Every other day we are being inundated by snippets in the media claiming that a vegan diet is a be-all and end-all for optimal health. Diet gurus and self-proclaimed experts arguing that a vegan diet can cure almost any ailment and even save your life. We see labels on food packages ensuring that a food item is “certified vegan,” potentially implying that the food has the edge over its nonvegan counterpart. Though the diet can be beneficial to health when correctly implemented, there is the possibility that the public may fall into the trap of thinking anything with the vegan stamp of approval will improve their health and longevity. Just like any other healthy diet, a vegan diet must take into account moderation of junk food and focus on a variety whole plant-based foods.
A vegan diet eliminates animal-based foods including all meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. So, what’s left is fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes. Seems easy enough, right? Well, this is where a vegan can often go wrong. People may overemphasize vegan treats and junk food that is “vegan certified” while avoiding the fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes in their whole form. One of the ways that industry is making it easier to become a vegan and stay a vegan is by producing food that simulates the taste and texture of non-vegan foods. Veggie burgers that have a similar taste and mouthfeel have been made to replicate the beef burger. Cheese, cream cheese, milk, and butter have been formulated into a vegan version as well. The list goes on and on. Though the products lack lactose, proteins, and cholesterol derived from animals, the foods are often still high in sugar, saturated fat, and calories while also being low in fiber. With all these options available, one can go from an unhealthy standard American diet to an unhealthy vegan diet in the blink of an eye.
Consumers who decide to become vegan need also to be aware of the risk of deficiencies that are associated with the dietary choice. Vegans are at a higher risk of deficiencies in vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3s, and calcium (Winston J Craig, 2009). This risk is even higher when the diet is not focused on a healthy balance of whole foods or is not nutritionally adequate. Vitamin D fortified milk such as almond milk or soy milk are great ways to get a daily dose. Calcium can be obtained from fortified orange juice and hemp milk, kale, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Though nutritional yeast is a great source of vitamin B12, supplementation of B12 is often required since most vegan foods do not contain the vitamin. Omega-3s can be found in supplement form or in foods like walnuts, canola oil, flax, spinach, and chia seeds. It is suggested that vegans supplement both vitamin B12 and omega-3s (Li, 2011). A well-balanced vegan diet high in whole foods and variety will help to avoid and eliminate these deficiencies.
A proper vegan diet is all about balance. This balance will help to maintain health status and avoid deficiencies. A new vegan cannot expect to subsist solely on Oreos and vegan mac and cheese while still being healthy. These types of foods should be treats and only a small portion of a plant-based diet.
Fact: An optimal vegan diet takes into consideration essential nutrients that are of risk, prioritizes variety, and emphasizes whole foods over processed.