cancers that typically affect females such as breast, cervical and ovarian cancers. Vegans were studied in comparison with healthy omnivores who consumed significantly fewer animal products than the general population. Other factors like smoking, alcohol intake and a family history of cancer were also taken into account.
One of the most substantial studies linking vegan diets to a lower cancer risk was conducted by Dean Ornish and Elizabeth Blackburn. Their research found that a vegan diet leads to changes in 500 genes in the body in only three months. The findings show that a vegan diet can turn on genes that prevent disease, and turn off genes that contribute to breast, colon and prostate cancer, cardiovascular disease and other health conditions.
Researchers found that phytochemicals and flavonoids in fruits and vegetable are responsible for mitigating damage caused to the body’s cells by free radicals.
Other Health Benefits
Research confirms a low-fat vegan diet can significantly mitigate the risk of type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and Parkinson’s disease.
Vegans are known to have a more superior “antioxidant status” than vegetarians and meat-eaters. This is because fruit and vegetables contain a complex blend of phytochemicals that possess potent antioxidant properties.
A vegan diet is known to be more effective at preventing and combating obesity than any other diet. People who follow a vegan diet tend to lose more weight and keep it off than both vegetarians and meat-eaters. Vegans are also more likely to stick to their meal plan.
According to a 1985 Swedish study, people suffering from asthma who followed a vegan diet for one year saw a marked decrease in their need for asthma medications. They also experienced lower frequency and severity of asthma attacks.
Shortfalls of a Vegan Diet
One of the main concerns with regards to a vegan diet is whether it can provide all essential nutrients for the optimal functioning of the body. As mentioned before, avoiding meat and dairy can result in some nutritional deficiencies.
Micronutrients the vegan diets lacks include vitamins B-12 and D, iron, calcium and omega-3 fatty acids. Some of these nutrients are present in plants, but some need to come from supplements or foods fortified with them.
A study by Oxford researchers found 75 per cent of vegans did not meet the recommended daily requirement of calcium. The study also found that vegans had a relatively high rate of fractures compared to vegetarians and meat-eaters. Vegans need to consume at least 525 milligrams of calcium per day to protect themselves from fractures, according to researchers.
This can be easily remedied. Calcium is readily available in many dark green leafy vegetables, beans, citrus fruit juices, non-dairy milks and cereals that are calcium-fortified.
Compared with dairy-consuming vegetarians and omnivores, vegans usually have lower vitamin B-12 concentrations, putting them at risk for a vitamin B-12 deficiency. According to a report published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a vitamin B-12 deficiency can lead to neurological and psychiatric symptoms that include psychoses, disorientation, dementia, mood and motor disturbances, and difficulty with concentration.
Vitamin B-12 is found only in animal products, but vegans can get this essential nutrient from foods fortified with vitamin B-12 like some soy and rice beverages and breakfast cereals. Vitamin B-12 supplements are also an option for vegans.
Protein is found in many vegetables, but this protein differs from animal protein, and may not contain all nine essential amino acids. Vegans require 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight every day. Beans, lentils, chickpeas, soy, seeds, nuts and whole grains can help vegans satisfy their protein requirement.
Research shows that vegetarians receive the same amount of iron as omnivores from their respective diets. But the iron in meat, known as heme iron, is more easily absorbed in the body compared to non-heme iron that’s found in plants.
The absorption of non-heme iron depends on vitamin C and other acids present in fruits and veggies. Unfortunately, phytic acid present in grains, beans, lentils, seeds and nuts can inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron. Vegans should consult their doctor to check their iron levels, and find out whether they need a supplement to prevent a deficiency.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Fish and eggs are the main sources of EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid). These omega-3 fats are good for the brain and have many other health benefits. Algae supplements can provide vegans with DHA and EPA, as well as DHA-fortified nutrition bars and soy milk.
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