Vegans have been advocating the health benefits of the vegan diet for years – lowered cholesterol levels, significantly lowered risks of cardiovascular diseases, slimmer waistline – but the diet is increasingly moving into the mainstream.
Save the planet
As the world’s population expands – 7 billion at the latest count – and the world’s resources are increasingly strained, the need for alternative diets and food production becomes ever more clear. Veganism provides an ethical alternative to a number of the world’s problems including the pollution caused by industrial farming, the suffering and inhumanity of abattoirs and the depletion of the world’s fish stock. The prolonged animal cruelty caused by the factory farming has been well documented in scientific studies, media, books, documentaries etc. Veganism ends this needless suffering while promoting a more ethical form of existence.
In addition, veganism is increasingly recognized as part of the solution to climate change. With the growing awareness of the cost to the planet of meat and dairy production, veganism provides a healthy and low cost alternative. Meat isn’t just expensive; it consumes huge quantities and wasteful volumes of our water, land and air resources. The international meat industry generates roughly 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, one of the largest single contributors to climate change.
When properly planned, a vegan diet can be considerably healthier than the traditional American diet. Vegan diets are cholesterol-free, and they’re more likely to be low in saturated fat and calories and high in fiber, complex carbohydrates, and cancer-fighting antioxidants. And if done correctly, they can contain more of the following nutrients:
- Calcium: Calcium plays an important role in building stronger, denser bones early in life and keeping bones strong and healthy later in life. There’s a myth, largely propagated by the dairy industry and milk producers that eating dairy and drinking milk is the only way to have a calcium-rich diet. This is incorrect. Calcium is abundant in collard greens, kale, broccoli, beans, sesame tahini, and almonds. It can also be found in calcium-fortified soy or rice milk, orange juice, and some brands of tofu. Many brands of nondairy milks contain some calcium and vitamin D, as do some brands of fortified orange juice.
- More dietary fiber – dietary fiber aids healthy bowel movements, and helps fight against constipation.
- No saturated fats – a vegan will consume much lower amounts of saturated fats, which are linked with coronary heart diseases, compared to a meat-eater.
- More health promoting anti-oxidants: Anti-oxidants have been linked to increased energy, increased life span and reduced neurodegenerative diseases. While more research is needed to establish a causal connection, eating anti-oxidants from natural sources is highly recommended as it is likely to benefit your over-all health. Fruits that are rich in anti-oxidants include acai, pomegranate, prunes, raisins, dark grapes, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, noni, raspberries, plums and oranges. Vegetables that are rich in anti-oxidants include kale, spinach, broccoli, alfalfa sprouts, beets, red bell peppers, onion, corn, and eggplants.
Need for supplements
There are many health, animal welfare and environmental reasons to choose the vegan diet. However, like any diet, it requires diligence and planning, especially in getting the right nutrients and vitamins for your optimum health. With a vegan diet, you should strongly consider taking the following supplements:
- Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is found mostly in animal products, and so vegans are susceptible to a deficiency. Luckily there are several fortified foods that are high in vitamin B12, such as fortified nutritional yeast, some supermarket cereals, and fortified soy and rice milks as well as in some meat substitutes. A supplement of 10-12 µg of vitamin B12 daily is also recommended.
- Omega-3s – Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for heart, brain, skin, and joint health. Fortunately, you can consume Omega-3 fatty acids without eating fish and depleting the world’s oceans. Walnuts and canola oil are good vegan sources of the omega-3 ALA, and flaxseeds and flaxseed oil are also good sources as long as they are consumed long term with other oils like sesame, canola and evening primrose oil. It’s also advisable to take vegan DHA capsules, 200-300 mg every 3 days if you’re under 60 years old; 200-300 mg every day if you’re over 60 years old. These contain omega-3s derived from algae, which is where the fish get it from.
- Iron – iron is required for the formation of healthy red blood cells – the lack of iron causes anemia. Iron is less readily absorbed through vegan diets; vegans will need to consume up to two times that consumed by those eating omnivorous diets. Iron-rich plant-based foods include spinach, beans, black-eyed peas, lentils, chickpeas, oatmeal, dried fruits, nuts, sunflower seeds, nutritional yeast, molasses, and grains such as quinoa and millet. Vitamin C helps increase iron absorption, so for optimal health benefits, eat extra vitamin C or choose foods that are rich in both nutrients, such as dark-green, leafy vegetables. It is also recommended that you consider an iron supplement: men should take 14 mg daily; women need more: 33mg daily below the age of 55, and 14 mg daily after the age of 55.
There is a common misperception that it is hard for vegans to get sufficient protein. Actually, there are many sources of plant-based protein. It is recommended that you eat a variety of unrefined grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and vegetables throughout the day, so that if one food is low in a particular essential amino acid, another food will make up this deficit.
For vegans, make sure that you get several sources of protein throughout the day. The Recommended Dietary Allowance is that 10 – 35 % of your calories come from protein.
The main sources of plant-based proteins are:
- Pulses: peas beans lentils.
- Soya foods such as tofu and tempeh.
- Seeds (such as pumpkin, sesame, sunflower).
- Nuts and peanuts.
- Cereals (such as oats, wheat, quinoa, buckwheat).
- Cereal products such as whole wheat bread and whole wheat pasta.
Remember that a balanced meal should include at least one protein element, rather than, for example, just carbohydrates and vegetables.
As it becomes increasingly apparent that the world’s resources are stretched to their breaking point, veganism offers a more healthful and ethical form of living. Veganism can be better for your health than the traditional meat-heavy American diet, as it is has zero saturated fats and cholesterol, but it requires careful planning. Make sure that you include one form of plant-based protein in every meal. It is also recommended that you take a few vitamin supplements for optimum health and wellbeing. With a little planning and care towards your diet, veganism is a viable and ethical alternative that’s great for your own health and that of the planet.