Some of the health benefits of being vegan include a reduced risk of hypertension, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, bronchial asthma, and Parkinson’s disease. It also helps in improving bone health, cardiovascular health, reducing obesity, and has anti-aging properties. It also helps in maintaining lower levels of homocysteine and keeps the body revitalized.
Veganism – Introduction
Veganism refers to refraining from the use of animal-based or animal-derived products. Being vegan encompasses a lot more than just dietary choices. This change in perspective extends to every field of life that involves animal products. Vegans choose to utilize only plant-based products for a variety of reasons, including health concerns, ethical values, or religious beliefs.
Many people opt for veganism only to eliminate their usage of animal-based products. People who are dedicated to the purpose of stopping the exploitation of animals for various products like milk, honey, gelatin, meat, leather, and wool often make this kind of transition. A lot of people select a vegan lifestyle for environmental reasons as well. As compared to the harvesting of crops, the production of livestock exerts a much higher burden on resources like land, water, and fossil fuels by contributing substantially to greenhouse gas emissions.
Along with social welfare, a well-planned vegan regime offers a wholesome, nutritionally adequate, and versatile package of health benefits to humans. A number of people perceive animal products as toxic and claim to see a clear improvement in their health after making this paradigm shift to veganism.
The health benefits of following a vegan diet are explained more fully in the sections below.
Obesity: A vegan diet helps to combat obesity in all age groups. A comparative study done on various diet groups has proven that vegans have the lowest body mass index and are less prone to obesity when compared to meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians. The reason behind this significantly lowered weight gain in vegans can be attributed to higher fiber and lower animal protein intake. Reducing your caloric intake or starving yourself to lose weight is not a healthy option, since it may lead to conditions like anorexia and bulimia. A vegan lifestyle entails consuming grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other plant-based products. All these options have very low amounts of fats, except for the nuts, which are a source of good fat, but can cause weight gain if eaten in excess.
Bronchial Asthma: Studies conducted to investigate the efficacy of a vegan diet in the treatment of bronchial asthma have shown promising results. According to the research, the studies’ subjects confirmed a reduction in asthma symptoms and were even able to eradicate or reduce the need for asthma medications.
Cancer: Research studies have shown that a vegan diet aids in the prevention of various kinds of cancer like colon, lung, esophagus, breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer. According to the research, vegan proteins have a high concentration of non-essential amino acids. These dietary proteins, along with an increased intake of phytochemicals, favors insulin and glucagon activity, thereby aiding in lowering elevated lipid levels and inhibiting the development of cancer. The protective and anti-proliferative effect of the vegan diet is due to the presence of flavonoids, beta-carotene, carotenoids, vitamin C, a low amount of fat, and a good amount of fiber. Vegetables like garlic provide a defense mechanism against colorectal cancer. Legumes and tomatoes, which are rich in lycopene, are good for protecting against prostate cancer. Beta-carotene rich foods also help in reducing the risk of lung cancer. According to the American Society of Nutrition, consumption of excessive of dairy products during our early years increases the risk of colorectal and prostate cancer later in life. Inclusion of more soy products, which have a good concentration of isoflavones, during childhood and the teenage years helps females defend against the development of breast cancer during adulthood.
Anti-Aging Properties: A low-fat vegan diet may help to retard the human aging process. The activity of IGF-1, also known as insulin-like growth factor, plays an important role in the regulation of the aging process. A vegan diet, along with other health measures like exercise, high fiber intake, and a low fat intake may help to deregulate the IGF-1 activity and reduce the risk of age-related ailments.
Cardiovascular Health: Vegans have reasonably lower levels of blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, along with healthy levels of blood lipids and a good body mass index (BMI). All of these factors lead to significantly better cardiovascular health. The wealth of phytochemicals, antioxidants, and fiber present in fruits and vegetables, which cover the significant part of a vegan diet, aid in reduced incidences of stroke and ischemic heart disorder. In addition to this, the inclusion of nuts, whole grains, and soy products also adds to the protective effect exerted by a vegan diet against the cardiovascular diseases.
Blood Cholesterol and Hypertension: Studies have shown that adopting a vegan diet has shown beneficial effects on cholesterol and blood pressure levels as compared to non-vegans. People who shift to a vegan diet are even able to reduce or eliminate the need for regular medication for such ailments. According to various research studies, among fish eaters, vegetarians, non-vegetarians, and vegans, vegans have the lowest blood pressure, while meat eaters have been reported to possess the highest incidence of hypertension.
Diabetes: A Vegan diet consists of plant-derived foods that are naturally high in complex carbohydrates and low in fats. These two factors reasonably contribute to controlling diabetes. The inclusion of plant-based diets can even assist in reducing the need for insulin, which is required for those patients who are insulin-dependent. According to the research studies conducted in this regard, a vegan diet has been proven even better for diabetic patients than the diabetic diet prescribed by the American Diabetes Association. In addition to healthy blood sugar levels, the studies’ patients following veganism have reported improvement in other health parameters like hemoglobin levels and weight loss.
Healthy Bones: Essential nutrients like potassium, magnesium, and vitamin K contribute significantly to bone health. All of these nutrients, along with soy benefits, can be found in a vegan diet. A vegan diet aids in maintaining the acid-base ratio, which is also a significant factor for bone health. An acidic diet encourages the loss of calcium during urination. The higher concentration of potassium and magnesium in fruits and vegetables provides alkalinity to the diet, which reduces bone resorption. Studies have shown that an adequate intake of vitamin K, which is present in ample amounts in green leafy vegetables, reduces the risk of hip fractures. According to various research studies, soy products like tofu, which are rich in isoflavones, may have positive effects on bone health in postmenopausal women with respect to improved bone mineral density, improved bone formation, and reduced bone resorption. Less calcium loss means reducing the risk of osteoporosis for people on a vegan diet, even if their intake of calcium is low.
Parkinson’s Disease: Research studies evaluating the effectiveness of a vegan diet on neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease have shown promising results. According to the studies, fat and cholesterol-packed meat-based diets enhance the risk of Parkinson’s disease as compared plant-based fats, which do not pose any such threat. A vegan diet has been believed to provide a protective effect against Parkinson’s disease and is also helpful in supporting vascular health.
Rheumatoid Arthritis: Vegan diet has been proven to be effective for patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, owing to the presence of a good amount of fiber, vitamin C, E, and carotenoids. Research conducted to examine the effects of a vegan diet has shown the induction of natural antibodies, which have anti-inflammatory and athero-protective effects. These beneficial effects aid in decreasing the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and oxidized LDL levels, which is favorable for patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, while also helping to keep a check on their cardiac health.
Homocysteine: Scientific research has supported the fact that the consumption of a vegan diet, along with other health parameters like exercise and the prohibition of alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine helps in lowering the levels of homocysteine in the blood. Elevated levels of homocysteine in the blood can pose a risk for blood vessels and cardiac disorders, and may also lead to the clotting of blood in the veins.
General Well-Being: Vegan food helps to keep a check on common body ailments that usually do not let a person feel healthy and relaxed. Inclusion of vegan foods such as tofu enhances the ability of the body to manage stress. All these benefits improve general health and reduce the need for medication for such disorders. Veganism also helps to reduce the probability of needing certain surgeries like angioplasty, open heart surgery, and cancer treatment. Consumption of less sugar and fats and more fruits and vegetables keeps the person more naturally energized and makes you look and feel good.
Vegan Diet – A Word of Caution!
People on a vegan diet should be cautious regarding their intake of essential nutrients, since they have an increased chance of missing vital vitamins and minerals required for the proper functioning of the body, including proteins, B12, riboflavin, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and zinc.
Potential Nutritional Shortfall for Vegans
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: A vegan diet is usually deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid, DHA, or docosahexanoic acid, which are important for the healthy functioning of eyes and brain. Vegans should consider regular consumption of plant-based alpha-linoleic acid sources like soy products, flaxseed, walnuts, and DHA-fortified vegan food. DHA Supplements can also be considered after discussing the option with a doctor to compensate for the potential deficiency.
Vitamin B12: A deficiency of vitamin B12 in the body can lead to anemia, abnormal neurological symptoms, elevated levels of homocysteine, and a higher risk of bone breakage. Vegans can benefit from vitamin B12-fortified foods, soy drinks, seaweed, and nutritional yeast. The absorption of vitamin B12 in the body deteriorates with age, so it is generally advisable to take vitamin B12 supplements in case the requirement is not met, but only after a consultation with a doctor.
Calcium: Vegans should ensure the regular inclusion of calcium-rich foods like dark green leafy vegetables in their diet to meet the body’s requirement for calcium. Along with leafy greens like kale, collard greens, and cabbage, other good sources of calcium include tofu, soy beverages, and fortified breakfast cereals.
Vitamin D: A veegan diet is generally found to be low in vitamin D. A deficiency of vitamin D can hamper the absorption of calcium in the body and may result in brittle bones. Along with adequate exposure to sunlight, vegans may consume fortified soy beverages, rice milk, and juices, or consider taking supplements to cover the body’s requirement for vitamin D.
Iron: Iron is essential for the formation of red blood cells. The kind of iron present in a plant-based diet is less absorbable in the body as compared to a meat-based diet. Vegans should ensure their regular intake of iron-fortified foods, such as dark green leafy vegetables and dry fruits, to avoid this deficiency.
Zinc: Zinc is required for a healthy immune system. A vegan diet has a high concentration of phytate, which makes it vital for vegans to consume more zinc-rich foods like pumpkin seeds, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and fortified cereals.
Proteins: Vegan diets might lack protein as compared to a lacto-vegetarian diet, which includes dairy products, as well as the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, which include eggs. Good sources of protein for vegans include soy, which is a complete vegetable protein, whole grains, and beans, as well as other legumes, seeds, and nuts.
Apart from the above-mentioned protein sources, riboflavin-rich foods like almonds and mushrooms should be consumed to avoid any deficiency symptoms.
Veganism During Pregnancy and Lactation
Pregnant and nursing women on a vegan diet should be extra vigilant regarding their intake of vital nutrients for themselves as well as for the healthy growth of their child. Nursing mothers should monitor their intake of calcium and vitamin D, since their inadequacy in the body may lead to bone demineralization. A lack of enough vitamin B12 in pregnant and breastfeeding mothers can be harmful to their children, since it may interfere with the normal growth of the baby’s brain. Infants being nursed by vegan mothers deficient in vitamin B12 can suffer from impaired neurological growth. A lack of vitamin B12 in young children can also result in rickets and anemia.
The changes instigated by a healthy vegan diet extend far ahead of the physical well being. Appropriate planning and careful monitoring of the diet is essential for vegans at all ages with special consideration for babies and young children, as it may be harder for them to receive all the essential nutrients needed for their proper growth. Incorporating energy-packed foods like vegetable proteins and nuts in your vegan diet helps to improve the energy density of the diet as well. The broader the spectrum of the diet vegans incorporate, the better and easier it will be to meet your nutritional needs.