Veganism is unquestionably on the rise. If you want to get a feel for just how quickly and markedly this lifestyle choice is gaining popularity, just look at the stats presented by The Vegan Society here.
Usually the rationale for going vegan relates to animal welfare or environmental considerations. But, how does a vegan diet stack up against a more traditional western diet in terms of health, weight loss and lifestyle? Below we discuss the veganism pros and cons.
Benefits of Being Vegan: Health
A vegan diet has a good reputation for being healthy, and rightly so. Without foods containing animal products, your diet will naturally contain more fruit, vegetables, legumes and wholegrains. These foods, in combination, will provide you with oodles of goodness such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients.
With more of these sorts of foods you’re going to get more fibre too. Fibre is great for gut health and, together with all those nutrients, can help to protect against cancer.
Most of the saturated fat in the western diet comes from animal products; if you switch to a vegan diet, you’re going consume less of it and reduce your bad cholesterol at the same time.
As if all that wasn’t impressive enough, veganism has also been associated with lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
Disadvantages of Being Vegan: Health
Nutrient deficiencies. Certain nutrients, such as those listed below, are far more abundant in foods derived from animals so, if you are vegan, you have to be sure you are getting all the foods you need to maintain good all-round health. Here are the potential deficiencies and the antidotes for a vegan diet:
- Iron: Dried fruit, pulses, beans, nuts, whole grains leafy greens – have a source of vitamin C with these foods for better absorption.
- Calcium: Leafy greens, soy beans, tofu, nuts.
- Omega 3s: Walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp, soy beans.
- Vitamin D: Sun exposure is the best source, but you can find it in fortified foods such as vegan milk and cereals.
- Vitamin B12: Generally only in fortified foods like soy milk, fake meats and breakfast cereals.
- Protein: something that is closely associated with one of our favourite topics – muscle retention. There’s a more in-depth discussion on this below.
Benefits of Being Vegan: Weight Loss
More foods in the traditional western diet are calorie dense than in the vegan diet, often because they contain a lot of fat. Anything containing cheese or other full fat dairy (almost everything with pastry, breadcrumbs or batter; cakes and sweets; sausages and salamis; ready meals) all contain foods derived from animals. Take all this stuff out of your diet and you’re almost certainly going to consume fewer calories.
Also, because a vegan diet has plenty of fibre and filling foods, it’s going to tend to keep you fuller for longer, which is great for helping you eat less over the course of a day.
Disadvantages of Being Vegan: Weight Loss
If you’re just considering weight loss, there aren’t too many cons. Just be clear that you don’t have to go vegan to benefit from the weight loss effects of vegan foods. You can still eat lean sources of animal protein and low fat dairy, along with lots of fruit, veg, wholegrains and legumes to achieve the same weight loss benefits.
Also note that calcium intake has been associated with an improved ability to lose weight. Click here to see an example. Since dairy is a major source of calcium in the western diet, vegans would need to find alternative foods that would provide equivalent amounts of calcium.
Benefits of Being Vegan: Lifestyle
The main lifestyle benefit of going vegan would be the comfort of knowing that you are doing your bit to reduce animal cruelty and the environmental impact of food production.
But that’s probably about it. If you’re thinking of going vegan, be sure to understand that there are significant lifestyle challenges.
Disadvantages of Being Vegan: Lifestyle
Being vegan is definitely more challenging than following a traditional western diet, mainly because of the availability of vegan foods and the smaller accumulated know-how of choosing, preparing and cooking vegan food. For starters, if you want to avoid all animal products, you have to know your food. For example:
- Even honey is off the menu
- Some foods that you might intuitively think do not contain animal products, actually do. They may contain substances derived from cow stomach, pork gelatin, crushed beetles, fish scales, duck feathers and so on. You have to know your foods!
- A lot of ‘meat-free’ products are not animal-free, often containing egg, cheese, whey and so on.
You’re going to have to be vigilant, read the food labels and ask in restaurants about the ingredients. You’ll definitely find it harder to eat out as, even now, vegan choices are limited.
Going vegan is a big change. You’ll need to be disciplined to avoid animal products; you’re going to need to be more knowledgeable to ensure you get all the nutrients you need; you’ll have to learn how to choose and cook vegan food. A good approach would be to wean yourself off animal products gradually. Drop the meat and poultry, then the fish, then the eggs and dairy.
Can You Get Enough Protein with a Vegan Diet?
Getting enough protein is essential to maintain healthy function and preserve muscle tissue. Read our previous blog to find out about the importance of muscle and the role protein plays in maintaining it here. Probably the most frequent criticism of the vegan diet is that it is too low in high quality protein.
Most of the protein in the standard western diet comes from food derived from animals. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy are all rich sources of complete protein. Notice the word ‘complete’. This means a protein contains all 9 essential amino acids (EAAs) in sufficient quantity to facilitate optimal synthesis of bodily proteins.
Most plant proteins are lower in protein and deficient in one or more EAAs, which is why it’s more challenging to get enough high quality protein in a vegan diet. But crucially, not all plant proteins are deficient in the same EAA. That means, if you combine the right foods together, you can create a meal that contains a complete protein and all EAAs in sufficient quantities.
For example, as a rule of thumb, if you combine legumes or vegetables with grains or nuts, you’re going to create complete proteins. Beans on toast is an often-quoted example.
Some plant proteins are complete without combining them with others. Soy is the most familiar and abundant in everyday foodstuffs and it compares well to animal protein. You can get meat alternatives, cheeses, milk and yoghurts all made from soy, as well as specific soy-based foods such as tofu and tempeh.
But, be aware that there is a long-standing debate about the effects of soy on male hormones. Because the chemical structure of the isoflavones contained in soy closely resemble that of estrogen, they are thought to have a similar effect, including the reduction of testosterone. There is evidence to both support and refute this conjecture. Click here to read an article in the popular press, and a nice discussion on the topic here.
More recently we have seen the emergence of vegan products designed to reproduce the amino acid profile of animal products. Some provide complete nutrition with the right blend of plant proteins to create the required amino acid profile. Huel is a great example. The creators have even managed to make it free of soy and high in leucine, the primary amino acid that stimulates muscle protein synthesis. If you are time poor and want to ensure you are getting enough high quality protein then this is a great product. Be aware though, that Huel, although very balanced and nutritious, is a highly processed food. So, if you are suspicious of processed foods, this may not be for you.
That was a quick whizz through the veganism pros and cons. The bottom line is that if you choose to follow a vegan diet, it can be super healthy and can support any of your sporting or weight loss goals, providing it is well thought out and structured. To achieve that you’ll need to learn about food and do the research. That’s something we advocate to everyone, regardless of dietary preference.