Debating Diets: What is the vegan diet?

Thinking about starting a new diet? While the amount of information available can be overwhelming, it’s possible to find a diet that is safe, suitable and effective for your lifestyle.

Dr. Yana Finkelshteyn, assistant professor with Family and Community Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, discusses what you need to know about the vegan diet.

Q: What is veganism and how does it work?

A: The vegan diet is a diet that excludes food that comes from animal sources including meat, dairy, seafood and eggs. Veganism is often a lifestyle choice based on ethical and political principles of animal rights and environmental preservation. Others come to veganism due to the health benefits of the diet.

Q: Are there variations of this diet?
Raw asparagus on a cutting board.
Raw asparagus on a cutting board.

A: Strict vegans will avoid all foods containing meat, dairy or egg derivatives. There are raw vegans that eat primarily raw unprocessed vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts. Many vegans prefer organic to conventionally raised vegetables and fruits, and some vegans do not consume honey.

Q: What are the recommended foods? Discouraged foods?

A: Whole grains, starchy vegetables, legumes, greens, fruits, berries, seeds, nuts, plant oils, nut butters, tofu, tempeh and many other plant-derived foods are included in the vegan diet.

Q: What are the nutritional benefits of this diet? Can it help with weight management?

A: There is a benefit for weight management for those following a whole-foods plant-based vegan diet. There are many processed foods that are vegan, but these are calorie-dense and high in added sugar or fat. If these are kept to a minimum, the vegan diet is beneficial for weight loss. A vegan diet reduces the risk of heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes and some cancers as compared to an omnivore diet.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about this diet?

A: One is that foods must be combined in a very specific way to get a complete protein. The truth is that most people eating a variety of natural plant foods will get more than the adequate amount of protein. A second misconception is that it is automatically a healthy diet. As mentioned, processed vegan, while possibly less harmful than processed meats, are not necessarily healthy. There are also vegan foods high in added salt and sugar. When it comes to any diet, natural may be best.

Q: Who should avoid this diet?

A: Anyone can follow a vegan diet with some caveats. Most strict vegans do need to supplement vitamin B12 which is found primarily in animal derived foods and soil bacteria.

The vegan diet does contain iron-rich foods such as whole grains, beans, greens and avocados. Pairing these with foods naturally high in vitamin C aids iron absorption, and cast-iron cookware can add elemental iron. A junk food vegan diet may result in deficiencies in iron and even protein.

The vegan diet is also relatively low in Omega 3 essential fatty acids. To increase these levels, vegans can include seaweed and algae, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, edamame and other plant-derived foods containing Omega 3 fatty acids in their diet.

Q: What kind of physiological changes or side effects should be expected initially?

A: There are many vegan athletes and even vegan bodybuilders.  Because the vegan diet is naturally high in low-calorie density foods, it may be harder to gain weight on a vegan diet for those that need to gain weight, such as those with a severe illness or who recently had surgery. Pregnant women can continue a vegan diet throughout pregnancy while supplementing with prenatal vitamins and possibly iron as long as they include a wide variety of natural foods in their diet.

Q: What else should people know before considering this diet?

A: Many that are switching to a vegan diet report weight loss and increased energy. Blood pressure and cholesterol can decrease considerably. High fiber intake can ease gastrointestinal issues such as constipation. However, some report increased gas and bloating, particularly if increasing intake of legumes and certain vegetables.

To be done in a healthy way, the vegan diet must include a variety of plant-derived foods. For many, there is a learning curve in terms of food preparation and even shopping. It can take extra time and research to prepare vegan recipes and this can be a barrier to some in adhering to the diet.

The vegan diet can be economical. Rice, beans, lentils and greens are inexpensive staples in a vegan diet. Because there is little vegan fast food, it does often require more cooking at home.

Additional Resources

Debating Diets: What is the MIND diet?

See more from the Debating Diets series.

-By Nicole Blanton

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.