November is World Vegan Month! The term “vegan” is controversial, to say the least. To many people, it sounds like an extremely restrictive “diet,” while to others it is a way of life that makes so much sense that they’re not sure why everyone isn’t doing it. In honor of World Vegan Month, let’s break down this debated topic.
What is a Vegan Diet?
A vegan diet is a plant-based diet, but not all plant-based diets are vegan diets. A plant-based diet is made up primarily of plants, as the name suggests, and limits or eliminates animal-derived foods such as meat, dairy, and eggs. However, a vegan diet and a vegan lifestyle usually implies an ethical stance that animals should not be exploited, killed, or profited from in the name of food or lifestyle products. Many people who call themselves vegan completely eliminate all animal products from their lives, not just from their plates. This may mean rejecting leather, wool, and fur products. The exclusion of all animal products from the plate in a vegan diet inherently makes it a plant-based one, since everything eaten is derived from plants.
Important Considerations in the Vegan Diet
To many people, a vegan diet sounds like it is automatically good for you. “Vegan” is sometimes put forth by the media as being synonymous with “healthy.” However, it is possible to have an unhealthy vegan diet. Vegan diets that include large amounts of added sugar and refined grains aren’t going to help most people with their health- and wellness-related goals. Also, while limiting animal products in the diet has been shown in studies to be correlated with reduced rates of certain diseases, excluding all animal products from the diet can pose some health risks. For this reason, close attention must be paid to certain nutrients in a vegan diet.
Vitamin B12 is found in animal products, so all vegans and many vegetarians must supplement with vitamin B12 in order to avoid the dangerous consequences of vitamin B12 deficiency. Everyone should have their vitamin B12 levels checked by their doctor whether or not they eat animal products, because as we get older, our ability to absorb vitamin B12 can go down. Severe vitamin B12 deficiency can result in irreversible dementia, so we want to catch a low vitamin B12 level as early as possible.
Most food sources of vitamin D are animal products, so supplementation may be necessary for this nutrient as well. This is especially true in places where winters are long and dark, such as in the northeastern United States, because other than food and supplements, sunlight is our source of vitamin D, and less sunlight means less vitamin D. This means that most vitamin D intake needs to come from the diet, and in the case of plant-based diets, a supplement.
The sources of heme iron, the most bioavailable type of iron, are animal products. Eating dark leafy greens, beans, nuts, and seeds can help you get enough iron, especially if these iron-rich foods are eaten with sources of vitamin C, such as lemon juice and bell peppers, because vitamin C helps to increase iron absorption. Cooking in cast iron also helps to increase iron intake.
Calcium is an important nutrient that requires careful consideration due to its impact on bone health. Because dairy products are major sources of calcium, it is important to plan calcium intake carefully in a vegan diet. Tofu, dark leafy greens, broccoli, almonds and almond butter, and soy milk are all calcium-rich vegan foods, so people who don’t consume dairy should emphasize these foods.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids, meaning that our bodies cannot make them and we must consume them in the diet. Although fish is a major source of this healthy fat, it can also be found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and vegan marine products such as algae oil. Seeds and nuts provide ALA, which is one type of omega-3, and algae provides DHA and EPA, two other types of omega-3 fats. Consuming a combination of ALA, EPA, and DHA helps to ensure that you get enough of this essential nutrient; an algae oil supplement or consuming meat substitutes that have been fortified with algae oil may be necessary to get enough EPA and DHA if your diet excludes fish.
The common sources of protein that easily come to mind tend to be animal products: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. However, there are good sources of vegan protein. Beans, nuts, seeds, soy products such as tofu and soy milk, and wheat gluten all provide protein in a vegan diet. Getting a variety of these foods in your meals and snacks helps to make sure you get enough protein if you exclude or limit animal products.
So Why Do It?
With all this careful planning and consideration that goes into a healthy vegan diet, why would anyone follow this diet? When planned correctly, a vegan diet is perfectly safe and healthy. All the necessary nutrients are available in the vegan diet when foods and supplements are considered carefully. So, safety does not have to be a concern. Furthermore, vegan diets are more efficient when it comes to the environmental impact that food production has. Raising plants for food requires less water and energy than raising animals for food, and farming plants produces less waste and carbon emissions than farming animals. Many people who follow a vegan diet feel that it is their responsibility to reduce their environmental impact, and eating fewer or no animal products is one way to do this. Having more of our diet come from plants rather than animals also uses less land, meaning that vegan diets are more efficient when it comes to land use, which has the potential to free up more land to feed more of the global population. Many vegans also adhere to the philosophy that animals are on this planet to simply live, not for humans to own, exploit, kill, or profit from, so they do not want to support an industry that does this or causes animals to suffer. Environmental and philosophical reasons aside, eating more plants and fewer animal products has been linked to lower rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
Four Ways to Celebrate World Vegan Month without Going Vegan
All that being said, what we eat is extremely personal, and many people are unable to consider giving up animal products for a variety of reasons. It is not necessary to make the jump to full-on vegan to experience some of the benefits linked to the vegan diet. One way to enjoy these benefits without going full-on vegan is to think about eating in a plant-based way. A plant-based diet, with its emphasis on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats, is similar to a Mediterranean diet. Here are four ways to eat in a more plant-based or Mediterranean way:
- Try “Meatless Mondays”
Choosing one day per week to try vegetarian and vegan meals will help you to get more comfortable with vegan cooking, will reduce your carbon footprint, and may help you to get more vegetables and fiber in your diet.
- Remember Plant Protein
Beans, tofu, tempeh (fermented soy beans), and meat substitutes are all good sources of plant protein. These options are often higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat than animal protein; increasing fiber and decreasing saturated fat are two nutrition goals that can help with a variety of health problems, such as digestive problems and heart disease.
- Focus on What to Add In
The term “vegan” can feel restrictive, but an overall balanced, plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet is really a diet that is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes (beans), and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocado) and lower in animal fat, refined sugar, and refined grains. This overall dietary pattern is associated with lower rates of chronic disease than the Standard American Diet, so focus on adding in these great plant foods, not just limiting animal products.
- Keep in Mind How You Eat, Not Just What You Eat
An overall healthy Mediterranean-style eating pattern also means eating mindfully. This includes eating slowly, chewing food thoroughly, focusing on the meal (not on the TV, newspaper, or computer), and enjoying meals with family and friends.
Overall, with few exceptions, eating more plants is a good thing. So don’t get bogged down by labels and just go for the plants more often!
This month's blog contribution comes from Louisa Paine, Registered Dietitian at The Mount Auburn Club.
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The information presented here is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or health condition. As always, please speak with your registered dietitian regarding any dietary modifications or nutrition-related questions.