Speaking to nutritionist Nadine Hutton, there is some truth in the health benefits of veganism, but perhaps because it is in stark contrast to many of the extremely unhealthy habits we have developed as a culture. “Scientific literature shows overwhelmingly that there are benefits to veganism because if you look at the top causes of mortality many of them are preventable by dietary intervention, particularly the reduction of saturated fats, and lot are influenced by weight. Naturally you will also eat more fruit, vegetables and legumes if you’re not eating those other things, and in turn those have their own benefits on the body.”
Meanwhile, dietician Claire Wylde says: “the benefits that are being talked about in relation to veganism can also be found in other ways. For example, a Mediterranean diet also helps to prevent heart attacks, reduces your cancer risk, and helps prevent or control diabetes and this is a diet that contains eggs, milk, fish, meat – all the exclusions from a vegan diet. So you still get the benefits without the very likely risks associated with vitamin and mineral deficiencies from a vegan diet; not to mention the practical difficulties associated with a vegan diet. Of course its not impossible to follow a vegan diet and if you are doing it for ethical reasons then fine but I think it would be wrong to think that a vegan diet is the only diet that can achieve such benefits.”
And this is where the topic gets really interesting, because of course the choice to be vegan could come from many areas, predominantly health or ethics, but probably (let’s be honest about it) weight loss as well, because that’s a driver for a lot of us.
When it comes to ethics, Nadine empathises with the cause. A vegetarian for ethical reasons – taking into consideration greenhouse gases and the conditions in which animals are kept for produce, her own choice not to be vegan hinges on listening to her own body which she has found to struggle without eggs and dairy: “I get iron deficient too quickly, and I think about their own biology when it comes to these diets. You can’t just go cutting out whole food groups in one go, you have to trial it, talk to a professional, and see what works for you. For me veganism isn’t feasible, but for some people it’s fine.”
In short, the major benefit is that vegetables, pulses, fruit and legumes take longer to eat so your stomach has a chance to tell you that it’s full. Meanwhile, it takes a lot more energy to process large proteins and meats so it’s putting more pressure on your digestive system. Naturally, if you’re eating more vegetables and less fat you’re considerably less likely to have high cholesterol, so on balance you’re at lower risk of cardiovascular disease, but that’s not quite the same as saying that veganism ‘prevents heart attacks’ as some headlines would have you believe – let’s face it, that’s a bit of a leap.
The other slightly worrying trend that any diet that promotes the exclusion of entire food groups risks, is that while it’s perfectly reasonable for someone to opt into any sort of diet for any reason, it can all too easily be taken to an extreme.
Worryingly, but probably something we could all have predicted, where there’s an exclusion diet fad around so too is the potential to attract anyone who’s vulnerable to eating disorders and extreme dieting. Orthorexia is the emerging trend that sees people becoming addicted to ‘healthy’ eating, leading to similar problems as anorexia and other eating disorders. As Nadine points out, it comes down to education rather than sensationalist information, which is hard to find at times.
“I have a lot of young girls contacting me,” she says, “especially through social media, seeing these diets as trendy complete with thigh gaps and rib cages as the result. There’s an alarming number of pro-anorexia and bulimia accounts on social media. They ask questions like ‘how many calories there are in two teaspoons of lentils?’, which is eye opening. It does allow me some time to help them in small ways however, but sometimes these diets are used as a way to reduce calories – it was similar when gluten free became a trend, and that’s not what it’s for.”
“As a nutritionist my biggest concern is sustainability of eating patterns,” says Nadine; “there’s a lot of sensationalism in the media and it’s usually for the advantage of a particular company or person. A lot of people are drawn in by that and then don’t really notice that they’re not really getting the results they expected in the first place. The 5:2 diet is a great example of a diet that’s great for some people but not necessarily for others.”
One of the things Nadine highlights is that veganism isn’t synonymous with being healthy: “it’s easy to be a junk food vegan, when the stuff you’re eating is not meat but it’s got no nutritional value either – for example, cheap pasta, toast, crisps. That can happen a lot because those foods are easy and a lot of people are very busy. Preparing a nutritious vegan meal can take a lot of time and in general people are time poor. I think a lot of people are obese because life is hard and busy, there aren’t always options for healthy food when you need it and when you’re tired your primal instinct is to look for as many calories as possible with minimal effort.”
The key, she points out, is nothing particularly ground breaking, but simply to prepare food in advance – batches of stews, pasta dishes or whatever else happens to be on your ideal menu. The big point being that it isn’t just being vegan that’s either going to lead to weight loss or health benefits, it’s actually, as with all other ways of eating, part of being balanced and looking for the healthy option.
As Nadine says, the key is education and understanding your own body. If you want to try a vegan diet then a nutritionist or dietician would be an ideal port of call, but most of us aren’t going to do that. Nadine points out that there are things you can do however, saying: “the best thing to do would be to slowly cut down your meat and dairy consumption; if you want it to be a sustainable lifestyle choice that’s the best way to go. If you go cold turkey, the chances are the next time you smell bacon you will probably go home and eat even more meat than before. If you have a B12 deficiency then you need to be a little more careful as it’s harder to get from vegetables and legumes alone – it’s mostly in meat, eggs and cheese. Look into supplementation and just be aware of it.”
The biggest thing says Nadine, is to be really aware of your nutrition. Take into consideration your caloric requirements as you will need to eat a lot more than you have done previously and have a lot of grains and beans alongside fruit and veg. You may think you’re eating a lot more, but you’re not because of the calorie difference. Finally, planning is a key – plan meals ahead, cook big batches and prepare meals to take to work and have as snacks.”
As with so many things, the key appears to be: listen to your body!
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