Article and Comment – Is A Vegan Diet Actually Healthier?
In a recent article in New Scientist, Helen Thomson discussed whether a vegan diet was healthier for you than an Omnivore diet and the answer is clearly, it depends.
The term “Vegan” and the beginning of the vegan movement started with Donald Watson, who founded the UK vegan society with his wife, after becoming a vegetarian in 1924 at age 14 following spending time at his uncle’s farm after seeing animals being sent to be killed for food. He lived until 95 and ate a diet that consisted of a combination of nuts, apples, dried fruits, vegetables and lentils.
However, this is very different to a “modern” vegan diet. With the introduction of “Meat Substitute” products filling the market. Unfortunately, these products are often ultra-processed food made of Soya-protein concentrate and/or filled with salt, sugar, additives and flavours to resemble the texture and taste of meats.
In the UK, young people following a Vegan diet and substituting meat with meat substitutes eat 40% of their diet from ultra-processed foods verses 33% of the population following a meat based diet, negating any of the health benefits of a vegan diet and are more likely to be overweight or obese. In addition, the high intake of soya based protein can be a risk for women with breast cancer due to the higher intake of Estrogen.
If a good vegan diet healthier than a meat based diet?
In general, the answer is yes. People following a vegan diet tend to have lower blood glucose, better insulin metabolism, tend to be lower in weight due to the lower saturated fat and higher dietary fibre intake, but this is only if meat substitute products are limited in your diet.
The following are also important to take into consideration when following a vegan diet:
• Protein – Eating a variety of different food types throughout the day to ensure that you get the appropriate amount of protein. Meat based protein, eggs and soya protein are complete proteins, which mean that they contain all the 23 essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that must be consumed and can not be synthesised by your body. Plant proteins don’t contain or have less of some essential amino acids. Cereals and grains are low in lysine and legumes are low in methionine. So, to have complete proteins, you need to consume a combination of these to meet your protein needs. However, the good news is they don’t need to be consumes together for every meal, but as long as you consume both are part of your regular diet, your needs will be met. In addition, if you do consume some eggs and diary, this will absolutely ensure that you meet your protein requirements
• Iron – Vegans need to consume 1.8 times the normal recommended daily intake of iron, because non-heme iron (compared to heme iron from meat) is not absorbed as readily. Vegans with a low iron intake should aim to eat more iron-rich foods, such as cruciferous vegetables, beans, peas, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds. Iron-fortified foods, such as cereals, enriched breads, and some plant milks. In addition, using cast-iron pots and pans to cook, avoiding tea or coffee with meals, and combining iron-rich foods with a source of vitamin C can help boost iron absorption. However, to determine whether supplements are necessary is to get your hemoglobin and ferritin levels checked by your medical practitioner.
• Calcium – Include foods such as bok choy, kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, broccoli, chickpeas, calcium-set tofu, and fortified plant milks or juices.
• Zinc – While not all vegans have low blood levels of zinc, a recent review of 26 studies showed that vegetarians, especially vegans, have lower zinc intakes and slightly lower blood levels of zinc. Zinc is important for normal healing and skin health. Eating a variety of zinc-rich foods throughout the day, such as wholegrains, wheat germ, tofu, sprouted breads, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
• B12 – The only scientifically proven way for vegans to reach these levels is by consuming B12-fortified foods or taking a vitamin B12 supplement. B12 fortified foods commonly include plant milks, soy products, breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast. Vegans who are unable to reach the recommended daily intake using fortified foods should opt for a daily supplement providing 25–100 mcg of cyanocobalamin or a weekly dosage of 2,000 mcg.
• Omega 3 – Research consistently shows that vegetarians and vegans have up to 50% lower blood and tissue concentrations of EPA and DHA, the long chain fatty acids that are the result of the Omega-3 fatty acids. Vegans can reach this recommended intake by supplementing with Algae oil and Flaxseed oil and by minimizing your intake of omega-6 fatty acids from oils, including corn, safflower, sunflower, and sesame oils.
• Iodine – Half a teaspoon (2.5 ml) of iodized salt is sufficient to meet your daily needs.
Thomson, H (2021) The vegan health illusion. New Scientist, 30th October 2021.P38-41.
Marsh K A, Munn E A, Baines S K (2013) Protein and vegetarian diets. The Medical Journal of Australia, 199 (4), S7-S10
Petre A P (2019) 7 Supplements You Need on a Vegan Diet. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/7-supplements-for-vegans
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