To Vegan or Not?
Vegan diets are often perceived as being a healthier, more ethical and more sustainable way to feed our growing global population. But do vegan diets really deserve their health halo?
Vegan diets typically exclude animal derived ingredients (e.g. meat, dairy products, eggs and gelatine) and foods produced using animal labour, such as honey. Vegans eat grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. According to Google Trends, searches for the term “vegan” have almost tripled over the past 5 years. Despite the fact that “going vegan” is going viral, veganism is not new. The Indian religion of Jainism is centred on non-violence and has been practicing veganism since ancient times. Some Jains even avoid eating potatoes as uprooting them kills the plant along with any microorganisms living on it.
Are vegan diets healthier? In an article about Dr David Jenkins’ conversion to veganism (he’s the nutrition scientist who introduced the world to the glycaemic index), Leslie Beck claims that “plant-based eaters are thinner and have lower cholesterol and blood-pressure levels, a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and lower cancer rates – especially colorectal cancer.”
But this is plant-based and not plant-only diets – there isn’t much long term research on health outcomes of people following vegan diets. The fact plant-based diets are healthier might not be that surprising as veggies are well known to be great for your health; they are rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals and low in kilojoules (calories). However, we can’t ignore that meat, eggs and dairy provide essential nutrients not naturally present in plants such as vitamin B12, vitamin D and long chain omega-3 fats (although mushrooms are fungi and not plants they contain small amounts of B12 and can contain vitamin D if they are exposed to sunlight).
While you can find some of these nutrients added to plant-based foods, you must look a bit harder to find them. Or take supplements. There are risks of missing out on these nutrients and a vegan diet is not necessarily a healthier diet – it all depends what foods you choose and the overall balance of foods. French fries, fake meats (meat analogues), veggie chips, vegan desserts are plant-based but they can also be highly processed and high in saturated fat, salt, refined carbs (starches and sugars) and additives. There are lessons to learn from our vegan friends: eat more legumes, wholegrain cereals, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, which are all healthy options for everyone.
Is veganism the most sustainable diet? You might think veganism is the most sustainable way to feed our growing global population and vegan activists certainly promote this as a reason to follow them into a plant-only lifestyle. They have a point. Meat has the greatest environmental footprint, followed by dairy and then plant-foods. This is because livestock farming requires more land and water; and animals produce more GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions compared to plant-based foods. However what may surprise you is that veganism doesn’t appear to be the most sustainable dietary pattern because it doesn’t utilise all types of land. Some less fertile land is not suitable for growing fruits and vegetables but can be used for livestock such as dairy cattle. According to a recent analysis the most sustainable eating pattern is (drum roll please) a vegetarian diet including dairy products (a lacto-vegetarian diet).
Another study found some vegan diets have higher environmental impacts than some omnivore diets. Eating locally and eliminating food wastage play a big role in sustainability too. For example, a locally raised free-range egg has a smaller environmental footprint than an avocado that has been flown halfway across the globe and then thrown in the bin because it went brown in the bottom of your fruit bowl.
- Animal welfare: There are no cruelty issues with plants.
- Environment: Plant-based diets have the advantage, but it’s complicated. Reduce your impact by eating mostly plants, locally sourced, and don’t waste food.
- Nutrition: for good health, eat mostly plants and just enough animal food to meet your nutrient requirements. Vegans need to eat fortified foods or take supplements to meet their needs for hard-to-get nutrients.
Thanks to Rachel Ananin AKA TheSeasonalDietitian.com for her assistance with this article.
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Nutritionist, author, consultant, cook, food enthusiast and mother who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious. Contact: You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram or check out her website.