According to recent statistics, veganism in the United States has gone up 600% in the last year alone, and 1.68 million people in Britain are either vegetarian or vegan. With this staggering increase, we can’t help but wonder, why the rapid shift to this way of eating? Is it possible to get all the nutrition you need from a strictly vegan diet? And could adopting veganism be the new “heart healthy” alternative?
Defining Vegetarian vs. Vegan
There are many meat-restrictive diets which include grains, dairy, fruits, and vegetables. Some choose to restrict only red meat for health reasons but do eat chicken, pork, and fish; others eat only fish and seafood as far as animal protein is concerned.
Strict vegetarians don’t eat any animal flesh but do consume:
- Dairy products
- Other animal byproducts, such as honey.
A vegan diet eliminates both animal and animal by-products including meat, fish, milk, eggs, and honey. Those doing it for ethical reasons also abstain from the purchase of items such as wool, leather, and feathers as well since those products are derived from animals.
Motivation Factors for a Meatless Diet
The movement of many to this kind of eating could be attributed to the increase in information regarding the food industry itself. A growing number of documentaries have been released which show how agribusiness animals such as dairy cows, chickens raised and kept for egg production, and many animals raised for meat by large corporate entities are often kept in what some might consider inhumane environments. This tends to touch on our sense of responsibility and can be off-putting as far as consuming the products put out by these facilities.
While there is value in becoming vegan for ethical reasons, that is a purely personal decision. For the basis of this article, we will be discussing being a vegan purely in dietary terms.
A vegan diet can be a highly nutritious choice, low in saturated fat and rich in minerals and nutrients. It can promote heart health, improve kidney function and help to aid in weight loss. However, because vegans need to consume all protein, vitamins, and minerals from non-animal sources, food choice, preparation and research are important. A diet of this kind should never be undertaken without first speaking with your doctor or a nutritionist.
This is especially important if you have other health concerns or are taking medications. Vitamins and supplements can interact with prescription drugs and medications. If you choose to take supplements to make up some of the minerals or vitamins which can be difficult to find in plant compounds, be sure to talk with your doctor.
It should not come as a surprise most doctors and nutritionists agree individuals should consume a diet high in iron-rich leafy greens and vegetables, regardless of their other dietary choices. Any time you replace health-compromising foods high in saturated fats with healthy alternatives, you are helping your heart by reducing your risk of developing high cholesterol which can lead to blockages in arteries. Most non-vegetarian/vegans looking to reduce their animal fat intake will replace the protein from red meats or processed meats with leaner fresh meats like chicken and fish. So if you choose to go vegan and take away all animal-sourced protein vehicles, how can you find the proteins vital to good health?
The good news for those wanting to try a strictly plant-based diet is the enormous amount of recipes and information you can find online now.
Top plant-based protein sources include:
- Seeds (especially quinoa, hemp, chia, and flax)
- Soy products
- Nutritional yeast
- Leafy greens like spinach, kale, and broccoli
There are many ways to include these items in your daily food intake to ensure you receive your recommended daily allowance of protein as well as most vitamins. Supplements may be needed to ensure mineral intake meets minimum daily requirements.
What Makes a Diet Heart Healthy?
When it comes to finding the best “heart-healthy” diet, the real key is getting all your nutritional needs met while reducing or eliminating sources which increase cholesterol, cause weight gain and/or raise blood pressure. Since a plant-based vegan diet tends to eliminate most of these “bad” sources of nutrition (animal fats in meats and dairy products contribute to all three), it makes sense as a dietary choice if someone is looking for a way to improve their heart health.
As always, any time you are considering changing your lifestyle drastically, a chat with your physician is a good idea. They may also refer you to a nutritionist for guidance and monitoring to ensure you are meeting all your goals.