What is it?
The vegan diet is one that eliminates the intake of all animal-containing products, and may also be known as a plant-based diet. Although some individuals choose to follow a vegan diet to improve health or lose weight, it is predominantly followed by those that live by a vegan lifestyle, which seeks to exclude (as far as is possible and practicable) all forms of exploitation and cruelty to animals.
What can you eat/not eat?
- Reduced animal suffering and death
Currently 56 billion land animals are killed each year for food purposes by humans, as well as over a trillion marine animals. Alongside this, the practices used in the animal industry are largely frowned upon. As 98% of modern farming takes place in factory farming facilities, animals are confined to small spaces (usually in cages), and devoid of exploiting natural behaviors.
In most circumstances, animals are fed an energy-rich unnatural diet so they can fully develop in the shortest amount of time before being slaughtered for meat. Drugs and antibiotics are also used to accelerate this process. Dependent on the type of animal raised, animals are killed between 5 weeks-18 months old, in comparison to their natural lifespan of 8-20 years. Methods of slaughter range from stunning then shooting, bleeding via slitting, and burning by use of a gas chamber.
The milk industry also uses forcible impregnation upon dairy cows, before taking the baby calves away shortly after birth to be sold to the veal industry. In the egg industry, male chicks are considered ‘useless’ and are suffocated, gassed or minced alive at a day old, as they are unable to lay eggs and therefore have no useful role to the industry.
- A method in which to lose weight
Animal products are typically high in calories, especially red meats and dairy, and once removed from the diet most people will indirectly reduce total energy intake. Plant-based foods, on average, require much larger volumes of food to be consumed to reach the same energy intake (with the exception of nuts). Therefore, a meal switch from meat and dairy to beans and legumes, will reduce caloric intake, and is more likely to put someone in a caloric deficit.
A vegan diet also causes one to increase their dietary fiber intake dramatically, which will significantly reduce hunger levels throughout the day. A study on 38,000 individuals following different diets found vegans had a significantly reduced Body Mass Index compared to meat-eaters, 24.41 vs 22.49 in men, 23.52 vs 21.98 in women . Another study of 22,000 people tracked weight gain over a 5 year period, with mean weight gain being smaller in vegans compared to meat-eaters (284g vs 389g), and the lowest weight gain seen among those who, during follow-up, had changed to a diet containing fewer animal products (242g) .
- Improved health
The nutrient composition of one’s diet tends to improve once animal products are removed. Studies show that vegans have a significantly lower intake of fat (specifically saturated and trans fat), cholesterol and sodium, as well as a higher intake of dietary fiber, fruits and vegetables . A meta-analysis, based on 15 studies including 60,000 people, concluded that cutting down on saturated fat led to a 17% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, and replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats, seems to reduce our risk of heart and vascular problems .
Trans fat have an even stronger link to heart disease, and is even banned as an additive in many countries (previously used in processed foods). Interestingly, countries that stopped the inclusion of artificial trans fats noted a 50% reduced number of deaths due to coronary heart disease . However, trans fat is naturally occurring in meat and dairy products and therefore cannot be removed from the diet whilst containing these items.
Dietary cholesterol has more of a controversial link to heart disease, and more evidence is needed to clarify this relationship. Excess dietary cholesterol may be responsible for cholesterol crystal-induced arterial wall injury and lead to increased inflammation, plaque build-up and subsequently the onset of atherosclerosis . The only source of dietary cholesterol is from animal-containing products.
- Vitamin B12
B12 is the only vitamin that is not recognised as being reliably supplied from a varied wholefood, plant-based diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables. B12 is synthesized by bacteria and is therefore found in areas of bacterial growth, namely dirt and soil. Historically, humans have been getting their B12 by eating plants or drinking freshwater that contained small amounts of soil.
Due to today’s methods of continuous washing protocols and chlorination, B12 is no longer found in plant products (unless fortified), and is therefore found mainly in animals due to gut bacteria production, soil ingestion, or animal supplementation. Vegans should obtain adequate B12 by eating fortified plant milks and cereals, or by use of a B12 supplement.
As you may imagine, in a world full of meat, dairy and eggs, removing these items from the shopping list leaves you with fewer options to choose from. In supermarkets today, there are a lot of vegan options, from all the whole food options to meat alternatives to the dairy-free chocolate and ice cream. You will still find yourself with plenty of nutritious and tasty foods to choose from.
The main problem is eating out in restaurants that aren’t catered towards vegan options. Although restaurants are constantly putting more vegan meals on the menu as the demand increases, with some places catering only to vegans (although rare), choice relative to all the meal options on the menu is limited.
However, if your goal is to become healthier or lose weight this can be looked at as a positive. The vegan options on most occasions will likely be the meals containing the least number of calories and fat content, alongside the most vegetables, allowing you to keep on track with your diet. Potential positive?
Who should run this diet?
The vegan diet is ideal for those for those that are concerned with the welfare and treatment of animals, and for this reason the diet is usually implemented within a vegan lifestyle (not restricted only to diet). The vegan diet is also a good eating method for those looking to improve dietary habits, improve blood health markers, and potentially lose weight.
The diet is not suited towards people who would be concerned with the fewer options to choose from when browsing the supermarket, or when choosing the recommended dishes at local restaurants. Unlike other diets, the vegan diet requires a lifestyle change and a switch in mentality towards food choices.
- Spencer EA, Appleby PN, Davey GK, Key TJ. (2003). Diet and body mass index in 38000 EPIC-Oxford meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord.
- Rosell M, Appleby P, Spencer E, Key T. (2006). Weight gain over 5 years in 21,966 meat-eating, fish-eating, vegetarian, and vegan men and women in EPIC-Oxford. Int J Obes (Lond).
- Clarys P, Deliens T,Huybrechts I, Deriemaeker P, Vanaelst B, De Keyzer W, Hebbelinck M, Mullie P. (2014). Comparison of Nutritional Quality of the Vegan, Vegetarian, Semi-Vegetarian, Pesco-Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diet.
- Hooper L, Martin N, Abdelhamid A, Davey Smith G. (2015). Effect of cutting down on the saturated fat we eat on our risk of heart disease. Cochrane
- Iqbal MP. (2014). Trans fatty acids – A risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Pak J Med Sci.
- Abela GS. (2010). Cholesterol crystals piercing the arterial plaque and intima trigger local and systemic inflammation. J Clin Lipidol.