The Vegan Diet- Can it Really Benefit Your Health and Fitness?
Veganism has come a long way. Many well-known celebrities and athletes are coming out as vegans, preaching this way of eating as a life-changing experience. And with the recent “Game Chargers” documentary, the vegan diet has reached its all-time high.
Could this nutrition approach make you healthier? Can it really improve alethic performance? Will it help you live longer?
Continue reading and find out everything you need to know about the vegan diet.
What is a Vegan Diet?
A vegan diet is one that excludes eating meat and all other animal products and by-products such as milk and other dairy, eggs, gelatin, and even honey in some cases. All plant foods are the mainstays of this diet, including vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains, and soy.
However, veganism is a lot more than just a way of eating. Vegans are against the exploitation of animals in every way: for clothing, food, research, entertainment, or any other use. Reasons one may become a vegan are not only health related, they include ethics, spiritually, and environmental benefits as well.
Benefits of a Vegan Diet
1. Rich in Essential Nutrients
Unlike the standard American diet, the vegan diet contains more beneficial plant foods which will provide a greater amount of quality nutrition. This means you’ll get more vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber, as well as many other essential compounds only found in plants (1).
2. Weight Loss
Although you’ll still need a calorie deficit to lose weight, a diet that is packet with vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds will surely make this process a lot easier. Plants are generally fairly low in calories and high in fiber, which will help you to feel fuller while consuming less food. Plant-based diets are also linked to a reduction in obesity, and vegans tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than any other diet group (2).
3. Athletic Performance
A typical vegan diet is generally high in carbohydrates, and carbs are the body’s primary energy source during any physical activity. Which means that having a sufficient store of carbs improves endurance for peak performance.
In addition, a plant based diet can also have physiological benefits that also impact performance. Among these benefits are improved glycogen storage, better tissue oxygenation, and less inflammation. A body with more efficient glycogen storage, translate to increased VO2 max, which then means more endurance. Better tissue oxygenation, occurs since plant-based diets don’t contain saturated fat and cholesterol, resulting in improved blood flow, which translates to more oxygen input in our muscles and in our performance. Better blood flow also reduces inflammation, which could answer the question why vegan athletes recover faster (3).
Popular vegan athletes include:
Carl Lewis (World Champion Sprinter with 9 gold and 1 silver Olympic medals)
Venus Williams (Former World No. 1 tennis player, 7 singles Grand Slam titles)
Patrik Baboumian (World’s strongest men, professional strongmen)
Lewis Hamilton (Formula 1 World Champion)
Nate Diaz – (Mixed martial artist, UFC champion)
Novak Djokovic (No. 1 men’s tennis player in the world)
Mike Tyson (Former heavyweight boxing champion)
4. Improved Glucose Control
Following a plant-based diet may also better insulin sensitivity and possibly decrease the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. When comparing the health effect of a vegan and a standard American diet, findings suggest that while both groups had solid blood glucose control, the vegan group had greater improvements. Recent studies have also found that diabetics who followed a vegan diet experienced better blood glucose control, and some were even able to reduce medications (4).
5. Better Cardiovascular Health
Plant based diets such as the vegan diet are linked to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. And as mentioned, the vegan diet reduces blood sugar levels and cholesterol, both of which promote a healthier heart and longevity. Nuts and seeds are common samples of a vegan diet, which also positively impact heart health.
6. Cancer Protection
Studies show that eating fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other plant foods can reduce the risk of certain cancers, including prostate, breast, colon, and lung cancer. Vegan dieters have also a significantly lower chance of dying from cancer as well (5).
Downsides and Potential Health Risks
1. Nutrient Deficiency
While a vegan diet can provide a positive intake of certain nutrients, research suggest that vegans are still at a risk of being deficient in some vital vitamins and minerals.
Vitamin B12 – Is a crucial vitamin only found in animal products such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Besides fortified cereal and plant-based milks, there are almost no plant sources of Vitamin B12. Luckily a B12 supplement is an easy fix. Inadequate intake of this vitamin can cause symptoms such as fatigue, anemia, loss of appetite, and possibly severe neurological symptoms.
Iron – Responsible for oxygen absorption and cell function. Although it may be a bit tricky to get enough Iron on a vegan diet, it can be done! Beans and dark leafy greens are excellent sources of Iron. A Cast-iron skillet is another good option to prepare your meals and get plenty of Iron.
Vitamin D and Calcium - Two very important nutrients that work together to maintain bone health. Inadequate intake of one can have frightening consequences on one’s health. However, vegans can still get their needed Vitamin D through sunlight, 15-30 minutes a day will do the trick. As far as Calcium goes, sesame seeds and leafy vegetables are perfect sources.
2. Hard Transition and Limited Choice
Giving up all animal products can be really tough. Most of us are used to eating certain foods, and having to cut them out completely is definitely challenging. This type of change can cause worry, and some people even end up thinking about food all day. So it may be best to transition to a vegan diet through several phases, starting out as vegetarian, and then slowly removing dairy products and eggs.
3. Bloating and Gas
A common side effect when switching to a plant-based diet is bloating and stomach aches. Many people experience this embarrassing and annoying reaction due to the lack of gut bacteria necessary to digest all the new fibrous food they been eating. However, over time the body will adjust to the increase of fiber, and gas and bloating will vanish. Not all people will be affected by this negative effect, even though it is common as mentioned.
4. Potential Weight Gain
Many people start their vegan journey to become healthier, only to find out that they actually gained weight after making the switch. A simple reason this happens are a lot of surprisingly processed food products which are labeled as “Vegan”. Since the vegan diet is a bit limited, it can become and easy habit to turn processed foods into your diet staples. Limiting the bad processed and including fresh and natural foods will resolve this issue.
5. Eating Out is Difficult
The vegan trend has definitely grown in popularity, however there still is a small amount of consumers that identify as vegans. For this reason it may be difficult to find vegan-friendly food at restaurants and family gatherings. Larger cities such as New York and Los Angeles are more likely to have lots of vegan restaurants and specialized plant-based grocery stores.
Best Foods to Eat on a Vegan Diet
In order to reap the benefits of a vegan diet it is imperative to know which foods to eat.
Focus on the following:
Fruits: Are a prominent part of a vegan diet. All fresh and dried fruits are recommended, including bananas, apples, blueberries, raspberries, melons, apricots, pineapples, etc.
Vegetables: Filled with vitamins, trace minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and other crucial compounds, veggies are something you need to have regularly. All fresh, frozen, and even canned veggies are allowed on this diet regime.
Grains: Whole grains are a great source of carbohydrates. Grains you should eat are oats, whole wheat, brown rice, quinoa, and other unprocessed grains.
Legumes: Very important, they include essential amino acids our body needs to preserve and build muscle. Best options are red beans, black beans, pinto beans, lentils, soybeans, green beans, peas, and other legumes.
Fats: Nuts, seeds, avocados, and cold pressed vegetables oils are the best sources of healthy fats.
Contrary to popular belief, you can get more than enough protein following a vegan diet.
However, unfortunately not all vegan protein sources contain all essential amino acids. This is where a variety of different foods can help. Having a balanced diet with a wide array of food items will make up for the remaining amino acids.
Best vegan sources of protein are:
Beans ( 20g per 1/2 cup)
Tofu (10g per 1/2 cup)
Chickpeas (14.5g per 1 cup)
Lentils (18g per 1 cup)
Peanut Butter (8g per 2 tbsp)
Hemp Seeds (13 g per 1/4 cup)
Edamame (18.5 per 1 cup)
Nutritional Yeast (11g per 3 tbsp)
Cashews (12g per 1/2 cup)
Oats (7g per 1 cup)
Foods You Should Stay Away From
There are some foods you should completely stay away from on a vegan diet.
These include all animal products, meat, fish, seafood, dairy, eggs, and all other animal by-products.
You should avoid or at least minimize the consumption of vegan junk food.
Looking at the available research and testimonials, the vegan nutrition approach is definitely a healthy one. This way of eating can indeed revitalize one’s health, improve athletic performance, and it may even boost brain function. However, while adopting a plant-based diet has many perks, starting new things always comes with its challenges. All animal products are forbidden on the vegan diet, and one should also focus on mostly “clean” foods in order to get the necessary nutrients. Vegans are also recommended to take a multi-vitamin or at least a B12 supplement.
Nevertheless, if you’re ready for a diet change, the plant-based way could be a great choice.