Written by: Camila Fernandez
Compared to meat-eaters, vegans have a better chance of living a healthy, longer-lasting life, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Their diet consists of more fiber, folic acid, vitamins C and E, potassium, magnesium, phytochemicals and a fat content that is more unsaturated. Also, vegans tend to have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, according to the World Health Organization.
Vegans eat larger quantities of fruit and vegetables than omnivores. This means that they are receiving more folic acids, antioxidants and phytochemicals that are associated with these foods. Vegans also eat higher amounts of grains, soy and nuts, which provide cardio-protective effects.
Despite a significant amount of health benefits, eliminating animal products from a diet increases the risk of different nutritional deficiencies, according to the study. Vegans who do not make appropriate food choices tend to have a deficiency in n-3 polyunsaturated fat, vitamin D, iron, vitamin B-12, zinc, protein and calcium, for example.
Diets that do not include fish, eggs or sea vegetables, like oil from brown algae and seaweeds, generally lack n-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which are crucial for cardiovascular health and eye and brain functions. However, vegans can obtain DHA from microalgae supplements, as well as foods fortified with DHA, according to the study.
Vitamin D is important for bone development and immune functioning, and alleviation of inflammation. The vitamin can be found in sun exposure, fish oils, fatty fish, mushrooms, beef liver and dairy products. For a vegan, it is important to depend on both sun exposure and the intake of vitamin D-fortified foods, like mushrooms, cereals, soy milk, rice milk and tofu.
Iron is an essential mineral that transports oxygen to all parts of the body. A slight deficiency in iron causes anemia (fatigue/weakness) and organ failure. According to the study, iron is better absorbed from heme (meat) sources, than non-heme (plant) sources. However, non-heme iron is better regulated, which causes less damage to the body.
Also, hemoglobin concentrations and the risk of iron deficiency anemia are similar for vegans compared with omnivores, according to the study. Vegans tend to eat large amounts of vitamin C-rich foods that improve the absorption of non-heme iron. High iron foods include beans, clams, liver, sunflower seeds, nuts, beef, lamb, whole grains, dark leafy greens, like spinach, dark chocolate and tofu. Foods with a concentration of vitamin C include bell peppers, dark leafy greens, kiwifruit, broccoli, berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, peas and papayas.
Vitamin B-12 protects the nervous system and helps red blood cells divide. The vitamin is generally found in all animal foods, except honey. To avoid a deficiency, vegans eat vitamin B-12 fortified foods, like soy and rice beverages, certain breakfast cereals or a daily vitamin B-12 supplement.
Zinc is an important metal that is used for boosting the immune system, treating the common cold and preventing lower respiratory infections, for example. Meats, seafood, dairy products, nuts, legumes, oatmeal and whole grains offer high levels of zinc, according to VeganHealth.org.
Protein is a component of every body cell, it is used to build and repair tissue, and it is needed to make enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals. Also, it is an important building block for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. According to Health, women should get about 46 grams of protein per day, and men need about 56 grams. Different forms of protein besides meat and dairy products can be found in a plant-based diet.
Examples of Proteins Found in Plants
Green Peas – One cup contains 7.9 grams of protein, about the same as a cup of milk.
Quinoa – One cup contains more than 8 grams of protein, including all nine essential amino acids.
Nuts and nut butter – Are high in calories and contain 5 or 6 grams of protein per ounce
Beans, like black, white, pinto and heirloom – Two cups of kidney beans, for example, contain about 26 grams of protein, almost the same as a Big Mac.
Chickpeas/garbanzo beans – Half a cup contains 7.3 grams of protein, and they are high in fiber and low in calories.
Tempeh and tofu – Half a cup contains about 15 and 20 grams of protein respectively.
The American dairy industry is heavily promoted, which causes the public to often believe that cow’s milk is the sole source of calcium, according to The Vegetarian Resource Group. Calcium is needed for strong bones, and it can be found in dark leafy greens, tofu made with calcium sulfate, calcium-fortified soy milk and orange juice.
Therefore, vegans are able to find alternatives to meat products and live a healthier lifestyle. They also contribute to a greener planet by advocating against using more land mass for raising animals for food. Nearly 80 percent of land deforested in the Amazon is now used as cattle pasture, according to The World Bank. Also, they save more carbon emission by switching to a diet free of meat, diary and eggs.