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Is the vegan diet actually healthier?

The vegan trend is on the rise, as is the importance of sustainable living.

As more and more of us switch to veganism or meat-free diets, it begs the question – Is going vegan really healthier?

Put simply, the answer to this depends on how you do the vegan diet.

Doing it the right way:

Vegans who follow a wholefood and natural diet with plenty of fruit and veg, legumes, lentils, wholegrains, and plant-based meat substitutes that have undergone little processing such as tofu and tempeh, can reap many health benefits.

A plant-based diet with mostly fresh foods like this can:

  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Improve your heart health – This is due to cutting out meat items from your diet. Meat is often high in saturated fat which can contribute to heart issues;
  • Prevent Type 2 Diabetes (by 34% according to Everyday Health;
  • Help with weight loss – A reason for this is that wholegrains and vegetables are relatively low on the glycemic index which means they’re digested more slowly. Furthermore, fruit contains antioxidants and fibre, which helps prolong fullness, according to data cited in a study published in January 2016 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine;
  • Prolong life - The Journal of the American Heart Association study found that a plant-based diet lowers the risk of all causes of mortality by 25 percent;
  • Decrease the risk of cancer - The most effective way to source cancer-protective nutrients, including fibre, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, is to eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and some animal foods, according to The American Institute for Cancer Research. The decrease in risk of cancer when following a plant-based diet is likely due to the nutrients available in plant-based foods and because eating this way promotes a healthy weight.
  • Improve cholesterol – Changing a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol by between 10-15%, and people following a strict vegan diet can lower their LDL cholesterol by as much as 25%, according to a review of 27 studies published in The American Journal of Cardiology.
  • Improve brain function - “There is some compelling research examining plant-based diets and their role in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s,” says Maya Feller, RD, CDN, a dietitian based in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook.

Doing it the wrong way:

Contrast this to the ‘lazy’ vegan diet.

Going vegan can actually be an unhealthy diet change for those of us switching to vegan ready meals and meat substitutes which are often highly processed to enhance flavour and taste.

People often fall into this trap when their reasons for switching to vegan is more so environmental rather than coming from a health perspective. Yes, switching to veganism saves the animals and is more environmentally friendly, however when it comes to our health, switching to ultra-processed vegan ready meals and meat substitutes can be more harmful to us.

A recent news piece by the BBC covered the harmful impact of vegan ready meals on our health – Vegan ready meals often contain ingredients we do not recognise. They have been through extensive industrial processing. The BBC states: “The warning signs are ingredients you cannot pronounce, more than five of them on the packet, and anything your grandmother would not recognise as food.”

These vegan ready meals have a good reputation because many contain raw ingredients which have strong health credentials such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans including soya.

However, many of these processed meat substitutes under popular brands such as Heck, Vivera, This, Meatless Farm Co and Beyond Burger, actually contain high levels of saturated fat, just like normal meat. One of the reasons a proper vegan diet (without too many of these substitutes) can be beneficial for our health is because it can lower cholesterol due to lower saturated fat levels. However, if we are just switching to substitutes which are just as high in saturated fat, we are missing out on the true benefits of a vegan diet.

The other not-so-good thing about ultra-processed vegan meat substitutes is that they are often lower in fibre and protein (even though some companies try to add some of the protein back in). Furthermore, to make these foods taste good, many vegan brands add salt, fats and sugar.

This is not to say that you should never touch vegan ready meals – they are fine to have no and again. However, it is wise to be mindful that if you are switching to a vegan diet, you want to be focusing on cooking food yourself from scratch as much as possible, and using meat substitutes that you can cook and flavour yourself. Some amazing examples are tofu, tempeh and seitan/wheat protein.

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