A vegan diet has become popular in recent years due to ethical and environmental reasons, with many people showing an inclination towards it. The vegan diet is loaded with nutrients and is low in calories. When taken properly, it has a multitude of benefits like improved heart health, better control of diabetes, and aids in weight loss. However, when one plans to start a vegan diet, they must be aware that there are chances of missing out on some important nutrients like iron, calcium, and vitamin B12 that are more available in non-plant diets. Following a vegan diet and taking supplements for the missed out nutrients can help in reaping the benefits of a vegan diet.
What Is a Vegan Diet?
Veganism is a way of life that excludes all animal products, be it food, clothing, or other purposes, to limit animal cruelty.
The vegan diet excludes all animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy and is based only on plant products. People choose a vegan diet for various reasons like ethics, environmental protection, or a desire to maintain good health.
Studies indicate that about three percent of Americans have completely shifted to a vegan diet.
A vegan diet includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, etc., which provide necessary minerals, vitamins, nutrients, protein, and healthy fats. However, people planning to start a vegan diet must be careful to include supplements for calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and vitamin D that are more available in animal products.
What Are the Types of Vegan Diets?
The different types of vegan diets include:
Whole-Food Vegan Diet: A diet based on foods obtained from plants, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes.
Raw Food Vegan Diet: Raw food diet includes the inclusion of raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds which are cooked under temperatures below 118 degrees Fahrenheit or 48 degrees Celsius.
The Starch Solution: A low-fat, high-carb diet that focuses on cooked scratches like potatoes and rice rather than fruits.
80/10/10 Diet: Also called the fruitarian diet, it focuses mainly on raw fruits and soft greens.
Raw Till 4: Raw foods are consumed till 4 pm, followed by cooking plant-based meals for dinner.
Junk-Food Vegan Diet: This type of diet relies mainly on processed vegan foods, fries, cheese, and vegan desserts, completely lacking whole plant foods.
What Kinds of Foods Can Be Included in a Vegan Diet?
When following a vegan diet, plant foods are included in the diet, like:
Fruits and vegetables.
Legumes like beans and peas.
Pasta, rice, and bread.
Nuts and seeds.
Dairy alternatives like almond milk, soy milk, and coconut milk.
What Foods Are To Be Avoided in a Vegan Diet?
Animal products are to be avoided in a vegan diet. Foods that are not consumed include:
Mayonnaise (that contains egg yolk).
Red meat (pork, lamb, and beef).
What Is the Difference Between a Vegetarian Diet and a Vegan Diet?
A vegetarian diet does not include meat; however, eggs, dairy products, or both can be a part of the diet. A vegan diet completely excludes all types of animal products, including dairy and eggs.
People planning on starting a vegan diet must consider the possibility of including missed out nutrients in the vegan diet.
What Are the Health Benefits of a Vegan Diet?
Good nutrition is a perk of following a vegan diet. Also, a person can live longer and healthier by cutting down on calories. Studies show a wide range of health benefits in people who follow a vegan diet, which include:
Improved Heart Health:
A reduced risk of heart disease and stroke contributing to good heart health is found in people on a vegan diet. High fiber in plant foods and low consumption of animal food-related fats helps improve the overall heart health and lifespan of people. Foods like cheese, butter, and meat are the primary dietary sources of saturated fats, which raise cholesterol blood levels, increasing the risk of heart diseases. Intake of lesser calories also contributes to lower body weight and a reduced risk of obesity, a major cause of heart disease.
People on a vegan diet are found to have a lesser body mass index (BMI) when compared to people who consume foods high in animal fat. Replacing fatty foods with healthier plant-food options, which are also less in calories, helps in weight loss.
However, it is important to keep in mind that eating a lot of processed foods or high-fat plant products with high calories can cause weight gain.
Less Risk of Type 2 Diabetes:
Consumption of healthy plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes (a condition in which the body is unable to use insulin properly, causing high blood sugars).
Reduced Cancer Risk:
A person’s cancer risk has been found to reduce by 15 percent on following a vegan diet. It is linked to the fact that plant foods contain high fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals (chemicals produced by plants that defend them from viral, bacterial, and fungal infections) that help prevent cancers.
Also, studies show that red meat can cause a variety of cancers of the GI (gastrointestinal) tract as well as breast and ovarian cancers in women.
What Are the Risks of a Vegan Diet?
Though a vegan diet is nutrient-loaded and healthy, avoiding animal protein can lead to a deficiency of a few nutrients like calcium, iron, proteins, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 which play vital roles in different body functions. More importantly, these nutrients are essential for children and pregnant women.
Substitutes for the above nutrients from plant-based foods include:
Proteins - Nuts, beans, soya, quinoa.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids - Flax seeds and vegetable oils.
Iron - Spinach, peanut butter, tofu, soy nuts, fortified cereals.
Calcium - Soy milk, fortified orange juice, tofu with calcium, kale, broccoli, almonds.
Vitamin B12 - Plant-based milk, soy products, fortified cereals, yeast extract.
Nutrients like vitamin B12 which are not easily available in plant products, need to be taken as supplements. Products like vegan ice creams, candies, or cookies have to be avoided as they pose a risk of weight gain when consumed frequently.
How to Start a Vegan Diet?
People who plan on starting a vegan diet can start right away by cutting out on all animal foods and dairy products. However, it can be overwhelming for some, so it is advisable to start a vegan diet gradually by increasing their intake of fruits and vegetables at every meal.
Removal of animal products can be difficult at times. Concentrating on plant-based foods and leaving room for other foods can help in adjusting to the new routine.
Such diets include:
Pescatarian diet in which meat and poultry are avoided and fish can be included.
A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is a plant-based diet along with eggs and dairy.
A flexitarian diet is also a plant-based diet that includes consuming animal foods on a few occasions.
Vegan diets have been growing in popularity in recent years. Adapting to a vegan diet offers a number of health benefits like improved heart health, weight loss, and lesser chances of occurrence of chronic diseases. Vegan diets are also proven to be beneficial for the environment as they prevent animal cruelty. People willing to switch over to a vegan diet must consult a doctor or dietitian who guides in providing a meal plan that is best suitable for the person, especially in the case of pregnant women or people with chronic conditions.