Vegans take caution: get the missing nutrients you need

Veganism: Fad or foe?

By Ally Littlefield, Collegian Correspondent

Veganism has become a very trendy diet in the United States. Vegan recipes can be found all over Pinterest, entire cafes and bakeries dedicated to vegan food can be found in just about any town and even new products such as Ben & Jerry’s vegan ice cream has been put on local grocery store shelves. Vegans tend to incorporate wholesome fruits, vegetables and certain grains while eliminating all meats, seafood and animal products/byproducts. Sounds healthy — right? Most people who decide to become vegan believe that the cruel treatment and slaughtering of animals in the food industry is immoral, and consequently believe it would be immoral to support this industry by eating and buying their products. Others are swayed toward this minimalistic diet simply because they believe a heavily plant-based diet is what is best for their health. Many rumors and modern fads focus on the idea that the human body is not designed to eat meats, which is simply not true. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to create a well-balanced diet without animal products, and making one requires precise and careful planning when trying to include sufficient amounts of all necessary nutrients.

The most important macronutrient that is eliminated from a vegan diet is protein. Every balanced diet must include protein to allow the body sufficient fuel to maintain cell repair, growth and development. Long-term effects of protein deficiency include fatigue, brain impairment and loss of cognitive function and muscle wasting, affecting a person’s overall health. It is vital for people who choose to not eat poultry or meat to replace their protein with soy (tofu), beans, legumes and protein-packed grains, such as quinoa.

Some vitamins are also not easily obtained in a vegan diet, such as vitamin B12, which is primarily found in animal products like fish, poultry, eggs and dairy. This vitamin is essential for circulatory and nerve health, and deficiency of vitamin B12 has a long list of side effects including anemia, fatigue, weight loss and different neurological changes. Unfortunately, most plant foods, with the exception of some leafy-greens, do not contain vitamin B12, leaving supplements to be a vegan’s best choice.

While some vitamins found in dairy products can be replaced with diverse fruit and vegetable consumption, calcium is another major mineral that is not easily obtained without including dairy in a diet. Calcium is needed for maintenance of strong bones, which reduces a person’s risk of osteoporosis, and also protects against high blood pressure. Calcium can be found in other   foods, such as peppers and some green vegetables, like broccoli. Calcium-enriched foods like calcium-enriched orange juice are excellent ways for vegans to obtain their dietary needs. On the other hand, calcium supplements are not a good alternative, because they do not contain the phosphorus and potassium that are in milk which work in combination for absorption in the intestines. Calcium supplements are also suspected of contributing to an increased risk of heart attacks, which is a good example of why it’s crucial for people to be fully educated when trying new diets and supplements. Making sure to eat several helpings of vegetables a day can help to reduce the risk of calcium deficiency.

While some negative effects of a vegan diet have been reviewed, there are general health benefits, including decreased risk of cancer, heart disease and other chronic illnesses that many Americans suffer from (and which are attributed to overeating certain animal products). An adequate vegan diet can be a lot to think about, but it’s important for vegans to take a hard look at their overall nutrient intake. While there are vegans who are informed about the precautions they need to take, not everyone who attempts such diets are properly educated about how they work. If you do not believe the consumption of animal products is wrong, but want to make your diet a bit healthier, veganism may not be the best route. Instead, you should try to cut out processed foods, increase your fruit and vegetable intake, make more conscious meat choices and use the USDA My Plate recommendations as a helpful guide.

Whether someone is vegan or a meat-lover, everyone should be cautious when deciding to try new fads, diets or programs, keeping in mind that the overarching goal is to maintain a healthy and sustainable diet.

Ally Littlefield can be reached at [email protected]