Veganism is at an all-time high in the U.S., with 6 percent of American adults choosing to embrace a vegan diet or lifestyle according to a Top Trends in Prepared Foods report. This may not seem like a high figure but is significantly greater than the 1 percent of the U.S. population who were vegans in 2014.
In 2016 the term ‘vegan’ was one of the highest Googled words with an increase of 90 percent according to the Vegan Food and Living Magazine. This led to Google’s Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt speaking out in defense of the vegan movement and predicting “a vegan revolution is coming”.
Opponents of a vegan lifestyle point out the diets lack of many essential vitamins and nutrients. Research has shown, however, that if you make the right food choices when becoming a vegan, not only will you look better but a vegan diet can reduce your risk of both cancer and heart disease (as well as being a whole lot better for the animals of the world).
Becoming a vegan has become trendy over the past few years with Lewis Hamilton, the F1 World Champion, becoming the latest celebrity to announce he’s planning to go full-time vegan in the hope of encouraging others to follow his example. Lewis joins a long list of celebrities to have become vegan that includes Miley Cyrus (Miley’s pet pig is also vegan), Ariana Grande, and industry stalwarts like Ellen DeGeneres and Stevie Wonder. Other celebrities like Alicia Silverstone, Joan Jett, Moby, and Joaquin Phoenix have been vegans for over 30 years now, with Phoenix’s narration of the documentary Earthlings said to be responsible for converting many to the vegan trend, even Ellen puts her veganism down to this enlightening film.
Following a vegan diet can be very challenging, it’s more of a lifestyle choice than a simple nutrition plan. Vegetarian diets consist of eating or drinking anything where the animals haven’t been killed, eggs and dairy are allowed although some vegetarians may choose to cut these out too. Other vegetarians may decide to only cut out red meat yet still eat poultry or fish. A true vegan lifestyle doesn’t feature such choices.
Deciding to become vegan means cutting out all animal products, from your diet and lifestyle, and clothing. Not just eggs, milk, and butter but also your leather belts and shoes or anything that’s been tested on animals. Although you can follow other diets while being a vegan, like the Paleo diet without any of the meat products, there’s no compromise in the vegan lifestyle on any animal-based products.
Exploding the Myth That a Vegan Diet is Lacking in Nutrients
Obviously when you cut whole food groups from your diet you also risk missing out on some of the important nutrients of that group. A vegan diet full of processed foods can be just as unhealthy as a meat-eater’s diet of processed junk food. The key is to choose healthy whole foods and supplements that aim to replace those lost vitamins and minerals.
A healthy vegan diet can be high in fiber and rich in vitamins, minerals and powerful antioxidants. Benefits of a healthy vegan diet include improved digestion, lower blood pressure, higher levels of energy, weight loss, stronger hair, and a reduced risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer. One study suggested vegans may benefit from a 15 percent lower risk of developing or dying from cancer.
Making the right choices for a healthier vegan life means choosing a diet that has a wide range of whole foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, pulses, legumes, and other plant-based wholesome foods. Vegan diets that are high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods will actually have a negative impact on your health. It’s very easy when cutting out meats to rely on processed carbs like white bread, pasta, white rice, or white flour-based products but choosing the whole grain options will increase the fiber and essential vitamins or minerals in your diet.
The Risks of a Vegan Diet and How to Avoid Them
Following a healthy diet that reduces your intake of processed foods and replaces them with nutrient-rich whole foods is important for everybody, not just vegans. But following a vegan diet that isn’t well planned will put you at a higher risk of missing out on certain nutrients you need for a healthy functioning body. Although there’s an old stereotype of vegetarians or vegans being weakling, pasty-faced individuals due to the lack of minerals or vitamins, there are many ways you can make sure your new vegan diet is sufficient in these essential minerals, vitamins, protein, and amino acids.
Lack of Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 has been found to be deficient in many people following a plant-based diet as it’s mostly found in animal products. Vitamin B12 is essential for the development of your DNA, repairing it and keeping your nervous system in check, without it your whole body could just shut down. Symptoms of a B12 deficiency include rapid weight loss, fatigue, shaking, and other nerve issues.
One of the few plant foods that are high is a source of vitamin B12 are nori seaweed wraps which are also another source of complete protein for your body. Fortified foods that are enriched with calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12 should be introduced to your diet or multivitamins are another good source of vitamin B12. A simple blood test by your doctor will determine whether you’re lacking in this important nutrient.
Vegans Don’t Get Enough Protein—MYTH!
One of the most common misconceptions about the vegan lifestyle (and vegetarianism too) is that you won’t get enough protein as many people believe protein only comes from meat, or that meat is the best source of protein. The actual truth is that protein exists in so many other non-meat foods like legumes, lentils, some whole grains, and certain types of vegetables.
Proteins are often called the building blocks of life as they break down into amino acids which promote cell growth and repair. Daily protein requirements can be overestimated with even for the more athletic types wanting to develop more muscles, a study by McMaster University suggesting that a protein intake of only 1.3 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight will stimulate protein synthesis.
Foods that are high in protein include seitan, a meat substitute popular with vegetarians, and one of the best sources of protein you can find, with about 36 grams per half-cup. Superfoods like chia seeds or quinoa (which contains all nine of the essential amino acids) are often called the perfect proteins and are versatile enough to be added to a soup or veggie chili, used in baking, or tossed with vegetables to make a salad. If you’re allergic, or simply don’t like some of the foods, like a nut allergy then there are many protein powders that are made to vegan recipes and avoid using casein or whey. You could even make your own vegan protein powder to add to your smoothies by watching the following video:
Vegan Diets Are Lacking in Calcium and Iron—ANOTHER MYTH!
Another mistake many people also make is thinking that calcium only comes from dairy, which of course as a vegan you won’t be getting in your diet. Calcium is an important nutrient that our bodies need, especially for stronger bones and teeth. Fortunately, many plant-based foods, especially leafy greens, are an excellent source of calcium and can provide the iron your body needs too. Calcium-fortified plant milks and yogurts will help a vegan reach their dietary calcium requirements and can be fortified with vitamins B12 and D too.
A common misconception is the lack of iron in a vegan diet. While there are vegans who suffer from anemia this is often caused by not balancing the diet enough and not getting enough of the right vegetables in their diet, a problem which occurs with meat-eaters too. Vegan diets contain only non-heme iron not as well absorbed by the body as the heme iron found in animal foods, so you may need to ingest more iron if you want the same benefits. Vitamin C-rich foods like red peppers, citrus fruits or broccoli can aid with iron absorption.
For a vegan, leafy greens are as essential as they are full of necessary vitamins and minerals for the body. If you think you’re struggling with getting enough calcium, iron or other minerals in your diet, you could always take supplements. Speaking with a doctor may help if you feel your diet may be leading to deficiencies.
Supplements You Should Consider Taking When Becoming a Vegan
Many vegans, especially when first embarking on a vegan lifestyle, may find it difficult to eat enough of the nutrient-rich or fortified foods they need to meet their body’s daily requirements. Supplements can be beneficial, just read the labels to ensure they’re vegan friendly.
The lack of fish in your diet will mean you may be lacking in essential omega-3 fatty acids which your body needs to function and provide many health benefits for both your body and brain. Foods high in alpha-linolenic acids include chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp, walnuts and soybeans although there’s a debate whether the conversion is good enough to meet your daily requirements. Supplementing your intake with EPA and DHA from an algae oil can be a more efficient way to prevent low levels.
Vitamin D is found in very few foods, almost all of them animal-based. Mushrooms that have absorbed vitamin D from the sun can be a good way of meeting your requirements with portobello, maitake, morel, button, and shitake mushrooms all known to be high in vitamin D. Fortified soy milk or almond milk and tofu can also be another good source of vitamin D, but you should check it’s made with the D2 vitamin as D3 is often made from animal sources like sheep’s wool. Sunshine is one of nature’s greatest providers of vitamin D with it taking five to 30 minutes of exposure to the sun twice a week for our bodies to make enough vitamin D. If you live in a locale where there’s little sun, or in the winter months, taking a capsule or oral spray can be a way to make sure your body gets enough vitamin D.
Other supplements that are useful include vitamin B12, iron, iodine, calcium or zinc. Iron should only be taken when you have a documented deficiency as too much iron consumption may cause health issues and prevent the body from absorbing other nutrients. Iodine, another essential nutrient can be taken as a supplement too, or simply adding ½ teaspoon of iodized salt to your daily diet will be sufficient.
Becoming a Vegan Can Be Challenging
A study by the Humane Research Council in 2014 found there were five times more former vegetarians or vegans than there were current vegetarians/vegans. Approximately 84 percent of people who choose to become vegetarian or vegan abandoned their diet, although vegans were found to be less likely to be tempted to start eating meat again than former vegetarians.
Starting on a vegan journey can be tough and you’ll be cutting out many of the foods you’re familiar with or have grown to like. If you’re already a vegetarian or not eating too many animal products it’ll no doubt be easier and you should be able to make a quicker transition to the vegan life. Depending on the type of person you are will decide whether you simply go cold turkey and set a date when you’ll stop eating animal products or gradually cut things a little at a time.
Research has demonstrated the more gradually people move towards a vegan lifestyle, the more likely they are to stick with it. If you have a diet that’s heavy in meats, fish, cheese, eggs or dairy it can be better to take a few weeks or months to go completely animal-free. Try introducing changes one at a time, like cutting out all chicken and eggs one week and alternating the larger changes with smaller changes until you’ve completely eliminated animal products from your lifestyle.
Don’t expect weight loss overnight, although most vegans are slimmer than meat-eating counterparts, it can also be dependent on the type of diet you follow. High carb processed foods will still carry the same calories, although the extra fiber you get from many plant-based foods will fill you up quicker and you may eat less. Choosing a whole food vegan diet will make weight loss more likely, but a vegan diet high in processed foods and sugar may have no effect or even make you gain weight.
Are You Ready to Take the First Steps in Becoming a Vegan?
Whatever your reasons for wanting to become a vegan, be it ethical or health reasons, there are many things you need to know before becoming a vegan. There are myths that should be taken with a pinch of salt but also some risks we’ve looked at which can be worked around. Benefits to following a vegan diet or lifestyle can include protecting your heart and bones, looking slimmer, and a general improvement in your overall health. And just think how much better off the animals will be, you’re helping to change the world one step at a time.