The vegan diet isn’t new, though its popularity has been growing for a number of years. The reasons are numerous, bur usually include those along the lines of wanting to go animal-product free for personal or ethical reasons, to wanting to improve health by focusing on more plant based foods.
But while a vegan diet is undoubtedly healthy, it’s not for everyone, regardless of how good your intentions are. If you are interested in living the vegan lifestyle, after reading this article to the end you’ll be in a better position to see how well you two fit.
What is The Vegan Diet?
This is a big source of confusion for many people who may have the best of intentions, but end up signing up for something they did not anticipate.
Fundamentally, the principles of the vegan and vegetarian diets are the same, but what makes it different is the fact that vegetarian diets may still use some amount of animal products. By this we mean eggs, cheese, butter and milk to name a few.
While these are animal products, it is technically a sort of grey area, but one which many people need to keep their sanity.
The vegan diet, on the other hand, is completely devoid of animal products. It is not uncommon for all sorts of substitutes to be consumed on the diet, such as vegan milk, vegan cheese and more.
Health Benefits Of A Vegan Diet
One of the primary reasons many persons are attracted to the vegan lifestyle is because of its strong association with health. Generally, it is a good idea to eat as close to nature as possible, with plant based nutrition being the best.
Here are the most common health benefits you can expect to see from starting a vegan diet:
1. Weight Loss
Persons that switch to the vegan diet from a standard diet will notice weight loss, as the foods consumed on the vegan diet are typically lower in fat and overall calories when compared to a typical western diet.
Studies have compared these differences, and found that vegan diets are superior for weight loss[R], though the extent and effective weight lost can be different
For instance, vegan diets are notoriously low in protein, which could result in a large degree of muscle loss if care is not taken.
Regardless, many persons have been able to improve their overall level of health by adapting to the reduced caloric load a vegan diet typically offers. The key, it seems, is to eat as much vegetables as you need to in order to feel satisfied. Restricting food intake will result in hunger, and an increased likelihood of eating junk calories if you’re not careful.
2. Improved Cardiovascular Health
Vegan diets are especially attractive to persons with a high predisposition to heart disease, as there is a significant risk reduction of developing heart disease, and experiencing adverse effects arising from it.
Vegan diets are typically lower in fat than the standard Western diet, which can help keep cholesterol levels controlled[R]. However, it is important to not rely on junk carbohydrates on the vegan diet, as it goes without saying that you will still be at risk of heart disease if you follow that dietary path.
3. May Slow Down The Aging Process
Premature aging is becoming more and more commonplace today, owing to the high toxin burden we are exposed to everyday, and the poor dietary habits to match.
Diets low in plant-based foods are more likely to be associated with premature aging, due to the low numbers of natural antioxidant compounds found in other foods. Fruits and vegetables offer a wide range of natural antioxidants not found anywhere else, which can help exert a protective effect on your health.
Buffering the effects of free radicals can significantly decrease oxidative damage to cells, and fraying of the end material on chromosomes, known as telomeres. Telomeres wear down upon repeated cellular replication, normally accelerated under high stress conditions. By slowing down the speed that cells need to replicate, you can preserve optimal health and delay cellular aging process for a longer time.
4. Reduced Cancer Risk
Vegan diets are associated with approximately a 15% reduced risk of cancer development[R] over one’s lifetime, thanks once again to the presence of numerous natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Cancer usually occurs when normal cellular mechanisms are inhibited, preventing the programmed death of cells when the time comes. As a result, these rogue cells continue growing without stop. But what triggers this cellular deficit in the first place? Oxidative stress as a result of free radicals have been implicated as having a very important role to play in the development of various cancers, owing to the damage they can cause on the cellular level, or to DNA itself which would then cause transcription of mutated cells.
5. Reduced Symptoms Of Arthritic Disease
While arthritis is a disease characterized by joint pain, and associated with advanced age, there is a strong inflammatory complement to the condition that triggers acute tenderness in anyone-regardless of age.
Over time, chronic inflammation of the linings protecting joints cause degradation, and as a result bone tissue can rub against each other. Studies have shown that the vegan diet can help to reduce pain and other symptoms of arthritis by reducing inflammatory processes lending itself to the manifestations[R].
Certain fats, for instance are more pro-inflammatory than others and as a result can trigger these joint pains.
6. May Improve Blood Sugar Balance
While there is proof that the vegan diet can significantly improve blood sugar levels, help enhance insulin sensitivity[R] and decrease the risk of developing type II diabetes by as much as 78%, you must ensure that your diet is conducive to blood sugar control in the first place.
Many vegans, in an effort to increase dietary variety, end up relying heavily on starchy and wheat-based products, which are not ideal for blood glucose control. In fact, persons that are vegan but do not necessarily follow the recommended consumption pattern of a vegetable heavy diet, can arguably exert poorer control over their blood glucose than people on a standard diet, since absence of protein and fat foods from the diet means that the absorption blunting effect on carbohydrate are not there.
High fiber intake associated with a true vegan diet can contribute significantly to the improved blood glucose control persons may notice, and coupled with effects on weight loss, would help to explain enhanced insulin sensitivity.
7. Improves Blood Pressure
One of the most common contributors to high blood pressure is excess consumption of sodium, in the form of table salt. Two electrolyte minerals, sodium and potassium share an important relationship in order to balance blood pressure and fluid concentration, but can easily be thrown off track when an excess of sodium is consumed.
The typical diet barely manages to get enough potassium in, but with the vegan diet, thanks to increased intake of assorted vegetables and fruits, your potassium consumption usually increases and blood pressure control is improved[R]. Potassium helps to dilate blood vessels, reducing blood pressure in the process and decreasing the likelihood of any blood clots formed lodging themselves within these vessels.
Potassium is also considered a mild diuretic, in the sense that it promotes excessive sodium and water elimination via the urine.
8. Improved Eye Health
The eyes, like any other organ, are subjected to the effects of inflammation and premature aging, being likely to develop cataracts or accelerated macular degeneration as a result. Diets high in carotenoid compounds are associated with slowed progression of macular degeneration[R], and preserve the health of your eyes for a longer period of time.
9. Improved Health Of Skin
The skin is our first line of defense against many hazards we come into contact with on a daily basis. Yet, many persons do not understand the importance of this barrier, or support it with adequate nutrition. A vegan diet offers abundant amounts of important antioxidant vitamins A, B and E, which can reduce the impact of ultraviolet light exposure on our skin.
The sun is a significant contributor to overall skin damage, and can accelerate aging well before your time.
Types Of Vegan Diets
Not surprisingly, as with most diet types, there are several spins on the classic take that you can use to improve dietary compliance. These modifications are not absolutely necessary, but after considering individual differences, some may be better suited than others. Here are the most common sub varieties of the vegan diet:
1. The Raw Food Vegan Diet
This diets emphasizes consumption of primarily raw vegan produce, such as various fruits and vegetables, but also nuts and seeds. You also have the option of preparing foods, but at the low temperature of 118°F in order to promote preservation of the many heat sensitive compounds found in plant-based foods.
2. The 80/10/10 Raw Foods Vegan Diet
This diet type is similar to the classic raw food vegan diet, except that they restrict calories from fat heavy food sources, such as nuts, seeds and avocados to name a few. Instead, the primary source of nutrition on this diet are fruits, with soft vegetables that do not require any preparation to consume also acceptable. This diet type is notoriously high in carbohydrates, so diabetics or persons with blood glucose control issues need to be very careful. It is also referred to as the “fruitarian” diet by many.
3. Starch Solution Vegan Diet
Identical to the 80/10/10 vegan diet principles, except that instead of fruits the focus is on starch heavy vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, corn and various root provisions. Rice is another common food on this diet. However, virtually all the foods on this diet require cooking before consumption to allow the body to be able to digest them.
4. The Junk Food Vegan Diet
This is basically a free for all vegan diet, that allows you to eat anything you want as long a as it is vegan approved. This means more processed foods, sugar laden juices, French fries and numerous meat substitutes. It is also the least healthy of all the different vegan diet subtypes, so don’t expect much if this is what your vegan diet consists of.
5. The Whole Food Vegan Diet
This is the most classic reincarnation of the vegan diet, allowing you to eat reasonably anything that can be considered vegan. This does not mean that you will binge on junk food 24-7, but they are not frowned upon the way other subtypes do.
A variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and even meat substitutes are allowed on the whole food vegan diet.
Vegan Diet Approved Foods
While it is fair to say that anything that does not come from animals can be consumed, in the effort of overall health, not all vegan approved foods are equal. Do you think French fries possess the same level of nutrition as healthy baked sweet potatoes? Not at all. In fact, white potatoes should not be consumed at all, as a result of their anti-nutrient properties. Your time is best spent investing in the foods that will give you the greatest return health wise. Eat plenty of the following:
Wide Range Of Vegetables
Vegetables should be considered the nutritional base of the vegan diet, as you can get most of what your diet needs in terms of vitamins and minerals by including a wide range of vegetables. Great options include:
- Leafy vegetables – these include spinach and bok choy, both being excellent sources of iron, vitamin K and calcium. These can help offset major sources of nutrient deficiencies in vegans.
- Other vegetables – squash, onions, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, asparagus and many other vegetables.
Tomatoes, avocados, various berries, grapes, watermelon, bananas, apples and many more fruits are excellent options.
Sweet potatoes, yams, corn, pumpkin and beets are great starchy foods. There are other options as well, but white potatoes should be avoided.
These include many beans, along with peanuts (which are legumes, not nuts as many people believe). Black-eyed peas, chickpeas, Lentils, string beans, black beans, kidney beans and many more are great legumes.
Nuts And Seeds
These are best used as snacks, or included in meals and desserts owing to their relatively high calorie burden. Great options include cashews, almonds, Brazil nuts, Chia seeds, flaxseeds, macadamia nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, quinoa and walnuts.
While you can consume all of the grains included on this list, it would be in your best interest to limit the total amount consumed from wheat-based products. However, feel free to have brown rice, oats, cornmeal, couscous, sorghum, rye, amaranth and oat bran.
While many vegans rely heavily on nuts and seeds to help meet their protein intake, there are other foods better suited to supporting protein requirements. These include tofu, edamame and tempeh. Various assorted plant-based protein powders can also bring you much closer to your intake goals, as soy, rice, and pea-based proteins widely available today.
There’s an endless array of vegetable cooking oils for your convenience, but they are not all good for you considering overall health. For example, soybean oil and canola oil while great on the surface and vegan friendly are highly pro-inflammatory and better avoided. Much better options include coconut oil, avocado oil, and extra-virgin olive oil. Make those your staple oils, and only occasionally use other oils that may support a unique taste.
The ever popular water, tea, coffee, coconut water and plant-based milks should be the base of beverages consumed.
Foods To Avoid On The Vegan Diet
Though it is fairly obvious what should be avoided, we would include a quick refresher and some surprising additions you may have overlooked:
All Animal-Based Proteins
These include a classic staples of beef, chicken, duck, turkey, pork, but also fish, shrimp, calamari, scallops, crab and lobster.
Milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream and butter. There are vegan options to most of these foods available today.
Eggs, from all animal sources
Products From Bees
Including honey and royal jelly
Miscellaneous Animal-Based Ingredients
Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil), whey and casein proteins, gelatin, and shellac-the ingredient that makes the shells of your favorite treats such as M&Ms and skittles shiny.
Though technically vegan, there is no real nutritive value to be gained from his consumption, so you should avoid it as well.
Difficulties Encountered On The Vegan Diet
Even though the vegan diet is great for overall health, it does come with its fair share of challenges. It is important that you know what to look for so that you can effectively deal with them as they occur, or prepare for them beforehand so that they do not cause you to fall off the diet. Keep an eye out for these:
1. Nutrient Deficiencies
Nutrient deficiencies are one of the most common and troublesome adversities persons face on the vegan diet. While plant-based foods are extremely nutrition dense, and will arguably improve overall nutritional state of most vitamins and minerals, there are a few key ones you may be missing if you’re not careful. Be sure to include foods that are rich in the following, or use supplements if necessary.
- Iron – most vegetables supply non-heme iron, which is not as well absorbed as heme iron found in animal foods. Deficiency can occur from poor absorption, even though you think you may be getting 100% of your recommended daily intake[R]. It is best to ensure you consume iron rich plant foods along with vitamin C to enhance its absorption.
- Calcium – to this day, dairy products remain the primary source of calcium for the majority of adults and children alike, even though reliance on dairy brings its own set of inherent problems. Regardless, the removal of dairy from the diet can open up a calcium deficiency[R], since vegans may not actively seek out foods that naturally are rich in calcium. Be sure to consume a supplement that contains calcium, magnesium, zinc and vitamin D for insurance if you think your diet may be lacking in these important minerals.
- Vitamin B12 – an important vitamin that is not found in many plant-based foods, which works in conjunction with iron and a host of other nutrients to promotes the synthesis of red blood cells. Anemia is a complaint that is very common in vegans[R], as they tend to fail to adequately consume one or more of the nutrients necessary for sufficient red blood cell production.
- Saturated Fat – though it is vilified as the worst of all the facts, saturated fat still has several functions related to hormone synthesis and the natural inflammatory response mediated by the immune system. The elimination of various animal products significantly reduces the number of foods you have available to get this macronutrient from[R], though avocados contain a small amount of it. Be sure to not eliminate foods that contain saturated fats altogether from the diet, as you can open up yourself to gallstones and more from deficiency.
- Protein – animal meats are the primary source of protein in the world, which once eliminated can leave a large void to fill. Be sure to consume one of the primary vegan approved proteins such as tofu, and combine it with plant-based protein powders as necessary to support healthy function. It is better to combine several different proteins together than to get all your protein from one source, as plant-based proteins are not often considered complete (having all nine essential amino acids).
2. Decreased Libido
While the vegan-based diet can help to reduce overall cholesterol levels, the reduction of saturated fat in the diet can impair important hormone production, especially in men. It is not strange to observe marked decreases and libido. Consumption of fat heavy fruits such as avocados becomes more important on the vegan diet.
3. Disrupted Sleep Patterns
Many proteins regulate the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, important chemicals that dictate several aspects of our health, our circadian sleep-wake cycles included. Ensuring protein needs are met can help to offset this effect.
The vegan diet can significantly improve your health, especially if you are at higher risk for certain conditions. It is not for everyone, even though at its core it is an ecologically viable diet type, helping optimize water and land usage.
Be sure to cover all your nutritional bases, and the safety of the vegan diet will be practically the same as any other diet type commonly consumed today.