If you're looking for a healthy way to eat, or if you're just a die-hard animal lover, going vegan may seem like the right choice for you. For the most part, it's a clean and healthy way to eat. But cutting out animal-based foods also means cutting out the essential nutrients that those foods provide, which in turn, could create health problems in the long-run.
What Is Veganism?
A vegan is defined as someone who does not eat any animal flesh or products that come from animals such as eggs and dairy. Some vegans will even go so far as to not wear any clothing or accessories that are made from, or tested on, animals.
Cutting out meat and eating more plant-based foods has its benefits. Here are just a few:
- Lower risk of developing diabetes.
- Lower risk of obesity.
- Lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
- Lower risk of developing heart problems.
- Studies have shown that diets high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, carotenoids and isoflavones can protect your body from diseases such as cancer.
Overall, eating a vegan diet is a pretty healthy way to go. But with such a restricted diet, it's very easy to develop deficiencies in many essential nutrients. Here are some of the vitamins that vegans typically lack:
- Vitamin B12: This is the most common vitamin that vegans are deficient in. Vegans are highly encouraged to take a vitamin B12 supplement as it is an important protector of the nervous system. Without it, dementia, blindness and deafness can occur and a lack of B12 can also cause anemia to develop. B12 also regulates the level of homocysteine in the body. Higher levels of this amino acid are typically found in vegans and increase the risk for heart disease and strokes.
- Vitamin D and calcium: Because vegans don't consume fish or dairy, their intake of Vitamin D and calcium can be low. Low amounts of calcium can cause the body to release more of the parathyroid hormone, or PTH. High levels of PTH are what cause osteoporosis to develop. PTH also regulates the conversion of vitamin D into Calcitriol, which helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorous.
- Protein and iron: Because vegans eat a plant-based diet, they usually don't consume enough protein or iron, which means they could be missing out on some the essential amino acids that are found in animal-based foods.
- Omega-3: These fatty acids are good for the heart and some studies show that they can keep depression at bay. However, omega-3 is typically found in cold-water fish, like salmon or mackerel, which are not part of the vegan diet.
- Vitamin A: Since this vitamin is only found in animal-based foods, vegans tend to be lacking it. This vitamin is essential for sight, particularly night vision, as well as bone growth and immune system response.
Avoiding Vegan Health Problems
Although many vegans are lacking one or more of these nutrients in their diet, there are ways other means of incorporating them into their daily intake. Here are the foods that are an alternative source for those nutrients:
- Vitamin B12: Unfortunately, B12 is a tricky vitamin. There really is no non-animal source of this vitamin. Some foods, such as seaweed and tempeh are said to be a good source of the vitamin, but it depends on the way the food is processed. The best way to get this vitamin is just to take a vitamin supplement.
- Vitamin D and calcium: Fortified orange juice, soy milk and rice milk are good sources of vitamin D. The sun is also a decent source, and getting at least 10-to-15 minutes of sun exposure a day can increase your vitamin D levels. Calcium is also found in fortified orange juice and soy milk as well as dark green vegetables and tofu made with calcium sulfate.
- Protein and iron: Incorporating protein into the vegan diet is actually much easier than you might think. Many foods, including nuts and chickpeas, are good sources of protein. Other common sources of protein include lentils, tofu, peanut butter, rice and beans. When eaten together, rice and beans make a complete protein. Beans and dark green vegetables are also good sources of iron.
- Omega-3s: Soybeans, walnuts, tofu and flaxseed are foods that will help to maximize the production of Omega-3s.
- Vitamin A: The good news about vitamin A is that, although it's mainly found in animals, there are plant-based foods that will turn carotenoids into vitamin A. Those foods include carrots and carrot juice, dark green vegetables, mangoes, apricots, butternut squash and cantaloupe.
While the vegan diet is a healthy way to eat, it can get unhealthy very quickly. As long as you supplement your diet with alternative, plant-based sources of essential nutrients, you'll have no problems living the vegan lifestyle.