Ditching the meat for plants – is vegan the way to go?

Over the past few years there has been a lot more talk around following a vegan diet. Particularly in 2018 & 2019 when the documentary “Gamechangers” was released on Netflix and many people began to question whether a vegan diet was a better choice. Is swapping all animal-based products for plant-based products the healthiest eating pattern to follow? I’m giving you all the evidence to make that decision for yourself!

A vegan diet is similar to a vegetarian diet, where only plant-based foods are eaten. Generally, this will exclude meat, poultry, fish and seafood, dairy products, eggs, and often honey and other animal-derived ingredients. Veganism has been growing in Australia with 1.16% of the population now following this style of eating – this has more than doubled since 2016. People may adopt this style of eating for several reasons such as concern for animals or the environment. But lately the focus has been on the health benefits that this style of eating may provide.

This is with good reason, as research has shown benefits to following a plant-based diet; however, should we be following a complete vegan diet, or just reducing our intake of animal-based products? Vegan diets have shown to be beneficial for reducing heart disease, lowering LDL (bad cholesterol), reducing blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and cancer. While health benefits are of extreme importance, there are also many high-profile athletes that have adopted vegan diets in recent times which may influence others to make this decision.

There is no doubt that eating a diet higher in plants can improve our health, but what considerations or concerns are there for those on a vegan diet? Poorly planned vegan diets can lead to both macronutrient and micronutrient deficiencies. There is an increased risk of inadequate protein, as well as important vitamins and minerals including iron, vitamin B12, calcium and omega-3 fats. These risks can be overcome by choosing the right types of vegan foods, as well as supplementation for vitamin B12.

The bottom line is that plant-based diets are beneficial for our health – we have known this for decades and have been trying to encourage people to undertake them. Eating styles that follow this are the Mediterranean or DASH diet, which are heavily based around fruit and vegetables and have a low consumption of meat-based products. The take home message is that we should be eating more plants, and we can do this without cutting out all animal products. We should be basing our meals around plants and including a small amount of animal-based products for protein, iron, calcium and vitamin B12. For those currently following or wanting to follow a vegan diet, always seek advice to ensure you are getting all your required nutrients.

SOURCES:

Vegan diets: everything you need to know – https://daa.asn.au/smart-eating-for-you/smart-eating-fast-facts/healthy-eating/vegan-diets-facts-tips-and-considerations/

Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers – https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9

Plant-based diets are best…or are they? – https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/plant-based-diets-are-best-or-are-they-2019103118122

Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow up – https://www.bmj.com/content/366/bmj.l4897

Jessie Walter is a dietitian and nutritionist currently working in private practice. She enjoys working with people to establish healthy relationships with food and reduce the stress that can be involved with food, eating and nutrition.

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