Is a vegan diet better for your health?

Debunking the truth behind a vegan diet.

As you no doubt would have seen with the recent media coverage, vegan diets are once again in the spotlight. But is a vegan diet better for your health? Accredited Practising Dietitian Ashleigh Jones weighs in on the good and the bad of a vegan diet.

What is a vegan diet?

There are lots of different meat-free diets out there, but a vegan diet is the strictest. While people who follow a vegetarian diet will often include dairy and eggs, a vegan diet excludes all animal products, including dairy, eggs, and even honey.

 

Why do people go vegan? 

Some people choose to follow a vegan diet for ethical reasons, as they do not want to harm animals. Environmental concerns are also a motivator, as livestock and dairy farming requires a lot of water and can result in a higher level of carbon emissions than fruit and vegetable farming. Health can also be a motivator, as many people believe that a vegan diet is healthier than an omnivorous diet. But the reality is that while a vegan diet can be very healthy, it is not always the case. A vegan diet requires special attention to ensure it is nutritionally balanced and adequate.

 

The good

 

1. Fruit and vegetables

A well-planned vegan diet contains an abundance of fruits and vegetables, which is important for your overall health, as well as maintaining a healthy body weight and avoiding lifestyle diseases.

 

2. Rich in fibre

Most Australians do not eat enough fibre, but a well-planned vegan diet will be rich in legumes, nuts and seeds. These foods are very high in fibre, which is important for gut health and avoiding colorectal cancer.

 

3. Low in saturated fat

A vegan diet is typically low in saturated fat, which comes from meat, cream, butter and coconut, but rich in sources of healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds. Eating less saturated fat while eating plenty of healthy fats is important for heart health.

 

4. No processed meat

Because a vegan diet is meat-free, it does not contain any processed meat. Processed meat can, when consumed frequently and in large quantities, be associated with an increased risk of some cancers.

 

5. Affordable

A vegan diet can be very cost effective, as it relies on cheap ingredients such as fresh produce, whole grains and legumes.

 

The bad

 

1. Vegan misconceptions

A vegan diet is not automatically healthier – dark chocolate, most lollies, hot chips and soft drink are all vegan! You still need to eat your fruit, veggies and whole grains, regardless of whether or not you consume animal products.

 

2. Watch meat alternatives

As vegan diets increase in popularity, we are seeing more processed meat alternatives on the market, such as vegan burger patties, chicken strips, etc. These can be low in protein, high in Calories, fat and sodium, and full of additives. These are treat foods that should not be consumed every day and do not have the same nutritional benefits of the meat products they are replacing.

 

3. Vegan protein

It can be harder (but not impossible) to meet your protein requirements on a vegan diet, particularly if you are an athlete and have increased protein needs. Whereas cooked chicken contains approximately 25g protein per 100g, tofu contains only 14g protein per 100g and legumes around 8g protein per 100g. This means you need to consume over 300g of legumes to match the protein of 100g of cooked chicken – that’s a lot of legumes! It’s also worth noting that cow’s milk is an important source of calcium on an omnivorous diet, and soy milk is a good, vegan alternative. However, other plant-based milks such as oat, rice, almond and other nut-based beverages are typically very low in protein and low in nutrients in general.

 

4. Nutrient deficiencies 

While many vegetables, grains and legumes contain iron, it is not particularly well-absorbed from these foods and is present in much smaller amounts than it is in red meat. This means that iron can be a real challenge on a vegan diet, particularly for athletes and pregnant women, and supplementation may be required.

Vitamin B12 deficiency is another risk to be mindful of as it can have very serious consequences, including damage to the nervous system. This is a challenge on a vegan diet, as vitamin B12 is only reliably found in animal products. Vegans need to consume vitamin B12 supplements or foods that have been fortified with vitamin B12, such as plant-based milks and tofu. Note that these foods are not always fortified with B12, so it’s essential to check the label.

Calcium is another nutrient that is not well-absorbed from vegetables, grains and legumes. Calcium is important for maintaining strong, healthy bones, and calcium deficiency cannot be detected with a blood test. Cow’s milk and dairy products are the main sources of calcium in an omnivorous diet. Soy milk is typically fortified with calcium and is, therefore, a good, vegan alternative to cow’s milk. Other plant-based milks may be fortified with calcium, but this is not always the case, so it’s important to always check the label.

 

The bottom line

People can choose to follow a vegan diet for a range of reasons, and a vegan diet can be very healthy, as long as it’s well planned. But it’s not necessary to go vegan to improve your health and wellbeing. A vegan diet is not healthier than a balanced omnivorous diet that includes a range of plant and animal based foods. Regardless of whether you choose to eat meat or avoid it, we can all benefit from including more plant-based meals as part of our regular diet. Ensuring you’re eating five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit a day can help reduce your chance of suffering lifestyle diseases by as much as 80%. Meat free Mondays are a great way to start!

 

For a nutritionally balanced approach to healthy eating, Lite n’ Easy has a range of meat free meals available, visit https://www.liteneasy.com.au/our-food/meals/dinners/ for more info.

 

Ashleigh Jones is an Accredited Practising Dietitian with extensive dietetics experience working across hospitals, corporate health, private practice and the food industry. A published researcher, she has collaborated actively across several disciplines including genetics, multiple sclerosis and sports nutrition.  Ashleigh specialises in endocrine disorders with particular interest in weight management, pituitary and thyroid disorders, and management of diabetes. Ashleigh is passionate about promoting healthy habits, especially for busy people and offers simple and sustainable nutrition solutions.