Vegan diet – the current diet trend that is not only popular among celebs (Akshay Kumar, the fittest actor in Bollywood to name one) but also gained popularity in youth. Off late, two of my friends have turned vegan and they are in awe with the diet and its benefits. And the curious bee I am, I thought of divulging into the details to know more about this diet and what makes it a healthy option for everyone in the family. Even research has backed vegan diet, thanks to its wide range of benefits such as controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart disease, managing type 2 diabetes and protecting from certain cancers.
So in this article, we will be shedding light on what exactly is a vegan diet, its pros and cons and tips for a healthy vegan diet.
Understanding a Vegan Diet
When I heard the word vegan diet for the first time, I thought it to be the same as a vegetarian diet. Little did I know that that both these diets are not the same.
There is a very thin line between a vegan diet and a vegetarian diet. Vegans do not eat any animal products, while vegetarians do consume animal products like dairy and eggs. Confused? Simply put, a vegan diet contains only plant foods (nuts, fruits, vegetables, grains,pulses) and do not include animal products and by-products such as eggs, meat, fish, poultry and dairy products including milk, cheese and butter. Apart from this, vegans don’t even use animal products such as honey, leather, fur, silk, wool, cosmetics, and soaps. Whereas vegetarians do use products obtained from animals such as dairy products, honey, etc.
Vegan Nutrition Guide
PROTEIN: Protein recommendation can easily be met in a vegan diet by consuming a balanced diet as long as calorie intake is adequate. Almost all foods except for alcohol, sugar, and fats provide some protein. Vegan protein sources include lentils, chickpeas, tofu, peas, peanut butter, soy milk, almonds, spinach, rice, whole wheat bread, potatoes, and broccoli.
FATS: Vegan diet excludes cholesterol (like refined oils,butter) and are low in saturated fats (like ghee, margarine, coconut oil) which makes it even more healthier. This is because the vegan diet comprises of foods from plant sources and not animal sources.
VITAMIN D: Vegan diet lacks Vitamin D but can be obtained through foods fortified with this vitamin. Vitamin D-fortified soy milk and rice milk are some of the common food sources of Vitamin D for vegans. Alternatively, it can be obtained through sun exposure. A mere 10-15 minutes of summer sun on hands and face two to three times a week can help to reap the benefits of Vitamin D.
CALCIUM: Milk is one of the major sources of calcium but as it is restricted in vegan diet, vegans are mostly deficit in calcium. Hence calcium supplementation should be considered to meet the dietary needs of this mineral. Vegan calcium sources include okra, turnip greens, soybeans, tempeh, broccoli, bok choy and commercial soy yogurt.
ZINC: Vegan diet provides zinc at levels close to or even higher than the RDA as it can be found in grains, legumes, and nuts, which form the core items of a vegan diet.
IRON: Dried beans and dark green leafy vegetables, soybeans, lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, peas, raisins,millet are good sources of iron. These foods are considered to be better on a per calorie basis than meat. Also, vegan diet consists of good sources of Vitamin C (citrus fruits, broccoli,capsicum, and cauliflower) which markedly increases the iron absorption.
VITAMIN B12: Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal food sources which is required by the body for a healthy blood and a healthy nervous system. Hence, Vit B12 supplement may be needed. Sources of Vitamin B12 for vegans include breakfast cereals fortified with B12 and unsweetened soya drinks fortified with Vitamin B12.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: To maximize the production of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which are essential fatty acids, vegans should include good sources of alpha-linolenic acid in their diets such as flaxseed, flaxseed oil, canola oil, tofu, soybeans, and walnuts.
Tips For A Healthy Vegan Diet
-Make sure that your diet contains a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables.
-Choose high fibre starchy foods, such as oats, sweet potato, wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta and brown rice.
-Include good sources of protein in most meals, such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, soya alternatives to milk and yoghurt, or peanuts
-Eat nuts and seeds daily, especially those rich in omega-3 fats such as walnuts and almonds
-Eat calcium-rich foods daily such as calcium-fortified products and calcium-set tofu
-Ensure that your diet contains a reliable source of Vitamin B12 (either fortified foods or a supplement).
-Season food with herbs and spices instead of salt to keep away the effects of high salt intake like high blood pressure, CVD and increased weight.
-Choose unsaturated oils (MUFA/PUFA like combination of sunflower/safflower/rice bran oil with soybean/mustard/canola oil.
-Drink about six to eight glasses of fluids per day to make sure you are hydrated.
Pros & Cons of Vegan Diet
Vegan diets are usually higher in dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, iron, and phytochemicals, and lower in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol. In general, vegans have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD), obesity, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.
Lack of folate, Vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and Vitamin B-12 can negatively impact the body’s system. Over time, inadequate consumption of these nutrients can result in a host of problems, including bone loss, muscle mass, weakness, fatigue, constipation, and lack of appetite. Above all, deficiency of these vitamins and minerals can impair smooth running of the central nervous system and other metabolic functions.
Vegan diet can be followed by most individual keeping health condition in consideration as it helps to combat many lifestyle related disorders. However, due to the risk of mineral and vitamin deficiencies which come with the diet, one should regularly monitor their diet intake and take necessary supplements. So talk to a nutritionist before you start to go vegan. If you have a medical condition like diabetes, heart disease, etc., we urge you to discuss this with your doctor first.
(The article is written by Aditi Agarwal and reviewed by Dr. Swati Mishra, Medical Editor)
1. Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Dec;116(12):1970-1980.