One glance at mainstream media, and you’ll see that interest in veganism has skyrocketed over the past few years – in fact, according to Google Trends, it is now almost twice as popular as it was five years ago! So, what is a vegan diet? A vegan diet contains absolutely no animal products – from the obvious (such as meat and fish) to the not-so-obvious (like dairy and honey).
Veganism has definitely come a long way from when it was once considered to be in the realm of hippies – we now have vegan athletes, celebrities, and bodybuilders. And of course, with the rise of the conscious consumer, interest in the lifestyle has even spilled over to the average person and seems to be here to stay. However, like any movement with a cultural and ethical agenda, veganism has also given rise to a great amount of misinformation (both for and against the diet), especially when it comes to nutrition and health.
Conspiracy soundbites like ‘eating two eggs a day is equivalent to smoking five cigarettes’ is becoming popular thanks to heavily biased documentaries like What the Health or The Game Changers. This is why it’s important to think critically when encountering bold and scary statements. Here, as people worldwide take on the Veganuary challenge, we explore who the vegan diet is suited to and how to do it right.
Let’s Talk Health
Is health your priority? If yes, then you don’t have to go down the vegan route to be healthy, especially if you think you will struggle without meat. Yes, a well-planned vegan diet can be a really healthy diet (especially when you stay on top of your iron, B12, and Omega-3 levels), but it’s definitely not the only healthy diet out there. Improved health markers including cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and blood glucose control are not unique to vegan diets. In fact, you’ll see the same benefits from dietary patterns that heavily feature plants, like the Mediterranean diet.
2 Must-Haves to Get the Vegan Diet Right
1. Microbes that have the necessary enzymes to digest plants
Since plants are mostly digested by our gut microbes (unlike meat, which is digested by human enzymes), quickly going from a low fibre to a high fibre diet may cause bloating or passing gas. This is because your gut needs time to adapt to the change and produce enough of the right plant-digesting enzymes. If you do get some gut symptoms, rest assured, they are not damaging your body. The key is to introduce plants slowly, say, ¼ cup of beans (double-rinsed) each day or ¼ of a fruit that you feel makes you bloated.
2. A relaxed gut
An uptight gut can be caused by mental stress (yes, the gut-brain connection is real!) or irritation caused by something, such as a tummy bug or COVID-19. When this happens, your gut tends not to be efficient at absorbing gas made by your gut microbes while digesting fibre and, in turn, it may get ‘trapped’ in the gut – thereby triggering bloating and other symptoms. What you can do then, other than introducing fibre slowly, is to de-stress your gut with gut-directed yoga or belly breathing as it can help in digestion.
So unless you have a diagnosed allergy, the key takeaway is that you can continue to eat greens, even if you have some gut symptoms right now. Beware of ‘gut resetting gurus’ promoting gut-healing protocols, which may include plenty of exotic-sounding supplements and concoctions that you really don’t need. You just need to be patient and work gently with your gut to create the right environment.
‘Fake’ or ‘Mock’ Meat – Yay or Nay?
A new study has begun to untangle this seemingly simple, yet scientifically complex question. Researchers compared the nutritional profiles of a popular plant-based meat alternative with grass-fed ground beef. What they found was that despite both food’s Nutrition Facts Panels being similar in terms of protein, fat, and calories, research showed that 90% of the chemicals that made up the food were different. In terms of the ‘beneficial’ chemicals, some were only present in the meat (e.g. DHA omega 3), and some were only in the mock meats (e.g. specific tocopherols, which are the major forms of vitamin E).
So, basically, we shouldn’t be determining whether meat or alternative meat is better by looking at nutrition labels – i.e. fat, protein, calories, and so on – as they do not give us a full picture of a food’s true composition. We need human intervention studies to fully understand it and, so far, they suggest that it’s more about your holistic diet i.e. what % of meat or % ultra processed foods you are feeding your microbes.
Why a Vegan Diet May Not Work for You
While this may not apply to the vast majority of us as current research is insufficient, there may be certain individuals who will not do well on a vegan diet because of their genes and microbes. Certain genetic mutations mean that some of us won’t be able to convert plant sources of vitamin A into its active form very well, and certain gut bacteria profiles may make it harder for some vegans to obtain enough vitamin K.
Strong evidence is missing for these theories, but it helps to provide ideas for mechanisms that might explain why some people find it harder to thrive on a vegan diet. Observe how you are feeling while on a vegan diet and get some blood work done if you are not feeling your best so you can make an informed decision.
So What Does All of This Mean for You?
Nutrition isn’t black and white. Neither is it about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it’s way more complex than that. I often find that an inclusive mindset geared towards diversity works best. Every time you make a meal at home, stop and think, ‘What could I add?’ Chop a fruit, top your porridge with chopped nuts, add some puréed veggies to your pasta sauce, sprinkle some sesame seeds as garnish, add some kimchi to your sandwich etc. According to Dr. Megan Rossi, aiming to eat 30 different plant foods each week is a good reference point to kickstart your vegan diet.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s important to acknowledge that vegan diets can greatly vary and a ‘vegan’ label doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier. A vegan diet that focuses on whole plant foods full of fibre can be beneficial, though it requires appropriate supplementation to make sure you’re getting enough of other nutrients, such as Omega-3. In turn, a vegan diet that’s mostly made up of highly processed ‘vegan’ alternatives isn’t going to do your gut microbes much good.
My advice is to do what feels right for you personally. The body of evidence suggests that we could all benefit from eating ‘more’ plants – but that doesn’t necessarily have to mean ‘only’ plants. It’s also extremely important to remember that dietary choices are deeply personal, so if you are in a position of privilege (where food is abundant enough for you to be picky about what you eat and where it comes from), the odds of you being ‘healthy’ are already heavily stacked in your favour. Be kind to people and refrain from judging other people’s dietary choices – you don’t walk in their shoes.
It is also important to acknowledge that there is more than one factor at play when it comes to risk of diseases, and vegans are not immune, so if you choose to be vegan, be careful not to spread misinformation about health and nutrition. Interestingly, most vegans who choose the diet for ethical reasons are more likely to stick with it than those who go vegan purely for health reasons.