Vegans, Vegetarians Healthy?

January 20, 2012

It seems like more and more celebrities are coming out as vegetarians or vegans, so is this a healthy diet and what does it mean to eat this way?

According to a study published by Vegetarian Times, 3.2 percent of U.S. adults or 7.3 million people follow a vegetarian-based diet. Approximately 0.5 percent or one million of those are vegans. Slightly fewer than twenty-three million people (about 10 percent of US adults) say they largely follow a vegetarian-inclined diet. The popularity of these diets may be on the rise due to celebrities eating this way like Ellen DeGeneres, Sir Paul McCartney, Russell Simmons, Bill Clinton and more.

Veganism is a few steps further than vegetarianism (some vegetarians eat dairy products, eggs and sometimes fish), and although the term was coined in 1944, the concept of eliminating all animal products can be traced back to ancient Indian and eastern Mediterranean cultures.

Vegetarianism was first mentioned by Pythagoras, around 500 BCE, the Greek philosopher and mathematician who promoted benevolence among all species, including humans. Followers of Buddhism and Hinduism are also advocates of vegetarianism, believing that humans should not inflict pain on other animals.

Is a vegan diet nutritious? Yes, following a vegan diet can be very nutritious but definitely takes a lot of careful planning and preparation. Vegan diets include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans, all of which contain no cholesterol (only found in animal products), and are rich in fiber and nutrients.

Vegans get their protein from the combination of legumes including, beans, tofu, and peanuts, and grains like rice, quinoa, corn, whole wheat breads and pastas; as well as nuts and seeds, like almonds, flax, cashews, sunflower seeds, brazil nuts and more. While vegetarians allow dairy products and sometimes eggs. Many of the foods listed above are also rich in heart healthy fats.

How do vegans get calcium? Leafy greens like broccoli, kale, collard greens, as well as tofu, sesame seeds, almonds, fortified juices and soymilk contain a significant amount of calcium. Vegetarians include calcium rich dairy products, and according to the American Heart Association, studies show that vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium from foods than non-vegetarians.

What about iron? Chickpeas, spinach, pinto beans, blackstrap molasses, and soy products contain iron (which is best paired with vitamin C rich foods for optimal absorption). Fortified foods, supplements or even nutritional yeast, provide vegans with B12, a nutrient to be aware of on a meat free diet.

And what about omega oils we get from fish and other marine sources? Vegans and vegetarians will opt for flax, chia seeds, or even hemp to get their fill of healthy omega-3s.

Overall, a vegan or vegetarian diet can be very nutritious, but as mentioned can take a lot of planning. Another interesting fact about vegetarian diets that the American Heart Association points out is that many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some forms of cancer. That being said, vegetarian and certainly vegan diets are not for everyone!

For more resources on a vegan or vegetarian diet visit the USDA.