The Benefits and Myths of Going Vegan
Veganism is in.
It is fashionable to be on a diet of some sort.
But is it really just fashionable or is there actually any science to say that it actually improves your health. And is there a health (and maybe not so healthy) way to be a vegan?
Veganism may seem like the pinnacle of clean eating. The ultimate health-food diet. The top of the top, nutrition-wise.
But hold up!
“Just because it’s vegan does not mean it’s healthy.”
That’s right. You can eat vegan and STILL be eating junk food.
Sugar is Vegan! Alcohol is Vegan! And sadly, none of these are health foods!
What is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet means you don’t consume anything that comes from animals, including:
- Meat, poultry and fish/shellfish.
- Dairy – including cream sauces, dressings, or condiments.
- Meat-based broths, gravies or sauces.
Some eat vegan food for ethical reasons, which is why some people may not consume honey and similar products that come from living things. And while a vegan diet is often associated with a healthier lifestyle, that’s only true when it’s based on whole, plant-based foods.
Is it healthier to be vegan?
A vegan diet that’s low in processed foods and high in whole, plant-based foods has many health benefits. A plant-based diet involves more than not eating meat or animal products. It focuses on eating mainly fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and oils.
A plant-based diet is rich in nutrients, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Getting enough fiber promotes gut health and better blood sugar, weight and cholesterol control.
Other health benefits of plant-based diets include:
- Prevent heart disease.
- Help maintain a healthy weight and lose excess weight.
- May help control blood sugar and prevent Type 2 diabetes.
- Reduce levels of bad cholesterol.
- May lower cancer risk.
- May help decrease arthritis symptoms, including pain and joint swelling.
- May reduce Alzheimer’s disease risk.
Just eating more plant-based foods overall is a huge leap in the right direction. So if being a vegan feels overwhelming, consider starting with a goal of eating more plant-based foods.
"If you’re going to go vegan, keep one thing in mind. There is actually a right — and a wrong — way to do it."
The potential risks involved with eating a vegan diet
If you’re going to go vegan, keep one thing in mind. There is actually a right — and a wrong — way to do it.
Eating vegan can lead to nutrient deficiencies because you’re eliminating a lot of food groups, such as protein and calcium sources. And if you follow a vegan junk food diet, you’re even more likely to experience deficiencies because you’re not getting enough vitamins, such as B12, zinc and vitamin D.
A vegan junk food diet still respects animals — but it often replaces them with processed vegan foods. Most fast food or restaurant vegan burgers can have the same number of calories and fat as a traditional hamburger. Potato chips and vegan baked goods exist, but that doesn’t make them healthy. The health benefits come when you don’t eat anything that walks — or comes in a box, bag or can.
But before you run away from your computer screaming, that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge. Everything is OK on occasion. Enjoy that piece of vegan cheesecake if it is a significant occasion. It’s the same as having a regular piece of cheesecake. Just keep within your overall health and diet goals.
How to become a vegan… safely.
To go vegan, shoot for one to two weeks for each step:
Step 1: Eliminate red meat.
Step 2: Drop chicken and keep eating fish.
Step 3: Start to incorporate meatless meals into your diet and see how you do with them.
Step 4: Experiment with new recipes.
Step 5: Drop dairy and replace it with dairy alternatives.
Step 6: Stop eating fish.
A vegan diet may be tough on convenience. But once you have your essential pantry items and a good routine, it’s less of a challenge. Besides, when people start to experience the benefits of going plant-based, they are more convinced to stay on.
You could even start by including a couple of meatless meals into your week to replace red meat could be a good way to start. The key is building a foundation of good meatless recipes and meals to make the transition easier.
Your ultimate vegan food list: How to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need
Some Vegan protein sources
Protein is critical for growth and cellular repair. Good plant-based sources include:
- Soybeans and soy milk.
Vegan calcium sources
Calcium supports bone health. Vegan-friendly milk alternatives include:
- Almond milk.
- Cashew milk.
- Coconut milk.
- Rice milk.
- Soy milk.
- Hemp milk.
- Flax milk.
- Oat milk.
Be sure to check nutrition facts and ingredients for calcium, vitamin D and protein for these can vary greatly based on type and brand.
Other calcium-rich choices include:
- Dark, leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, kale, broccoli and collard greens.
- Calcium-fortified cereals.
- Calcium-fortified orange juices.
Vegan sources of B vitamins
- Helps make red blood cells.
- Prevents anemia.
- Protects nerve cells.
Since you can’t get vitamin B12 from plant sources, try:
- Fortified breakfast cereals.
- Fortified soy foods, including tofu and soy milk.
- Nutritional yeast (a flaky dietary supplement that has a cheesy flavour).
Vegan sources of iron
There are two kinds of iron:
- Heme iron comes from animals.
- Non-heme iron comes from plants.
Your body doesn’t absorb plant sources of iron as well as iron from animals. Pairing plant sources of iron with vitamin C foods, such as citrus fruits, strawberries and tomatoes, to increase absorption.
Great plant sources of iron include:
- Blackstrap molasses.
- Dark leafy greens such as spinach.
- Dried fruits such as prunes, figs and raisins.
- Iron-fortified cereals.
- Whole grains.
Vegan sources of omega-3s
Omega-3 fats are important for heart health and eye and brain development. Eat these vegan alternatives to get your daily dose:
- Chia seeds.
- Ground flaxseeds.
- Hemp seeds.
- Pumpkin and pumpkin seeds.
If you’re still not convinced that you can maintain a good iron level by being on a plant-based diet, you might want to watch my video Best Source of Iron – Is having Steak a Mistake?
Helping You Discover, Empower & Prosper
Dr Arun Dhir | GI Surgeon, Health Reformist & Passionate Educator.
About Dr Arun:
Besides having a busy private practice at Melbourne Gastro Surgery – Centre for Weight Loss, Dr Arun is an active member of the ANZ Association of Gastro-Oesophageal surgeons (ANZGOSA), ANZ Society of Metabolic and Obesity Surgery (OSSANZ) and Australian College of Nutrition and Environmental Medicine (ACNEM).
Dr Arun is also a senior lecturer (University of Melbourne) and yoga and meditation teacher, with a strong interest in the mind-body-gut connection. He regularly writes and speaks about gut health, gut microbiome, obesity, gastrointestinal surgery and healing. Arun’s published works include Happy Gut Healthy Weight (Balboa Press 2018), Creating a New You – Health Journal (Metagenics 2019), and Your Mess Has a Message (2021).