How to eat healthy: A vegan diet offers plenty of benefits, but nutritional supplements may be necessary

For many people, veganism is more of a lifestyle than a diet. Though many people become vegan to eat healthier, others do so for ethical and environmental reasons.

Dietary vegans purposefully avoid eating animal products, including dairy, eggs and honey. Some vegans also choose not to wear clothing made of fur, leather, wool or down feathers, or use products that involve animal tests, based on a philosophy that seeks to end the use of animals as commodities.

Transitioning to a vegan diet has become an increasingly popular new year’s resolution in recent years. In 2022, more than 620,000 people pledged to try a vegan diet throughout January as part of “Veganuary,” an annual campaign run by a UK nonprofit that promotes veganism.

If you’re looking to give the vegan diet a try, here’s what you should know.

Types of vegan diets

There are several types of vegan diets.

Vegans who follow the Raw diet only eat foods that haven’t been cooked beyond a certain temperature, usually 118 degrees. The Raw Till 4 diet encourages people to only eat raw foods until 4 pm, followed by a cooked dinner of plant foods high in carbs.

There is also the HCLF diet, a high-carbohydrate, low-fat vegan diet in which people consume more fruits, grains and vegetables than nuts, seeds, avocados and other high-fat plant foods. And there is the 80/10/10 diet, which combines the Raw and HCLF diets. In this diet, people get 80% of their calories from carbohydrates, 10% from protein and 10% from fat.

Health benefits of eating a vegan diet

Research has shown that a vegan diet helps people lose weight, lower their cholesterol levels and reduce cardiovascular risks. Several studies report that vegan diets are more effective for weight loss than diets that have been recommended by the American Dietetics Association and the American Heart Association.

Other research has shown that vegans have lower blood sugar levels, higher insulin sensitivity and up to a 78% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared with non-vegans.

Adopting a vegan lifestyle is also beneficial for people who have already been diagnosed with diabetes. Research has shown that a vegan diet can lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes up to 2.4 times more than other recommended diets.

According to some observational studies, a vegan diet may also improve kidney function and reduce the risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Randomized controlled trials are needed to confirm these findings.

Possible health risks

A vitamin B12 deficiency is one of the most common health risks for vegans. The Vegan Society encourages vegans to ensure they are getting the recommended amount of vitamin B12 — about 2.4 micrograms per day for adults.

The body needs vitamin B12 to make red blood cells, nerves and DNA, but it is found in meat, eggs and dairy products – which are not part of a vegan diet. Though fruits, vegetables and grains are healthy, they do not contain this essential vitamin. Fortified foods or supplements are necessary.

A B12 deficiency can lead to a “pins and needles” feeling in the extremities, joint pain and walking difficulties. More severe cases can cause depression, paranoia, memory loss, and loss of taste and smell. A B12 deficiency may also lead to nerve damage.

Vegans who don’t properly plan their daily meals also may develop deficiencies in vitamin D, long-chain omega-3s, iodine, iron, calcium and zinc.

People whose diets do not provide adequate levels of these nutrients may need to take supplements of B12, vitamin D, EPA and DHA, iron, iodine, calcium and zinc.

These deficiencies have been associated with an increased risk for certain types of cancer, stroke, bone fractures, preterm birth and failure to thrive. One study also found that vegans and vegetarians are more likely to experience depression.

How to start

Proper nutritional planning is essential when going vegan. It is important to combine sources of plant proteins; Fortified foods and supplements are needed to prevent nutritional deficiencies.

One of the biggest challenges when beginning a vegan diet is learning how to recognize all of the animal byproducts that are in a lot of food products.

Animal-based ingredients include whey, casein, lactose, egg white albumen, gelatin, cochineal or carmine, isinglass, shellac, L-cysteine, animal-derived vitamin D3 and fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids. Vegans also avoid meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, eggs and bee products.

Instead, stock the kitchen with plant-based replacements such as fruits, vegetables, tofu, tempeh, seitan, legumes, nuts and nut butter, seeds, algae, whole grains and cereals, Ezekiel bread, miso, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, kombucha and calcium-fortified plant milk and yogurt.

Here are some sample meal combos from healthline, Everyday Health and People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals that can help people get started.

For breakfast:

• Vegan breakfast sandwich with tofu, lettuce, tomato, turmeric and a plant-milk chai latte
• Avocado smoothie
Potato pancakes with vegan sour cream

For lunch:

• Spiralized zucchini and quinoa salad with peanut dressing
Butternut squash soup
• Black bean veggie burger

For supper:

• Vegan chili on a bed of amaranth
• Pita with falafel and a side salad
• Italian vegetable stew

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