With meat consumption continually in the headlines – eating too much processed meat, for example, has been linked to heart disease and cancer among other things – it’s small wonder that many people are wondering whether a vegan diet might be more healthy.
Is it time to give up meat?
But unlike being vegetarian, which is a diet that cuts out meat, being vegan means not eating any produce that comes from an animal.
What that means in practise is no meat, no fish, no dairy products, no eggs and no honey, but also no processed or packaged foods containing those things.
Is it healthy or unhealthy to cut animal products from my diet?
It can be healthy to cut animal products from your diet especially if it means you pay more attention to what you eat and how you prepare it. What’s more there is evidence to show that it may help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
What you need to know about cholesterol
What kind of things will I eat on a vegan diet?
You might wonder what’s left if you cut out animal products but actually you can still eat a wide variety of foods. Stir fries, rice and beans, pasta, pizza, casseroles, soups, and burgers are all dishes that can be eaten vegan.
Discover delicious vegan recipes
What do I need to cut out if I go vegan?
Some foods will be obviously non-vegan, such as anything containing meat, dairy products, eggs or fish. But there are animal products lurking in many foods that might seem okay at first.
For example some breads contain L-cysteine, which is an animal product. Beers and wines often utilise animal products in the brewing process, and even harmless-seeming crisps can contain flavouring that contains animal products.
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How do I supplement my vegan diet to make sure I get enough vitamins and minerals?
The nutrients you need to focus on are protein, iron, calcium, vitamin C, D and B12.
It’s not difficult to get enough protein from a vegan diet, but it’s likely that you’ll need to up your intake of lentils, tofu, beans, nuts, seeds and protein-rich veg such as sun-dried tomatoes, for example, which are 14% protein. You’ll need to include chickpeas, lentils and/or beans to give yourself plenty of iron or source iron-fortified foods such as cereals.
Vitamin C is important because it helps your body absorb iron. Vitamin B12 can be obtained by eating nutritional yeast or B12-fortified foods.
Calcium, usually provided by milk, cheese or other dairy products, will come from dark leafy greens such as kale or spinach, or from fortified foods. You’ll need to take a supplement if you can’t include these foods in your diet.
Visit our A-Z of vitamins and minerals
So what are the advantages of a vegan diet for me?
If you’ve been diagnosed with high cholesterol, chances are a vegan diet will bring your levels down to a healthy level.
According to a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition a vegan diet can significantly lower your cholesterol levels. This might be because you pay more attention to what you eat on a vegan diet, but also because your intake of saturated fat is likely to be far lower as you don’t eat butter, meat or cream, for example.
There are also several studies showing that both vegetarian and vegan diets help lower blood pressure.
Do vegetarians have a lower risk of cancer?
And the disadvantages of a vegan diet?
If you’ve been unable to stick to other diets, keeping to a vegan diet will likely be even more difficult.
It’s a strict diet, compared to a calorie-controlled diet, for example, where you simply need to reduce calorie intake but can still eat a wide range of foods.
It can also end up being more expensive especially if you’re not such a dab hand in the kitchen. If you can source fresh food and cook from scratch, you can enjoy a wide variety of vegan dishes, but if you’ll need to rely on pre-made vegan foods you might find it an expensive diet.
What you need to know about blood pressure
Anything else I should know about becoming a vegan?
If you’re on medication, check with your GP before changing your diet drastically as it might affect how it works or its side effects.
You should also be aware that eating out and being invited out for dinner will be a lot more difficult than it used to be. Few restaurants indicate which dishes are vegan (if they have any) and it might be difficult for friends or family to find vegan recipes to cook.