As we experience life during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, cooking at home can not only provide healthy meals, but can also help the health of your community by flattening the curve. With restaurants mostly closed throughout the city, people are now cooking more at home. While this notion may seem both exciting and daunting, it is necessary to be mindful of the nutritional aspects of the diets being practiced and the foods being prepared for the family. One such diet is the vegan diet.
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet is essentially a vegetarian eating style, but it’s completely devoid of animal products, including eggs, honey and all dairy. Most vegans choose the diet for health reasons. However, others prefer it for ethical reasons such as avoiding animal cruelty and consuming more sustainable foods. While evaluating the pros and cons of the vegan diet, it becomes obvious that while some people may benefit from the vegan dietary choices, many people can easily fall short of various nutritional elements that are commonly found in animal-based diets if they are not making a conscious effort to find substitutions for them in their vegan diet. Here is a list of some pros and cons of a vegan diet, with a focus on solely the health implications.
Pros of a vegan diet—
- Since a vegan diet is plant-based, it’s easier to include healthy whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, of which regular diets may have a lower proportion. A vegan diet is generally high in fiber, vitamin C, magnesium, iron and folate. It’s also lower in calories and saturated fats.
- Eating a diet rich in plant-based foods has been associated with a decreased risk of many chronic diseases. These include hypertension, colon cancer, type 2 diabetes and a relative decrease in cardiovascular mortality.
- A plant-based vegan diet with intake of wholesome foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes and whole grains provides excellent sources of antioxidants, dietary fiber and vitamins and minerals.
- The self-control needed to exercise a vegan diet may be extended to other aspects of health such as regular fitness regime, healthy habits, consuming healthy dietary portion sizes and weight control.
Cons of a vegan diet—
- A vegan diet void of all animal products doesn’t consist of all the nutrition required for our body. Nutrients like calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B-12 and proteins could fall short in vegan diets.
- Vegan diets are generally lacking in calcium required for bone formation, muscle contraction and other essential functions. You will need to incorporate plant-based, calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, pulses, sesame seeds and some dried fruits into the diet on a regular basis.
- Vitamin B12 or cobalamin, needed for healthy nerve function and blood cell production, may be lacking because it’s found primarily in foods of animal origin. You can obtain vitamin B12 from fortified foods (some brands of soy milk, fake meats, breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast). Research supports a need for supplementation of this vitamin for people on a vegan diet.
- Since vegans forego typical protein sources like meat and eggs, they will need to incorporate it through different plant-based sources such as soy, quinoa, lentils and beans. These can sometimes be overly processed meat substitutes packed with sodium and preservatives!
- While animal proteins contain all the essential amino acids, plant proteins are usually deficient in one or more of those amino acids. So, it’s crucial to eat a variety of protein sources to ensure you get all those amino acids.
- Vegan diets can also be low in vitamin D, although most of your vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight. During winter months, dietary supplements or fortified nut milks will help you get enough vitamin D.
- Since the vegan diet contains a form of iron that is not as easily absorbed, vegans might be prone to developing iron deficiency anemia. Iron is found in food in two forms: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron, which makes up 40 percent of the iron in meat, poultry and fish, is well absorbed. Non-heme iron, 60 percent of the iron in animal tissue and ALL the iron in plants (fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts) is less well absorbed. Because vegan diets only contain non-heme iron, vegans should be especially aware of foods that are high in iron and methods to promote iron absorption. Because of this, vegans may need to consume as much as 1.8 times of plant-based sources of iron than for non-vegetarians.
- 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. By adding 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.
- People can develop unrealistic expectations that by being vegan, they are making themselves healthier. But this will need a good balance of diet, including necessary nutritional substitutes, exercise and a proper fitness regime.
Overall, the ideal diet for any individual will depend on factors such as age, fitness levels, overall health and personal dietary preferences. But to ensure you’re doing it in the best way possible for the optimal health of your family, you should seek professional guidance before you make changes to your dietary practice.