Since Donald Watson coined the term “vegan” in 1944, veganism has come a long way.
More folks realize the health issues heavy meat-eaters face, and the number of vegans is higher than ever before.
Chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancers are costing countries worldwide trillions of dollars in healthcare and loss of income.
It is estimated that up to 60% of Americans have at least one chronic condition while 40% have multiple. (Source)
Metabolic syndrome, a combination of risk factors for serious diseases, is linked to physical activity, genetic factors, and aging.
A healthy diet and exercise routine has been found to prevent, delay, and help manage these symptoms.
Excessive consumption of red and processed meats with less intake of fruits and vegetables has been shown to accelerate the onset of these chronic diseases.
In addition, high consumption of processed red meat has been found to increase the risk of cancer due to potential chemical contaminants.
Meat is considered a primary source of saturated fat, or the “bad fat”.
Scientific evidence has shown that the vegan diet can benefit an individual’s metabolism, promote and restore health. (Source)
In addition, vegans showed a risk reduction of 75% for hypertension, 47% to 78% for type-2 diabetes, and 14% for total cancer cases.
Because of the overwhelming evidence supporting plant-based diets, the popularity of vegan diets has skyrocketed over the last few decades and is only accelerating.
The number of vegans in the US jumped a whopping 600% from 2014 to 2017, bringing the total to 19.6 million.
In addition, the number in the UK rose 360% between 2006 and 2016.
Vegan foods grew 27% between 2020 and 2021, taking the total value of the vegan food market up to $7 billion.
In addition to health concerns, other common reasons for adopting a vegan diet include environmental and animal welfare concerns.
What Is A Vegan Diet?
A typical healthy vegan diet includes:
- High amounts of whole grains like quinoa and brown rice
- Cereals and oat
It excludes all meat products and animal by-products like dairy, eggs, and honey.
A typical vegan diet is rich in:
- Complex carbohydrates
- Omega-6 fatty acids
- Antioxidants and carotenoids
- Folic acid
- Vitamins A, C, E
What Is Lacking?
While considered a healthy diet rich in nutrients and minerals, a vegan diet might lack in a few foods, mainly:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 fatty acids
We need protein to develop, maintain and repair muscles and tissues. In addition, protein is responsible for circulating oxygen through the bloodstream and producing antibodies to maintain a healthy immune system.
Meat protein can easily be substituted with plant-based protein like that from legumes, cereals, and soy.
A common misconception is that vegan diets lack protein. The average recommended daily protein intake is 40 to 60 grams, easily delivered by the little protein powerhouses; legumes.
Per weight, animal meat contains more protein than beans and other legumes. However, per calorie count, beans win hands down.
100g of beef contains 238 calories and 31grams of protein, while 100g of beans contains 132 calories and 25grams of protein.
Vitamin B12 maintains the nerves and blood cells in the body and prevents a condition called megaloblastic anemia, a blood disorder.
B12 is only found naturally in animal foods, so taking a supplement might be a good idea for plant-based diets.
In addition, B12 can also be found added in fortified cereals and oats and a vegan favorite, nutritional yeast.
Non-heme iron found in plant foods is more difficult for the body to absorb, resulting in the chance for iron deficiency.
Iron deficiency is the world’s most common deficiency affecting especially women.
However, vitamin C has been shown to convert non-heme iron to another form of iron more easily absorbed by the body.
When iron from plant foods is combined with an adequate intake of vitamin C, the body’s ability to absorb iron is restored.
Vitamin D can be produced by our skins after exposure to UV rays. It is also found in meats and not as commonly found in plant food.
Mushrooms exposed to sunlight can contain amounts of vitamin D. In addition, foods like soy milk, rice milk, and certain juices can also add to the vitamin D intake.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These fatty acids make up the cellular structure, providing your body with energy and keeping your organs and immune system working.
The most beneficial omega-3 fatty acids are mainly obtained from seafood.
Studies advise vegans to frequently consume omega-3 fatty acids to support good heart health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases and cognitive decline from aging.
Some excellent plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Chia seeds
- Brussel sprouts
- Algal oil
- Hemp seeds
- Perilla oil
- Flax seeds
The burgeoning popularity of vegan diets has one downside; vegan processed foods are growing in popularity as well!
The availability of ultra-processed food like cookies, chips, sweeteners, although vegan, can be harmful to health because of its high levels of chemicals, salt, and sugars.
While vegan foods are generally healthier than a meat-based diet, the introduction of processed vegan food can pose many health risks. (Source)
The benefits of a healthy vegan diet are linked to natural and wholesome vegan foods instead of ultra-processed foods.
The healthy vegan diet should include various vegetables and fruits, especially green leafy vegetables rich in calcium and riboflavin.
Nutrient-rich whole grains like brown rice and quinoa should make up most of the diet, while vegetables, fruits, and proteins make up the rest.
Leavened whole-grain bread is ideal as they have reduced phytate content, making the minerals bioavailable.
Legumes, such as soy, dried beans, peas, and lentils, are also crucial to the vegan diet as they are excellent sources of energy, protein, iron, zinc, and calcium.
An intake of nuts and seeds is essential as they increase necessary fat intake and help to meet energy and protein needs.
Fortified foods like vitamin B12, calcium, and vitamin D should be consumed often as a supplement to lacking animal food.
Just like any diet, a vegan diet can be as healthy or unhealthy as you need.
Health Benefits Of A Vegan Diet
Following a well-balanced vegan diet has been scientifically proven to link to several health benefits, the more prominent ones being:
1. Helping with weight management
A research study with 10,000 participants observed people eating different diets and showed that the participants who ate plant-based had a much lower intake of calories and total saturated fat compared to those who did not follow a plant-based diet.
Transitioning to a plant-based diet may positively affect body weight and body mass index (BMI) in individuals because of the relatively low caloric count in plant-based foods and higher fiber content.
Dietary fiber is necessary for maintaining a healthy gut, promoting good bowel movements, and preventing constipation.
Fiber feeds the good bacteria in your colon called probiotics.
These probiotics are responsible for keeping your gut balanced, harmful invading bacteria away, and lining the cells to protect them from damage.
In addition, fiber moves through the digestive system slowly and can make you feel fuller for longer.
2. Reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes
Preliminary studies on a vegan diet in diabetes show favorable effects on the body’s glucose control capability in diabetic and overweight individuals.
This could be due to higher amounts of dietary fiber, antioxidants, unsaturated fatty acids, and phytochemicals combined with the low intake of cholesterol and saturated fatty acids.
In addition, vegan protein sources like beans, nuts, and seeds typically have a low GI rank.
The GI rank, or glycemic index, is a ranking system from 0 to 100 based on how each food causes the blood sugar levels in the body to rise.
People with diabetes should primarily eat low GI foods and stay away from sweet, sugar foods that will cause blood sugar levels to spike.
3. Reduce the risk of gestational diabetes
Gestational diabetes, or diabetes acquired during pregnancy, affects 4% to 9% of all US pregnancies, potentially affecting the long-term heart health of both mother and child.
Greater conformity to healthy plant foods before pregnancy in Caucasians may lower the risk of gestational diabetes since it minimizes the consumption of processed foods and includes whole foods, plant protein, and antioxidants such as vitamin C and beta carotene.
4. Boosts immune system
Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins and antioxidants such as vitamin A, C, and E.
In addition, these foods are rich in antioxidants such as beta carotene and anthocyanins.
Antioxidants are potent compounds that help our bodies balance the potentially harmful free radicals caused by cigarette smoke, air pollutants, radiation, ozone, and other industrial gases.
When the free radicals outweigh the number of antioxidants in our bodies, it causes a condition called oxidative stress.
Prolonged periods of oxidative stress can lead to severe diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
In addition, overactivated immunity is a potential risk for metabolic syndrome.
A plant-based diet is significantly observed to reduce abnormal immunity compared to a typical western-style diet.
The vegan diet is also observed to have the potential to reduce inflammation in the body of pre-diseased individuals with impaired kidney function.
5. Maintains a healthy gut
A vegan diet is rich in dietary fiber.
Some fibers are fermentable fibers called prebiotics, the food of the probiotics in your stomach.
Probiotics are gut microbiota, the largest organ that plays an essential role in most of your health responsible for digesting, nutrient metabolism, antimicrobial protection, and gastrointestinal health.
While the recommended daily fiber intake is 25 to 35 grams, the average American consumes 15g.
A vegan diet increases the beneficial microorganisms in the gut consisting of fibers, polyphenols, fats, and proteins.
Plant proteins decrease pathogenic bacteria and enable the production of vitamin K and B-complex vitamins through bacterial metabolism.
6.Maintains healthy eyes
Beta carotene is a potent antioxidant found commonly in red and orange plant-based foods.
This powerhouse converts into vitamin A in the body, also known as retinol.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin naturally present in some foods. It plays a crucial part in maintaining normal vision, reducing the risk of night blindness, and boosting the immune system.
7.Maintains bone health
Studies show that if adequate calcium and vitamin D are taken through food, there is no difference in bone mineral density between those following a plant-based diet and those not.
In addition, preliminary findings have shown that a long-term adoption of a vegan diet may reduce the risk of osteoporosis due to the higher increase in immune response and gut bacteria function.
Few studies have assessed the nutrient status and the effect of a vegan diet on a child’s growth.
One German study compared omnivorous, vegetarian, and vegan children and showed no significant differences in macronutrient intake or growth.
Vegan children showed average growth and were less often obese.
However, proper planning and supplementation by caregivers can help vegan children follow well-planned diets and avoid deficiencies related to B12, calcium, and vitamin D.
In addition, there is a surge in families who adopt a vegan diet for their child from infancy.
These parents, with constant advice from a qualified paediatrician, educate themselves on providing a top-quality vegan diet for optimal child development.
While the health benefits of adopting a vegan diet are numerous, the other two strong arguments for a plant-based lifestyle include environmental and animal welfare concerns.
The state of animal agriculture is deplorable, with billions of animals suffering and killed each year for our food.
In addition to its formidable number of animal rights violations, animal agriculture is one of the worst polluters of the planet, responsible for approximately 16% of all greenhouse gas emissions and a major polluter of the soil and waterways.
By adopting a plant-based lifestyle or reducing our consumption of meat, we can take baby steps into making the world a kinder place to live in as well as ensure our optimal health!