How to Embrace Vegan Ideals to Improve Your Health
Being vegan has become increasingly popular in the past couple of years, evolving from the stereotypical “cuisine of the hippies” to a respected diet and lifestyle intended to make the world a better place in terms of ethics, environment, and health. For many, it also affords an exciting opportunity to enjoy new meals that feature produce and plant-based proteins! Many confuse veganism with vegetarianism, which is a diet that abstains from meat consumption. Veganism shares that trait, but goes a step further by removing all animal products from one’s lifestyle. Anything that comes from animals or uses animals during production is avoided, which might sound simpler than it actually is.
Foods that are excluded from a vegan diet are meat (including fish, shellfish, and insects), dairy, eggs, honey, and foods that use animal products during production such as some types of refined white sugar. Household items like toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, and fabric softener all may contain animal products, depending on which ingredients are used (though the source of ingredients is not often stated, making it difficult to determine if they are derived from animals or animal products). Products that are tested on animals, such as some cosmetics, personal care goods, healthcare products, and pharmaceuticals, are also not vegan. The ethics around fabrics like leather, wool, and silk are often debated. Living a completely vegan lifestyle can prove to be difficult, but like all lifestyles and diets, vegans range in the degree to which they avoid animal products.
So if vegans choose to avoid whole food groups, what is left for them to munch on? This is the simple part. A vegan diet consists of all fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and all combinations of these foods. Vegan foods can be cooked in oils derived from the aforementioned foods (no butter – that’s dairy!). Many foods that you find in the grocery store have vegan versions, including hot dogs, mayonnaise, ice cream, snack foods, and cheese. Other grocery store items are already vegan, like Nabisco graham crackers, Ritz crackers, some granola bars, and more (so you can already surmise that being vegan, in and of itself, does not make a food healthy).
There is an endless array of reasons that people decide to follow a vegan lifestyle and/or diet. Morality with respect to animal cruelty is a common reason. The Vegan Society describes veganism as “a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” Other people cite environmental issues as their motivation, while many make the choice for health reasons.
A study published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states, “Vegans consume considerably more legumes, total fruit and vegetables, tomatoes, allium vegetables, fiber, and vitamin C than do omnivores. All those foods and nutrients are protective against cancer.” In addition, vegan diets have been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and heart disease because of the high levels of vitamins and minerals in a well-planned plant-based diet. In a vegan diet done “right,” replacing some animal products with more whole foods can also help reduce the amount of cholesterol and saturated fat you eat as well as lower blood pressure.
Without a doubt, whole foods like vegetables and fruits are essential to a healthy diet. But some claim that protein deficiency is unavoidable with veganism, deterring them from committing to plant-based foods. Protein deficiency isn’t a problem, though, if the person is eating a well-rounded diet of protein-rich plant-based foods like legumes, non-dairy milks such as soy (8 g per cup) and hemp (4 g per cup), nut butters, tempeh, some grains, and certain vegetables (one cup of cooked spinach has 7g of protein). Vitamin B-12 deficiencies are an issue, though, since low B-12 intakes can cause anemia and nervous system damage. Humans generally get their B-12 dose from animal products (meat, fish, and dairy), so cutting out this vitamin source means that vegans must turn to other places to get it, typically in the form of a supplement.
When it comes to weight loss, you might see a quick decrease in your weight when you switch to a vegan diet, assuming you include more greens, whole grains, and fruit and reduce or exclude saturated fat which, mostly comes from animals. (Seems like “Weight Loss 101”, right?) An increase in whole foods is certainly likely to boost your weight loss efforts. However a long-term vegan diet that isn’t knowledgeably balanced could come with certain nutrient deficiencies. Vegans are at greater risk for deficiencies in calcium, vitamin D, B-12, iron, zinc and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. Getting regular blood checks, paying attention to changes in how your body feels, and working with a dietitian can correct any issues you come across.
Something that’s important to keep in mind is that going vegan isn’t necessarily synonymous with weight loss or health improvement. There are plenty of vegetable and fruit (i.e., coconut) oils out there to deep fry vegetables in for those less mindful of their fat intake. And, these days, one can be vegan and still eat lots of processed foods as vegan packaged goods have become more popular and widely available. It’s kind of similar to the gluten-free trend. Before gluten free became mainstream, switching to a gluten-free diet meant switching to a whole foods diet, but now you can get whatever processed food you want sans gluten–muffins, pasta, cakes, cookies, etc. Similarly, there are now so many vegan alternatives (cake, burgers, “chicken” nuggets) that you could easily eat a fully processed, vegan diet that isn’t inevitably low cal or low fat. Some vegan products are less nutrient-rich than their animal-inclusive alternatives. For example, a vegan burger might be made of 15+ ingredients, and have 55 grams of carbs and only 5 grams of protein, compared to a chicken burger with 3-4 ingredients and a full 30 grams of protein and no carbs.
That’s why it’s important to be knowledgeable about the foods you eat by looking at nutritional facts to create a balanced diet. When it comes down to it, eating fewer processed foods and more whole foods, regardless of whether you follow a vegan diet or not, can help you slim down and boost your health. Like any diet meant to promote weight loss, focusing on calories in versus calories out, as well as emphasizing key satiating nutrients like protein and fiber, is key.
VEGAN ON YOUR TERMS
Committing to a full vegan lifestyle might be too much to jump into at one time; however, incorporating several vegan meals into your diet each week can improve your health and potentially help you shed some pounds. Limiting your saturated fat (which is found in animal products like red meat, cheese, and butter) and calorie intake are the main dietary benefits of this approach. Start by having vegan meals once or twice a week, then increase that to 3-4 times and so on. Another way to incorporate a vegan diet into your lifestyle is to have only vegan lunches or snacks, or perhaps even pick certain days of the week to eat strictly vegan (“Meatless Monday” has become a common trend across social media and health promoters alike).
If you’re just starting to wrap your head around veganism and are considering trying it out, take it slow and make it simple. There are thousands of recipes online that are accessible through a quick search in your web browser. Pick one out that looks tasty and give it a whirl! If you’re struggling with completely vegan meals, give vegetarian meals (which can have dairy and eggs, but no meat) a try first. An easy way to do this is to think of your favorite recipes and then sub in plant-based proteins for meat. Try a black bean patty instead of beef on your burger, a lentil bolognese over your spaghetti, or tempeh subbed in for chicken in your burrito bowls.
Vegan cuisine doesn’t have to be scary, difficult, or bland. Challenging yourself to include more plant-based foods in your meals can show you how easy it is to get an adequate amount of produce into your daily diet in appetizing ways. To get started, try out our healthy toast recipes that substitute veggies for bread (but be sure to use vegan products when appropriate; i.e., in place of cheese or yogurt).
Trying out vegan dishes that utilize plant-based foods in new ways can be exciting and adventurous! Restaurants are embracing the trend of eating more plant-centric meals and are creating menu items that follow this ideal while being delicious, creative, and nutritious. With a little research or creativity around vegetable use, you might stumble upon your new favorite dish or get inspired to liven up one of your older recipes with a new ingredient or plant-based swap for meat. Just think of the opportunities to expand your palate and your cooking repertoire!
Following a full-fledged vegan diet is not for everyone, but having a balanced diet is. Regardless of your dietary preferences, including more plant-based and foods into your diet is beneficial in myriad ways to your health and wellness.