Vegan and vegetarian diets are not necessarily the healthiest, writes Madison Duddy
The Economist dubbed 2019 ‘The Year of the Vegan’. With a continued increase in veganism, they might not be far off with their prediction. Over the past few years, more people have decided to adopt vegan and vegetarian diets for health and ethical reasons. In 2018, Ireland had an estimated 8% of the population identifying as vegetarian and 2% identifying as vegan. In the UK, the past two years have seen a 400% growth in veganism; Ipsos reported an increase from 3.25% to 7% of UK adults that identify as vegan. Similarly, 14% of UK adults are vegetarian. While it has been proven that both diets can be healthier options in decreasing cholesterol and BMIs, they are not perfect. When deciding to adopt one of these diets, people should first understand how it may affect their health.
According to a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vegetarians generally have lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Also, they consume more fiber, folic acid, potassium, vitamins C and E, magnesium, and have less saturated fat. A report by the Lyon Diet Heart Study found that vegetarians who eat well have a 73% decrease in cardiovascular disease and are 70% less likely to die from coronary diseases. Vegetarians also have a lower risk of diabetes, stroke and some cancers.
However, vegetarian and vegan diets can cause some health issues. Meat contains iron, vitamin B and zinc, and a severe deficiency of these nutrients can cause problems like hair loss. Although there are options like beans and dark leafy greens that contain iron, it is harder to absorb the nutrients from a vegetarian and vegan diet. Also, a deficiency in vitamin B-12 can put a person at risk of irreversible nerve damage and macrocytic anemia. In order to obtain a healthy amount of B-12, vegans and vegetarians can eat certain cereals, tofu, nutritional yeast and plant-based milks like soy milk.
Specifically, vegans tend to weigh less because plant-based diets are lower in calories since they exclude fatty meats and animal products. Vegan diets are also low in saturated fats, so as a result, they have lower blood pressure and cholesterol as well as a reduced risk of certain cancers. Also, the higher amounts of phytochemicals and antioxidants in a vegan’s diet reduce the risk of chronic illnesses.
Laurann O’Reilly of Dublin’s Nutrition by Laurann has seen many vegetarians and vegans suffer from malnutrition.”
A vegan diet excludes all animal products that have vital nutrients, though, so people can be at serious risk of nutrition deficiencies. Without dairy, people can have a diet lacking in calcium, folate and omega-3 fatty acids. Over time, a deficiency in these can lead to a loss in muscle and bone mass.
Laurann O’Reilly of Dublin’s Nutrition by Laurann has seen many vegetarians and vegans suffer from malnutrition. However, she says that if one adopts the diets correctly, they can “provide a full range of different types of proteins, and for most of the proteins out there, there are a lot more proteins in plant based products than people realise”.
Nutritionist Michelle Loughlin from Spectrum Health Dublin said supplements can be a good option when people have nutritional deficiencies.”
Pulses, a part of the legume family, can be a great source of protein. Like chickpeas and kidney beans, they are full of protein and essential amino acids that are found in meat. People just have to remember that when eating pulses, they need to couple them with the correct grains to avoid stomach pain.
Nutritionist Michelle Loughlin from Spectrum Health Dublin says supplements can be a good option when people have nutritional deficiencies.
“Especially omega-3 fatty acids and B-12 or calcium and vitamin D can be needed as supplements where the diet is imbalanced. In a case where someone is lacking knowledge and doesn’t have a nutritionally balanced diet, they may need supplementation,” Loughlin says. “Usually, though, you would have your blood checked by your GP and they would be able to tell if you’re on the lower end of anything. With regards to your blood, they would be able to spot any nutritional deficiencies and they might suggest supplementation.”
While supplements are a viable option for those with nutritional deficiencies, Loughlin says obtaining the nutrients from food is always the best option.
Just because a person adopts a vegetarian or vegan diet does not mean they have a healthier diet than someone who chooses to eat meat or animal products.”
“It depends on the brand, but supplements in general would be able to give the body the nutrients that it needs, but it’s always better to get the nutrients you would need through food first,” Loughlin says. “So say, for example, someone who is a vegan and is very active might have higher nutritional requirements. Also, if someone is pregnant, they might not be able to achieve what they need through food alone.”
Just because a person adopts a vegetarian or vegan diet does not mean they have a healthier diet than someone who chooses to eat meat or animal products. If a diet relies on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seed, then that person will reap many health benefits. However, if a person falls into a high carb and sugar diet of refined grains, sweets and solid fats, their health will decline. Many unhealthy foods are vegetarian and vegan, but not necessarily good for one’s health. The key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle is ensuring one gets all their necessary nutrients from a good diet while filling the nutrition gaps with vitamin supplements.
According to Loughlin, what makes a healthy diet is nutritional balance and one’s relationship with food.
The key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle is ensuring one gets all their necessary nutrients from a good diet while filling the nutrition gaps with vitamin supplements.”
“The most important thing is that you’re meeting your nutritional requirements. You can do that on a vegan diet, a vegetarian diet and meat-eating diet; it’s all about context and what your relationship with food is like,” Loughlin said. “In general, the healthiest diet is one that meets your nutritional requirements, allows some wiggle room to enjoy treats and your favourite foods, and also keeps you at a healthy weight, overall giving you good energy, good mental health, and allowing you to get the most out of life.”