When is a Vegan Diet Right for You?

Vegan dish
More and more people are deciding to go vegan – professional athletes, friends, and family - BUT when is a vegan nutrition plan right for you?

Why Do People Choose Vegan?

Often choice comes down to a couple reasons:

Health Reasons – Just consuming two servings of red meat per day increases your risk of early death, heart disease, and stroke. Your risk of colon and rectal cancer rises by 20% for every serving of red or processed meats you eat per day. Processed red meat (including bacon and ham) has been linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Environmental reasons - As far as the environmental impact, meat has a big water footprint. The water footprint is the amount of water it takes to produce one serving of the food. It’s not just about the water the animal drinks, but also about all the water it takes to grow all the food they will eat over their lifetime. Beef has a water footprint of 464 gallons, pork 180 gallons, and chicken 130 gallons.

An easy way to know if a food is vegan or not is to ask yourself if what you’re eating or any of its ingredients has a face. Strict vegans consume no products derived from an animal, including all dairy products, foods made with gelatin (Jell-O, marshmallows, gummy bears), sauces and dressings that contain anchovy (Worcestershire, Caesar), chips containing chicken fat, orange juice fortified with omega-3s, and refried beans made with lard.

Vegan Diet Nutrient Concerns

The main nutrients to be aware of are vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, and iron.

Vitamin B12 - Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products therefore, vegans must regularly consume B12 fortified foods or take a supplement. Irreversible neurological damage can occur with a deficiency in B12.

Vitamin D - Calcium and vitamin D go hand-in-hand because vitamin D is required for adequate calcium absorption. The good news is taking a break and enjoying 15 minutes in the sun (without sunscreen) will give you the amount of vitamin D needed in a day. Vitamin supplements for vitamin D are beneficial for places with poor air quality or during the winter months - even if you’re not vegan. A few food sources containing vitamin D include egg yolk, fortified breakfast cereals, and sundried mushrooms.

Calcium - Most people think dairy when they think of calcium and unfortunately, vegans do not consume dairy products. There are several plant based calcium sources including tofu, broccoli, kale, tahini, legumes, collard, turnip and mustard greens. These vegan options do not provide the same amount of calcium per serving as say a glass of milk would. No matter your diet, Calcium and vitamin D are crucial nutrients for bone health to prevent stress fractures and other broken bones.

Iron - Iron is usually associated with meat and meat-eaters. If you’re not getting enough iron in your diet it can impair muscle function and cause severe fatigue. Vegetables are a good course of iron, however, the iron recommendation is higher per day for vegans because iron found in vegetables is not as well absorbed as the iron found in meat sources.

Overall, being vegan can be beneficial for your health and potentially extend your life. You would eliminate several high fat and high saturated fat foods by choosing to go vegan and that alone can help you lose weight and protect your heart. Keep in mind the key nutrients of concern if you decide to live a vegan lifestyle. The take home message is that going strictly vegan can be difficult to follow if you have consumed meat your entire life. Just cutting back on your servings of meat per day or per week or per month is one way toward a healthier lifestyle without eliminating all animal food sources.

If you decide to go vegan, make sure you are still getting adequate protein into your diet.  You’ll actually need to consume 10% more protein than omnivores to account for the lower digestibility of plant proteins. Some great vegan protein sources include lentils, tempeh, black beans, veggie burgers, tofu, peanut butter, seeds and nuts, soy milk, and soy yogurt.