While vegan and plant-based diets have been growing in popularity in recent years, only about three percent of Americans follow a vegan diet. Plant-based diets cover a broad spectrum.
Vegetarianism generally refers to a diet free of fish and meat, but some vegetarians – referred to as pescatarians – choose to include fish in their diets. Plant-forward diets limit meat rather than cut it out altogether and at the other end of the spectrum is veganism. Vegans exclude meat and fish from their diets as well as animal byproducts, such as dairy, eggs, and honey.
There are several reasons why people choose vegetarianism, veganism, or similar diets. Some Americans enjoy plant-based diet benefits while others may temporarily take on a plant-based diet for weight loss or to support their health. Others do so for ethical reasons, such as animal cruelty or to reduce the environmental costs of raising animals.
Many Americans have found themselves asking, “Is a plant-based diet healthy?” and have wondered about the benefits and drawbacks associated with these diets. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths surrounding vegan and other plant-based diets. These myths can be harmful or bring about unrealistic expectations. The truth is that there are numerous documented plant-based diet benefits, but there are also several problems with plant-based diets. Here’s a closer look at vegan diet facts vs. myths.
Plant-Based Diet Benefits
There are several benefits of maintaining a plant-based diet over meat diets. According to the American Heart Association, reducing meat intake decreases the risk of several diseases and medical conditions, including:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- Many forms of cancer
Meat is often full of saturated fat and cholesterol, which have severe impacts on heart health. Processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, and deli meats, are some of the worst offenders as these meats are high in sodium too.
Plant-based diet benefits may also include better weight control when a diet is rich in whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Vegan dieters typically consume fewer calories, leading to weight loss and a lower body mass index (BMI), which further reduces a person’s risk of conditions like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.
Is a Vegan Diet Really Healthier?
People often wonder if a plant-based diet is really healthier than the alternatives. While the effects of a plant-based diet can be beneficial, whether or not a vegan diet is healthier than other diets and nutritional does not have a broad answer. What a person eats impacts every part of the body whether it is a plant-based diet or not.
Food is not automatically healthier just because it is absent of meat and animal byproducts, and not all vegan or vegetarian diets are healthy. For example, if a person only ate vegan chips and candy, they may be vegan, but their diet would be very unhealthy. Not all vegans are at a normal weight range or the picture of health. It’s also worth noting that meat isn’t all bad. Several types of lean meats, such as fish and skinless poultry, offer significant sources of protein and other nutrients.
Some Americans believe that vegans live longer or get sick less often, but that’s not always the case. However, reducing the amount of meat included in a diet does reduce the risk of chronic illnesses, which can help a person live longer. The body’s immune system is impacted by nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress, and other factors. Colorful fruits and vegetables are high in vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc, and beta-carotene, which help boost immunity and fight off bacteria and viruses. Meat-eaters and vegans alike can benefit from adding more fruits and vegetables to their diets.
While a vegan diet can be healthy, there are several problems with these diets that should be considered before starting a plant-based diet.
Problems with a Plant-Based Diet
There are many misconceptions surrounding the benefits and drawbacks of plant-based diets. When learning about plant-based diets, people may be curious if vegans have a weaker immune system or if vegans are likely to be weaker than meat-eaters. As discussed in the previous section, it comes down to what a person includes and doesn’t include in their diet.
Recent studies have shown that there may be other risks to plant-based diets. A large British study recently reported that vegans face a 43 percent higher risk of bone fractures than meat-eaters. However, this may be due to poor nutrition planning that resulted in potential calcium deficiency.
While vegan diets can be healthy overall, eliminating meat and animal byproducts from a diet can put a person at risk of deficiency in several vital nutrients, including protein, zinc, vitamin B12, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. These are all nutrients essential to proper body functioning. Calcium strengthens the teeth and bones, omega-3 fatty acids boost cell health and protect the heart, protein builds and repairs muscle, and zinc plays a crucial role in cellular function. These nutrients are especially important for pregnant mothers and children.
Thankfully, there are other ways for plant-based dieters to get these important nutrients. While it may take additional planning, it’s a crucial step in starting and maintaining a plant-based diet.
How Do Vegans Get B12 and Other Essential Nutrients?
Plant-based diet benefits are well documented, but plant-based dieters need to plan their nutrition to ensure that they do not become deficient in vitamin B12 or other essential nutrients. They can take supplements for nutrients they are lacking or include these foods in their diets:
- Vitamin B12: Plant-based foods that have been fortified with vitamin B12, some breakfast cereals, and soy-based beverages.
- Calcium: Tofu, sesame tahini, green leafy vegetables, calcium-fortified foods and drinks, almonds, almond milk, soy milk, dried fruit, seeds, beans, lentils, whey protein, rhubarb, amaranth, and figs.
- Protein: Soy, seitan, whole grains, green veggies, potatoes, beans, quinoa, nuts, legumes, seeds, lentils, and amaranth.
- Zinc: Pine nuts, sesame seeds, oats, rye, avocados, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, cashews, almonds, pecans, okra, and asparagus.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Vegetable oil, flaxseeds, whole grains, collards, spinach, kale, almonds, pistachios, brussels sprouts, and chia seeds.
- Iron: Oats, cashews, dried seaweed, morel mushrooms, lemongrass, lentils, tofu, spinach, dark chocolate, dried fruit, fortified cereals, and dark leafy green vegetables.
Vegetarians who choose to eat animal byproducts and fish have additional options for these essential nutrients. For example, fish is a fantastic source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Like any new diet, changes in a person’s diet can bring about good or bad initial experiences. Some dieters may feel ill, fatigue, or lightheaded. This is because the human body adapts to the type of foods and nutrients it consistently intakes, and changes can temporarily throw things out of whack. These symptoms can be more severe for Americans with certain health conditions, such as diabetes. People with diabetes must be especially diligent when planning a change in diet, plant-based or otherwise. When going vegan or vegetarian, people commonly consume more carbohydrates than they are accustomed to. For anyone with diabetes, this can spike blood sugar levels.
Does a Vegan Diet Leave You Hungry?
A common myth of plant-based diets is that it leaves a person hungry. This couldn’t be further from the truth. High amounts of protein in meat is one of the primary reasons that meat is filling. However, there are plenty of other plant-based foods that contain high amounts of protein, these include whole grains, potatoes, nuts, and green veggies.
While protein is the most filling nutrient, foods that are high in fiber provide bulk, which helps people feel full for longer periods of time. Fiber is also essential for digestion and helps keep the excretory process functioning properly. High fiber diets are also associated with lower risks of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Meat is not high in fiber, but many types of fruits and vegetables are. Foods that contain the highest amounts of fiber include raspberries, bananas, avocados, whole grains, brown rice, beans, nuts, potatoes, and many green vegetables.
Can You Eat Too Much on a Plant-Based Diet?
Like any diet, plant-based dieters can eat too much, leading to poor nutrition, weight gain, obesity, and other medical conditions. They can also eat too much of the wrong kind of food.
Most foods in America are processed foods. They have been altered, prepared, and packaged in some way before reaching the consumer. Not all foods are processed the same way, and even “organic” foods may be processed. The most serious of offenders? Snack foods, sodas, and ready-to-eat meals. These meals may include vegan ingredients or are disguised as healthy, but in reality, they’re loaded with sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium. Even healthy foods, such as nuts and seeds, can be high in calories and fat.
According to the American Heart Association, studies on the American diet found that highly processed foods add nearly 90 percent of added sugars and 60 percent of the calories in a person’s diet. The American Heart Association suggests that consumers limit their intake of highly processed foods by cooking more meals at home, growing their own fruits and vegetables, choosing healthier snacks, and reading food labels carefully before making a purchase. Consumers can also look for packaged foods that contain the heart-check mark from the American Heart Association.
Is Plant-Based Meat Good for You?
The popularity of plant-based meats has exploded. These products can now be found at the grocery store and even at fast-food chains around the country, including Burger King, White Castle, Del Taco, Dunkin’ Doughnuts, and Hardees. These meals’ popularity has drastically increased their accessibility and given plant-based dieters a meat substitute. But, are plant-based meats a healthier alternative?
According to Harvard Medical School, plant-based burgers such as the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger offer excellent protein sources, vitamin B12, and other nutrients that plant-based dieters often fall short of. However, these foods are heavily processed and high in saturated fat, which increases the risk of premature death and heart disease. In some cases, they actually have more calories or more fat than the real burger, too. Burgers made with ground turkey outperformed meatless burgers with lower calories, fat, saturated fat, sodium, carbs, and protein.
While these burgers are better for the planet and more sustainable, they’re not a healthy option. Routinely adding them to a diet could take away many of the plant-based diet benefits that come with limiting meat intake.
Common “New Vegan” Mistakes
The most common mistake people make when committing to a plant-based diet is a lack of preparation and research. Vegan diets often do not include essential nutrients such as vitamin B12, calcium, and zinc. This can make people feel ill and can be damaging to mental health. For example, Omega-3 fatty acids deficiency can lead to symptoms of depression.
Failing to thoroughly learn about plant-based diets can also lead new vegans to eat the wrong types of foods, such as unhealthy, processed foods. Because plant-based diets typically include much more fiber, dieters will also need to drink more water.
Finally, having unrealistic expectations can set anyone who is about to embark on a new diet up for failure.
4 Fun Facts about Plant-Based Diets
The benefits and problems of a plant-based diet aside, there are several fun facts about plant-based diets that most Americans aren’t aware of. Here’s a look at four of them.
Plant-Based Diets are Good for the Environment
The animal agriculture industry makes up for one-fifth of greenhouse gases worldwide and contributes to air and water pollution. One of the many hailed plant-based diet benefits is the reduction in a person’s carbon footprint. Veganism can reduce a person’s carbon footprint by up to 73 percent. In recent years, Americans have reduced their carbon footprint by 10 percent due to a reduction in meat consumption.
Vegan Diets are Gaining Popularity
Numerous celebrities in America have either recently started a vegan diet or have been committed to one for decades. Some of the most famous American stars who are vegan include:
- Ellen DeGeneres
- Miley Cyrus
- Woody Harrelson
- Joaquin Phoenix
- Liam Hemsworth
- Eliot Page
- Peter Dinklage
- Jared Leto
- Craig Robinson
- Benedict Cumberbatch
- Jerome Flynn
- Ariana Grande
- Natalie Portman
- Venus Williams
- Anne Hathaway
- Paul McCartney
Vegans Avoid Foods with Non-Obvious Animal Byproducts
Vegans exclude not only meat and seafood from their diets but also animal byproducts. Many of these byproducts are in common foods and snacks that most people aren’t even aware of, including:
- Dairy products, including milk and cheese
- Chewing gum
- Gummy candies
- Deep-fried foods that contain batter made with animal fats or eggs
- Certain types of pasta
While these foods are banned from a vegan diet, there are vegan substitutes available for popular foods, including cheese, butter, pasta, and milk.
Many vegans who follow a plant-based diet for ethical reasons also avoid using products made from animal parts, such as leather, fur, silk, wool, and products that have been tested on animals.
Veganism Saves Water
Water is a precious resource. While few Americans have experienced a lack of access to clean water, that’s not the case worldwide. According to PETA, a gallon of milk uses roughly 1,000 gallons of water, and a ton of beef uses around 4,000 million gallons of water. Veganism reduces the demand for animal products. PETA estimates that 219,000 gallons of water can be saved per year for each person who chooses to adopt a vegan lifestyle.
Reducing Meat Intake or Switching to a Plant-Based Diet
Dieters need to research vegan diet facts vs. myths before making significant changes in their diets. They’ll know what to expect, how to properly plan out their meals and nutrition, and eliminate some unrealistic expectations that they may have. By familiarizing themselves with more attainable benefits a plant-based diet can provide – such as weight loss or reducing the risk of chronic diseases – dieters can make informed choices about their nutrition.
When making a switch to a plant-based diet, people don’t need to go cold turkey overnight, they can start slow. The Mayo Clinic recommends dieters begin by planning a meatless meal each week and being more mindful when meat is on the menu. From a health standpoint, not all meats are bad, but it is generally safer to limit meat intake. When meat is included in a meal, skinless poultry and seafood provide substantial protein and nutrients with lower amounts of fat, sodium, and cholesterol found in other types of meat. Dieters could also benefit from monitoring their portion sizes and avoiding overindulgence of meat.
It is also important for aspiring plant-based dieters to discuss meal changes with their partners to be better prepared for the possibility of eating differently from the rest of the household. Their partners may or may not want to take this journey with them, however, either of these choices factors into meal preparations, grocery shopping, and dining out.