Is a vegan diet healthy?

Yes, a vegan diet could be exactly what your body needs: a sensible way to rid your body of unhealthy, highly processed foods and welcome powerful vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes. And it might just save your life. That’s a legitimate motivation.


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But (and there’s always a but, right?) there is a caveat: there are certain conditions that come with that remarkably healthy root.

Veganism — also often (though inconsistently) known as a plant-based diet — can sometimes be placed on the latest dietary pedestal when the best or only well done. But that is not necessarily the case. It is more important to know your own needs and focus on what is actually useful for your body, says registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD.

“Going vegan can be an incredibly healthy way to live, but we can’t say it’s the only way,” Zumpano says. “What we can say is that focusing on whole foods and incorporating a robust variety of plant foods into your diet — while also eliminating heavily processed foods and processed meats — will maximize overall health benefits. But we need to recognize that this is true whether or not you choose to eat meat and dairy.”

We talk a little more about the ins and outs of whether a vegan lifestyle (Zumpano’s preferred term above) is eating pattern) can work for you and your family.

Is a vegan diet healthier than other options?

First of all, I want to point out the difference between veganism and vegetarianism.

For starters, neither diet is as popular as they seem: Less than 5% of American adults say they are vegetarian, and about 1% say they are vegan (percentages that have remained roughly constant over the past decade).

Yet some reports show that veganism is clearly on the rise, not only in the US, but around the world.

Since both countries focus on a plant-based diet, here are the key differences:

  • A vegetarian typically does not eat meat, poultry, or seafood, but does eat eggs and dairy products (this is also called an ovo-lacto vegetarian).
  • There are also several other vegetarian variations: Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but avoid all other animal foods, including dairy. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy but avoid eggs, meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • A vegan, on the other hand, does not eat any animal, fish or poultry or any of their products. This also means no eggs, dairy or honey.

Each of those plant-based eating habits – with their emphasis on eating Real Foods (often foods you cut yourself and don’t just buy at the store) are naturally a healthier option than many of our eating habits, says Zumpano.

They certainly excel compared to the Standard American Diet (SAD) or Western Diet. This often criticized but widespread eating habit is alarmingly high in fat, sodium and sugar and pitifully low in fruits and vegetables.

Still, it’s good to ask yourself what happens to your body when you go vegan or make a drastic change, Zumpano notes. And you might wonder, which is healthier, vegan or vegetarian? And even ask a broader question: What’s the healthiest diet for humans?

“These are the right questions to ask,” she affirms. “Anyone considering a radical change in their diet would do well to consult with their healthcare provider — a dietitian, if possible — to map out and monitor their strategy. Of course, many people don’t go that far, so we try to communicate in other ways that people can use — like blog posts!”

Either way, giving up SAD and joining “team vegan” is almost always a winning strategy, says Zumpano.

“Focusing on whole foods and making sure you get enough protein can be a healthy eating style with many benefits.”

Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

Many clinical studies show the benefit of a plant-based diet in preventing cardiovascular events, including death. Some of the benefits of adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet include:

  • It can help you maintain healthy blood pressure and prevent type 2 diabetes because fruits and vegetables contain less sodium (salt). Consuming too much sodium is a risk factor for high blood pressure (hypertension).
  • It may help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart attack, heart failure and peripheral artery disease by lowering levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. (Remember, plant-based protein sources do not contain cholesterol, the fatty substance that can build up in your arteries and affect your blood flow.)
  • It may even reduce the risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease and reduce symptoms of arthritis, such as pain and joint swelling.
  • It can result in better digestion. A healthy vegan diet includes plenty of fiber-rich foods — think fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) — which can increase the beneficial bacteria in your gut.
  • And it can even help you maintain a healthy weight or lose weight.

How healthy is a vegan diet?

Time to revisit that warning.

If you go vegan, you should also be aware that you run the risk of becoming deficient in healthy amounts of vitamin B12, iron, zinc, or calcium unless you take appropriate steps to supplement these deficiencies.

For example, one study found that more than half of vegan men were B12 deficient, compared to less than 1% of men who ate both meat and vegetables (omnivorous diets). B12, which only occurs naturally in animal products like meat and dairy, is an important nutrient that helps your body keep your nerve cells and blood cells healthy. It also helps your body make DNA, the genetic material in all of your cells.

Wait a minute – is it bad to go vegan?

No, not if you know what your needs are and follow a plan to meet them, Zumpano clarifies.

“And every person has specific needs,” she continues. “What’s healthy for many people might not be healthy for others. Take someone who can’t eat grains or beans. That would make it very difficult for them to get all the nutrients they need on a strictly vegan diet. So, they should talk to their dietitian about other foods that might meet their needs, or supplements, or maybe an omnivorous diet would work better for them.”

Zumpano notes that one reason it’s best to work with a healthcare provider to develop a vegan strategy (or any other eating style) is because “everyone’s tolerance is different and so is their family history, their genes, and their personal history.”

There’s a long list of processed foods that are considered vegan, like cookies and chips, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for you, Zumpano warns.

“There is a wide variety of plant-based meats available now more than ever, but be aware that these are highly processed and should be avoided,” she says. “It’s best to avoid chickenfewer gold nuggets and plant burgers, except on rare occasions or when your options are limited.”

Finally, research suggests that not getting the right nutrition can worsen depression in some cases. On the other hand, research also reports that eating a high-quality diet, vegan or otherwise, Reduce symptoms of depression.

Again, the best thing you can do is consult with your dietitian and other healthcare providers before making any choices or changes to your eating habits.

The importance of whole foods and nutrients

This brings us back to what you should be eating to make the vegan eating style work for your body (assuming you are not gluten free and can’t eat whole grains or cruciferous vegetables like broccoli).

Your kitchen may already have some good plant-based protein sources like tofu, nut butters, beans, seeds, and quinoa. And you can get omega-3 fatty acids from unsaturated fats in avocados, nuts, and leafy greens.

Iron-rich foods include spinach, edamame, and broccoli. Also, be sure to eat plant-based iron with foods rich in vitamin C (such as bell peppers, spinach, and sweet potatoes), as they aid in absorption.

If you normally get your calcium from dairy products, opt for nuts, beans, and dark leafy greens as a replacement. You can also opt for calcium-fortified tofu and non-dairy milk substitutes.

Is vegan food safe for everyone, even children?

You may also be wondering if a diet that eliminates all animal products is good for your children. There are strong arguments for and against that question.

Some organizations claim that a vegan diet “can support a healthy lifestyle in people of all ages (including children).” But some research claims there is direct and indirect evidence that a plant-only diet “may be associated with serious risks to brain and body development in fetuses and children” – or at the very least, leads to a greater chance of being underweight.

Zumpano urges a common-sense approach and a well-balanced diet. She also recommends an evaluation by a qualified dietitian and monitoring any changes in your child, both from your own observations and from a health care provider.

“Children’s nutritional needs are essential for proper growth and development,” she says. “You have to ask yourself the serious question, ‘Is your child meeting their nutritional needs on a vegan diet?’ Not enough protein, B12, and calcium (among many other nutrients) can lead to serious negative developmental outcomes.”

Zumpano, who has been vegan and vegetarian at various points in her life, as well as followed an omnivorous diet, advises being open to incorporating meat into a child’s diet if appropriate (or into your own diet, for that matter).

“Especially if your child loves meat and feels good after eating it,” she encourages. “We want them to see food as fuel, so it’s healthy, not just restrictive, and meat is packed with much-needed nutrients, especially protein.”

Protein is essential to ensure your child reaches their full potential, so it is vital that they get enough protein.

It comes down to?

Finally, Zumpano returns to the idea of ​​balance and whole foods. Whether for you or if you are teaching your children to follow a vegan diet, it is important to include a good variety of whole grains and whole fruits and vegetables.

“Regardless of what eating style you choose that is right for you, you should strive for balance and good nutrition,” she reiterates. “And eat real food for fuel!”

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