Have you ever wondered how people who practice a vegan diet manage to stay fit and healthy? In this article, I will describe a typical vegan diet along with plant-based sources for essential nutrients that most people think are found only in meat and animal-based foods. Veganism is a dietary lifestyle where the vegan chooses to avoid eating meat and animal products, and makes an effort to avoid using or consuming any products derived from animals. A strict plant-based diet has both health benefits and nutritional risks. You can live a healthy life as a vegan if you take care to make sure you receive all of the nutrition your body requires.
What is Veganism?
Vegans do not eat meat or any animal based products, such as butter, eggs, cheese and yogurt. In addition to abstaining from eating meat and other animal products, vegans attempt to avoid the use of animals in every area of their lives, including clothing, shoes, and (when possible) medicines. Vegans try to live their lives without using any product that is derived from animals. Vegans eat a diet composed entirely of plants and try to avoid medications that are tested on animals or contain any animal products, such as lactose. Vegans typically avoid all activities that contribute directly or indirectly to the use, abuse, and/or exploitation of any animal, including zoos, aquariums, and horse racing.
The primary risk of a vegan diet is the potential to neglect eating a variety of plant-based foods that provide the nutrients and trace elements necessary for a healthy body. Many of the nutrients our bodies require are found in abundant supply in animal flesh and in animal products, such as milk, eggs, butter, and cheese. One of the nutritional risks associated with a vegan diet includes inadequate calcium, which can lead to bone loss and potential bone fractures, especially in menopausal and post-menopausal women. Calcium is essential for strong bones and teeth. However, calcium is not the only nutrient necessary for strong and healthy bones. Nutrients including vitamin D, vitamin K, potassium, and magnesium also play a role in general bone health. Vegans can consume adequate amounts of the nutrients and trace minerals to support bone health by eating a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, which is the typical fare for vegans. Vegans may experience low levels of vitamin D unless they take a vitamin supplement and get enough exposure to the sun to stimulate production of vitamin D.
Iron is a trace element that is essential for healthy blood. Iron from non-animal foods can be more difficult for the body to absorb. Fortunately, most vegans eat plenty of foods that contain large quantities of vitamin C. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from plants. Even though vegans generally get enough iron to avoid anemia, or low red blood cell count, vegans may still have lower hemoglobin levels than people who consume iron-rich meats and other animal foods.
Vitamin B-12 is critical to bone and neurological health. Vegans may experience vitamin B-12 deficiency, which can lead to elevated levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that has been associated with heart attack, stroke, and blood clots. A lack of vitamin B-12 has also been associated with low bone density. Vitamin B-12 is found in animal products, but generally not in plants. Vegans are at particular risk of developing vitamin B-12 deficiency. Vegans should consider a vitamin supplement to ensure they get enough vitamin B-12 in their diets.
While there are some risks to practicing a vegan diet, there are also many benefits. Vegans are typically thinner with less body fat than vegetarians and omnivores. A “vegan” is a person who does not eat or use any animal products. A “vegetarian” is someone who may use dairy products such as cheese, eggs, yogurt and milk. Obesity is a serious health issue in industrialized countries, especially in the United States. Vegans typically have a lower body mass index (BMI) and less body fat that has been associated with type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Vegans also have lower LDL, or bad cholesterol. They enjoy lower blood pressure and lower levels of blood lipids. By virtue of less body fat, lower blood pressure, and lower cholesterol, vegans are also at a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and having plaque in the arteries. Since vegans consume greater amounts of fruits and vegetables than non-vegans, they are getting the benefits of a diet rich in folic acid, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals. These nutrients, and other phytochemicals, are also associated with lower cholesterol, reduced risk of stroke, and lower risk of heart disease.
Variety for a Healthy Diet
Variety is not only the spice of life, it is also adds to a healthy life when it comes to nutrition. Vegans, like vegetarians and omnivores, can benefit nutritionally by eating a variety of plant foods that provide a wide range of essential vitamins and minerals. No single food can provide all nutritional needs, but some plant foods provide more of the critical nutrients for good health than others.
Let’s come back to calcium, which is essential for bone health. Vegans do not consume milk and dairy foods which are rich in calcium, but vegans can get adequate amounts of calcium in their diet by eating dark green vegetables. Greens, such as turnip, collars, kale, and broccoli are rich in calcium. Vegans can enjoy additional sources of calcium in soy milk and soy yogurt. Tofu is also a good source of calcium.
Dried beans, peas, cereals, whole grains, wild rice, and lentils are good sources of plant-based iron for healthy blood cells. Iron from plants is more difficult for the body to absorb than iron found in meats and other animal products. Vegan diets are usually high in vitamin C, which aids in the absorption of plant iron. Some foods that are rich in vitamin C include all citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries, and broccoli. Consuming vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables at the same time as eating iron-rich plants can help increase blood iron levels. The same dried beans, peas, grains, and lentils also provide enough protein for a healthy diet.
Very few plants contain vitamin D. Vegans can get a good supply of this essential nutrient from soy and rice milk along with a few minutes of exposure to sunlight each day. Vitamin D is necessary for healthy bones. Vegans who do not get enough sunlight or who do not enjoy soy and rice milk should consider a nutritional supplement to get their daily requirements.
A vegan lifestyle and diet can be a fulfilling and healthy lifestyle, but vegans must be aware of the nutritional limits of a whole plant-based diet. Vegans should take particular care to eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and grains to ensure they get the nutrients their body needs. Supplements made from plants are available to help the vegan maintain a healthy body, while avoiding all animal products.
1. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition; Health Effects of Vegan Diets, Winston J Craig; May 2009, Vol. 89 No. 5; http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/89/5/1627S.full
2. The Vegan Society; Definition of Veganism; Accessed March 31, 2015; https://www.vegansociety.com/try-vegan/definition-veganism