Article: Is a Vegan Diet Healthier?
Lately I have received many questions regarding the vegan diet, and have also had a few clients trying to pursue a vegan diet. I would implore everyone to try and do their own research on the subject, and also not try to follow any diet which doesn’t fit into their lifestyle, and training needs. There are plenty of examples on social media and TV of extreme, bias, inaccurate, and misleading information both from vegans and carnivores. Food and health shouldn’t be a fashion. I have attempted to take a very scientifically accurate, and unbiased approach to this article, and then present my own personal views on the matter towards the end. Diet should be a lifestyle – stick with what works for you, and don’t follow all the fads!
‘Diet should be a lifestyle – not a fashion’
The position of the American dietetic association concluded “Appropriately planned vegetarian diets have been shown to be healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases” (Craig WJ & Mangels AR; 2009). The key word in the above statement, is ‘appropriately planned’. A vegan diet can lead to deficiencies in certain nutrients.
The following nutrients are the most important nutrients a vegan diet often lacks (Appleby and Key, 2015).
Vitamin B12 – found in fish, meat and dairy
Vitamin D – found in fish and eggs
Calcium – high levels found in dairy products such as milk and yoghurt
N-3 fatty acids – fish and eggs
Supplements such as algal oil is recommended to make up for the dietary deficiencies in the n-3 fatty acids, specifically DHA, which has been linked to cognitive and behavioural function (Innis, 2007). Further supplementation is recommended for nutrient deficiencies in vegan diets. One key deficiency for vegans can be a lack of calcium. Appleby et al. (2007) found a 30% greater risk in bone fractures for vegans, compared to meat eaters, when the necessary calcium (necessary for bone health) requirements weren’t met. When appropriate calcium levels were consumed, there was no difference between vegans and meat eaters. Calcium is a critical nutrient for bone health and density, and this should encourage both vegans and meat eaters, to ensure they consume correct amounts of all recommended nutrients.
It has been regularly shown that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables can promote longevity in adults (Rissanen et al. 2003). This shouldn’t be a surprise as the benefits of fresh fruit and vegetables, and the variety of nutrients they contain, is common knowledge.
‘Don’t just cut out the meats – replace the meats.’
It should also be noted, that whether you eat meat or not, you should be consuming plenty of fruit and vegetables in your daily diet. The latest guidelines are moving away from the 5 a day message, instead recommending 30 different varieties of fruit and vegetables per week. The literature would suggest that vegetarians have a lower risk of obesity, ischemic heart disease and diabetes. Evidence for lowered risk of cancer is varied and inconclusive (Appleby and Key, 2015).
Venderly and Campbell (2006), also concluded that elite athletes could achieve the required protein intake, on a vegetarian diet. Especially those athletes who perform endurance events (this makes sense due to the higher amount of energy, and carbohydrates needed to fuel endurance sports). However, they also made the point that muscle creatine levels (necessary for more explosive movements) may be lower in vegetarians, thus vegan athletes may benefit from creatine supplementation. It should also be noted that many meat-eating athletes also take creatine supplements.
It is clear from the data that a healthy, balanced diet, is crucial. This is especially important if you’re an active individual, and especially if you are an athlete. Although it is possible to achieve a healthy, balanced diet on a vegan diet, my personal opinion on the matter is that taking the benefits of a plant-based diet and combining this with lean meat, fish, eggs, and all the nutritional benefits these foods contain, will lead to the best outcomes in most cases. Dairy is also a great source of protein and nutrients such as calcium and B12, provided there is no lactose intolerance. However, regardless of veganism, it is still possible to have protein or nutrients deficiencies in any diet. Thus my advice to all would be to start focusing a bit more on what you put into your system, aiming to eat plenty of fruit, vegetables, legumes, and natural foods as possible, as well as consuming non-processed lean meats, eggs, and of course stay as fit and active as possible.
‘Protein is required to produce hormones, make red blood cells, boost the immune system, and is also vital in the health of nails, hair, and skin.’
From my practical viewpoint, for both myself and many of my clients at Dabbs Fitness, I don’t believe that the average person has the knowledge (unless working with a dietitian) or the organisation to fully buy, prepare, and consume the adequate nutrition on a fully vegan diet. I have first-hand seen some cases where people decide to be ‘vegan’ for a few days a week and do so by replacing their chicken salad, with an avocado salad (for example) or instead of having pesto pasta with tuna, they simply remove the tuna. This will create a threefold problem, according to the data above. Obviously, number one is the serious lack of protein. Protein is essential for a number of functions in the body, which goes far beyond simply building and repairing muscle. Protein is required to produce hormones, make red blood cells, boost the immune system, and is also vital in the health of nails, hair, and skin. Lack of protein may also have a negative impact on the female menstrual cycle (Clark; 1996).
Secondly, by adding, for example, avocado, you are adding fat and thus calories to your diet, and there is a high chance this sort of high carb, high fat, low protein diet can easily create a calorie surplus, which may cause weight gain. Lastly, as discussed above, this can also lead to serious nutrient deficiencies, such as a lack of n-3 fatty acids which would have been consumed with tuna, or vitamin B12, which can be found in both the chicken and tuna.
If deciding to go vegan, an individual must focus more on their dietary intake, eating foods higher in protein, such as black beans, lentils, and tempeh, as well as addressing any dietary imbalances in key nutrients discussed above. Seeking the advice of a professional would be a shroud investment for anyone interested in pursuing a vegan diet. However, this would be good advice for meat-eaters as well, as many people don’t consume the required nutrients, and have deficiencies.
There is of course the moral, environmental argument, for consuming less meat, which is beyond the scope of this article.
Appleby, P., Roddam, A., Allen, N., & Key, T. (2007). Comparative fracture risk in vegetarians and nonvegetarians in EPIC-Oxford. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(12), 1400–1406.
Appleby, P. N., & Key, T. J. (2015). The long-term health of vegetarians and vegans. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 75(3), 287–293.
Clark, N. (1996). The Power of Protein. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 24(4), 11–12.
Innis, S. M. (2007). Dietary (n-3) Fatty Acids and Brain Development. The Journal of Nutrition, 137(4), 855–859.
Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. (2009). Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(7), 1266–1282.
Rissanen, T. H., Voutilainen, S., Virtanen, J. K., Venho, B., Vanharanta, M., Mursu, J., & Salonen, J. T. (2003). Low Intake of Fruits, Berries and Vegetables Is Associated with Excess Mortality in Men: the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor (KIHD) Study. The Journal of Nutrition, 133(1), 199–204.
Venderley, A. M., & Campbell, W. W. (2006). Vegetarian Diets. Sports Medicine, 36(4), 293–305.
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