Biggest Problems With Vegan Diets
It's becoming more popular to eat meat-free at least part of the time. While about 4% of Americans are full-time vegetarians, with about half of those also vegan, a recent poll by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that 46% of respondents say they always or sometimes eat vegetarian meals when dining out. The top reason? Health. A vegetarian diet always excludes meat, fish, and poultry, according to the definition used by the Vegetarian Resource Group.
Vegans also don’t eat dairy products such as milk, eggs, and cheese, as well as animal-based products like gelatin. Followers do not use other animal products, including honey, wool, silk, and leather. There are potential pitfalls to meatless eating, Sun says, but nutrition education and using supplements when needed can help people overcome them.
What Is Vegan Diet?
It’s a diet that excludes all animal-derived foods, including meats, fish, and poultry. So there are no meat, chicken, fish, dairy, or eggs? Essentially. That means people must make other adjustments to what they eat, and the results can vary. Many vegans consume a high-protein, high-vegetarian diet. Some also consume eggs. Some even eat the occasional dairy product or a small amount of eggplant.
The point is that people who are making these changes are trying to make them not only for their own health but to reduce animal suffering. Basically, this vegan diet has a few basic rules: Vegans don’t eat or drink anything that was ever part of a living animal. It’s a strict vegetarian diet with no limitations on “healthy” foods such as dairy, eggs, seafood, and any kind of processed food.
In addition, a vegan diet excludes meat, fish, and poultry, as well as any kind of animal-based products (including gelatin, which is often found in the recipes of vegan recipes). Vegans don’t consume eggs, dairy, honey, or any non-vegetarian meat or seafood.
Instead, vegans rely on fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains. Veganism is often considered to be the diet that avoids all animal-based products, including meat, eggs, and dairy products, in whole or in part.
Some vegans don't exclude dairy but do avoid foods containing dairy products. Many do not eat meat or fish but do eat eggs. Some exclude all animal-based products, including eggs, meat, and dairy. Veganism has grown in popularity in recent years.
An estimated 15 million Americans identified as a vegetarian in the 2009-2010 national health survey, up from 13 million in the 2008-2009 survey. That translates to about 1% of the population, and that number is expected to grow.
In vegan circles, being vegan means eating no animal-derived foods, including eggs, dairy products, and honey. You're still eating vegetables and fruits, nuts, and seeds. While that's not a very restrictive definition, it isn't quite as encompassing as most people would like it to be, as more and more people are starting to eat meat-free and perhaps even vegan on occasion.
Some of the companies noted above sell foods that are vegan-friendly. For instance, some varieties of Quaker Oats products are dairy-free, and you can also find some soy-free options for dairy-free products.
Many of the tofu, brown rice, and quinoa products on the market are also vegan. This term is often used interchangeably with vegan, but a vegan diet does not include all food products derived from plants, and vegans do not use or consume anything derived from animals.
By “vegan diet,” we mean an eating pattern, which is derived from ancient practices of giving respect and choice to animals (the word vegan comes from the Latin word for “loving” or “loving beings”). A vegan diet usually excludes meat, fish, and poultry, but vegans may also eat some dairy products, eggs, and gelatin (i.e. eggshell).
To some, this term means the practice of eating only plant-based foods; that’s what people who consider themselves vegetarian eat. A vegan diet is a diet plan that excludes certain animal products as food sources.
Vegetarians, for example, eat no meat, and no animal-based foods, but not every vegan diet is vegan. The word “vegan” is used for people who do not consume any animal products, while a “plant-based” diet is considered to be a plant-based diet that excludes some animal products, such as dairy.
Vegan and vegetarian diets have more protein than the rest of the world’s diets do, according to the National Institutes of Health. Although the three most commonly consumed meat products are animal-based, Americans consume about 10.6 grams of protein per day, while most other Western countries consume an average of about 9.3 grams per day.
Major Food Sources Of Vegans
Many vegans choose their meals from plant-based or vegan food companies, which include everything from meat substitutes like Tofurky and MorningStar Farms to dairy alternatives such as the Cafe Delites dairy-free milk and Alpro (a vegan yogurt).
Here are the top sources of vegan foods and their corresponding vegans. There are two main types of soy in the plant world: soybean oil and soybeans. Soybeans are great to eat because of their high protein content.
Soybean meal has 42% protein content and soybean oil has 26%. For vegans, soybeans are a primary source of protein. Some other soy products are tofu, tempeh, and miso. Lentils are a type of legume, which is a large family of plant-based foods. Lentils come from the brassica family, which includes cabbage. Some vegetables that get the most scrutiny as “vegetable proteins” for vegans are soybeans, cashews, and tempeh.
The members of the Veggie Checklist are naturally high in protein since they are made from soy, and while their soy content is lower than in animal products, it’s still a fairly high amount. With other legumes, such as lentils, peas, and beans, protein content can range from 18% to 37%, according to some studies, depending on the variety and how it’s cultivated.
In general, lean protein such as beans is the best option for vegans. Beans are also a good source of fiber, as well as multiple vitamins and minerals, and are a good source of minerals like iron, calcium, and magnesium.
Protein is one of the main components of a vegetarian or vegan diet. Because plant-based foods lack protein, those eating this way are forced to consume protein from plant-based foods such as nuts, beans, and legumes. These foods, while healthier than meat and animal products, don’t provide the vitamins and minerals that are needed for optimal health, and can be very high in sodium.
In addition to protein, vegetarians and vegans typically don’t get enough vitamin B12, which comes only from animal sources of the vitamin. Vitamin B12 is used in the production of red blood cells, and may not be found in other plant-based foods. Foods that vegans eat regularly are those that satisfy, rather than satisfying as an overall vegan diet.
The vast majority of plant-based foods are vegan or vegetarian. Some notable vegan food items include cheese, yogurt, tofu, tempeh, cashew nuts, seitan, seitan, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, ketchup, some beans, certain fruit juices, chocolate, grapes, soy sauce, and miso.
Soy Protein And Hormone Disruption
This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but soy can disrupt hormone production. One study that looked at more than 400 women concluded that those with the highest levels of soy protein (44.9 milligrams per deciliter, or mg/dl) showed more rapid menstrual cycle changes than those with lower levels (18.5 mg/dl).
Soy also contains phytoestrogens—a type of plant hormone that can potentially disrupt the normal balance of hormones. As the U.S. Department of Agriculture points out on its website, some phytoestrogens (like those found in soy) are estrogenic, but others, like those in soymilk, are not (and are not absorbed by the body). And soy food labels can be confusing: Some of them can list one or more of the amino acids found in soy protein.
One of the major reasons meat-eating vegans cite for their diet is to avoid the high levels of soy protein in the foods they eat. Researchers at Cornell found soy protein in samples of 95 of 96 soy-based products that were tested. The average American has twice the recommended daily soy intake of 1.8 grams, which the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy says is derived mostly from soybeans.
Seeking to capitalize on this, some companies have created fake meat products that don't contain soy. Beyond Meat, for instance, sells “chicken” strips that look and taste like real chicken. They contain peas, potatoes, wheat, and other ingredients such as wheat gluten, coconut oil, vegetable oil, and egg proteins, but no soy protein.
Vegans avoid eating soy, a common soy protein. Many studies suggest that when soy proteins are consumed, the body produces endocannabinoids, a class of brain chemicals involved in pain relief and pleasure. But a 2014 study in the journal BMC Biology has raised concerns.
The research found that mice fed soy protein showed signs of altered estrogen and testosterone levels, increased prostate size, and more body fat. Male mice fed the soy protein had internal testes that were smaller, a significant loss of testosterone, and fewer sperm per millilitre than other male mice.
As if that’s not enough, studies suggest that consuming soy foods disrupts the body's natural endocannabinoid levels, which are at their lowest at the time of conception and in lactating women. A big concern for many vegans is avoiding soy.
According to scientists from UC Irvine School of Medicine, vegetarian diets could be disrupting hormonal regulation by increasing estrogen levels in the body and inhibiting the ability of men to reach orgasm. Dr. J. Bradford Hannam says that he and his team of scientists examined the protein composition of 400 vegetarian and 900 non-vegetarian men, and the ratio of each in the body.
The findings showed that, overall, vegetarian diets contain higher levels of estrogen than non-vegetarian diets. “It doesn’t mean that women on vegetarian diets have more menstrual and gynecological problems than women who aren’t vegetarian,” he says, “but it does show there’s some biological mechanism here and we need to take it seriously.”
While many vegans go meatless for health reasons, a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition finds that eating an overall vegetarian diet can actually cause a spike in the so-called “hedonic hunger” hormone. When researchers studied 51 rats, they found that vegans experienced a 39% increase in hormones that have a physiological effect of decreasing the desire to eat.
The same hormone was discovered in another group of rats that ate regular rat food. Perhaps more importantly, other studies find that when people substitute meat with vegetables, they may become more like to be hyper-vigilant about a full stomach and less relaxed. A new study has found that meat-free diets significantly increase feelings of depression, and that vegan diets might be even more mood-raising.
Forty-two of 81 participants with a vegetarian diet had elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol after participating in a cooking and eating activity that’s commonly found in college dorms, and which simulates eating a meal and reflects the stress of the real thing.
The vegan participants also showed significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol before and after the cooking activity. “We don't yet know what causes [cortisol] increase but it could be linked to mood disturbance associated with eating,” study author Timothy Smith, Ph.D., said.
Lack Of Hemoglobin
Vegetarians suffer a reduced life expectancy due to a lack of an essential nutrient: hemoglobin. (And yes, it has “H” in the name.) According to the Mayo Clinic, vegetarians are 10% to 30% less likely to get any type of cancer. A higher risk is present if you are a vegetarian who abstains from meat for religious reasons, if you only eat certain types of vegetarian foods, or if you are vegetarian while you have a disease.
Even women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking certain medications like aspirin, warfarin, or calcium supplements are at risk, as most vegetarians do not eat Vitamin B-12. If you don’t eat meat or dairy, you're missing a significant part of your daily protein intake.
“What most people don’t know is that the amino acid histidine is a source of protein in animal protein,” says Dr. Shannon Devore, a pediatrician at Yale New Haven Health. (Hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells, ferries oxygen to all parts of the body.) “Without adequate amounts of histidine in your diet, you’ll become anemic.”
Losing those extra dietary amino acids can result in slow heart and lung function, says Devore. People who follow a vegan diet typically have low levels of hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that allows blood to carry oxygen throughout the body. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, veganism reduces the amount of hemoglobin that individuals have in their blood.
The study found that people who don’t eat meat tend to have about 2% less hemoglobin than meat-eaters, but when people become vegan, hemoglobin levels can fall to about 3%. That makes it harder for people to get enough oxygen to their bodies and can lead to death.
Reduction In Omega 3 Fatty Acids
While there is some controversy surrounding the many health benefits of high-fat vegan diets, there’s not enough data to say how much omega-3 they deliver, says Dr. Kaushalendra Singh, director of the Vegetarian Medical Institute in Joliet, Ill. A vegan diet might seem nutrient-rich, but the quality of the produce you eat and how the plant-based foods are processed can impact your intake of the nutrients you need.
They may not be as nutritious and may need to be supplemented. Foods like tofu, soy sauce, beans and grains can take longer to digest, which can delay the absorption of certain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in your body. It has been shown that a plant-based diet increases the amount of omega-6 in the bloodstream and decreases the amount of omega-3.
Omega-6 fatty acids are the preferred fuel of tumours and heart disease, whereas omega-3s are beneficial for healthy cells and the brain. Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids can be found in a range of foods, from walnuts and olive oil to avocados and peanut butter. Taking in too little omega-3 fat and not enough vitamin B12 (also an essential nutrient for vegetarians) can cause an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer, as can consuming too much of the nutrient.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Vegans usually don’t get enough of a crucial vitamin: vitamin B12. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, one in four vegan children lacks enough B12 in their diets to meet the recommendations. One reason this vitamin is so important is that vegans must get dietary supplements if they are deficient in the vitamin.
Vegans who do not consume vitamin B12 supplements can feel tired, hungry, or experience joint pain if they do not get enough B12 in their diet. In addition, vegans can get rashes or other skin reactions from eating contaminated food, as vitamin B12 is needed for the production of DNA and also plays a role in red blood cells. B12 is a key nutrient for brain health and development and is used by the body to create neurotransmitters.
When there is a lack of this vitamin in your body, people can experience some of the following symptoms: hair loss, cold intolerance, insomnia, abdominal cramps, hair loss, lack of energy, pale skin, irregular heartbeat, headache, anemia, and muscle weakness. Animal-based meat is typically fortified with the vitamin. But vegan food typically lacks this supplement, which can cause symptoms of B12 deficiency to go undiagnosed.
This is another serious concern for vegans who don't get enough of this nutrient from dairy or animal products. You could experience nausea, fatigue, and muscle weakness. In pregnant vegans, fetal exposure to vitamin B12 (which is found in meat, dairy products, and eggs) can cause serious damage to the developing fetus.
“Vegans who are not making sure they are getting enough vitamin B12, whether it be through supplements or their diet, are also at risk for high cholesterol,” says William Davis, MD, professor of nutrition at the University of Georgia College of Public Health.
Too Much Carbohydrate
The vegan diet can be high in carbohydrates, especially in its plant-based form. “It's a plant-based diet, so you can use a lot of rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, legumes, and grains as a substitute for meat,” Dr. Wider says. Carbohydrates are just about everything good in this world and the perfect food for a healthy, satisfying meal.
That's why I started including them in almost every single dish I cooked when I went vegetarian. But too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, especially when they're part of a diet that’s very high in fat, says Mimi Spencer, MS, RD, LDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
The thinking goes that the benefits of carbs outweigh the downsides of them, so if you cut them out, you’ll be left with the unhealthy stuff—so you can still eat vegetables, fruits, and healthy carbs like whole grains, but you won’t be totally deprived. A vegan diet is high in protein and carbohydrates. The daily recommended allowance of carbohydrates for adults is 40 grams, and vegetarians eat even less than that.
Vegan diets are not as good for you as vegetarian or meat-based diets because they don’t contain enough dietary mineral iron. Blood levels of iron decrease after a vegan diet has been established because the body is not getting enough iron.
Vegans who don’t eat enough iron could develop iron deficiency anemia. A recent survey found that 37% of omnivores and 68% of vegetarians have low blood levels of iron. Iron deficiency can lead to tiredness, weakness, and swelling in the feet.
In contrast, people who eat a healthy balanced vegetarian diet get all the iron they need. They also get an adequate amount of other nutrients. Other reasons why people may have low levels of iron include low levels of vitamin C, B, and folate, which are important in the body’s iron absorption.
With all of the health benefits that can come from eating a vegan diet, you may just have to take the plunge and go vegan to reap those rewards.
The key to eating well and having a body that feels it looks best is to feel good about your choices, so try to buy as much food from your local farmer’s market as possible and eat as much as possible sustainably harvested.
Eat as well as you can, stay as active as you can, and love your body for the amazing work that it does—you'll be amazed by all that you can accomplish.
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