Veganism is good for the planet, but is it a healthy choice?
It’s the latest trend, the game changer athlete’s choice, the planet saver’s contribution, and the plant-based burgers’ income. The real question is what science says about veganism, and whether we have enough conclusive evidence about it and its plant-based substitutes?
Veganism goes beyond diet. It’s a philosophy defined by a way of living which seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation of animals. A vegan diet excludes any animal-based products such as meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and honey. The choice to follow a vegan diet stems from ethical and environmental concerns, or from a desire to improve your health. The health benefits have been supported by studies and research, but care needs to be taken in different circumstances.
When it comes to healthy nutrients, vegans have been shown to have the highest intake of dietary fibre, magnesium, potassium, folate, vitamin C and E, vitamin B1, polyphenols and other anti-oxidant containing compounds. Due to this and other reasons, plant-based diets have been shown to reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
Vegans can have better cardiovascular health. The saturated fat and dietary cholesterol intake of vegans is less than half that of meat-eaters, resulting in lower cholesterol levels. Low incidence of heart failure has also been attributed to high intake of fruit, vegetables, legumes, and wholegrain products which in turn increase the intake of antioxidants, micronutrients, and fibre and reduces inflammation.
Obesity and weight loss
Several studies have shown that plant-based diets are associated with lower levels of obesity and have been relatively effective for weight loss. This can be attributed to the fact that vegan diets include less unhealthy fats, reduced intake of hormone-containing proteins (with detoxification and weight impacts) and more dietary fibre. Skipping these items can potentially decrease inflammation, which in turn can reduce weight gain.
When looking more critically at the studies, it’s evident that vegans also generally have healthier life habits, which affects health and weight, making it trickier to differentiate between the influence of a disciplined lifestyle and a vegan diet on weight. More conclusive research is needed in this regard.
It’s important to remember that successful weight loss depends on the individual, and the best diet for you is that determined by your unique biology, medical history, relationship to food, and genetics.
It feels obvious that with vegans consuming high amounts of foods and nutrients that protect against cancer, this is an area where veganism will shine.
While most studies do show a lower incidence of cancer in vegans as opposed to many other diets, population studies have not shown more pronounced differences in the incidence of cancer. Although a high intake of fruit, vegetables, and legumes contains chemo-preventative factors, many studies fail to distinguish between vegetarians and vegans, making it hard to draw conclusions without further research.
Eat more plants, they said
Without doubt, eating more plant-based foods is good for our health. Many studies show the benefits of increasing fruit, vegetables, and legumes on weight and the reduction of chronic diseases. Does this mean that veganism is the best diet? Could we obtain health benefits by modifying the type and amount of animal-based protein that we eat without having to go vegan?
Large studies have shown the Mediterranean diet to be one of the best approaches to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer while also improving brain health and well-being.
The American Dietetics Academy emphasises that vegan diets can be relevant, beneficial, and nutritionally adequate to many if they are appropriately planned as there can be associated downsides and diet deficiencies.
With the complete elimination of animal products from one’s diet comes the risk of certain nutritional deficiencies. Vegans have been shown to have the lowest intake of some important and essential nutritional components. Having said this, it’s possible to avoid nutritional deficiencies by ensuring that you eat a variety of food as well as know which foods and supplements are needed. Individuals prone to deficiencies include those with medical conditions as well as populations with specific dietary requirements such as the elderly and young.
It’s important to be aware that if you are someone who has allergies to soy, seeds, and nuts you may find a vegan diet limiting and even nutritionally deplete.
Weight loss and veganism
Consuming a vegan diet has been shown to improve weight loss but, as mentioned above, this isn’t guaranteed, and is dependent on multiple and individual factors. Many vegans, however, may find it hard to lose weight given the higher intake of starch and starch-heavy legumes. Care also needs to be taken about the many processed vegan foods and alternatives containing more preservatives, fats, and calories.
Although veganism seems to be taking the world by storm, from a scientific perspective, there still isn’t enough data to determine its long-term health effects. There’s no doubt that vegan diets have fundamental health benefits. However, the research to date makes it hard to distinguish between vegan and vegetarian diets as well as the healthier lifestyle choices that vegans lead.