More and more people are choosing plant-based diets — which are sometimes described as vegan diets (a person who follows a vegan diet is also called a vegan). A 2000 survey revealed that the number of vegans in the U.S. had increased by 300 percent between 2004 and 2019 — amounting to about three percent of the total population, or nearly 10 million people. In this post, we’re taking a look at veganism, from soup to nuts, to help you figure out if it’s the right choice for you. (Before making any drastic changes to your diet, speak with your healthcare provider so they can make sure you are doing so healthily.)
People who follow a vegan lifestyle do not eat any food that comes from an animal. This means they do not eat meat, meat-derived products, dairy products, eggs, or in many cases, honey. Some vegans also avoid any food processed using animal products — for instance many wines (some of which are processed with products derived from animals). Most vegans also avoid animal products in other areas of their life — for instance, wool or leather goods and any cosmetic or household product that was tested on animals.
People choose to be vegan or vegetarian for a variety of reasons. Most commonly, the reasons are related to health, personal ethics, religion, or a combination of these factors.
Many vegans choose to not eat meat products out of concern for animal rights and welfare. They also cite studies that show that, overall, a vegan diet has less of an impact on the environment than a diet that includes meat. They choose to fuel their bodies with energy from plants rather than animals as a matter of conscience.
Others choose plant-based diets because they are typically lower in saturated fat, higher in fiber, and richer in vitamins and minerals. Vegans tend to have lower body weight, lower serum cholesterol, and lower blood pressure than people who consume meat. Their diets are higher in folic acid, vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and fiber. These nutrients, among others, are instrumental in preventing certain chronic diseases. (It’s important to note that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, protein sources, and whole grains is necessary to achieve these benefits; many ultra-processed foods are, technically, vegan.)
And plant-based diets are not new; they have existed for centuries. Avoiding or limiting animal-based foods is a part of some religions and cultures.
Following a vegan lifestyle can provide many health benefits. Exclusively plant-based diets are typically rich in fiber. Most Americans need between 25 and 28 grams of fiber daily, and many do not consume enough fiber. A high-fiber plant-based diet may also prevent certain chronic diseases and can lower your risk for some cancers.
Vegan diets are also low in saturated fats. Plant-based fats are largely unsaturated, liquid oils. Saturated fats, those that are solid at room temperature, are largely from animal sources such as meat and dairy. (The most common exception is coconut oil, which is a plant-based saturated fat.) Eating too much saturated fat can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Vegan diets may positively contribute to:
And people who do not go completely vegan can see many health benefits from cutting down on animal-based foods and adding more plant-based alternatives to their diet. This why concepts like “Meatless Monday” have been gaining in popularity in recent years.
As with any lifestyle that restricts certain food groups or foods, there is a risk of nutrient deficiency with a vegan diet. People following a vegan diet may be at risk for:
• Low iron
• Low vitamin B12
• Low vitamin D
• Low selenium
• Low calcium, which may cause osteoporosis, or osteopenia
• Low intake of omega-3 fatty acids
With any diet, the key to getting all the nutrients a body needs is variety. Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, as well as a variety of protein sources, such as tofu, beans, nuts, and seeds, can prevent nutrient deficiency. Vegans can also prevent deficiency easily with supplements.
Significant and/or sudden dietary changes can cause stress to you and your body. Before making a major dietary change, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider. They can go over your routine blood work, check your personal health history, and discuss your health goals with you, so you can transition to a new diet while meeting all your nutrition needs. Your physician can also keep an eye on your bloodwork in the short term and long term, to identify any nutrient deficiencies. You may need to eat more leafy greens, more fermented foods, more legumes, or supplements to keep your body at its best. Your physician may even refer you to a dietitian, who can help you discover foods you love that fit your new diet.
If you’re interested in discussing lifestyle changes or new health goals, make a virtual or in-person primary care appointment with Carbon Health today.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.