Vegan health is a common inspiration for discussion about diet in all parts of the world. How does the vegan diet influence health? And can vegans live nutritionally healthy lives?
Confusion surrounding vegan health is understandable. We’re constantly inundated with marketing messages designed to support the meat industry.
Only when we peel back the layers of the factory farming onion do we discover the truth about vegan health and the state of nutrition across the planet.
A vegan diet isn’t unhealthy or undesirable. It shouldn’t cause you to feel deprived or cheated, either. Instead, it should exacerbate your pride in terms of animal sentience and encourage you to eat a more balanced diet.
Just because vegan health food eliminates meat and animal by-products doesn’t meet your nutritional needs. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Vegan Health Concerns
Many people disparage the vegan diet because they believe it can’t meet our nutritional needs. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Most of these arguments center around protein — a macronutrient we all need to build strong muscles, organs, and other bodily tissue. The problem is that many consumers are mistaken about where protein comes from.
Yes, meat and animal by-products contain protein. So do many plant-based food sources, from avocado to nuts and legumes. The idea that you can’t get enough protein on a vegan diet defies all validated science.
According to Dr. Reed Mangels, it’s easy for vegans to consume sufficient protein. They just have to make sure they’re eating enough calories to sustain their weight.
Most vegan diets consist of 10 percent or more of protein, which is well within their dietary needs. Indeed, Dr. Mangels asserts that people who eat the “Standard American Diet” consume too much protein, and that excess protein in the diet can contribute to diseases like osteoporosis.
The other common vegan health concern centers around specific minerals, such as iron. Nutrition specialists interviewed by NPR push away those concerns. According to the most recent data, most people consume sufficient iron without having to actively seek it out.
This includes vegans.
It’s true that plant-based iron isn’t as easy for the body to absorb as the iron found in meat. However, vegans eat more spinach, legumes, lentils, and other plant-based iron sources than people who consume meat, so they get enough to ensure their bodies can operate smoothly.
Plus, vegans who are worried about iron intake can always turn to supplements.
Vegan Health Benefits
Naysayers might express concerns about vegan health, but research suggests that vegans are among the healthiest people on the planet. They have lower blood pressure, a reduced risk of type-2 diabetes, a lowered cancer risk by as much as 20 percent, and reduced cholesterol compared to non-vegans.
Why is this the case?
For one thing, vegans don’t eat some of the unhealthiest foods that carnivores often consume, such as red meat, eggs, and dairy. Instead, they turn to plant-based foods to keep them satiated, which leads to improved health overall.
According to Harvard, happiness can also lead to improved health. Vegan health benefits can come from being in line with one’s beliefs. If you know that you’re contributing to a cause greater than yourself and helping to save animals, you might have less stress in your life and, consequently, greater health.
In fact, Harvard names “doing good” as one of the keys to greater happiness. Specifically, “acting in accordance with your virtues” might lower stress so that your body can function more efficiently.
Veganism Doesn’t Automatically Mean Improved Health
While, in many cases, vegan health is actually better than the health associated with other dietary lifestyles, it isn’t a magic bullet. If you’re still eating processed foods with lots of unnecessary ingredients, you’re likely not going to experience these vegan health benefits.
Vegans can still eat junk food, and filling your diet with these food choices can cause weight gain, a lack of satiety, and reduced fulfillment. Plus, you’ll miss out on all the health benefits of whole, rich foods.
You might have a cheat day every once in a while and consume a black bean burger or a stack of vegan pancakes. However, stick to fresh fruits and vegetables for most of your meals to reap the full benefits of vegan health.
Advantages of Avoiding Hormones and Antibiotics in Food
Another vegan health benefit is the avoidance of hormones and antibiotics in vegan diets. Animals are often injected with these two substances to make them larger and to prevent disease from spreading through factory farming operations.
An expose in the New York Times presented evidence that beef farmers are disregarding the FDA’s ban on injecting cows with human antibiotics for the purpose of making them grow faster and leaner. Furthermore, animals can still receive antibiotics if they have bacterial diseases.
The problem with antibiotics in our food is that it results in antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. These microscopic florae can adjust to antibiotic exposure and survive, which means that humans who visit the doctor with bacterial infections might not have access to a solution.
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains kill up to 23,000 Americans every year, according to the New York Times. That number is magnified considerably if you consider how many people in other parts of the world might suffer the same fate.
One-fifth of the deaths associated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria are a direct result of food containing antibiotics.
There aren’t many studies available on the impacts of growth hormone in food on children and adults. However, according to Weight Watchers, anecdotal data suggests a link between hormones in food and reproductive problems in children and adults.
When children are exposed to excess growth hormone, for instance, their reproductive systems might not evolve normally. Adults might suffer from low sperm count or motility in men or delayed reproductive development in women.
There’s no concrete scientific evidence to suggest that the hormones used in beef and dairy cows are killing the human race. However, vegan health benefits include not having to worry about it at all.
Going Vegan: Health Tips for New Vegans
If you’re thinking about going vegan, or if you’re new to the vegan diet, there are a few vegan health tips we can give you to help you along your journey. The more you know about your diet and its impact on your health and happiness, the easier you’ll find the transition.
Remember that veganism isn’t a diet in the traditional sense of the word. If you’re choosing it because you want to lose a few pounds before your wedding, it’s probably not going to stick. However, if you’re committed to your health and to the rescue of sentient creatures, you’ll fare much better.
It’s not just a diet. It’s a lifelong lifestyle.
Let’s look at some of the best vegan health tips that you can implement today.
Gather a Few Supplements
You can improve your health with a vegan diet if you take a few daily supplements. Iron, B12, and vitamin D are all good choices. B12 only comes from animal meat, and vitamin D is found most liberally in dairy products.
Your need for supplements will vary depending on the foods in your diet. For instance, if you choose iron-fortified foods, you might not need an iron supplement. The same goes for all other vitamins and minerals.
Research Vegan Options at Restaurants
Contrary to popular belief, you can eat out even if you’re vegan. Best of all, you’ll likely choose healthier foods as a vegan because you won’t be tempted by cream sauces, meat, dairy, and other foods that rack up the calories in restaurant dishes.
Salads are often a safe choice as long as they’re not topped with cheese, egg, or meat. You can ask the waitstaff at any restaurant to bring you a complete list of ingredients in any dish.
Ask for your salads without dressing, as many dressings contain non-vegan ingredients. You’ll be better off sticking with dishes that contain only whole, plant-based foods.
Determine Your Favorite Protein Sources
As mentioned above, you can easily maintain vegan health by eating plant-based proteins. To ensure you get enough of them, identify your favorite high-protein foods so you can add them liberally to your diet.
Some of the best options include soy, tempeh, almonds, quinoa, peanuts, and chickpeas. As long as you’re eating sufficient calories for your body and you add plant-based protein to your plate, you won’t suffer from a deficiency.
Choose Healthful, Whole Foods
It’s true that eating processed junk is often easier and more convenient than eating natural, whole foods, but you’ll thank yourself for going the healthy route. Vegan health depends on getting lots of fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet.
Skip the white potatoes, white bread, pasta, and other processed foods in favor of colorful vegetables. Many processed foods have very little nutritional value, which means they qualify as empty calories. You want every calorie to count toward vegan health.
Similarly, avoid the meat and dairy alternatives as much as possible. Assuming that a soy burger is healthy just because it’s vegan will set you up for dietary failure. Instead of looking for substitutes, find new foods that excite you.
Consider Going Vegetarian First
The most important thing about vegan health is to find your way at your pace. You don’t have to go full vegan at once if you’re not comfortable. Indeed, many vegans start out as vegetarians.
Eliminating things from your diet one at a time can also help. For instance, maybe you’ll get rid of red meat first, then white meat. Move on to eggs and dairy. That way, your body adjusts to the transition more easily.
Some people experience uncomfortable symptoms when they go vegan all at once. Since they’re eating more roughage, they might have some bloating and stomach cramps. These symptoms go away, but they’re often less pronounced if you take it slowly.
Prep Meals in Advance
In some ways, at least at first, going vegan requires that you spend more time in the kitchen. However, if you want to maintain your vegan health, you need to make sure you’re getting sufficient calories and not relying on junk food when you’re in a rush.
Preparing meals in advance can make your day-to-day schedule less stressful. Plus, you can put your prepared meals in individual containers in your refrigerator for future consumption, which can keep your fridge more organized.
Vegan Health: Sleep, Exercise, and Mental Stimulation
It’s a mistake to assume that vegan health boils down to what you put in your mouth. You also need to focus on other areas of your health, including sleep, exercise, and mental stimulation.
Vegans often experience an increase in mental acuity. They’re more focused and can concentrate for longer periods of time thanks to their diets. However, if you squander that mental acuity, it won’t do you any good.
Avoid mindless activities in favor of more stimulating ones. Read books, solve puzzles, and enjoy conversation with family members and friends. Keep your mind on its toes by trying new things and having fresh experiences.
Make sure you get adequate sleep at night, as well. If you don’t sleep, mental fogginess, increased hunger, and slower reflexes can result. Additionally, sleep debt accumulates over time, so you can’t sleep three hours one night, then make it up by sleeping 11 hours the next night.
Finally, make time for exercise. Even if you’re busy, you can take the stairs instead of the elevator, run in place for five minutes at a time, or walk home from work. If you prioritize exercise, you’ll burn unnecessary calories and sleep better at night.
We’ve already talked about vegetables, but they deserve their own section in any conversation about vegan health. If you make veggies the main event in every meal, you’ll get plenty of vitamins, minerals, and macros.
Color matters when it comes to vegetables. Try to get as many different colors on your plate as possible because different colored vegetables have varied nutrients.
Vegetables’ high fiber content will ensure that you’re satiated after every meal and that you stay regular. Try a new vegetable every week if you’re interested in more variety in pursuit of optimal vegan health.
Try Berries and Melon as Snacks or Desserts
Berries and melon contain lots of antioxidants, which will take your vegan health record to new levels. They’re also low on the glycemic index, so they won’t impact your blood sugar as much as, say, a banana or pineapple.
Consider topping your oatmeal with blueberries and raspberries or dipping strawberries in dark chocolate for dessert. Melon chunks are great on-the-go snacks.
Why Are You Interested in Vegan Health?
Vegan health is a common point of discussion whenever people discuss diet. However, it’s not just about the diet — it’s part of keeping our planet healthy, too.
Everyone can benefit from eating more plant-based foods. That’s never in dispute. However, we have to consider the whole picture if we really want to maintain our vegan health status.
The vegan lifestyle leads to fewer slaughtered animals, fewer dollars in factory farmers’ pockets, fewer carbon emissions from factory farms, more plant-based foods for people who otherwise might go hungry, and numerous other benefits.
If you want to maintain optimal vegan health, keep your reasons for going vegan in the back of your mind. When you’re shopping for food, don’t just read labels. Think about the types of foods you’re putting into your body and how it will impact not just your health, but others’ as well.
Many people, for instance, decide to go vegan to protect animals. Others want to stave off diseases that run in their family, from heart disease and diabetes to cancer. Still more vegans choose this lifestyle because it’s better for the environment.
Knowing why you’re vegan will help you become more healthy. You’ll make choices that align with your values and beliefs, which will reinforce your choices.
Vegan health is an important topic for everyone, even if you’re not quite vegan yet. The more you learn about your food choices as well as other things that impact your health, such as exercise and sleep, the better your transition will be.
If you lean on processed junk food to keep yourself vegan, you’ll likely gain weight, have disrupted sleep, experience reduced energy, and increase your risks of food-related disease. However, if you go with whole foods that provide your body with essential nutrients, vegan health won’t be a problem for you.
Take supplements, such as B12 and iron, and research vegan options at restaurants ahead of time. If you’re eating at home, consider preparing — or, at the very least, planning — meals ahead of time. Find your favorite sources of protein, prioritize veggies, and consider antioxidant-rich fruits like berries and melon.
Most importantly, remember why you’ve chosen a vegan lifestyle. Keep those values front and center. You’ll find yourself more likely to stick with veganism in the long run.
What’s the most important aspect of vegan health to you?
Grant is the co-founder of Sentient Media. He currently lives in Brazil and has traveled across dozens of countries on assignment.