The number of vegans in Britain has increased by 360% over the past 10 years, making veganism is one of Britain’s “fastest growing lifestyle movements” – according to the Vegan Society. There are many reasons why people choose to follow a vegan diet. These include animal welfare issues associated with large scale farming, the alleged negative environmental impacts of both the agricultural and fishing industries, and supposed health benefits of a vegan lifestyle. But are vegan diets actually any healthier than vegetarian, pescatarian or omnivorous diets?
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First of all, what is a vegan diet? A vegan diet means removing all animal products from what you eat. This means no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy products.
According to NHS guidelines, there are six main components of a healthy vegan diet. Many of these principles are applicable to omnivores too:
- Eat five portions of fruit or vegetables every day.
- Base meals on starchy, wholegrain carbohydrates.
- Have some dairy alternatives, e.g. soya drinks. Try to choose the lower fat and sugar options.
- Eat beans, pulses and other protein sources.
- Use unsaturated oils and spreads in small quantities.
- Drink between 6-8 glasses of low-sugar fluids a day.
These guidelines are simple, and on the whole, easily achievable. It’s important that vegans have a good understanding of a healthy diet so that they can plan what they eat to make sure that their diet is balanced, and is inclusive of all the necessary food groups. As a result of excluding certain foods from their diets, vegans can be at risk of some nutritional deficiencies – most notably Vitamin B12.
Omnivores can get Vitamin B12 from a range of sources: meat and fish, milk, cheese and eggs. This essential vitamin is used to make red blood cells, keep our nervous systems healthy and to help release energy from the food we eat. Not getting enough Vitamin B12 can lead to Vitamin B12 Deficiency Anaemia. As a result, the body produces red blood cells that are unusually large, meaning that they can’t function in the normal way, which can eventually lead to lower amounts of oxygen in the body. Vegans are still able to include Vitamin B12 in their diets by eating fortified cereals and soya drinks, as well as yeast extract products such as Marmite.
Despite the risk of some vitamin deficiencies, it is definitely possible for people to lead a healthy vegan lifestyle. Over the past decade or so, there has been a huge increase in the number of professional athletes adopting a vegan diets. Many of them swear by it, claiming that it’s contributed to reduced recovery times, greater endurance, and improved performance. One example is Patrik Baboumian, who won the title of Germany’s Strongest Man 2011 (105kg weighting). He was the first vegan to gain this title and states that ‘Almost two years after becoming a vegan I am still improving day by day.’
Other diets also have potential risks – not just veganism. There is increasing evidence that too much red meat is linked to high cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease. And vegetarians often find it difficult to find sources of omega-3 fatty oils, which are claimed to reduce to risk of heart disease. It would seem that all diets have associated risks. Whether you’re a meat thirsty steak lover, or just can’t get enough of tofu and lentils, it’s vitally important to make sure that what you’re eating is well balanced and to live in moderation.