The vegan diet has grown in popularity with more and more people trying it. The diet is popular for many reasons due to its benefits for personal health, the environment and for ethical reasons. However, if you are considering a vegan diet there are a few things to think about. First, what are your motivations for making this change? Is it for health? Weight loss? Ethical or religious reasons? To follow a trend?
The second thing is to understand the difference between a vegan diet and a vegetarian diet. A vegan diet is more restrictive of the two and not all vegetarians follow the same diet. In general, a vegetarian diet limits animal products, but how much is up to the individual. Vegetarian diets can include eggs, milk and other dairy products, honey and fish. A vegan diet eliminates all of these items. Also, both vegetarians and vegans are at reduced risk of certain health conditions, including ischemic heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer and obesity. Other plant based diets, such as the ‘DASH Diet’ and ‘Mediterranean Diet’, also have similar health benefits and reduce the risk of chronic disease.
A vegan diet can be nutritionally adequate and healthful for any individual in any stage of life. However, it must be well planned; otherwise the diet can put you at risk for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. If you are someone who does not currently cook, has limited foods they can eat, and doesn’t have a basic understanding of food and nutrition, transitioning towards a plant based diet initially may be a better option, rather than going directly to a vegan diet.
If you do choose to follow a vegan diet, the following nutrients are ones of importance:
- Omega-3 fatty acids – the best sources are flax, hemp, chia seeds and oils, but they can also be found in walnuts.
- Zinc – found in soy products, legumes, grains, seeds and nuts.
- Iodine – plant based diets are low in iodine and so the use of iodized salt rather than sea salt can help prevent deficiency. It can also be found in sweet potatoes, soy beans, cruciferous vegetables and sea vegetables. (Vegan women of child-bearing age should supplement with 150 mg/day iodine.)
- Vitamin D – supplementation may be needed.
- Vitamin B12 – Foods fortified with B12 and supplementation may be needed as fermented foods and nutritional yeast alone do not provide adequate amounts of B12 in the diet.
*Consult with physician and or registered dietitian before any supplementation of any of these.
- Pregnant and nursing mothers
- Infants and children
- Older adults
If you fall into one of these categories it is important to speak with a dietitian before starting a vegan diet. These populations have specific nutrient needs that take extra planning to meet on a vegan diet.
Overall, a more plant-based diet is a great approach to reduce your risk of chronic disease, manage your weight and benefit the environment. The extent of the diet, whether simply consuming less meat, becoming a vegetarian or a vegan, is largely dependent on your motivations, ability to plan and individual risk factors. If you have been considering a vegan diet but are not sure if you are ready, just try including more fruits and vegetables daily and choose more plant based foods over animal products. You will already be on your way towards better health.