Are you enticed to become a vegan but feel confused about the myths and misconceptions surrounding this type of diet? Do you worry about how you’ll get enough protein or fear that eating only plants will make you nutrient deficient? These are common concerns and misconceptions surrounding veganism, and we’ll explore them here!
While Health Coaches cannot prescribe a vegan diet or definitively answer to all the conflicting nutrition data that’s floating around the Internet, it is helpful to review some foundational information about going vegan, to be able to better support current or future clients (or to simply have this information for your own use).
What does being vegan mean?
Vegan implies the removal of all animal products from one’s diet; it can also mean removing animal products from all aspects of one’s life, from clothing to lifestyle products. Following a vegan diet will look different from person to person, and there is certainly a range in how “healthy” your vegan diet will be, depending on the types of foods you focus on (more on that later).
Vegan and plant-based are often used interchangeably, though the main difference between the two is that those who are plant-based may not cut out any or all animal foods, instead trying to limit consumption of those foods.
The growth of veganism
Whereas once stereotypically thought of as hippies sitting around and eating lettuce, veganism is now much more mainstream, glamorized by celebrities, sport figures, and political leaders alike. In addition, food manufacturers and chain restaurants, all of which previously appealed to a meat-eating audience, are now creating new campaigns aimed at attracting a growing plant-based demographic. Even companies that produce household products, cosmetics, laundry detergents, and clothing are boasting a more plant-based, environmentally friendly image!
A recent report compiling Google search trends found that in the U.S. in the past 15 years, there has been a 300% increase in people looking to go plant-based or vegan ‒ that’s 9.7 million Americans! Why this tremendous increase? There’s a lot of innovation in the industry as well as a rising awareness of animal rights and environmental issues. This is creating a greater consciousness surrounding what people eat.
Furthermore, there’s an increased focus on becoming healthier and adopting lifestyle practices that support a healthy body and mind. More people are feeling drawn to this as a way of life.
Is a vegan diet healthier than a nonvegan diet?
It depends. IIN teaches the core concept of bio-individuality, which means that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, from the foods you eat and the physical activity you do to the types of relationships you thrive in. Following a vegan diet isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. Depending on your unique health needs and goals, a vegan diet may or may not be right for you.
In general, a healthy diet is one that contains a colorful variety of plant-based foods as well as foods that support your dietary needs and prevent nutrient deficiencies. Following a vegan diet that prioritizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and other plant-based proteins will ensure that you are consuming phytochemicals and antioxidants that have benefits such as preventing chronic illness and reducing the risk of hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and cardiovascular disease. Plus plant-based whole foods contain ample quantities of essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, supporting overall well-being.
If your vegan diet consists mostly of grains, pastas, and processed foods that are marketed to be vegan yet are high in sugar and additives, you will likely not get enough important nutrients to feel your best.
Can you consume adequate calcium, vitamin B, iron, and omega-3 fats on a vegan diet?
This is a popular myth surrounding the vegan diet, and understandably so; there are many animal-derived products that are great sources of these nutrients, so you might wonder what will happen when you remove certain animal products from your diet.
Nutrient deficiencies can be avoided when following a vegan diet, and this often requires both a diet with a variety of plant-based foods and some supplementation. Before starting any new supplement routine, speak with your doctor to determine which nutrients you may be deficient in and how to best address resolving those deficiencies.
The following are the most common nutrients that can be deficient in a vegan diet and the food sources that can be included to resolve this.
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Fortified foods, such as cereals, bread, orange juice, and nondairy milks
- Leafy greens, such as kale, Swiss chard, collard greens
- Sesame seeds
Vitamin B (B12)
- Fortified foods
- Nutritional yeast
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Iron-fortified cereals
- Brussels sprouts
- Nuts, such as walnuts
- Plant oils, such as algal oil (from algae)
- Seeds, such as chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flaxseed
Can you consume adequate protein on a vegan diet?
Another common misconception is that you can’t get enough protein from a vegan diet, since protein is more commonly thought of as coming from animal foods. There are now many vegan protein alternatives available, from protein powders to burgers that resemble real meat (the innovation mentioned earlier).
According to Nancy Geib, RD, LDN, from The Cleveland Clinic, “On a vegetarian or vegan diet, you can get enough protein if you eat an adequate number of calories from a variety of whole foods,” such as the following:
- Green peas
- Meat substitutes
- Nutritional yeast
- Nuts and seeds
- Plant-based beverages
There are negatives to some vegan proteins ‒ they may cause bloating in certain individuals, and packaged proteins, like meat substitutes, may have added sugars, oils, or other additives that you might wish to avoid.
Can a vegan diet promote weight loss?
Many people choose to make big diet and lifestyle changes to lose weight, and going vegan is no exception. What often happens when following a vegan diet is that individuals will practice “crowding out,” which means adding more healthful foods into their diet, leaving less room for the not-so-healthful foods. If your diet is heavy in processed foods, then eating more fruits, vegetables, and plant-based foods (and fewer processed foods) will likely result in lost pounds
In general, focusing on eating plant-based foods that are rich in fiber promotes satiety and helps you feel fuller for longer ‒ which can lead to weight loss, since you’re consuming fewer calories (and fewer “empty” calories). In an analysis from the International Journal of Obesity, researchers found that vegans had lower BMIs than meat eaters and vegetarians (BMI stands for body mass index, or the measure of whether an individual’s weight is appropriate for their height). This analysis noted that those who consumed high-protein, low-fiber diets had higher BMIs.
Is following a vegan diet more environmentally friendly?
Vegan diets tend to have a lower carbon footprint than nonvegan diets, but this depends on the products you consume and use. Carbon footprint refers to the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions, from the foods we eat to the types of transportation we use.
Animal products have an enormous carbon footprint – it's estimated that meat and dairy are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions – and going vegan would result in “dramatic emissions savings,” but it’s not a magic bullet. Consider that many countries import products, like fruits and vegetables, and that the process of importing creates a large quantity of emissions.
This is not meant to be discouraging but rather highlight the complex nature of addressing climate change, the health of our environments, and the health of your body and mind!
Decide what’s best for you
Outside of the dietary misconceptions and concerns, veganism is a philosophy and lifestyle choice that has also become a form of self-expression for many of its followers. Identifying as a vegan can be a public declaration of one's identity, morals, and values, and it’s more than a diet to those who live it.
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to diet, and if following a strictly vegan diet doesn’t work for you but works for your sister or partner or coworker, that’s okay. At the end of the day, find what works best for you to live your healthiest, happiest life.