With the constant creation of nutrition trends, it seems impossible to keep up; there is always a new, “better” diet being advertised, each one more strict and complicated than the next.
One trend that has remained prominent in the nutrition world is that of veganism: exalted by many for its benefits to both health and the environment, critiqued by more due to stereotypes against it.
To be vegan is to abstain from any foods containing animals or animal products; this means a vegan does not eat meat, eggs, dairy, gelatin, etc. With its advocates often seen as unreasonable and overzealous, many may wonder if veganism is worth the hype.
Though many people choose a vegan lifestyle to support animal and environmental rights, there are many health benefits linked to it as well. This diet tends to be lower in cholesterol and saturated fats, which can help prevent heart disease. It also is usually higher in fiber, healthy fats, and other nutrients found in various plant products.
“Health benefits are innumerable,” says Sydney Wright ‘20, who decided to go vegan about eight months ago. “My stomach never hurts, and I have no acne.” She attributes her clear skin specifically to the elimination of dairy from her diet.
Freshman Brook Chrisman agrees that there are noticeable effects to her health: “I have noticed immense improvements in my skin, energy, and body. Being fueled by fruits and veggies gave me more natural energy, which has motivated me to be more active.”
Karley Cappel ‘19, reinforces this: “I lost five pounds, my skin cleared up, and I feel more energized than ever before.”
Stephanie Tutalo Smith, Mercy Health’s Sportsmetrics program manager with a BS in dietetics, supports the health claims about vegan diets but stresses that being vegan does not always equal a healthy nutrition plan. “It has to be done right,” she warns. “People can still make bad choices on a vegan diet and be overweight or malnourished.”
Despite the great health benefits, many find it difficult to stick with a vegan diet. To critics, it can appear too restricting or time-consuming to constantly be checking labels and ensuring balanced nutrient intake.
Stephanie recognizes this. “A vegan diet can be hard to maintain,” she says. “It is important to make sure you are fueling your body with the right amount of nutrients for it to run at its optimal level.”
One of the biggest preconceptions about veganism is that it does not provide people with adequate amounts of protein. Proteins are combinations of twenty different amino acids that are necessary for life. Nine of these amino acids cannot be produced by the human body and therefore must be consumed. Deficiency in these essential amino acids can lead to weaker bones, loss of muscle mass, and weak immunity.
Animal proteins contain more of the nine essential amino acids, which is why many consider meat the best source of protein. “Meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products are common sources of protein,” says Stephanie. They are not the only source, though. “People don’t think about how animals obtain protein,” notes Sydney: “they eat plants.”
“When you are vegan, you are exposed to fruits and vegetables that are more nutrient-dense than any animal product,” Brook adds. “Studies have shown that vegans actually have a higher average blood protein than meat eaters.”
Broccoli, for example, contains two times the amount of protein as steak per calorie. Legumes like beans, soyfoods, and peas are great sources of the amino acid lysine, which boosts energy levels and immunity. Brown rice and peanut butter provide good amounts of tryptophan, an amino acid necessary for the production of serotonin, which helps regulate mood, behavior, and memory. As long as vegans are eating high amounts of a variety of these types of foods, they can easily get enough essential amino acids, thus meeting protein requirements.
Vegans must also pay attention to their consumption of nutrients like iron, calcium, and vitamin B12. There are plenty of plant-based sources of iron and calcium such as greens, beans, tofu, and more, but many vegans take supplements for Vitamin B12.
“I’ve gotten two blood tests since becoming vegan, and they have shown that I am getting enough nutrients,” Brook states. “It seems impossible at first, but I was surprised by how easy it was to stick with it,” says Sydney. “There is a whole industry supporting vegan eating and they have some of the most creative ideas for food.”
However, vegans do tend to face challenges when it comes to eating out. Stephanie points out that “if a restaurant is not good about labelling their meals as vegan, you may think you are picking a vegan option, but may be overlooking added dairy products that might not be so obvious.” Though restaurants are certainly improving their menus, many do not offer good varieties of vegan foods.
Regardless of these complications, a vegan diet is not completely different from that of an average eater. It is made up primarily of whole grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds, fruits, healthy fats, soyfoods (tofu, etc.), and legumes.
“Make sure you do your homework on the nutrients you may be lacking,” Stephanie reminds aspiring and current vegans. “It will take a little more work to make sure you are getting what you need.”
If carried out responsibly, veganism is a healthy lifestyle that offers many benefits. However, it is important to remember that it is one of many ways to maintain a good eating habits. “Ultimately, your diet should be about lifestyle changes that you can maintain,” says Stephanie. “Your goal shouldn’t be to ‘get skinny,’ but rather to live healthfully.”