Should you go vegan? Here's how this diet can affect your health
World Vegan Day on November 1 marked the start of World Vegan Month, which is dedicated to celebrating the plant-based diet. If you are planning to turn vegan, whether it's for ethical or environmental reasons, don't miss out on these health benefits of a vegan diet.
Even just a few years ago, you probably didn't know many people who followed a vegan diet, and ate strictly plant-based foods. But there's a chance you now know someone in your life who is vegan, and shuns meat and dairy products. You've perhaps even eaten a vegan dish, which was free of animal products, with them at some point. Veganism might have become a buzzword, but that doesn't mean that all of us are well-educated on what being vegan really means. We roped in Kolkata-based dietician Anupam Dey and Mumbai-based dietician and clinical nutritionist Geetanjali Shah to help clear the air about the vegan lifestyle.
What is the vegan diet?
"A vegan or plant-based diet is a diet based on infinite combinations of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices," says Dey. Any ingredient you can imagine that falls under these categories is fair game in the vegan diet, from cashews to chickpeas and mushrooms, he explains. Anything that comes from an animal is not part of the vegan diet, he adds. That includes eggs, butter, cheese, cow milk, fish, honey, etc.
What are the benefits of a vegan diet?
Environmental or ethical concerns aren't the only reasons for adopting the vegan diet. If you have wondered what kind of changes will happen in the body when you switch over to eating only plant-based foods, Dey and Shah share the benefits of eating a vegan diet; some of them expected and others pretty surprising.
Better heart health
"The more fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains you eat, the stronger your heart gets. Some studies have shown that vegans are much less likely to contract heart disease in their lifetimes and their overall cardiovascular health is better," says Shah. That's because the absence of animal products equals lower blood pressure, less cholesterol in the body, and less strain on the heart in general, she adds.
Less risk of developing many cancers
There are many different studies that show how you can lower your risk for many cancers by controlling your diet a certain way. For example, eating a diet rich in legumes and low in dairy can reduce your chance of developing colorectal cancer. Similarly, some believe that eating more soy can help prevent breast cancer. "Simply eating seven servings of fruits and vegetables every day lowers your risk of dying from any cancer," says Shah.
"If you're choosing fresh, whole foods, you're naturally going to consume more nutrition than a diet with a lot of animal products," says Dey. One study showed that vegans naturally consume way more fibre, potassium, magnesium, folate, and iron than meat eaters. "When you're getting all these nutrients into your system, you're going to have more energy and it will be much harder for you to get sick," adds Dey.
A diet without animal and dairy products benefits the skin, as well. Eating dairy regularly has been proven to result in acne for many people because it stimulates insulin secretion in the body, says Dey.
Better fitness performance
There are more athletes than ever before who are trying the vegan diet, like tennis champion Novak Djokovic, and they're seeing results from it. "The anti-inflammatory properties of a plant-based diet aid in the recovery process, so athletes don't need to wait as long between training sessions and they have much more energy, even if they've just finished up a tough workout," explains Dey.
More balanced hormones
"It's said that animal products increase the amount of estrogen in the body, and that can negatively affect the way your body handles hormone fluctuations. Furthermore, it's believed that the anti-inflammatory qualities of vegan food can reduce the pain you might experience when you're on your period," says Shah.
Keep in mind that these benefits will only come to you if you're eating a plant-based diet. Veganism may sound healthy from the outside, but just because you're eating vegan doesn't necessarily mean you're eating healthy all the time. "There are still a lot of packaged, processed goods that are made vegan. For example, you can still eat flour and sugar, which means it's possible to eat countless desserts and nutritionless snacks," warns Dey. "But if you mostly stick to a whole-foods, plant-based diet and stay away from the processed stuff, that's when the real magic happens," he adds.