People choose to eliminate animal products from their diet for a variety reasons—to be healthier, to reduce environmental impact or for ethical reasons. Overlake dietitian, Gentle Chikani, RD, discusses the benefits of following a vegan diet, the best plant-based protein sources, supplements you might need to take and advice to those who wish to remain omnivores.
1. What are the health benefits of a vegan diet?
Some studies of gut microbiota and health, comparing the microbiota of vegan, vegetarian and omnivores found vegans had more distinct microbiota from that of omnivores (but not significantly different from that of vegetarians). They found a reduced number of disease-causing organisms and a greater abundance of protective species.
A plant-based diet improves gut microbiota composition and reduces inflammation. A vegan diet is richer in nutrients and fiber and has been linked to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, may improve pain in rheumatoid arthritis, may protect against certain cancers, can help with weight loss, may help to lower blood glucose levels and blood pressure.
2. What are the best sources of protein for someone who is vegan?
Plant-based protein has more fiber and less saturated fat. Sources include beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, soymilk, peamilk, nuts, nut butters and quinoa.
3. Do vegans need certain vitamin supplements?
Vitamin B12—found in eggs, beef and fish—is an important vitamin our bodies need to make red blood cells and DNA. It’s not found in any plant-based foods, so vegans should take vitamin B12 supplement or vitamin B12-fortified foods.
Some people may need extra supplementation with calcium or iron, depending on how balanced their meals are. Beans and green vegetables—broccoli, bok choy and kale—are particularly high in calcium. Calcium-fortified plant-based foods are also widely available in nut milks, fruit juices, etc.
Vegans and non-vegans alike get vitamin D through sun exposure and should take a supplement if levels are low.
4. Can some people benefit from being vegan more so than others?
I think anyone can benefit from a vegan diet. It has been linked with its beneficial effect of many diseases including heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, etc. Even when compared with a vegetarian diet, a vegan diet tends to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol and higher in fiber.
5. I like the idea of going vegan, but I can’t give up meat totally. What can I do?
Considering how widespread meat is used and consumed in today’s world, moderation is key. With so much variety available, moderation becomes difficult and we end up making unhealthy choices. We would have far fewer health problems if moderation were practiced, and even fewer if we followed more of a plant-based, whole foods diet.
Always speak with your healthcare provider or registered dietitian before making any major changes to your diet and before taking any over-the-counter supplements.
Gentle Chikani is a registered dietitian with Overlake’s Outpatient Nutrition Services.