June 2015 Newsletter: Can you keep it balanced on a vegan diet?

The simple answer is: Like any other diet, it depends on what you eat. Someone living purely on chips or fries or other refined starchy foods, for example, is technically following a vegan diet, but that in no way is healthy.

Compelling research shows that a vegan diet does have potential benefits. Some of the evidence is anecdotal, some more scientifically rigorous, but it is all profoundly persuasive. (1, 2, 3) A recent study indicated that the average vegan diet is higher in vitamin C and fiber and lower in saturated fat than a diet containing meat, particularly red meat. Adopting a vegan diet has been shown to mitigate the impact of type 2 diabetes and may reduce the risk of colon cancer. Veganism has also been shown to more effectively combat obesity than other prescribed diets and to lower risk factors associated with cardiac disease. (3)

Sounds great, right? Yes, but the catch phrase is having a “healthy and nutritious” vegan diet. In terms of micro-nutrients, a vegan diet is more susceptible to being nutritionally poor if the plant foods consumed are not varied and balanced. A vegan diet is not very high in calcium, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Therefore, if you choose to follow a vegan diet, you need to get enough nutrient-rich vegan food sources and to balance those with specific supplements. For example, something like tahini (sesame seed paste used to make hummus and other bean spreads) is a good source of calcium, zinc, and iron, which are micro-nutrients hard to get in a vegan diet. (2)

In other words, going vegan does not necessarily mean you are going to be healthier, unless you educate yourself about the basic nutritional content of plant-based foods and how to supplement your diet, if necessary, with essential vitamins and minerals.

Many people see the word “vegan” on a label and assume the food is super healthy. Wrong. Even if the item is vegan, reading the ingredient list and the nutrition information is still important to see how much and what types of fat, sugar, salt, preservatives, and artificial ingredients it contains.

Coconut oil is hugely popular in vegan baking and its health benefits are praised across the internet. However, no regulated claims have been passed for coconut oil, indicating that no significant evidence supports the alleged benefits. In fact, coconut oil is very high in plant-based saturated fat. This doesn't mean that you shouldn’t use it or that it can’t be healthy in small amounts, but too much of coconut oil in a diet could be detrimental to your health.

Of course, this doesn't mean that vegan products can’t be healthier. Vegan desserts, for example, can be a lot healthier than conventional baked goods because bakers have to devise inventive ways of substituting the butter and cream. Chocolate “mousse” can be made by mixing ripe avocados with cocoa powder and maple syrup. It's still a bit indulgent, but substituting avocado for butter, egg, and cream makes the dessert vegan while incorporating relatively healthier plant-based fats that also contain several other micro nutrients.

Veganism has gained in popularity, and as I say, although it isn't necessarily a healthier diet in and of itself, I think it's great if we know how to eat a “healthy” vegan diet. I am not a practicing vegan, but I think that meat has become far too available and is far too prominent in our diet, and rearing animals for meat products is not the best use of our environment.

If you decide to follow a vegan diet, apply all the same principles that you would to any healthy, balanced diet: Eat plenty of different fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes, while limiting sugary and fatty foods, to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients that a vegan diet could lack.

References

1. Nutritional update for physicians: Plant-based diets. 2013.

2. Plant-based diets are not nutritionally deficient. 2013.

3. The evidence for a vegan diet. 2012.