About 10 years ago, my best friend Katie decided to try Veganuary. That meant giving up meat, seafood, dairy and any other ingredient that comes from an animal for the month of January.
Of course, I had questions. Did she know that vegan meant no more pizza? Are oreos vegan? And did this mean I can have her leather boots? Katie’s 30-day trial turned into a lifestyle, and my BFF is still vegan today.
People decide to go vegan for many reasons, including personal health and ethics. If you’re thinking about adopting a vegan lifestyle, here are more details on the pros and cons of veganism.
What is a vegan diet?
The vegan diet is plant-based and includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, beans and nuts.
People who follow a strict vegan way of eating don’t consume any animals or animal source foods including:
Overall, plant-based foods tend to be low in calories and saturated fats and high in fiber, minerals and vitamins.
What’s the difference between vegan and vegetarian?
Think of the vegan diet like a teacher and the vegetarian diet like a substitute teacher: One is a little more lax than the other one. Vegetarian and vegan diets both avoid meat, game, poultry, shellfish and fish. But there are different types of vegetarian diets that allow animal source foods and/or fish.
For example, a lacto-ovo vegetarian will still eat dairy and egg products.
Health benefits of being vegan
Numerous studies link a healthy vegan diet to reduced risk for serious health conditions. These include:
A vegan diet may also lead to lower LDL cholesterol levels (the “bad” cholesterol) and weight loss. For example, in one recent study involving identical twins, the twin who ate a healthy vegan diet for eight weeks had a 15% drop in LDL levels and a 3% drop in body weight compared to the sibling who ate a healthy omnivorous diet of meat and vegetables.
A global shift to a completely vegan diet could save an estimated 129 million lives and trillions of dollars in healthcare costs by 2050, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
But like all lifestyle choices, a vegan diet may not be right for some people. Research shows the dietary restrictions of a vegan diet can contribute to some health issues, including a higher risk for bone fracture, bleeding issues and poor fetal outcomes in pregnant women.
This can happen because important vitamins and minerals, including B12, calcium and vitamin D come from meat and dairy products. People following a vegan diet must be proactive to get the right amount of those nutrients from other sources, including fortified foods and supplements.
Read: Curious About Calcium? >>
Protein deficiency, which can cause brittle hair, fatigue and muscle weakness, is also a concern when following a vegan diet. Vegan proteins include soy, legumes, nuts and seeds. So, if you’re eating vegan, be sure to calculate how much protein you need each day and be sure to get it.
Veganism and the environment
Go vegan, save the planet? It’s a good place to start, according to science. Researchers say a plant-based diet is better for the environment because cattle grazing creates methane and carbon dioxide — greenhouse gasses — that contribute to climate change.
Factory farming/producing meat and dairy also requires more resources (water, land, etc.) which causes higher emissions compared to plant-based alternatives.
One analysis found that the environmental footprint of vegans is considerably lower than those who eat meat in terms of how much methane and water is required to produce their food.
Cost of a vegan diet
A study involving 150 countries including the U.S. found that healthier and more sustainable diets (i.e., vegan food options) are generally lower in cost compared to diets that include animal products and processed foods.
Vegan diets were the most affordable and could reduce food costs by one third, according to the study.
However, the cost of specialty vegan foods, fortified options, meat substitutes, supplements and other dietary needs can add up.
Challenges of the vegan diet
Many of us wish we could snap our fingers and find the right health-boosting, environmentally friendly foods to eat, but the reality is that eating a healthy vegan diet takes time and effort.
For example, if you go out to a restaurant with your family or friends, the restaurant may not offer vegan options. And, sure, you can probably order lettuce at most places, but that’s not a meal.
At the grocery store, label reading can be tricky if you haven’t done your research (looking at you, gelatin). Buying vegan foods and making vegan meals may also be overwhelming if you haven’t done some planning ahead, considering the strict dietary guidelines.
And there’s the issue of access. Vegan-friendly options are becoming more mainstream, but finding what you need may not be convenient or even possible depending on where you live and when it comes to dining out. This may lead to relying on high-processed foods like chips and cookies that are vegan but not necessarily healthy or a good option for essential nutrients.
All plant-based basics considered, talk to your healthcare provider if you’re thinking about going vegan to see if it’s right for you.
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