It is a truth, now more or less universally acknowledged, that a plant-based diet can do wonders for both your health and the health of the planet. And according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—the first of its kind to link both individual health and the Earth’s—a vegan diet, which excludes meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy, can really up the ante on both fronts. The study’s results show that 8.1 million deaths can be avoided annually across the globe if more people adopt a vegan diet.
Veganism is now much more mainstream and its adoption by a greater number of Americans has been fueled by celebrities such as Beyonce and Jay Z and high profile personalities like Bill Clinton, who have gone the vegan route. According to a 2015 study conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group, a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public on vegetarianism and healthy eating, 1 million Americans above the age of 18 are now vegan and the numbers are growing.
Should you join their ranks? We break it down for you.
Pro: A vegan diet promotes weight loss.
One of the immediate results of adopting a vegan diet is weight loss and this, says Reed Mangels, a registered dietitian and lecturer in nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is a definite positive that attracts many people to veganism. A vegan diet is much lower in calories than even a vegetarian diet, Mangels says, “because in addition to knocking out the meat, you’re also knocking out high fat dairy products.”
Monica Montag, a certified nutritionist and founder of holistic nutrition practice BeWell Associates in State College, PA, attributes the weight loss that results from adopting a vegan diet to the much lower fat content in vegetables, fruits and grains as compared to meat and dairy. Fat, Montag says, also has a much higher volume of calories per gram (there are 9 calories in a gram of fat) than carbohydrates, where the calories-to-gram ratio is 4-to-1, so a diet made up of fruits, vegetables and grains is much lighter.
Con: Excessive weight loss can become weight gain.
While there are definite benefits to weight loss for overall health, a sudden and rapid decrease that some vegans experience could backfire.
Because vegan diets are so restrictive, many first-timers may find that they’re hungrier than usual and will reach out for not-so-wise foods—highly processed carbs, sugary, fatty foods and even vegan-formulated snacks—to fill up, says Nancy Rodriguez, professor of nutritional science at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, which, of course, can also adversely impact both health and weight.
That’s why nutritionists like Jackie Keller, a nutritionist and weight loss expert, recommend a gradual and well-thought-out shift to a vegan diet for those who have not been on one before: “We hesitate so much to change our dogs’ food and would never do it overnight,” Keller says, “so why would we make such a radical change ourselves?”
Here are 10 great tips for dipping your toes in the waters of vegan living.
Pro: Vegans are at reduced risk of serious illness.
Keller is one of many nutritionists who agree that a vegan diet significantly reduces the risks of a number of major illnesses.
According to a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, vegan diets are even more effective than vegetarian diets in protecting against hypertension, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. By virtue of their plant-based diet that is low in saturated fats, vegans are also less prone to obesity, and have lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol, Keller says, and the diet can reduce the risk of certain kinds of cancers.
“Assuming you’re consuming many fruits and vegetables, you’re also getting more phytochemicals and antioxidants from your diet,” she says. Both these powerful substances significantly reduce the risk of chronic illnesses.
Con: Vegan diets are lacking in some vital nutrients.
Unfortunately, a diet that excludes all animal products does have some nutritional drawbacks.
Rodriguez cites calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B-12 and folate—all of which are present in meat and dairy—as key nutrients a vegan diet can lack. Over time, inadequate consumption of these can result in a host of problems, including loss of bone and muscle mass, she says.
The reduced or even (in some extreme cases) non-existent levels of vitamin B-12 in a strict vegan diet are of particular concern to Keller. Vitamin B-12 has many implications for the smooth running of the central nervous system and for optimizing metabolic functions and in her view, it’s very difficult to get adequate amounts of B-12 from fruits and vegetables alone.
“If you’re not getting enough B-12, you may feel weakness, fatigue, constipation, and lack of appetite,” Keller says. “Without proper amounts of B-12, an infant cannot thrive, and as we age, we have fewer of the gastric acids that synthesize the B-12 from foods, so that’s why my recommendation for B-12 is so strong.”
Pro: There are alternative sources of B-12, one of those important nutrients.
While Mangels—who has been a vegan for 25 years—agrees that vitamin B-12 is only found in meat, dairy and eggs, she also points out that there are plenty of other sources for this important nutrient that many vegans can and do include in their diets. Vitamin B-12 is present in fortified foods, including cereals and plant milk (soy and other), in tofu, and in nutritional yeast, she says.
And while Rodriguez advocates a “foods first” philosophy, she also believes that “there is a sound rationale for supplements,” for vitamin B-12 and other key nutrients, which many vegans do take. Her caveat there, though, would be to ensure that supplements “are taken with reason and not in excess to avoid toxicity.”
Pro: It’s getting easier and easier to buy plant proteins.
The United Nations has declared 2016 as The International Year of Pulses, to heighten public awareness of their nutritional benefits and their importance to sustainable agriculture and food security worldwide.
Pulses, an important faction of the broader legume family, have been a staple food of many cultures around the world for centuries and they are just one example of the numerous forms of alternative protein sources that are now available for those who don’t eat meat or consume dairy.
While animal products offer a complete package of all the essential amino acids that our body needs (and are an omnivores go-to for them), pulses—which include dried peas, kidney beans, chickpeas, fava beans, black beans and adzuki beans, among others—are an unparalleled source of complete plant protein, Montag says, containing all the essential amino acids we require.
Con: Relying on pulses for protein can bring on…discomfort.
But getting the most out of legumes, pulses and other alternative forms of protein requires paying constant attention to combining them with the right grains to ensure proper nutrition, something that many Americans still find difficult to do, Keller says, because it requires a certain amount of planning.
Digesting alternative protein sources can also prove challenging to people who are not used to them: “They can make you feel bloated, they can make your digestive tract feel off,” Keller says. “Many people will feel bad because of this as their system adjusts and they’re not making the necessary adjustments as far as hydration goes to accommodate these new protein sources, so they just feel uncomfortable.”
Pro: Veganism is more environmentally sustainable.
That it takes approximately 1,600 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef is no secret. Scientists established that fact more than a decade ago and they have also shown that producing one pound of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing one pound of grain protein.
These things matter and they are going to matter more and more as the years pass, so to the extent that a vegan diet is much more doable today, then sustainability is certainly a strong reason, Mangels says.
Con: But basing your diet on activism can lead you to make poor decisions about your health.
On a personal level, however, there is a downside to increased environmental awareness.
“Yes, there is the idea that being a vegan leaves less of a carbon footprint but what are you substituting in place of your meat and your dairy?” Keller asks. “And even among other protein sources, what are your choices? I have met vegans who cut out soy from their diets, for instance, because they say it is a GMO product, but they’re completely overlooking the fact that soy is a wonderful source of protein that is a perfect fit in their diet.”
Bottom Line: Make the right choices for you, your beliefs, and your body.
One size can never fit all and ultimately, the ideal diet for any individual will depend on factors such as age, fitness levels, overall health, and personal dietary preferences. Barring any major illnesses, such as diabetes, or kidney issues, a vegan diet can certainly be beneficial for weight loss and health. But to ensure you’re doing it in the best way possible for your optimal health, you should definitely seek professional guidance, says Mangels, both at the outset and along the way.