Veganism is fast becoming a common dietary way of living for many, especially those of the millennial generation - google searches of the word vegan have increased by 250% in the last 5 years! As with a lot of new diets, there are many reasons as to why someone might choose to be vegan; be it ethical, environmental or health reasons, or even just because it seems topical and popular. I will briefly explain some of the more common reasons behind this drastic diet change, but of course will focus mainly on the personal health implications of following a plant based diet.
First of all; what does being vegan entail? As defined by The Vegan Society;
‘Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.’
All vegans eat a plant-based diet avoiding all animal foods such as meat (including fish, shellfish and insects), dairy, eggs and honey - whilst most vegans also avoid animal-derived materials (wool, leather), products tested on animals and places that use animals for entertainment. This leaves a diet that mostly consists of fruit, vegetables, nuts, tofu, beans, pulses, seeds and plant based milks (such as almond, soya, coconut etc). Due to the increase in popularity in recent times, there are now a lot of vegan choices in restaurants, as well as a variety of pre-prepared food in supermarkets. Vegan versions and substitutes of popular foods have been created such as vegan ‘cheese’, vegan junk food, seitan, tempeh and tofu (all vegan meat substitutes), which aim to replicate the tastes and textures of a diet that includes meat and other animal products. There are many ways to still eat versions of your favourite foods whilst adhering to a plant based diet, it just requires a little clever cooking and a few new ingredients.
What are the reasons for being vegan?
Many vegans strongly believe that all living creatures have the right to life and freedom, and therefore disagree with ending a life or altering a life in a way just to consume the animal’s flesh, milk or use its skin. They also strongly disagree with the psychological and physical stress that animals may be put under during modern farming practices, such as keeping livestock in unnatural confinement (battery farming), force-feeding and selective breeding. Avoiding animal products is one of the most obvious and extreme ways to take a stand against animal cruelty and animal exploitation.
The production of meat and other animal products has a huge impact on the environment - crops and water are required to feed animals, and the transport and other processes involved in the industry have obvious impacts. The vast amount of grain feed required for meat production is a significant contributor to deforestation, habitat loss and species extinction. In Brazil alone, the equivalent of 5.6 million acres of land is used to grow soya beans for animals in Europe. Considerably lower quantities of crops and water are required to sustain a vegan diet, which is why this is a popular reason for the diet.
Some people choose veganism for its potential health effects. For example, plant-based diets may reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. There have also been reports that lowering the amount of animal products you eat may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. However, it's important to note that none of these studies have been conclusive and there is not sufficient evidence to prove these claims.
Studies have consistently linked vegan diets to lower body weight and body mass index (BMI), however this is simply due to the fact that when removing large food groups from your diet, you will of course end up consuming fewer calories than before. Although there are many vegan substitutes, a diet that consists of mostly vegetables (which are very low calorie) is bound to result in weight loss.
Due to the emergence of vegan 'junk food', it is however becoming increasingly easy to make a vegan diet a very high calorie one, so it is definitely not a given that being vegan will result in weight loss.
With the removal of dairy and meat, vegan diets lack protein and various vitamins that we normally get from animal based products. Because of this, it’s important for vegans to add supplements to their diet, such as vitamin B12.
Overall, a vegan diet isn’t detrimental to health if the correct supplementation is used to ensure a complete and balanced diet, and it may be a helpful way to reduce your overall caloric intake, but without sufficient evidence to prove the rumoured health benefits it is impossible to evaluate the real health related results of following the diet.
As a Personal Trainer, I am not qualified, nor would I want to ever recommend a serious dietary change such as going vegan to any of my clients. I strongly believe that such a huge lifestyle change should be an individual choice based on sensible reasoning, and whilst there are some health benefits to the choice, a vegan diet isn’t necessary to achieve fitness and/or weight loss goals in the gym. I would never personally recommend eliminating food groups and having an overly restrictive diet as I believe that when it comes to nutrition, adherence and sustainability is key.