Is Your Vegan Diet Making You Healthy?
Since the turn of the year, vegan diets have exploded in popularity.
Whether it’s Joe Wicks (the Body Coach) or The Happy Pear, you’ve probably seen ads on your social media for vegan/vegetarian diet plans.
And with a rising number of people adopting vegan and plant-based diets, I wanted to address some considerations as how to ensure you’re staying healthy with your diet.
Personally, I’m a meat lover.
And I’ll admit that I was a bit ignorant towards vegan/vegetarian diets in the past.
But like anything, it’s my duty to ensure people are improving their health.
So over the last few weeks I’ve studied up on the key areas you need to focus on to optimise your health.
Let’s get started.
The 5 Types Of Plant Based Diets
Many people may assume that you’re vegan or vegetarian, but there’s 5 different variations of plant based diets.
Let’s take a look.
Vegan – the most popular term over the last few months.
A vegan diet is one that eliminates all animal products (no meat, fish, eggs, dairy).
Lacto Vegetarian – so this is quite similar to a vegan diet, but it includes dairy.
So the likes of cheese, milk etc can be included.
Lacto-ovo Vegetarian – same as lacto vegetarian but you may also consume eggs.
Pescetarian – a pescetarian diet will be very similar to lacto-ovo, but they choose to include fish.
However, they still avoid the consumption of fleshy meats.
Flexitarian – a flexitarian diet primarily focuses on plant based foods, dairy and eggs.
However, there is the flexibility of consuming meat on occasion.
Whether this is in social settings or they choose to have maybe 1 day a week where they eat meat.
It’s a very flexible approach that focuses on plant based, yet conscious of reducing the amount of meat consumed.
So there’s the 5 different types of plant based diets.
Now I want to address how to pick your diet type.
Considerations For Picking Your Type Of Diet
Before I go any further, I want to briefly cover why you choose your diet.
As I previously mentioned, plant-based diets have become quite trendy.
Social media “influencers” and people with large followings are heavily advising these diets.
In a sense, it can give people the feeling of a moral highground.
Or you may choose to follow a diet because it’s currently trendy.
But what should we really base our diet choices on?
Well there’s a few things.
- Is this a long-term, viable diet for you?
- Do you see yourself doing it for many years, or just a few weeks.
- Does it suit your lifestyle?
- Have you energy and feel good while doing it?
- Does it cause social stress when eating with friends?
- Is it an ethical choice?
- Is it financially viable?
And most importantly.
- IS THIS THE BEST DIET TO IMPROVE MY HEALTH
I don’t mean that to come across like I’m shouting, but I want to drill that point home.
Don’t go choosing a diet because X, Y or Z celebrity does it.
They probably have chefs and nutritionists doing all the work for them.
Instead, pick one that makes you feel good, keeps you healthy and benefits your life.
So with that covered, let’s move on.
Are Vegan / Vegetarian Diets Healthier?
Many people and media highlight plant based diets are being healthier.
But are they really?
When we think about Vegan/Vegetarian diets, we mainly focus on what they DO NOT eat.
When you hear Vegan, you immediately think “oh they don’t eat animals”.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a vegan diet is healthier than one based on animal protein (meat).
After all, you could eat crisps all day and that’s technically vegan.
So looking at observational research, plant-based diets show reductions in heart disease and cancer.
But there’s no difference when it comes to all-cause mortality (disease). – Ref: Dinu et al 2017
There have also been associations between consumption of processed meats and cancer risk, especially in regards to colon cancer.
However, this is more towards processed meats like sausages, salami etc rather than your grass fed, free range meat.
So we cannot jump to the conclusion that eating meat causes cancer, because we are yet to see evidence of that.
In certain instances, plant-based diets can be seen to improve blood glucose in diabetics.
However, they are not superior.
In fact, they are potentially inferior to other diets, such as the Mediterranean diet. Ref – Schwingshackl et al 2018.
So it can be fair to say that it is likely that the improvements in blood glucose are down to the impact of weight loss.
So Why Do People See Benefits From Switching?
When switching to a plant based diet, many people will record how they feel much better.
There’s a few reasons for this.
- They’ve increased their fibre intake so their digestion and gut health improves. (diet now includes more veg and wholegrains over processed carbs).
- Increase phytonutrient intake which is a direct result of eating more veg.
- Lower energy consumption – by limiting food options, you can consume more food which carry less calories.
When you move to a plant-based diet, you remove all processed foods and junk foods.
You now replace them with fruits and vegetables.
Along with that, you move away from highly palatable foods which helps to regulate your calorie intake.
Overall, it’s great to maintain a healthy bodyweight and digestion.
But a well balanced, controlled diet of meats with plenty of vegetables will also give very good health results too.
Taking out all the animal products may not actually generate all the health benefits.
It may be that the individual now eats more vegetables and fibre.
Ensuring You Get Enough Protein In
So one of the drawbacks of following a rigid plant-based diet is the challenge of getting enough protein into your diet.
Animal products are high in protein content, in particular their amino acid profile.
So on a plant-based diet, it takes a bit more work to get your protein intake up to required levels.
But first of all, why is protein important?
When we talk about protein intake, we generally look at 2 processes.
Muscle Protein Synthesis and Muscle Protein Breakdown.
MPS is the response to lifting weights and consuming protein at meals.
It’s where your body repairs muscle fibres, maintains muscle builds more muscle tissue through anabolic processes.
MPB is the loss of muscle tissue.
This can be caused by aggressive dieting with very low calories and low doses of protein.
It’s also a side-effect of the ageing process.
In regards to protein, we want to keep your intake elevated throughout the course of the day to maintain lean body mass, repair muscle tissue and build muscle from training and exercise.
If you want to improve your physique, you want to prioritise maintaining/building muscle mass over holding onto fat.
And if you’re involved in sports/athletics or the gym, then you want to ensure you’re recovering and repairing, so protein intake is highly important.
When it comes to protein components, leucine is the amino acid we prioritise when it comes to muscle protein synthesis.
But a plant-based diet has challenges when it comes to consuming enough.
Animal protein contains high protein and has a very good amino acid profile.
Meat sources can also be quite lean as they can be low in carbohydrates, fat and calories.
So when it comes to bumping up your protein intake, be sure to add in Tempeh and Tofu to your diet.
Alternatively, you can look at Soy, Pea + Rice or a good Vegan protein powder to use as a supplement to keep your intake higher.
You can also add in a leucine supplement if you want to ensure you’re looking after your recovery and muscle building.
There are ones that you just mix with water.
Overall, you will need to consume a range of plant-based proteins throughout the day.
Don’t put too much emphasis on each individual meal.
Instead, focus on having a range of sources throughout the day.
Your best range of sources will be beans & legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains such as quinoa.
Just be mindful that nuts are high in calories when looking at dropping weight.
Where To Get Your Fat Intake
Now don’t panic when you’re told to consume fat in your diet.
It’s not the stuff that gathers in your butt.
That only happens from the consistent over-consumption of calories.
In regards to fat in your diet, the typical recommendation is between 0.5-1.5g/kg per day.
Now when we speak about fat, we mainly look at Omega 3 fatty acids.
They’re highly recommended for cardiovascular health.
So when we speak of Omega 3, we look at the 3 types – ALA, EPA and DHA.
EPA and DHA have the most potent health benefits.
However, they’re present in fatty fish or derived from fish oils.
ALA then is present in leafy green veg, flax and chia seeds, walnuts, and canola oil which plant-based diets will have lots of.
Getting adequate Omega 3 (EPA/DHA) into your diet can be slightly challenging.
So it is advisable to find a Vegan friendly EPA/DHA fat supplement.
Avoiding Vitamin Deficiencies In Your Diet
With plant-based diets, there are some nutrients that can be at risk of deficiency.
The main ones are:
- Vitamin B12
- Omega 3 fatty acids (already covered)
There is variability, not all plant-based dieters end up with deficiencies.
Some have no deficiencies at all.
But like anything, it will vary depending on the individual.
So let’s take a look at how you can avoid deficiencies.
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products.
It’s generally not present in plant based foods.
So Vitamin B12 is something that ALL VEGANS should supplement.
If we take a look at the Oxford Cohort Study, it shows the following:
- 52% of vegans showed a B12 deficiency.
- 7% of vegetarians
- One omnivore (out of 226) showed a deficiency.
So once again, it is worth looking into supplementing Vitamin B12 and use blood testing to monitor levels.
Dairy products are very rich in Calcium so those who do not consume dairy will have a lower intake.
You can now get non-dairy milk products that will be fortified with calcium to increase your intake.
Besides that, you’ll look to whole food sources – kale, pak choi, green leafy veg, chia seeds and almonds for sources of calcium.
Creatine is found in red meat, poultry and fish.
Vegan and plant-based diets may tend to have lower muscle creatine stored.
Now before you think Creatine is that cocaine looking supplement that kids take in the gym, it does have health benefits.
It has been demonstrated to have consistent benefits for exercise performance.
But not only that, research has suggested it can have benefits on health, including mitigating sarcopenia and reducing risk of neurological disorders. Ref – Riesberg et al 2016.
Why You Should Blood Test When First Switching
Going vegan or plant-based isn’t just a diet, it’s a lifestyle overhaul.
If you’re 30 years of age, you’re now making a big change to your dietary habits.
So be sure that what you’re doing is well thought out and planned.
Don’t just jump into it.
So with that, it can be advisable for new vegans and plant-based dieters to get a blood test may 2-3 times a year.
These check-ups will be to look at blood count (signs of anaemia, particularly in women), Vitamin deficiencies and Vitamin D.
Your doctor will then be able to review your blood panel and ensure that all health markers are looking good.
If any deficiencies are apparent, they can then advise a supplementation protocol.
- Focus on food quality, stick to good quality whole grains and vegetables. Just because you suddenly stop eating meat doesn’t mean you’re any healthier until you balance your diet out.
- Look at ways you can improve your protein intake throughout the day and supplement where needed.
- Add in an EPA/DHA fatty acid supplement for heart health (pescetarian can use fish oil).
- Supplement with Vitamin B12
- Get your calcium from leafy greens and supplement where necessary.
- Potentially look at having more iron and supplement with Vitamin C
- If in doubt, use blood tests to monitor vitamin levels and blood count (red/white cells).
- If you need more calories in your diet, either have more meals or include higher calorie foods like nuts and oils.
I just want to say a special thank you to Danny Lennon of Sigma Nutrition.
Danny is one of, if not, THE leading educator in Ireland when it comes to science based nutrition.
(He’s currently in Australia presenting at conferences).
He has been one of the key men I look to when it comes to furthering my own knowledge and Danny played a big role in the information I’ve studied in putting this article together.
You can find out more about Sigma Nutrition right here:
The other thanks is to Precision Nutrition.
I’ve been certified with PN since 2014 and they’re always a go-to resource when it comes to educating myself further so my clients can avoid the misinformed advice peddled online.
I hope you’ve learned something today.
Thanks for reading.
P.s. I work with a small number of clients each month when it comes to nutrition coaching.
If you want to have a chat, you can get me at firstname.lastname@example.org