Health Benefits and Risks of Eating a Vegan Diet

Vegan bulgur salad in bowl
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​A vegan diet is a type of vegetarian diet, but it's completely devoid of animal products, including eggs, honey, and dairy products. Some vegans choose the diet for health reasons, but many eat only plant-based foods for ethical reasons, such as avoiding animal cruelty and consuming foods that are more sustainable.

Health Benefits of Going Vegan

Since a vegan diet is all plant-based, it's easier to load up on healthy whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables that most people on regular diets often lack.

A vegan diet is generally high in fiber, vitamin C, magnesium, iron, and folate and lower in calories and saturated fats.

Eating diets rich in plant-based foods have been associated with better heart health and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. It's probably going to be easier to lose extra body fat and maintain a healthy weight as well. And cutting out red and processed meats may also reduce your risk of colon cancer.

Health Risks of Going Vegan

All in all a vegan diet is healthy, but there are a few potential nutritional deficiencies that need to be addressed. Vitamin B-12, or cobalamin, is one nutrient that will be lacking because it's only found in foods of animal origin. Vitamin B-12 is needed for normal nerve function and blood cell production, and a deficiency can lead to a condition called pernicious anemia. It's not a problem for a regular vegetarian diet, but vegans need to supplement this essential B-complex vitamin.

Protein can be another issue, but it's one that is easily solved. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids, and there are a bunch your body needs to maintain organs and muscles and various things in the body. Some of those amino acids are called essential amino acids, and you need to get them from the foods you eat.

While all animal proteins contain all of the essential amino acids, plant proteins are usually missing one or more of those amino acids. So, it's important to eat a variety of protein sources to ensure you get all those amino acids you need by combining proteins.

Vegan diets can also be low in vitamin D, though to be fair, so are other diets since most of your vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight. Two excellent vegan sources of vitamin D include maitake mushrooms and portobello mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light. Otherwise, a dietary supplement or fortified nut milks will help you get enough vitamin D during the winter months.

A vegan diet is also deficient in two omega-3 fatty acids called eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid that your body needs for a healthy heart and eyes and brain function. But, as long as you eat plenty of soy, pumpkin, flax or chia seeds, you'll get enough of an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid, which your body converts to the other two forms.

Please note, though, if you're pregnant to talk to your health care provider to make sure you get enough omega-3s during your pregnancy.

Getting Started on a Vegan Diet

If you're currently following an ovo-lacto vegetarian diet, you already have a good idea of what to avoid because you're half the way (or more) there already. There's a wide variety of plant-based "cheese," and you can replace regular milk with nut milk. Tofu can be scrambled like eggs, and there are vegan egg substitutes for cooking and baking. Pure maple syrup is a suitable replacement for honey.

It's a bit harder to go straight into veganism if you currently eat a typical omnivorous diet. It sounds easy, but there are a few things you'll need to consider. First, you'll have to decide what to do with all the non-vegan food in your house. If you live alone or the whole household is going vegan together, you can donate unopened canned and packaged goods to a local food shelf. Otherwise, you can give your animal-based foods away, toss them in the garbage, or eat them and replace them with vegan choices. In fact, the last option is a good way to ease into a vegan diet.

Next, you'll need to brush up your label reading skills because foods that look vegan may not be. That loaf of honey wheat bread? Not vegan because it contains honey. A can of vegetable soup looks vegan, but if it's made with chicken or beef stock, it won't even count as vegetarian. And marshmallows look innocent enough, but they're made with gelatin, which is derived from animals.

Eating a vegan diet may take a bit of practice and it can take a long time to get used to not eating meat, cheese, and other foods you've eaten for years. But that's OK. Over time you'll get the hang of it. Stock up on vegan-friendly ingredients and make most of your meals at home. Take vegan lunches to work or school and maybe even join online vegan groups for support.

But What About Restaurants?

A few restaurants make a note of vegan or vegetarian foods on their menus, but not many, so you'll have to do a bit of sleuthing to be sure your meal fits your vegan bill. And most restaurants are happy to accommodate the needs of their customers, so ask if you can create a vegan meal from side dishes they already serve. (Be sure to check if they use butter or cream in any of their dishes. Maybe they can leave it off.)

In a pinch, order a veggie salad (ask for oil and balsamic vinegar on the side), a plain baked potato for lunch or oatmeal and berries for breakfast. If you have time, find the restaurant's menu online before you go out for dinner or use an app like HappyCow to find a vegan-friendly restaurant near you.

Sources:

Craig WJ. "Health Effects of Vegan Diets." Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 May;89(5):1627S-1633S.

Harvard Women's Health Watch. "Becoming a Vegetarian." Updated March 18, 2016. 

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