Veganism 101 - A guide to get you started
Veganism has become very popular recently as more and more people embrace it due to environmental or health concerns, or issues concerning animal welfare. The vegan diet is usually part of a lifestyle that seeks to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty that occur either for food production, clothing or other purposes. For this reason, a vegan diet is free from all animal products such as meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, milk and dairy, and beekeeping products (honey, bee pollen, royal jelly, etc.). Most often due to ethical reasons vegans do not use leather, fur, silk, wool and cosmetics, soaps or other products derived from animal ingredients. The truth is that a varied and well-balanced vegan diet can lead to various health benefits for humans. Yet though, a poorly organized plant-based diet can, in some cases, increase the risk of nutritional deficiencies. Below is all the information you need to know if you wish to embrace a plant-based lifestyle and start following a vegan diet.
What are the potential health benefits according to the researchers?
More and more people choose to follow a vegan diet in order to lose excess weight. This is because it has been demonstrated that vegans tend to be thinner and have a lower body mass index (BMI) compared to non-vegans. Of course, this trend can be explained by factors other than nutrition, including healthy lifestyle choices commonly seen among vegans (i.e. increased physical activity). However, several studies indicate that the vegan diet is more effective than other diets in terms of weight loss. Additionally, researchers report that vegans tend to eat fewer calories and thus lose more weight than those following calorie-restricted diets, even when they are allowed to eat until they feel full. This natural tendency to eat fewer calories may be caused by the higher intake of dietary fiber, which leads to a sense of satiety more quickly.
Blood glucose control and type II diabetes
Several studies show that vegans benefit from lower blood sugar levels, higher sensitivity to insulin, and up to a 78% lower risk of developing type II diabetes compared to non-vegans. It has been shown that the vegan diet lowers the blood sugar levels in diabetic patients by up to 2.4 times more than other diets. Part of this advantage could again be explained by the higher intake of dietary fiber, which has been found to delay the rise in blood sugar. Finally, the weight loss that can occur from a vegan diet can further contribute to lowering blood glucose levels.
Studies report that vegans can have up to 75% lower risk of developing high blood pressure and 42% lower risk of dying from heart disease. Randomized controlled trials, which are the gold standard in research, state that the vegan diet is much more effective in reducing total and LDL cholesterols compared to other diets. These results could be of particular benefit since the reduction of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar can reduce the risk of heart disease by up to 46%.
Potential 15% lower risk of cancer.
Possible reduction of arthritis symptoms (pain, swelling of joints and morning stiffness).
Possible reduction in risk of renal failure in diabetic patients.
Possible reduction in the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Bear in mind that more randomized controlled trials are needed before any strong conclusions are drawn regarding whether the vegan diet is directly responsible for these other benefits .
Chances are, if you are vegan or you are planning to become one, you hear this quite often: ''But, what do you eat?'' Believe it or not, taste is also a reason veganism has started to become mainstream. This is because a well planned and balanced vegan diet is comprised of tasty, easy to make, affordable foods. Here is a list of some:
- Meat alternatives (Soya, Tofu, tempeh and seitan (wheat protein) - These are rich in protein, and are all alternatives to meat, fish, poultry and eggs for many recipes. There are plenty of burgers made of these available in the supermarkets, and trust me, some of them are super delicious, and need less 5 minutes to prepare! Most also provide more than 20 grams of high biological value protein per portion which is equal to 90gr of cooked meat.
- Legumes - Beans, lentils, chickpeas and green peas are excellent sources of plant protein and many other nutrients. Fermentation and proper cooking of legumes can increase absorption of their nutrients. These are also excellent options if you wish to make veggie burgers (i.e. falafel)
- Nuts and nut butters - Especially non-roasted varieties are good sources of iron, fiber, magnesium, zinc, selenium and vitamin E.
- Seeds - Specifically hemp, chia and flaxseeds are rich in protein and the beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
- Vegetable milks, creams and yogurts (soya, coconut, almond, hazelnut, oat, rice) fortified with calcium and vitamins B12 and D. You can also find a great variety of vegan cheeses in the market, which taste so good! Just be cautious with the portions because many of those cheeses are usually high in saturated fat, since they are made of coconut or other vegetable oils.
- Algae - Spirulina and Chlorella are good sources of complete protein. Other varieties of algae are also rich in iodine. These are usually taken as supplements or added in smoothies.
- Nutritional Yeast - It is an easy way to increase the protein content and imparts a cheesy taste to the food. Prefer varieties fortified with vitamin B12 when possible.
- Whole grains, cereals and pseudo-cereals - These are great sources of complex carbohydrates, fiber, iron, B-complex vitamins and several minerals. Examples include all kinds of pasta, noodles, rice, couscous. Amaranth, millet and quinoa are examples of complete-protein options.
- Fermented plant foods - Ezekiel bread, tempeh, miso, natto, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi and kombucha often contain probiotics and vitamin K2.
- Fruits and vegetables - Green leafy vegetables such as bok choy, spinach, kale, watercress and mustard are particularly high in iron and calcium. Carrots, red peppers, yellow-colored fruits, dark green vegetables and tomatoes contain carotenoids that allow adequate synthesis of vitamin A.
Potential risks and how to minimize them
The truth is that a poorly planned vegan diet raises the risk for developing certain nutritional deficiencies. Specifically, studies show that vegans are at greater risk of developing deficiencies of vitamins B12 and D, omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, iron, calcium and zinc. This may be a particular risk for people with high demands, such as children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
One way to minimize the risk of nutritional deficiencies is to replace processed foods with plant foods rich in nutrients. Plant based milks and yogurts fortified with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 should be present on a daily basis in a vegan diet (aim for 2-3 portions per day). You also want to avoid combining calcium rich foods with iron rich foods, as well as drinking tea and coffee with meals. Combining foods that are rich in iron with sources of vitamin C (tomatoes and lemon), can further enhance the absorption of iron. The addition of ½ teaspoon iodized salt, and seaweed in the form of supplement can help achieve the recommended daily iodine intake. Calcium supplements should not be taken along with foods rich in zinc such as grains, legumes, nuts and soya products because the supplement may decrease the absorption of zinc. Soaking and sprouting seeds may also increase zinc bioavailability.
Foods high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) can help the body synthesize other essential omega-3 fatty acids that are more difficult to be obtained from a vegan diet, such as ecosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Foods rich in ALA are flaxseeds, walnuts, rapeseed oil and soybeans. However, it is questioned whether synthesis of EPA and DHA from ALA is enough to meet the daily needs for omega-3 fatty acids. Daily intakes of 200-300mg EPA and DHA from a seaweed oil supplement can be an effective way to prevent deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids.
"I am vegan: Should I take any supplements?"
Like in all other types of diets, if someone who is vegan cannot obtain sufficient quantities of nutrients through food alone, he or she should consider taking supplements. This can easily be checked through laboratory tests that will show if there is indeed a nutrient deficiency. It is necessary to discuss with the doctor before taking on a supplement, as he or she will advise you on whether you need to get a supplement or not.
Supplements that may be useful include
Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol)
EPA and DHA supplements derived from algae oil.
Iron: Studies show that iron intakes of vegans are higher than non-vegans. Iron should be given only in case of documented deficiency detected through blood analysis.
Iodine supplement or ½ teaspoon of iodized salt
Zinc in the form of zinc gluconate or zinc citrate.
Take home message
A well-balanced vegan diet has multiple health benefits for most humans. It is essential to take all necessary measures to reduce the risk of developing deficiencies of nutrients including vitamins B12 and D, omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, iron, calcium and zinc. The best option is to try and obtain all nutrients from a varied plant-based diet; however, if the diet cannot provide sufficient quantities of certain nutrients, a supplement will be needed. Blood test analysis is necessary to be undertaken at least once a year to promptly identify and address any nutritional deficiencies.
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