More fashionable than ever and there has been a BIG leap in the numbers of people jumping aboard the plant-powered 2022 bandwagon. In 2019, it was 250,310 but in 2022 that has increased to 500,000. It is difficult to find accurate statistics for 2021 as it is still early in the year but my research came up with 79 million vegans worldwide, and if that figure is doubling on a yearly basis, the movement is certainly gaining a lot of speed.
Although I find this truly encouraging – simply because it indicates a rapidly growing awareness of the food we eat, where it comes from, and the undeniable effect it has on our health - I do wonder how many new vegans – or existing vegans for that matter - really and truly comprehend what veganism actually is and how it can support long-term health, as well as how it can destroy it in exactly the same way as an omnivorous diet can? So here are some thoughts on a plant-based way of eating, its advantages and disadvantages, pros and cons, benefits and pitfalls, and whether it is suitable for humans generally, or only for some, or simply for none.
Have I signed up to Veganuary 2022? Of course! I always do! Do I eat a vegan diet? No, not 100%, but I am mainly plant-powered. As I explained in a vegan cookery book which I wrote many years ago, the word vegan often brings to mind denial of gastronomic pleasure, pre-conceptions about deprivation and lack, an empty glass rather than one which is full, full to the brim, full to overflowing with infinite possibilities – plant cookery is truly limited only by our imaginations. Veganism has come a very long way since then and it is now easier and easier to go vegan, for one month at least, with countless restaurants, supermarkets and manufacturers offering plant-based produce, products and alternatives, and a mind-blowing cornucopia of vegan cookery books and blogs which introduce both beginners and long-term vegans to an Aladdin’s cave of plant-based recipes.
Being vegan is so very, very fashionable nowadays, and anybody in favour of this specific way of eating will maintain that it’s absolutely THE healthiest diet you can have from a nutritional perspective. Furthermore, it is cheaper, compassionate (it is reckoned that one person going vegan saves the lives of an average ten animals per month), and it offers a solution to many climate challenges. For most people, it is a bit of a stretch to go from a current carnivorous diet to a 100% vegan diet so let’s go through the actual concept of a vegan diet: what it means to be vegan, what’s great about it, what’s not so good, where one might struggle.
WHAT IS A VEGAN DIET?
A vegan diet is a stricter version of a vegetarian diet. On top of not eating any meat, fish or seafood – i.e. dead animals of any species - a vegan diet also cuts out all food stuffs made from animal sources, including dairy products and eggs, both of which are in many ways highly nutrient-dense..... Honey is also off limits, as are certain wines, and any dishes containing gelatine.
There is no set macro- or micro-nutrient ratio for a vegan diet; it is simply made up of vegetables, grains, fruit, nuts, seeds and any other foods which come from plants. However, since the main vegan protein sources are pulses and grains and, with a very few exceptions, only a combination of the two provides complete proteins, ie containing all the amino acids, this can, by definition, be a diet very high in carbohydrates. This is not generally a problem so long as they are complex or complete carbohydrates, but having said that, eating large quantities of even these healthy carbohydrates may not be recommended for some health conditions.
Let's look first at the obvious advantages of going vegan. A vegan diet
· Is cruelty-free, compassionate and sustainable
· Promotes the consumption of natural foods
· Is generally rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre, plus other priceless plant chemicals
. May be more environmentally-friendly
· May be helpful for some health conditions
And what might the disadvantages be?
· Natural food is not a requirement to comply with the diet
· Does not explicitly encourage healthy eating patterns
· May be nutrient-deficient (Vitamin B12, haem iron, omega-3 fats, complete protein)
· Often high in carbohydrates as mentioned above
· Can be too low in protein if there is insufficient knowledge and understanding
· Does not limit or exclude sugar
· Not always practical, especially when travelling abroad
· May or may not be effective for weight loss
Now, the question is: how healthy is a vegan diet?! A vegan diet most certainly does not guarantee a healthy diet! Although vegans commonly take an interest in how diet relates to health and tend to educate themselves about nutrition, the vegan diet does not explicitly prescribe healthy foods. There is a vegan alternative for every junk food out there! And you can live on white toast with margarine and jam (and see your blood sugar levels sky rocket) while still being vegan – and that is certainly not healthy by any stretch of the imagination.
Given that a large number of health complaints are linked to chronic inflammation, and that a plant-heavy, antioxidant-rich vegan diet will go a considerable way to mediating inflammation, it will certainly not hinder your attempts to be healthy!
Furthermore, given also that we don’t eat nearly as much fibre as we should for optimum health, committing to eating more fruit and vegetables can only be a good thing.
THINGS TO BE MINDFUL OF ON A VEGAN DIET
1. Vegan diets don’t provide the fat-soluble Vitamins A and D. You can’t get Vitamin A from carrots. What you get is beta carotene, which is the precursor to Vitamin A. You may have heard that carotene can be converted into Vitamin A, but this conversion is usually insignificant because it takes a huge amount of beta carotene to create a noteworthy amount of actual Vitamin A. And, if you have low thyroid function, impaired digestion or a lack of healthy fats in the diet, this conversion won’t in fact happen at all
2. Vegan diets (unless you’re eating a lot of natto which is a kind of fermented soy) don’t provide Vitamin K2 which is needed for shuttling calcium into your bones
3. Many people try to be vegan by relying on fake food. They replace milk, cheese and meat with foods manufactured to look and taste as though they are milk, cheese and meat – and since food manufacturing is not magic, non-foodstuffs such as stabilisers, gums, thickeners and highly processed protein extracts are used. And I find it disturbing to see how many new vegan products are being marketed which are pretty much artificial and whose greatest appeal seems to be their resemblance to animal products. Veganism is a booming market and since there is little profit to be made out of celery, swede and Brussels sprouts, now we are being offered vegan meat options and alternatives like vegan chicken nuggets – just check the label and see what has gone into the manufacture of this so-called food!
4. Vegan diets are low on Vitamin B12 and iron. The readily-absorbed forms of these nutrients are found in animal products and a number of studies suggests that up to 68% of vegans could be deficient in Vitamin B12 so it is a good idea to supplement
5. Some research has also shown that both vegetarians and vegans are prone to deficiencies in calcium, iron, zinc, and essential fats (although this certainly does not mean that you can't get all the healthy fats and minerals you need on a plant-based diet)
HOWEVER, don’t let any of the above put you off going vegan if you feel you would like to try it out, because there are viable solutions and if you want to get started, there are a number of healthy, reliable ways to launch yourself into Veganuary.
And just a reminder to join my free Facebook group, Let’s Age Dynamically. It is a private, safe environment for all of us, men and women, well into MidLife&Beyond where we can talk about any health challenges which are facing us as we grow older and learn to age dynamically and by design, rather than passively and by default. This is the link: https://www.facebook.com/groups/403073241466517 and I look forward to seeing you there.