If you dread your annual physical examination because your test results reveal all your dietary sins, consider changing to a vegan diet. Many people eliminate meat products from their meals for ethical and environmental reasons, but the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet are well known. Removing all animal products from your daily menu can bring a number of significant benefits to your health, so you can enjoy a longer, healthier and more active life.
What Is A Vegan Diet?
A vegan diet eliminates all animal products. This includes not only the meat from cattle, poultry and fish, but also all products that come from animals, such as eggs, milk or cheese. Common foods in a vegan diet are stir-fried vegetables, pasta, whole-grain breads, bean salads, baked beans and a host of vegetables that can be adapted into traditional recipes.
Because vegans do not eat meat, which is a food source rich in protein, they must fill their protein needs with other foods, such as tofu, beans, lentils, spinach, soy products and chickpeas. Another important part of the diet is the elimination of all processed foods, which are made with high amounts of salt, sugar and fat that are detrimental to optimum health.
Individuals who eat a vegan diet generally have lower body weight than those who consume meat along with other foods. A leaner body is associated with less risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and joint disease. A vegan diet removes the animal fat and focuses on healthier, unsaturated fats such as olive oil and canola oil. These choices make weight loss easier and allow individuals to maintain their leaner form.
Lower Lipids Levels
Lipids are another word for fat. When your doctor orders a blood test for cholesterol, he or she hopes to learn how much of this component is in your bloodstream, which can provide some information on how well your blood vessels are working and how well your heart is functioning. A high level of low-density lipids is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, but you can lower these numbers by eating a plant-based vegan diet that eliminates the animal fats that contribute to high cholesterol and cardiovascular problems.
Lower Blood Pressure
The emphasis on eliminating processed foods and using healthier oils in vegan diets can help to lower blood pressure, reducing the risk of stroke. Using less salt can also help to ensure that your blood pressure remains within normal range. Refraining from processed foods that contain ingredients that can raise blood pressure also has a beneficial effect.
Improved Blood Sugar Levels
Vegan diets also focus on foods like lentils and beans, which slow down how food is absorbed in the intestines, so that sufficient insulin is produced to remove glucose from the body. If your doctor is concerned about high blood sugar levels, changing to a vegan diet can be an effective way to reduce these numbers.
A plant-based, vegan diet can also improve intestinal function. Many research studies link the consumption of animal products with an increased risk for colorectal cancer. Consumption of a plant-based diet, with its high amounts of fiber and antioxidants, helps to keep the cells of the digestive system functioning normally.
The natural benefits of a vegan diet are making it a popular choice for people of all ages. You can make your annual physical exam a cause for celebration, not concern, if you stick to a diet without animal fat, refined sugar and processed foods.
Becoming a vegetarian
Avoiding meat is only one part of the picture. A healthy vegetarian diet should be chock-full of foods with known benefits.
People become vegetarians for many reasons, including health, religious convictions, concerns about animal welfare or the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock, or a desire to eat in a way that avoids excessive use of environmental resources. Some people follow a largely vegetarian diet because they can’t afford to eat meat. Vegetarianism has become more appealing and accessible, thanks to the year-round availability of fresh produce, more vegetarian dining options, and the growing culinary influence of cultures with largely plant-based diets.
Approximately six to eight million adults in the United States eat no meat, fish, or poultry, according to a Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the Vegetarian Resource Group, a nonprofit organization that disseminates information about vegetarianism. Several million more have eliminated red meat but still eat chicken or fish. About two million have become vegans, forgoing not only animal flesh but also animal-based products such as milk, cheese, eggs, and gelatin.
Traditionally, research into vegetarianism focused mainly on potential nutritional deficiencies, but in recent years, the pendulum has swung the other way, and studies are confirming the health benefits of meat-free eating. Nowadays, plant-based eating is recognized as not only nutritionally sufficient but also as a way to reduce the risk for many chronic illnesses. According to the American Dietetic Association, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
“Appropriately planned” is the operative term. Unless you follow recommended guidelines on nutrition, fat consumption, and weight control, becoming a vegetarian won’t necessarily be good for you. A diet of soda, cheese pizza, and candy, after all, is technically “vegetarian.” For health, it’s important to make sure that you eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It’s also vital to replace saturated and trans fats with good fats, such as those found in nuts, olive oil, and canola oil. And always keep in mind that if you eat too many calories, even from nutritious, low-fat, plant-based foods, you’ll gain weight. So it’s also important to practice portion control, read food labels, and engage in regular physical activity.
You can get many of the health benefits of vegetarianism without going all the way. For example, a Mediterranean eating pattern — known to be associated with longer life and reduced risk of several chronic illnesses — features an emphasis on plant foods with a sparing use of meat. Even if you don’t want to become a complete vegetarian, you can steer your diet in that direction with a few simple substitutions, such as plant-based sources of protein — beans or tofu, for example — or fish instead of meat a couple of times a week.
Only you can decide whether a vegetarian diet is right for you. If better health is your goal, here are some things to consider.
Can vegetarianism protect you against major diseases?
Maybe. Compared with meat eaters, vegetarians tend to consume less saturated fat and cholesterol and more vitamins C and E, dietary fiber, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and phytochemicals (plant chemicals), such as carotenoids and flavonoids. As a result, they’re likely to have lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower body mass index (BMI), all of which are associated with longevity and a reduced risk for many chronic diseases.
But there still aren’t enough data to say exactly how a vegetarian diet influences long-term health. It’s difficult to tease out the influence of vegetarianism from other practices that vegetarians are more likely to follow, such as not smoking, not drinking excessively, and getting adequate exercise. But here’s what some of the research has shown so far:
Heart disease. There’s some evidence that vegetarians have a lower risk for cardiac events (such as a heart attack) and death from cardiac causes. In one of the largest studies — a combined analysis of data from five prospective studies involving more than 76,000 participants published several years ago — vegetarians were, on average, 25% less likely to die of heart disease. This result confirmed earlier findings from studies comparing vegetarian and nonvegetarian Seventh-day Adventists (members of this religious group avoid caffeine and don’t drink or smoke; about 40% are vegetarians). In another study involving 65,000 people in the Oxford cohort of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Oxford), researchers found a 19% lower risk of death from heart disease among vegetarians. However, there were few deaths in either group, so the observed differences may have been due to chance.
For heart protection, it’s best to choose high-fiber whole grains and legumes, which are digested slowly and have a low glycemic index — that is, they help keep blood sugar levels steady. Soluble fiber also helps reduce cholesterol levels. Refined carbohydrates and starches like potatoes, white rice, and white-flour products cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, which increases the risk of heart attack and diabetes (a risk factor for heart disease).
Nuts are also heart-protective. They have a low glycemic index and contain many antioxidants, vegetable protein, fiber, minerals, and healthy fatty acids. The downside: nuts pack a lot of calories, so restrict your daily intake to a small handful (about an ounce). The upside: because of their fat content, even a small amount of nuts can satisfy the appetite.
Walnuts, in particular, are a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have many health benefits. Even so, fish are the best source of omega-3s, and it’s not clear whether plant-derived omega-3s are an adequate substitute for fish in the diet. One study suggests that omega-3s from walnuts and fish both work to lower heart disease risk, but by different routes. Walnut omega-3s (alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA) help reduce total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol, while omega-3s from fish (eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA) lower triglycerides and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
Cancer. Hundreds of studies suggest that eating lots of fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of developing certain cancers, and there’s evidence that vegetarians have a lower incidence of cancer than nonvegetarians do. But the differences aren’t large. A vegetarian diet can make it easier to get the recommended minimum of five daily servings of fruits and vegetables, but a purely vegetarian diet is not necessarily better than a plant-based diet that also includes fish or poultry. For example, in a pooled analysis of data from the Oxford Vegetarian Study and EPIC-Oxford, fish-eaters had a lower risk of certain cancers than vegetarians.
If you stop eating red meat (whether or not you become a vegetarian), you’ll eliminate a risk factor for colon cancer. It’s not clear whether avoiding all animal products reduces the risk further. Vegetarians usually have lower levels of potentially carcinogenic substances in their colons, but studies comparing cancer rates in vegetarians and nonvegetarians have shown inconsistent results.
Type 2 diabetes. Research suggests that a predominantly plant-based diet can reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes. In studies of Seventh-day Adventists, vegetarians’ risk of developing diabetes was half that of nonvegetarians, even after taking BMI into account. The Harvard-based Women’s Health Study found a similar correlation between eating red meat (especially processed meats, such as bacon and hot dogs) and diabetes risk, after adjusting for BMI, total calorie intake, and exercise.
What about bone health?
Some women are reluctant to try a vegetarian diet — especially one that doesn’t include calcium-rich dairy products — because they’re concerned about osteoporosis. Lacto-ovo vegetarians (see “Varieties of vegetarians”) consume at least as much calcium as meat-eaters, but vegans typically consume less. In the EPIC-Oxford study, 75% of vegans got less than the recommended daily amount of calcium, and vegans in general had a relatively high rate of fractures. But vegans who consumed at least 525 milligrams of calcium per day were not especially vulnerable to fractures.
Certain vegetables can supply calcium, including bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, collards, and kale. (Spinach and Swiss chard, which also contain calcium, are not such good choices, because along with the calcium they have oxalates, which make it harder for the body to absorb calcium.) Moreover, the high potassium and magnesium content of fruits and vegetables reduces blood acidity, lowering the urinary excretion of calcium. Some research suggests that eating too much protein (in particular, animal protein) is bad for bones because it has the opposite effect.
People who follow a vegetarian and especially a vegan diet may be at risk of getting insufficient vitamin D and vitamin K, both needed for bone health. Although green leafy vegetables contain some vitamin K, vegans may also need to rely on fortified foods, including some types of soy milk, rice milk, organic orange juice, and breakfast cereals. They may also want to consider taking a vitamin D2 supplement (vitamin D3 comes from animals).
Concerns about vegetarian diets have focused mainly on the following nutrients:What about nutritional deficiencies?
Protein. Research shows that lacto-ovo vegetarians generally get the recommended daily amount of protein, which is easily obtained from dairy products and eggs. (Women need about 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. Because the protein in vegetables is somewhat different from animal protein, vegans may need 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.) There are many plant sources that can help vegans meet their protein needs, including peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, seeds, nuts, soy products, and whole grains (for example, wheat, oats, barley, and brown rice). Vegetarians used to be told that they had to combine “complementary” plant proteins (rice with beans, for example) at every meal to get all the amino acids contained in meat protein. Now, health experts say that such rigid planning is unnecessary. According to the American Dietetic Association, eating a wide variety of protein sources every day is sufficient.
Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal products, but those products include dairy foods and eggs, so most vegetarians get all they need. If you avoid animal products altogether, you should eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 (certain soy and rice beverages and breakfast cereals) or take a vitamin B12 supplement to avoid a deficiency, which can cause neurological problems and pernicious anemia.
Iron. Studies show that in Western countries, vegetarians tend to get the same amount of iron as meat eaters. But the iron in meat (especially red meat) is more readily absorbed than the kind found in plant foods, known as non-heme iron. The absorption of non-heme iron is enhanced by vitamin C and other acids found in fruits and vegetables, but it may be inhibited by the phytic acid in whole grains, beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts.
Zinc. Phytic acid in whole grains, seeds, beans, and legumes also reduces zinc absorption, but vegetarians in Western countries do not appear to be zinc-deficient.
Omega-3 fatty acids. Diets that include no fish or eggs are low in EPA and DHA. Our bodies can convert ALA in plant foods to EPA and DHA, but not very efficiently. Vegans can get DHA from algae supplements, which increase blood levels of DHA as well as EPA (by a process called retroversion). DHA-fortified breakfast bars and soy milk are also available. Official dietary guidelines recommend 1.10 grams per day of ALA for women, but vegetarians who consume little or no EPA and DHA should probably get more than that. Good ALA sources include flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, and soy.
All of the following nutritional benefits come from a vegan diet full of foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and soy products.
1. Reduced saturated fats. Dairy products and meats contain a large amount of saturated fats. By reducing the amount of saturated fats from your diet, you’ll improve your health tremendously, especially when it comes to cardiovascular health.
2. Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide energy for your body. When you don’t have enough carbohydrates, your body will burn muscle tissue.
3. Fiber. A diet high in fiber (as vegan eating usually is) leads to healthier bowel movements. High fiber diets help fight against colon cancer.
4. Magnesium. Aiding in the absorption of calcium, magnesium is an often overlooked vitamin in importance to a healthy diet. Nuts, seeds, and dark leafy greens are an excellent source of magnesium.
5. Potassium. Potassium balances water and acidity in your body and stimulates the kidneys to eliminate toxins. Diets high in potassium have shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
6. Folate. This B vitamin is an important part of a healthy diet. Folate helps with cell repair, generating red and white blood cells, and metabolizing amino acids.
7. Antioxidants. For protection against cell damage, antioxidants are one of the best ways to help your body. Many researchers also believe that antioxidants help protect your body against forming some types of cancer.
8. Vitamin C. Besides boosting your immune system, Vitamin C also helps keep your gums healthy and helps your bruises heal faster. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant.
9. Vitamin E. This powerful vitamin has benefits for your heart, skin, eyes, brain, and may even help prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. A diet high in grains, nuts, and dark leafy greens is full of Vitamin E.
10. Phytochemicals. Plant-based foods provide phytochemicals, which help to prevent and heal the body from cancer, boost protective enzymes, and work with antioxidants in the body.
11. Protein. That protein is good for your body is no surprise. It may be a surprise to learn that most Americans eat too much protein and in forms such as red meat that are not healthy ways of getting protein. Beans, nuts, peas, lentils, and soy products are all great ways to get the right amount of protein in a vegan diet.
Eating a healthy vegan diet has shown to prevent a number of diseases. Find out from the list below what you could potentially avoid just by switching to a healthy, balanced vegan way of eating.
12. Cardiovascular disease. Eating nuts and whole grains, while eliminating dairy products and meat, will improve your cardiovascular health. A British study indicates that a vegan diet reduces the risk for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Vegan diets go far in preventing heart attack and stroke.
13. Cholesterol. Eliminating any food that comes from an animal and you will eliminate all dietary cholesterol from your diet. Your heart will thank you for that.
14. Blood pressure. A diet rich in whole grains is beneficial to your health in many ways, including lowering high blood pressure.
15. Type 2 diabetes. Not only is a vegan diet a weapon against Type 2 diabetes, it is also “easier to follow than the standard diet recommended by the American Diabetic Association.”
16. Prostate cancer. A major study showed that men in the early stages of prostate cancer who switched to a vegan diet either stopped the progress of the cancer or may have even reversed the illness.
17. Colon cancer. Eating a diet consisting of whole grains, along with fresh fruits and vegetables, can greatly reduce your chances of colon cancer.
18. Breast cancer. Countries where women eat very little meat and animal products have a much lower rate of breast cancer than do the women in countries that consume more animal products.
19. Macular degeneration. Diets with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens, carrots, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes, can help prevent the onset of age-related macular degeneration.
20. Cataracts. Much the same way macular degeneration is headed off by a vegan diet, cataracts are also thought to be prevented through the intake of the same fruits and vegetables. Produce high in antioxidants are also believed to help prevent cataracts.
21. Arthritis. Eliminating dairy consumption has long been connected with alleviating arthritis symptoms, but a new study indicates that a combination of gluten-free and vegan diet is very promising for improving the health of those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
22. Osteoporosis. Bone health depends on a balance of neither too much or too little protein, adequate calcium intake, high potassium, and low sodium. With a healthy vegan diet, all four of these points set a perfect scenario for preventing osteoporosis.
In addition to good nutrition and disease prevention, eating vegan also provides many physical benefits. Find out how a vegan diet makes your body stronger, more attractive, and more energetic.
23. Body Mass Index. Several population studies show that a diet without meat leads to lower BMIs–usually an indicator of a healthy weight and lack of fat on the body.
24. Weight loss. A healthy weight loss is a typical result of a smart vegan diet. Eating vegan eliminates most of the unhealthy foods that tend to cause weight issues.
25. Energy. When following a healthy vegan diet, you will find your energy is much higher. This blog post in Happy Healthy Long Life describes how NFL tight-end Tony Gonzalez started eating vegan and gained energy–while playing football.
26. Healthy skin. The nuts and vitamins A and E from vegetables play a big role in healthy skin, so vegans will usually have good skin health. Many people who switch to a vegan diet will notice a remarkable reduction in blemishes as well.
27. Longer life. Several studies indicate that those following a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle live an average of three to six years longer than those who do not.
28. Body odor. Eliminating dairy and red meat from the diet significantly reduces body odor. Going vegan means smelling better.
29. Bad breath. Vegans frequently experience a reduction in bad breath. Imagine waking up in the morning and not having morning breath.
30. Hair. Many who follow vegan diets report that their hair becomes stronger, has more body, and looks healthier.
31. Nails. Healthy vegan diets are also responsible for much stronger, healthier nails. Nail health is said to be an indicator of overall health.
32. PMS. When switching to a vegan diet, many women tell how PMS symptoms become much less intense or disappear altogether. The elimination of dairy is thought to help with those suffering with PMS.
33. Migraines. Migraine suffers who go on vegan diets frequently discover relief from their migraines. Read more about the food-migraine connection in this article.
34. Allergies. Reduction in dairy, meat, and eggs is often tied to alleviation of allergy symptoms. Many vegans report much fewer runny noses and congestion problems.
Too Much in the American Diet
The typical American diet not only consists of too much food, it also relies on too much of unnecessary food products or toxins. The following list explains how a vegan diet can eliminate these problems.
36. Animal proteins. The average American eats twice as much protein as necessary for a healthy diet and much of that is from red meat. Getting protein from beans and grains is much healthier and reduces the risk for osteoporosis (see above).
37. Cow’s milk dairy. The human body is not designed to digest cow milk and cow milk dairy products, yet the idea of milk being healthy is pushed through advertising. As many as 75% of people in the world may be lactose intolerant and many people suffer from undiagnosed milk allergies or sensitivities. By eliminating cow’s milk from your diet, you are improving your overall health.
38. Eggs. Many nutritionists believe that the number of eggs in the American diet is too high. While sometimes disputed, it has been shown that eggs can raise cholesterol levels.
39. Mercury. Most of the fish and shellfish consumed has mercury in it. While some fish have less than others, it is almost impossible not to be putting mercury in your body when you eat fish.
40. Sugar. Most people have heard that Americans consume way too much sugar. Relying on other sweeteners that are not synthetic, processed, or derived from animal products is a healthier way to eat. Many vegans do not eat processed sugar due to the fact that most of the cane sugar is refined through activated charcoal, most of which comes from animal bones.
In addition to the health benefits above, following a vegan lifestyle and diet also provides these benefits as well. From helping the environment to avoiding serious bacterial infections, learn other benefits to eating the vegan way below.
40. Animals. Many people begin a vegan diet out of concern for animals. Whether opposed to the conditions of animals intended for food or eating animals in general, going vegan will help your conscience rest easily.
41. Environment. Growing plants takes much fewer resources than growing animals. By eating vegan, you can help reduce the toll on the environment.
42. E. coli. E. coli comes from eating contaminated red meat and is the leading cause of bloody diarrhea. Young children, those with compromised immune systems, and elderly people can become extremely ill or die from E. coli. Eating vegan means completely avoiding the risk of E. coli infection.
43. Salmonella. Another gastrointestinal illness from animal products, salmonella food poisoning is closely related to E. coli. The most frequent way people contract salmonella food poisoning is through contact with raw eggs or raw chicken meat from chickens infected with salmonella. Again, going vegan means eliminating this risk altogether.
44. Mad cow disease. It’s safe to say that most people would want to avoid contracting a fatal, non-treatable disease. One way to ensure you don’t get Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is by not eating animals infected with mad cow disease. While the incidence of mad cow disease is not reportedly so high in North America, it does exist.
45. Global food supply. Feeding grain to animals meant as food sources reduces the amount of food that is available to underdeveloped nations. Many people will go hungry while that same food they could be eating is given to animals raised for slaughter. Eating vegan ensures that you have removed yourself from the participation of this imbalance.
46. Hormone consumption. Eating animals that have been given hormones to speed growth (a common practice in the meat industry) means those hormones go into your body. Not only can this disrupt the natural balance of your hormones, but some of the hormones given to animals have shown to cause tumor growth in humans.
47. Antibiotics. Antibiotics are frequently given to feed animals, which can lead to bacterial resistance. Many of the antibiotics used to treat human infections are also used in feed animals.
A vegan diet can be a much healthier way to eat. Find out how to combine the vegan diet with other ways of eating for an even more healthy way to go or discover ways to keep your vegan diet healthy but more convenient with the resources below.
48. Raw. A raw diet lends itself to veganism by the very nature of its design. Find out how to combine live and vegan diets with Raw Inspirations.
49. Organic. Eating organic and vegan is super easy to do. Use some of the recipes from this blog for help with meal ideas. The posts have slowed, but you can always search the archives for some great ideas on how to live and eat organic and vegan.
50. Fat-free. Vegan eating is typically pretty low in fats anyway, but the FatFree Vegan Kitchen shows you how to make some delicious vegan food that is always fat free.
51. Gluten-free. Due to allergies, Celiac’s Disease, or whatever your reason you avoid gluten, find out how to combine the best of gluten-free with vegan cooking in the Gluten-Free Vegan blog.
52. Eating out. Eating out isn’t usually associated with eating healthy, but a vegan diet ensures there will be a lot less of the bad things in the food you choose.
53. Lunch. Maintaining a vegan diet means you are likely to take your lunch more often than most people. Vegan Lunch Box offers recipes, tools, and ideas for carrying great vegan lunches every day.
54. Dinner. Coming up with new dinner ideas is challenging for everyone–regardless of what type of diet you follow. Check out this amazing selection of vegan dinner recipes accompanied with mouth-watering photos of each preparation on Dinner with Dilip.
55. Dessert. While not all the recipes on My Sweet Vegan are for dessert, you will find a large selection of sweet vegan recipes with the most delicious-looking photos.
56. Wine. Pairing vegan food with wine may be challenging for those who rely on the old standard of “white with fish and red with meat.”
57.Fun. These ladies know how to kick it with vegan cooking. Post Punk Kitchen offers some great recipes with a ton of fun infused in them. Be sure to go through the archives for more yummy food ideas.