There's vegetarianism—something we're all pretty familiar with—and then there's veganism. Vegans don’t eat meat, poultry, fish, and any other product from animals. So that also includes eggs, dairy products, and gelatin. Does it sound like an impossible diet and lifestyle? Well, it’s not so hard for vegans who’ve gotten used to going meatless and being without dairy—there are alternatives to ice cream, after all. Some vegans have also sworn against eating meat for animal rights, health, and environmental reasons. We break down the pros and cons of veganism and even how the diet affects our planet.
Plant-based protein is every vegan’s food BFF.
Giving up meat and dairy doesn’t mean slacking off on the protein intake. Protein can also be found in plant-based products like whole grains (your oats and brown rice!), nuts, peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas (aka garbanzos), and soy products (your tofu). Vegans can mix their beans with their brown rice to combine proteins and get all the amino acids found in meat protein. For sure vegans have to eat a whole range of protein sources daily to have enough protein.
Bone health can be an issue.
And it’s an issue for two reasons. One: Vegans’ calcium intake is small. In a study of the Oxford component of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, the researchers found that 75 percent of vegans had less than the recommended daily amount of calcium (1,000 milligrams), which is essential for bone health. This resulted to higher fracture risk for vegans. (That didn’t apply to vegans who had at least 525 milligrams a day of calcium.)
Two: Vegans are at risk of vitamin D and K deficiency; both vitamins are also needed for bone health.
All that said, vegans would need to eat bok choy, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, and kale to get calcium. They need to load up on vegetables and fruits, because the high potassium and magnesium content lessens the amount of calcium the body excretes through urination.
But even if vegetables do have vitamin K, the amount isn’t enough. Vegans would have to also rely on fortified food like breakfast cereals and soy milk for that, as well as to take vitamin D2 supplements.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is another health concern.
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products—meat, eggs, and dairy. Vegans who don’t take food fortified with vitamin B12 (soy milk and breakfast cereals) are at a higher risk of neurological problems (like depression) and anemia.
Vegans might not be getting enough iron either.
The body absorbs iron in red meat easily than iron found in plant foods. While plant foods like nuts, seeds, and beans have vitamin C which can aid the body in absorbing the iron, the process can be inhibited by the phytic acid found in them. (Phytic acid has been found in a number of studies to be a potent inhibitor of iron absorption.)
But veganism can be good for you, if you follow the recommended nutrition guidelines.
The American Dietetic Association states that “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.”
Meaning to say, for a vegan to be healthy, she has to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to get the sufficient amount of all vitamins and minerals. (And like the rest of us, she has to watch her saturated fat, trans fat, and refined sugar intake. She has to exercise too!)
Vegans are more likely to have reduced risk of chronic diseases and obesity, and to live longer.
That’s because vegans (and other vegetarians) usually consume less saturated fat and cholesterol compared with meat eaters. So they have lower total and bad cholesterol, blood pressure, and BMI. Because healthy vegans consume a variety of fruits and vegetables, they also have more protective gut bacteria than meat eaters. Their diverse gut bacteria prevent certain kinds of bacteria (Firmicutes and Actinobacteria) from becoming more prevalent than others. (Having more of those two bacteria has been found to lead to obesity.)
More research is needed, though, on how a vegan diet affects one’s health in the long run.
Scientists still debate about veganism being good for the environment.
Studies in the past have found that a vegetarian (not necessarily just vegan) diet doesn’t have as much burden on the environment compared to a meat-based diet. And that’s technically true. Meat-based diets require more energy, land, and water for food production: Livestock need to be fed with grains to stay healthy; the demand for meat calls for more animals; having more animals means more food has to be produced for them and for us. To produce more plant-based food for the animals and for us requires fertilizers, pesticides, machines, fuel to run the machines—and all these need fossil energy, which emit greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change.
In this regard a plant-based diet is easier on the environment—at least in the U.S., where most scientists conduct their research. Or so some scientists say. But some of them are quick to say that that’s a very limited way of looking at things.
On a larger—even global—scale, it’s not so simple. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has taken into consideration a growing population in the U.S. (and worldwide), a shortage of cropland, water, and energy resources. It concludes that food for a meat-based diet and a vegetarian diet both use large quantities of non-renewable fossil energy to produce, and that food isn’t always produced efficiently. And as population grows, the food demand and fossil energy consumption will continue to rise—your choice of diet is not as urgent as addressing population control with limited resources.
Another study also in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points out that long-distance air transport of fruits and vegetables to cater to a plant-based diet (some plant products are readily available in one country while they can’t be grown in another—take berries, for instance) has about the same impact on the environment as producing a kilo of organic meat. And some of these vegetables that have been shipped are deep-frozen to preserve them. This deep-freezing may have environmental burdens more than what’s caused in the production of organic meat too.
What that study proposes is not that we shift diets—this won’t be sustainable when there won’t be enough resources for food production—but to have more efficient and environmentally safe methods of doing agriculture. Fresh vegetables from integrated horticulture are worse for the environment than organic meat, since greenhouses heated with fossil fuel do have a relatively large environmental burden. Integrated agriculture or farming exhausts the environment more than organic agriculture or farming.
It all sounds a bit hands-off for the rest of us who aren’t scientists or food producers, but still the paper notes that it’s good to be flexible with our diet to lessen food demand. And between a kilo of fresh, organic vegetables over a kilo of organic meat, if we must pick for environment’s sake, it’s eating fresh, organic vegetables.
Interested in trying a vegan diet?
If you’re a meat eater interested in going vegan for a few weeks, it’s not good for you to drop all the meat and dairy at once. Experts suggest you do it gradually, for example by giving up dairy first, followed with chicken and then beef; or being vegan at home but a meat-eater outside. That way, you won’t feel that your energy’s been sapped.
You’ll need to start reading food labels to make sure that you won’t eat an animal product, or even find a new place to do your groceries. With more and more people going vegetarian or vegan, it shouldn’t be so hard to find a health grocer in your city—and with that, food you’ll find delicious and love to eat.
Remember: Being on a candy and soda diet is also a vegan diet, and a terribly unhealthy one at that. Giving up meat doesn’t immediately mean you’ll be healthier or you'll do good for the environment if you’re not thinking about the nutrients you’re getting (or missing) and where and how your food is produced.
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