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A vegan diet is part of a philosophy and way of living that seeks to exclude all forms of exploitation and cruelty to animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose. People choosing a vegan diet and lifestyle may do so for ethical, environmental, and/or health reasons.
Vegan diets exclude all meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, and eggs. For many vegans, particularly those who are vegan for ethical reasons, foods that involve animal by-products, such as honey, beeswax, and gelatin, are also avoided.
Vegans eat predominantly plant-derived foods including all kinds of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, beans, and legumes.
Health Benefits of Veganism
General health benefits of a plant-based diet include sustainable weight management, lowering risk for most chronic diseases, mitigating worsening health conditions and reducing their severity, and improved quality of life.
Here are some benefits explained in further detail:
1. Reduces the risk of heart disease
A vegan diet results in a decreased intake of saturated fat. A plant-based diet is low in cholesterol. Plant-based foods that contain flavonoids and carotenoids aid in regulating the body’s inflammatory response.
2. Reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes
Fiber, antioxidants, and micronutrients reduce insulin resistance. (4) Studies have also reported that diabetics who substitute meat for plant protein may reduce their risk of poor kidney function. (5)
3. Improves symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
4. Reduces the risk of obesity
Consistent studies show that those who follow a plant-based diet have lower BMIs than those who consume animal-derived foods. (7) This is largely because vegan foods are replete with fiber, which can make you full quickly and for longer, thereby reducing your overall appetite without adding to your calorie load.
Thus, people who struggle with excess weight should focus on vegan foods to lose the extra pounds and reach their ideal BMI and avoid obesity.
Maintaining a healthy weight helps improve your overall body function and reduces the risk of a number of ailments, including 12 different types of cancer. (8)
5. Supplies the body with abundant nutrients
Plant-based whole foods such as grains, pulses, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds contain the whole spectrum of nutrients needed to keep your body healthy. In fact, they may supply a higher dose of certain nutrients than other animal sources.
A number of studies have shown following a vegan diet leads to an increased intake of several essential nutrients, including antioxidants, fiber, folate, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, and E. (9)
6. Reduces the pain of arthritis
Animal-based foods are known to trigger inflammation and hormonal fluctuations inside the body that can pave the way for various illnesses, including arthritis. (10) Arthritis is a painful disorder characterized by joint inflammation that can hamper your ability to walk or move.
Plant-based dietary sources of probiotics (good bacteria) can help in curbing this inflammation. These bacteria also assist with the digestion process to enable better absorption and utilization of nutrients from the foods you eat.
For this purpose, consider eating more of fermented vegetables and nondairy yogurts with live cultures as part of an overall well-balanced vegan diet.
Environment-Related Benefits of Veganism
In addition to the health advantages of a balanced vegan dietary pattern, there are many environmental benefits that are important to note.
When comparing a vegan diet to an omnivorous dietary pattern, the meat-eating diet had a greater use impact in the following:
- Climate change
- Ozone layer
- Land use
- Fossil fuels
Foods with the highest impact include beef, cheese, fish, and milk.
Vegan Food Sources of Specific Nutrients
Here’s how you can meet all your nutritional needs through a strictly plant-based foods diet:
1. Omega-3 fatty acids
Diets that do not include fish or eggs are at an increased risk of omega-3 fatty acid deficiency. Omega-3s are essential and you cannot make them on your own. You must obtain them through your diet.
Generally, diets that do not incorporate the above foods lack the long-chain fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). While human bodies are designed with the ability to take plant-based omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and convert it into EPA and DHA, it does so at a less efficient rate.
EPA plays a big role in reducing inflammation and in heart health. DHA plays a vital part in brain development and function as well as cell membrane function. (11)
Vegans should be able to satisfy omega-3 requirements by mixing it up with DHA-fortified foods and through DHA microalgal supplementation (be sure to consult with your healthcare provider before beginning any new supplements) and by consuming foods that contain high amounts of ALA, such as chia seeds, flax/flaxseed oil, and walnuts.
To include omega-3s in your diet:
- Add hemp hearts or ground flaxseed to cereal, plant milk yogurt, oatmeal, or salads.
- Incorporate omega-3-rich oils, such as walnut oil and flaxseed oil, into a smoothie.
- Snack on walnuts or edamame (soybeans) if well tolerated.
2. Vitamin B12
In contrast to omnivores and lacto-ovo vegetarians, vegans have even lower plasma B12 levels. B12 is important in red blood cell formation, DNA synthesis, and neurological function.
Vegans are at a risk for a B12 deficiency. Consuming grains/cereals and foods fortified with B12 helps with getting this vitamin, and taking a B12 supplement helps ensure adequate amounts.
To include vitamin B12 in your diet:
- Add vitamin B12-fortified foods to your plate, including soy/rice milk, nutritional yeast, meat analogs (Tofurky, Field Roast), and fortified cereals (be sure to check your label).
- Supplement with vitamin B12 upon consulting your doctor.
Iron is important in carrying oxygen in red blood cells so you are able to produce energy. Plants provide a source of non-heme iron, whereas animal-derived foods contain heme iron.
Heme iron absorption is “substantially higher.” However, consuming a varied diet and foods with plentiful vitamin C should help you absorb iron from plant foods more efficiently when choosing a vegan diet.
To include iron in your diet:
- Consume plant sources that contain non-heme iron, including beans, peas, lentils, spinach, chard, enriched grains such as rice or bread, and enriched breakfast cereals.
- Eat these foods together with vitamin C-containing foods, such as oranges, strawberries, bell peppers, tomatoes, or kiwi, for increased absorption.
4. Vitamin D
Many people, not just vegans, can have low vitamin D levels. Those that choose not to eat meat should depend on vitamin D-fortified foods and consider a vitamin D supplement if their blood levels are not sufficient enough to maintain normal vitamin D and parathyroid hormone ranges in the body.
This is particularly true of people who have less sun exposure due to the place they live, people who use sunscreen, the elderly, individuals who cover their bodies extensively for cultural purposes, and people who have darker skin.
The acceptable form of vitamin D for vegans is vitamin D2, which is less bioavailable than vitamin D3 derived from animals. An insufficient vitamin D status can have a lasting impact on bone mineral density and should be an important focus of those who are plant-based eaters.
To include vitamin D in your diet:
- Consume vitamin D-fortified plant milks, orange juice, and ready-to-eat cereals.
- Include various mushrooms, such as shiitake, white button, and crimini, in your meals.
- Talk to your healthcare provider about a vitamin D supplement.
Protein is needed by the cells in the human body. You must obtain some amino acids in the diet as these are considered essential amino acids. Those you can make inside your body are nonessential amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and maintain the muscles, tendons, blood vessels, skin, hair, and nails. Protein also is involved in creating and maintaining hormones and enzymes in the body to ensure it is running optimally.
To include protein in your diet:
- It is important that a variety of plant-based proteins are considered in a well-planned vegan diet by utilizing grains and legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils. Lentils are of particular importance as they contain the amino acid lysine that is not found in beans or grains.
- Include tofu, tempeh, and vegetarian meats/meat analogs in your cooking.
- Consume nuts and nut butters, particularly peanut butter.
Calcium is a valuable nutrient, particularly for bone health. Bones are in continuous turnover and require maintenance, so they do not weaken. If you don’t get enough calcium, your body will collect calcium from your bones to sustain healthy blood levels.
To include calcium in your diet:
- Drink nondairy calcium-fortified plant milks and orange juice.
- Consume cruciferous vegetables such as kale, broccoli, collards, bok choy, and mustard greens.
- Try calcium-set tofu.
- Make dishes with soybeans, chickpeas, and white beans.
- Tahini, figs, and navel oranges are also good choices.
Vast nutrition research has continuously shown that, in comparison to standard omnivorous diets, healthful vegan diets can provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. (12)
Vegan diets are typically higher in dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, iron, and phytochemicals. They tend to be lower in calories and saturated fat and lack cholesterol.
Plant-based diets offer the inherent benefits of a wide variety of health-promoting plants while crowding out injurious constituents found in animal products, such as saturated fats, dietary cholesterol, antibiotics, insulin-like growth factor, heme iron, chemical contaminants, carnitine, and N-glycolylneuraminic acid.
Plants are abundant in phytochemicals and fiber, which perform a multitude of beneficial functions such as antioxidation, anti-inflammation, immunity enhancement, optimization of serum cholesterol, cancer activity reduction via several mechanisms, and more.