We live in an ever-changing world and the 21st century, amidst all its problems and usually terrifying news, is showing a very specific, very positive shift in how our society operates. With the age of information comes the age of mindfulness, slowly but surely. People are showing a more compassionate approach towards each other and towards our planet as we are becoming increasingly aware of the bigger picture. Essentially, we are striving to be healthier (mentally and physically) as individuals but this time with awareness on how our individual lifestyles are reflected on nature and society.
In the search of a more mindful lifestyle, many people are re-examining their dietary habits and choosing to completely turn them around. Hence, statistics show that veganism is seeing a rapid increase in popularity and that it’s going to be the biggest consumer trend of 2018. With this (as it generally goes with all trends) come hot debates, opposing beliefs, and the ultimate question of whether veganism is right or wrong. But no topic should be approached from a black-and-white point of view, so let’s look at some facts to help us find a better understanding of this phenomenon.
One of the biggest reasons people choose to go vegan is environmental concern. Agricultural production is the cause of many problems we’re facing – greenhouse gas emissions, global freshwater consumption, and excessive land use, not to mention the inhumane treatment of animals raised on mass-production farms. Agreeably, we do absolutely need to change the food industry and develop more sustainable, healthy ways of production. But let’s not forget that for someone who does not wish to give up on meat, there are options of organic, humane, small-scale farms and that veganism is not the only answer. In regards to the future, we can’t say that this issue is being ignored and scientists are working towards humane, sustainable agriculture production with the help of technology.
The (expected) benefits of a vegan diet
Weight loss and a significantly lower risk of obesity
A healthful, diverse vegan diet is proven to be lower in calories even compared to a vegetarian diet, making it a good choice for those who want to lose weight and unquestionably a factor in lowering the risk of obesity. In fact, a study published in the National Institutes of Health suggests that nutrition-wise, there are more similarities between a vegetarian and omnivorous diet than between a vegetarian and vegan diet. A vegan diet is simply lighter, as plant-based foods are lower in calories and saturated fats, so vegans are generally thinner.
However, this information should be taken with a grain of salt. Although the limitations of a vegan diet make it easier and faster to lose weight, the intake of fat can definitely be controlled with other dietary choices as well, the key being in balanced meals and for omnivores, lean meats eaten in controlled portions. Also, there is a potential setback regarding veganism and weight loss. Many vegans who radically shift to the diet experience cravings at first and a need to fill up on snacks that include highly-processed carbs.
Reducing the risk of illness
A study from 2015 suggests that a plant-based diet reduces the risk of hypertension, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Keep in mind, though, that all these benefits are expected from a healthful plant-based diet. A vegan diet that is rich in sweetened beverages, potatoes and fries, candy and refined grains is associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease, and this comes as no surprise at all.
Also, because of an increased intake of phytochemicals that comes with plentiful fruit and vegetable consumption, vegans are presumably at a lower risk of cancer. Phytochemicals possess potent antioxidant activity and interfere with some cellular processes linked to the progression of cancer. But there is a catch to this, and it lies in the bioavailability of the phytochemicals, which largely depends on the way the food is prepared. Although we wish things were so simple and we could say “a vegan diet will definitely lower the risk of many cancers”, there is not enough evidence of this within the scientific community.
Concerns about nutrient intake
As the popularity of veganism has exponentially risen over the years, so has the availability of nutritious plant-based products and our knowledge on nutrient intake for vegans. Namely, the biggest question was whether a diet that doesn’t allow dairy could provide enough protein and calcium.
One of the main concerns, or rather myths, used to be that a vegan diet cannot provide sufficient protein intake, but now we have proof that a healthy, diversified one definitely can. Various seeds and nuts (especially almonds, which are very high in protein), tempeh, tofu, quinoa, legumes, and vegan protein powders added to shakes are just some of the many products vegans consume regularly to get all the protein they need.
The availability of calcium is definitely lower in a plant-based diet, raising concern regarding bone health among vegans. But bone health is maintained by preventing calcium loss (calcium is mostly lost through urine) rather than increasing its intake. Animal protein is proven to cause more calcium loss through urine than plant protein; so actually, vegans have lower calcium needs than vegetarians and omnivores, and these needs are met through a diverse diet of vegetables, fruits legumes, and whole grains.
Myths have been broken about other nutrients as well and we have learned that, for example, the intake of zinc through beans and legumes is controlled by the way the food is prepared. But, when it comes to vitamins D and B-12, it is still difficult to get them solely from plant-based foods. Vegans mostly have to turn to supplements of these vitamins to ensure overall health.
Younger generations embracing veganism
It’s difficult to precisely pinpoint vegan demographics across the whole world, but we can confirm that there is a definite increase of teenagers turning to vegan diets in countries like the UK and USA, especially when it comes to individuals who previously adhered to vegetarianism. The main reason for this is a strong presence of the vegan community across the internet, especially on YouTube and social media, where a vegan lifestyle is regularly promoted as healthy, wholesome and overall desirable.
But it’s not just the influence of platforms such as Instagram – modern teenagers are well-informed about the state of the environment even through secondary education, leading them to express concern for the world we live in and a feeling of responsibility for the future that they are all together going to be a part of. For many of them, veganism represents one of the ways they can help.
This is surely commendable, and luckily there are many Instagram and Youtube influencers providing information on how to practice veganism in a healthy way. However, issues arise with dieting fads and teenagers who wish to shift to veganism instantly but do not gather all the proper information, or those who don’t have the full support of their parents to help them get the proper nutrition. Also, we have to admit that we live in an age when eating disorders among teens are alarmingly common – and a study suggests that the reason behind teens opting for a restricted diet may sometimes be masking a disorder rather than environmental concern. The responsibility shifts heavily to parents, for whom it’s more demanding than ever to keep up with their tech-savvy children.
With all this having been said, it’s clear that a plant-based diet includes many factors and needs to be approached cautiously if an individual expects to reap its benefits. A healthy, diverse vegan diet requires time and effort, at least in the beginning – not just to prepare meals but to do all the research on how to realise it properly to ensure one is getting all the nutrients. Also, the availability of nutritious plant-based products is not the same in all geographical regions, and it can heavily depend on economic status – veganism is on the rise mainly in first-world countries, after all.
As to the question of what is the right diet to adopt, you probably knew the answer to that already: there is no right or wrong.
About the Author
Victoria is a lifestyle writer and a true home improvement and DIY fanatic in constant pursuit of trying something new. She’s in love with life, love, and self-love. Her fields of expertise include home decor, interior and exterior design, landscaping and walking a dog for miles and miles. Psychology is also a topic she likes to explore along with some nice cup of green tea, where she’s sometimes making a difficult decisions about which tea would be perfect for her next cup. You could say she’s an avid tea-drinker.