Ask a Dietitian: What Are the Real Benefits of a Vegan Diet?
There are a few different reasons you might choose to go vegan, with health, animal rights, environmental sustainability, and taste preference among the most common.
Evidence shows that eating a plant based diet is beneficial for our health, but is going strictly vegan and excluding all animal products the be all and end all for optimum wellness?
We broke down the pros and cons of a vegan diet, and what to keep in mind if you decide to ban animal products from your food intake.
Environmental: Omitting animal products from your diet can be beneficial for the environment, as animal food production contributes some of the highest greenhouse gas emissions.
Cost: Eating vegan can be more cost effective. A wholefood vegan diet packed with proteins from foods such as legumes is much easier on the wallet than serving meat-centric meals on the regular.
Health: Increased consumption of plant-based foods has been associated with reduced risk of some chronic diseases, such as heart disease and high blood pressure, due to their high fibre and low cholesterol content. Most meat is high in saturated fat, so by eliminating this from your diet you are reducing your saturated fat intake – this is especially important for heart health. In addition, a balanced vegan diet is typically lower in calories, which makes sustainable weight loss more likely.
Accessibility: Following a vegan diet is easier now than it was in the past. There are plenty of vegan alternatives available in the supermarket, farmer's markets offering fresh plant produce, as well as vegan restaurants and health food stores specialising in vegan-friendly options.
Nutrients: Some vegan diets lack certain nutrients, such as B12, folate, zinc and iron. While B12 is only found in animal products, you can find folate, zinc and iron in plant-based foods, however the bottom line is that you would have to consume a massive amount of these planet-based foods in order to reach the quantities required for optimum health. You might need to substitute plant-based with fortified options – calcium fortified almond milk or B12 fortified cereals, for example.
Protein: It can be difficult to consume adequate protein due to the smaller quantities found in plant based foods. This is why it's important for people following a vegan diet to include high quantities of protein-rich ingredients in every meal. These include asparagus, avocado, chickpeas, green peas, lentils, spinach, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, quinoa and more.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding: Following a vegan diet during pregnancy can be both dangerous and difficult to do well due to the increase of nutrients required. It is important to work with a professional to ensure these requirements are being met.
Meat substitute ≠ plant-based
Remember, not all vegan diets are created equal: a vegan diet that is high in processed foods (e.g. "fake meats" and pastries) are also high in saturated fats, which can lead to increased risk of chronic diseases and weight gain. Merely substituting meat with imposter animal products won't give you the health benefits that a more plant-based vegan diet can. Substituting real meat with "fake meat" is also unlikely to benefit the planet – the environmental impact of a fake meat diet is likely to be significantly more than a wholefood vegan diet, or even a more flexible approach, such as a "flexitarian" diet.
Eat food, not too much, mostly plants
While the health benefits of a completely vegan diet are real, you don't necessarily need to completely eliminate animal products to experience positive change. As American author and activist Michael Pollan famously wrote: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." In terms of your health, it's worth adopting a sometimes vegan mindset. Eat more plants and less animal products – gradually add more vegetables to your meals, eat legumes and lentils regularly, and start thinking of meat as a sometimes food.
Finally, when deciding to follow a vegan diet it's recommended you seek help from a professional. A dietitian can help you to ensure that any changes to your diet won't lead to nutritional deficiencies. In turn, your new pro-plant diet will be more likely to stick.
Explore more content like this in our series, Ask a Dietitian.
Health & Performance Collective is the brainchild of Sydney Dietitians Jessica Spendlove and Chloe McLeod. They use their 20 years of combined knowledge and skills as dietitians to work with motivated people to live and perform at their best.