Veganism – the low down
It’s the latest trend, the Game Changer’s athletes’ choice, the planet savers’ contribution, and the plant -based burgers’ income. The real question is, what does science say about veganism and do we have enough conclusive evidence about it and its plant-based substitutes?!
Veganism goes beyond the diet. It’s a philosophy defined by a way of living which seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation to 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 one’s 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 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 of that of meat-eaters, resulting in lower cholesterol levels. Low incidences of heart failure have also been attributed to the high intake of fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrain products which in turn increases antioxidant, micronutrient and fibre intake 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 (impacting detoxification and thus weight) and more dietary fibers. 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 also affects health and weight, making it trickier to differentiate between the influence of disciplined lifestyle and a vegan diet on weight- more conclusive research is needed in this regard.
It is important to remember that successful weight loss is very individualized and the best diet for you is that determined by your unique biology, medical history, relationship with food and genetics.
It feels obvious that with vegans consuming high amounts of foods and nutrients that protect against cancer, that 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 cancer incidences. Although high intakes of fruit, vegetables and legumes contain chemo-preventative factors, many studies fail to distinguish between vegetarians and vegans, making it hard to draw a conclusion without further research being carried out.
Eat More Plants They Said
It is without a doubt that eating more plant-based foods is good for our health. Many studies show the benefits of increasing fruit, vegetable and legume intake with regards to weight and reduction of chronic disease risk. 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 heart disease, diabetes and cancer risk while also improving brain health and wellbeing.
The American Dietetic association emphasizes that vegan diets can be relevant, beneficial and nutritionally adequate to many, if it is 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 is possible to avoid nutritional deficiencies by ensuring the intake of a variety of food as well as knowing which foods and supplements are needed. Individuals more prone to deficiencies include those with medical conditions as well as populations with specific dietary requirements, such as the elderly and young.
It is 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 more nutritionally deplete.
Weight Loss & Veganism
Consuming a vegan diet has shown to improve weight loss but, as mentioned above, this is not a guarantee and is dependent on multiple factors and needs to be individualized. 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 of the many heavily 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 is no doubt that vegan diets have fundamental health benefits. However, research to date makes it hard to distinguish between vegan and vegetarian diets as well as the healthier lifestyle choices that vegans lead.
Stay tuned for more insights on veganism- common nutritional deficiencies and tips on how to avoid them, plant-based alternatives and the current debate with regards to their effect on our health, their sustainability and environmental impact.