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Published on December 19th, 2013 | by Matthew Lovitt

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Should you Choose a Vegan Lifestyle?

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In case you’ve been blissfully avoiding pop media lately, entrepreneur and musician Jay-Z and his super-star wife Beyonce have recently embarked upon a 22-day vegan “challenge.”  In what he calls a “spiritual and physical cleanse,” Jay-Z and Beyonce are undertaking veganism in recognition of the spiritual significance of his 44th birthday and the Christmas season. Though he has not yet committed to a plant-based lifestyle long term, but he isn’t ruling out the possibility either.

Jay-Z and Beyonce are not the first A-listers to go veg, but in recognition of the media firestorm this news has created, I thought it might be fun to talk about the supposed benefits of following the vegan, or vegetarian for that matter, path and the potential obstacles that may be encountered along the way.

Quick disclaimer: the following list of pro’s and con’s is nowhere close to comprehensive, it simply provides a few of the more important considerations from personal and professional experience.

plant heart imagesBenefits

The primary benefits of adopting a vegan lifestyle are the potential reductions in disease risk.  A herbivorous diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains is generally higher in fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium and other important phytochemicals. These micronutrients are well equipped to fight free radicals and inflammation, which can improve immune function and reduce the risk for a variety of diseases like type II diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. In addition to this, vegan diets contain food with more unsaturated fats with few containing the saturated variety, which many associate with improved cardiovascular health.

Practicing veganism also has many environmental, social and reportedly spiritual benefits. According to the Environmental Working Group as reported by Scientific American, “the production, processing and distribution of meat required huge outlays of pesticides, fertilizer, fuel, feed and water while releasing greenhouse gases, manure and a range of toxic chemicals into our air and water.” Socially, the link between meat production and human rights include issues of hunger, conflict and violence. According to the Vegan Society NSW, more resources are being funneled into the production of animal foods leaving little for less industrialized, economically disadvantaged populations, which generates greater socio-economic disparity that may encourage crime and violence in order to ameliorate.  Concerning spirituality, veganism often motivates more mindfulness and compassion in one’s daily routine, which many believe fosters greater relationships and connectedness between habits, virtues and aspirations.

From personal experience (yes, this ancestral/paleo dude was once plant-based), going plant-based made me feel extremely light, focused and energized. My bowels functioned EXTREMELY well and I was able to change direction, physically and mentally, at the drop of a hat. Veganism also opened me up to a wide variety of new foods and tastes that I may not have experienced if I had remained fixed in my omnivorous ways.

{Looking for some yummy vegan recipes? Check out our healthy vegan recipes here!}

Obstacles

The benefits of veganism speak volumes, but there are a few concerns that need to be considered when adopting a plant-based diet for the long haul. First of all, what makes plant-based so great at promoting healthy weight loss, caloric restriction, also means that it may not be suitable for highly active individuals or those whose metabolism demands more fuel. Also, there are a few nutrients that are only available in animal foods. The nutrient of primary concern in this regard is vitamin B12, which, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health, “helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells.”  Vitamin B12 also helps prevent a specific type of anemia known as megaloblastic anemia that makes people tired and weak. In addition to Vitamin B12, a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition asserts that additional micronutrients concerns include vitamin D, calcium, and omega-3. According to the same AJCN study, iron and zinc may also be of concern in some cases because of the limited bioavailability of these minerals.

In conjunction with the potential for micronutrient deficiency, plant based diets are naturally low fat, which can have pretty severe consequences. Fat is energy (calorie) dense and helps insulate the body and vital organs during the winter months. Dietary fat is also essential in hormone production, cell wall integrity and the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, especially vitamin D, which perform an almost endless variety of important functions around the body.

Maintaining a vegan or vegetarian diet high in gluten and phytate rich grains can also place a tremendous burden on the immune system and interfere with the absorption of many beneficial nutrients during digestion. Another hazard of a high carb vegan diet includes the heavy consumption of sugar and “simple” carbohydrates that act similarly to sugar in the body, which can have an adverse effect on mood, energy and the overall function of the body.

Eating and Supplementing for Health

If experience has taught me anything, staying mindful of how we feel and supplementing with the a few specific foods and nutrients can help long practicing vegans and vegetarians overcome any nutritional obstacles that may develop. To obtain the appropriate amount of B12, nutritional yeast, moringa powder and a sub-lingual supplement should be integrated into a veg diet. Taking in enough calcium and iron shouldn’t be a huge concern if dark leafy greens are amply consumed. To prevent vitamin D deficiency, eat a good amount of healthy fats and spend some quality time in the sun.

According to Ginny Messina of The Vegan R.D., it may be better err on the side of caution with zinc, maintaining a diverse diet rich in vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains should do the trick. Again referring to the work of The Vegan RD, the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids for vegans are flaxseed and flax oil, chia seeds, hempseed oil, walnuts or walnut oil, canola oil, and full fat soy foods.

The “Right” Way?

Is veganism right for you? Possibly. There is no black and white in terms of diet, nutrition and health because we are all biochemically unique. However, personal experience and the experiences of close friends have taught me that the short-term observation of a plant-based diet may absolutely improve health and disposition. Long term, mindfulness, supplementation and a diverse diet built on fruits and vegetables can help promote health and vitality.

Bananas dancing image from Shutterstock;

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About the Author

A holistic nutritionist in the making, Matthew spends the majority of his time trying to unravel the beautifully complex relationship between food, health and spiritual well-being. While this may sound like a somewhat glamorous pursuit, his daily journey towards enlightenment often begins and ends in front of a computer or textbook with the occasional retreat to the kitchen to rejuvenate his mind and body. When not enthralled in his quest to greater understanding, Matthew can be found attempting some insane test of physical endurance on the highways of Arizona, eating peanut butter and banana bagel sandwiches in his pajamas, or watching cartoons with his amazing fiance and puppy. If you're interested in joining Matthew on his journey to health and wellness, please feel free to follow him on Twitter (@veggiematthew), Facebook or at his blog.



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