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VEGAN MONTH: IS A VEGAN DIET HEALTHIER?

Mersad Alimoradi 01 Nov 2020
VEGAN MONTH: IS A VEGAN DIET HEALTHIER?

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November is world vegan month. Veganism has been very popular as a diet and/or lifestyle choice among millions of people for the past decade. Men and women who choose this diet often cite the health benefits of eating vegan, the health risks of eating meat, and the ethical issues with killing animals for food and harming the environment. Vegans often present pretty solid evidence when arguing for their choice, however, their meat-eating counterparts can be just as convincing.

Fact and fiction often mix when comparing vegan and omnivorous diets in terms of pros and cons, and the internet can be full of inaccurate and biased claims. The fact is, when practiced correctly, a plant-based diet can indeed be healthier and reduces the risk of several serious conditions. But, does this mean that eating meat is bad? And should you completely give up eating meat? We’ll try to clear some points about veganism in this article and provide some objective evidence-based facts on this diet to answer these questions.

What does being vegan mean?

Veganism is not just a diet, it’s more of a lifestyle that focuses on avoiding all products produced from animals (and not just foods). This means that, in addition to following a strict plant-based vegetarian diet, vegans also avoid buying animal products like leather clothes and wool. The motive behind going vegan is usually moral and environmental. Vegans believe that no animal should be harmed to produce food for us humans to consume and that eating meat is morally wrong. They also believe that being vegetarian and avoiding eating meat reduces our carbon footprint and contributes to saving our planet since the meat industry is responsible for a huge chunk of carbon emissions that are worsening climate change. So, veganism is a lifestyle choice and not just a diet. All vegans are vegetarians, but not all vegetarians are vegan.

The word “vegetarian” is a broad definition that includes several plant-based diets and eating patterns. Vegetarian diets can be classified into:

  • Plant-based: A diet that relies mostly on plant products, and might include some animal proteins
  • Plant-only: A diet that strictly allows no animal products, and includes only foods from plants. This means that honey, eggs, and dairy are excluded. Most vegans follow this diet pattern. When we say “vegan” and “veganism” in this article, we’ll be referring to people that follow this diet.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians: These people follow a plant-only diet, but also consume dairy and eggs.
  • Pesco-pollo vegetarians: These people also eat fish, shellfish, and chicken.
  • Pescatarians: These people also eat fish and shellfish, but not chicken.
  • Flexitarians: These people follow a diet centered around plant products, but they do allow small servings of meat. Flexitarians aim to reduce their meat consumption and not eliminate it altogether.

The rest of the non-vegetarian people are called “omnivores”. These people consume both animal and plant products alike.

Are vegans really healthier?

“You need meat for Vitamin B12”, “Red meat causes cancer”, “A vegan diet is healthier”... All of these are arguments that you will hear or read when trying to find out if a vegetarian diet compares to an omnivorous diet in terms of health. The answer is not that simple.

A vegetarian diet (when practiced correctly) has been associated with better overall health, and a reduced risk of several serious conditions like high blood pressure, cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. Vegetarians are probably healthier since their diets contain more fibers from fruits and vegetables they consume and are mostly composed of whole foods rather than processed products. A vegetarian diet also contains less fat and cholesterol, which can cause different metabolic, vascular, and heart diseases when consumed in excess. In addition, vegetarians and vegans tend to be more health-conscious. Since they put more effort into choosing what they eat carefully, they are more likely to avoid other unhealthy habits (like smoking) as well.

So, it seems that the science is clear on this one, and we should just go ahead and stop eating meat. However, the answer is not that simple. Simply being vegetarian is not enough to be healthier. After all, chips, pizza, and coke are all vegetarian, however, they are unhealthy dietary choices. A vegetarian whose diet is centered on processed food and foods high in fats and cholesterol (even if vegetarian) cannot expect to be healthier than his/her meat-eating counterpart. Moreover, meat provides us with a lot of essential nutrients that are harder to acquire from plants. These include essential proteins, vitamin B12, calcium, omega-3, iron, and others. Deficiencies in these nutrients can lead to some health conditions like anemia and osteoporosis (weak bones). Nevertheless, this can be avoided with proper planning.

So, what are some tips for vegetarians and vegans?

In order to reap the benefits of a vegetarian diet, you need proper planning. You should focus on nutritious whole-foods and avoid processed and fried foods. You should also carefully plan your meals so that they contain enough proteins, vitamins, and minerals to satisfy your bodily needs. You can sometimes benefit from adding supplements to your diet to prevent any deficiencies. Ask a nutritionist for help if you’re not sure what you should and shouldn’t eat.

Is meat bad for your health?

The keyword when it comes to nutrition is moderation. Following a diet that’s high in meat can have some health risks. Meats are usually high in fats, and most of the time oil is used to cook meat. This puts you at a higher risk of metabolic diseases, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Red meat and processed meat are potentially linked to colon cancer. Processed meat in particular (like hot dogs and salami) has been marked as a carcinogen by the WHO. Nevertheless, it increases your absolute risk of colon cancer by only 1%, so you’d want to weigh the risks against the benefits of having processed meats in your diet. The problem is probably not in having meat in your diet, and it’s probably related to having less wholesome foods and foods high in fibers in your diet (like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds). If you avoid processed meats and make sure that you have a diverse diet that’s rich in wholesome foods it might not matter how much meat you eat.

What about fake meat?

Fake meat can be either lab-grown meat or plant-based fake meat. Recently, many of these meat alternatives (like the Impossible Burger) have been appearing in markets all around the world. These are meats that are either grown in labs using genetically modified yeast or are made from plant proteins. Chemical additives are added into the mix to give these vegan meats a taste and texture that’s almost identical to true meat. Consuming these meats gives you the pleasuring taste of regular meat and spares you the guilt of contributing to animal cruelty and climate change. But is fake meat as healthy as some make it sound? We have written a full article about fake meat, and here’s the summary: Fake meats often contain additives, oils, trans-fats, and hormones that can make them a less-than-ideal alternative to regular meat. However, if consumed in moderation and caution, fake meats can be a safe addition to your diet.

So, should I stop eating meat and become vegetarian or a vegan?

Let’s face it... For many of us, meat is delicious and the idea of giving it up completely is unbearable. However, combating climate change and choosing not to participate in animal suffering are noble goals that might be worth cutting out meat from your diet for, with all the added health benefits of a vegan diet. Moderation can be key in answering this dilemma. Maybe you should try to opt-out more often, and choose to eat meat only once or twice weekly. Try choosing to buy meat and dairy from local small farms rather from mass-producers, since the former are more likely to keep animals in better living conditions. Maybe this way, you won’t feel too guilty when enjoying that occasional piece of steak. In the end, it’s a life choice, and you should be able to tell what fits your moral and health goals best.

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About the Author:
Mersad is a medical doctor, author, and editor based in Germany. He's managed to publish several research papers early in his career. He is passionate about spreading medical knowledge. Thus, he spends a big portion of his time writing educational articles for everyone to learn.

Sources:

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  • https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31569214/
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