Are vegans actually healthier, how do they get all the necessary nutrients and protein, and are meat alternatives worth it? A Charles Sturt University health expert advises on the safest way to follow a vegan diet ahead of World Vegan Day on Tuesday, November 1.
By Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at the Charles Sturt School of Allied Health, Exercise and Sport Sciences at Wagga Wagga Dr. Marissa Samuelson.
Let’s start with what veganism is; it is the exclusion of all animal products and by-products from food. Some vegans also do not use animal products in other aspects of life, such as leather.
What are the origins of the spiritual/ethical justification for a vegan diet, beyond the purported nutritional benefits?
Although I’m not a historian, veganism seems to have been around for thousands of years, with philosophers like Pythagoras and the Buddha encouraging the practice. The thought behind veganism seems to be tied to the Buddhist belief of compassion towards all beings.
What are the health benefits of being on a vegan diet?
Much research shows that well-planned plant-based diets are beneficial for heart health (improving cholesterol levels and blood pressure) as well as reducing the risk of certain cancers, such as colorectal cancer, breast, prostate, type 2 diabetes, liver disease. There may also be different risks of various cancers depending on the type of plant-based diet followed, such as those that include fish.
What are the best sources of protein and iron if you don’t eat animal products?
The key to eating well on any type of diet is planning it to make sure you meet all of your nutrient needs. Vegan diets can be low in protein, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, zinc and omega 3 fatty acids.
In some situations, supplements may be necessary, such as for vegan pregnant women who need B12 supplements to prevent irreversible neurological damage to their developing baby.
There are many non-animal protein sources that can be included in a vegan diet and there is no need to combine amino acids (the building blocks of protein) at every meal, as long as you get a good variety of foods. protein throughout the day. Soy products like tofu, or soy dairy products like milk, cheese, or yogurt; legumes (kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, baked beans) all contain good amounts of protein.
Foods like grains, nuts, and seeds also contain smaller amounts of protein, but still contribute to the overall intake of essential amino acids you need to maintain good health.
Plant-based meat alternatives for burgers, sausages, seitan, and vegan deli meats are also available, but as they are processed they can be high in sodium or fat and therefore should be included. in a variety of foods eaten throughout the day. .
There are two forms of iron in food, heme and non-heme. Heme iron tends to be better absorbed by the body, but is mainly found in animal products. Non-heme iron can be found in legumes, soy products, iron-fortified cereals, and some nuts and seeds. Vegans are recommended to get twice as much iron as non-vegans, and they can help their bodies absorb more iron from nonheme sources by eating iron-containing foods along with vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruits.
Is it OK for a child to be raised on a vegan diet?
As stated earlier, the key to eating well on any type of diet is to plan it to ensure you meet all of your nutrient needs.
If the diet is well planned, there is evidence that results for mother and baby are similar between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets, however, pregnant women should pay particular attention to iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and omega 3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) and will require at least vitamin B12 supplementation.
Since the nutrient needs of children and adolescents are much higher for growth and development, it is essential to ensure that their diet is planned to achieve these nutrients, especially protein, vitamin B12, iron and zinc. Research has shown that vegetarian children are slimmer and not at greater risk of eating disorders than non-vegetarian children.
However, parents of vegan children should remain vigilant to ensure vitamin B12 intakes are regularly assessed and use fortified foods or supplements to ensure they are getting enough. Intake and blood levels of omega 3 fatty acids may also be lower in vegans.
I have inflammation issues, so how do I navigate lectins if I want to go vegan? (i.e. choose low lectin foods).
There is a lot of interest in the relationship between inflammation and diet these days. Foods individually are thought not to cause much inflammation, but collectively the impact can be significant, so research is focusing on assessing the impact of overall eating patterns considered to be inflammatory.
Although there is promising evidence that vegan or vegetarian diets may impact inflammation and reduce the risk of chronic disease, more research is needed given the limitations of the studies that have been performed.
Vegan diets appear to have a greater impact on inflammation than vegetarian diets, but this needs to be confirmed by further research.
Lectins are proteins found in foods like legumes, grains, and some vegetables like potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes. Much of the negative impact of lectins occurs when these foods are eaten raw or undercooked. Many studies that have shown negative interactions with lectins in the body are conducted in the laboratory, so they may have little to do with what normally happens inside the body.
Population-based studies, which examine the impact of consuming these foods as part of plant-based diets, have shown that the consumption of vegetables, legumes and grains is associated with health benefits , such as the reduction of chronic diseases.
Given what we know at this point, the most important thing to do is to make sure the foods in your diet that may be high in lectins are properly cooked and prepared. Boil raw legumes for at least 10 minutes before eating them. Cereals and vegetables should also be eaten in cooked form. The main exception seems to be tomatoes, as there is little evidence of adverse effects from eating them raw.
What are some common mistakes, by not creating a balanced diet, that people make when adopting a vegan diet?
It’s tempting when following a vegan diet to simply cut out animal foods and eat mostly vegetables, grains, and fruits.
However, we need to think about what is missing when we cut out meats, meat alternatives, and dairy products without replacing foods that provide the same kind of nutrients that plants cannot provide or that the body has difficulty absorbing. Plant.
When buying prepackaged vegan alternatives, like cheese, burgers, or chicken, what ingredients should you be wary of, like having too much salt, sugar, or fillers?
The first thing to know about these products is that it is good to include them as part of a varied diet. They help add interest and flavor to what we eat, however, because they are technically considered processed foods, and some may be what we call “ultra-processed”, they usually have a long list of ingredients, many of which are man-made and added to make them more palatable or increase their shelf life. The good news is that we have strict laws in Australia to ensure that food manufacturers do not add ‘foods’ in toxic amounts.
A good rule of thumb is to look for products that have a small ingredient list. So, when comparing products, go for the product with fewer ingredients.
Being vegan seems complicated. What are some simple vegan dishes people could consider to introduce more vegan principles into their diet?
One of the best ways to start is to try foods that are familiar to you or to add vegetable protein to familiar dishes. Another way to start experimenting with plant-based protein is to replace some of the animal protein in mixed dishes. A great way to do this is to halve the amount of beef in a Bolognese and substitute the lentils.
Are there examples of nations encouraging population-wide veganism – for example through reduced Medicare levies for vegans, higher health fund rebates, priority service by health departments , discounts in companies and supermarkets?
Not that I know. There is a lot of advocacy from vegan organizations for political and social change in terms of promoting and supporting veganism. There is also a significant movement in the field of food and nutrition to promote a plant-based diet, which is not necessarily completely free of animal foods, given its health benefits. and the environment.