January is normally considered one of the gloomiest months of the year. If dealing with post-Christmas holiday blues and freezing temperatures isn’t bad enough, most of our healthy eating and exercise regimes have gone to hide until January 2021 too.
One specific diet which has no place to hide is Veganism. The vegan diet has gained momentum in recent years, with many transitioning to the diet, whether it be for health or for ethnical reasons.
With over 350,000 people expected to have signed up for Veganuary this month, the main reasons for following the ever-growing trend this year are health, animals and the environment.
The large supermarket chains are also on board with the movement, as Asda are the most recent supermarket to launch their vegan range containing 48 new products. It doesn’t stop there, as fast food chains such as KFC, Greggs and Subway have also released large marketing campaigns promoting their meatless alternatives to their regular menu. But are we aware of all the health benefits and risks of a vegan diet as opposed to that of a carnism diet? This blog aims to explore further and examine the pros and cons.
Acidogenic diets, commonly measured by the potential renal acid load (PRAL), have been linked with many common and increasingly seen metabolic diseases including insulin resistance, hepatic dysfunction, and cardiometabolic risk; the main of which are avoidable with good nutrition and an active lifestyle (Lanier, et al 2016). Vegan diets are linked to low acid loads, as the consumption of vegetable and fruits decreased the acidity level of the body and increases the pH to a desired level (Cosgroveet al 2017).
A study in 2017 revealed that by reducing the intake of meat and animal products for 2-6 day per week a reduction of urine acid levels was observed and an improvement in the PRAL score. Therefore, since low dietary PRAL scores have been related to improve metabolic parameters, adoption of a vegan diet for several days per week could be used as a diet strategy to lower the risk of non-communicable disease (Iwase at al 2015).
Long-term consumption of a vegan diet has been associated with some favourable laboratory measures but also with lowered concentrations of key. “The Finnish Study” highlighted the need for nutritional guidance to vegans (Elorinne et al 2016). In the study vegans observed much lower B12 intakes, lower PUFA omega-3 intakes, low vitamin D, iodine and selenium compared to non-vegans. This is of concern as all the nutrients listed are essential for health and wellbeing. Furthermore, iodine and selenium levels are generally at deficient levels in UK populations prior to adopting restrictive diets and eliminating food groups (Thomson 2014). It is therefore paramount that the nutritional intake is carefully considered or consulted with a dietitian before adopting a plant-based or vegan diet.
Are ‘chicken free-chicken nuggets’ a healthy substitute for a vegan diet?
As previously mentioned, UK supermarkets have entered 2020 with a host of meatless alternatives for their vegan customers. From ‘no-duck spring rolls’ to ‘meat-free chicken bites’, the shelves are full of replacements to trick our minds into thinking we’re tucking into a meat filled dinner. But just because these products are vegan, and most of us assume a vegan diet is healthy, are we doing ourselves any favours by swapping our Welsh minced beef for a meatless alternative?
A Swedish study from 2002 investigated vegan dietary intakes and concluded that they had much higher intakes of vegetables, legumes, and dietary supplements than omnivores (Larsson and Johansson 2002). Whilst it may seem obvious that a plant-based diet contains increased intakes of vegetables, the recent surge of vegan snacks, ready meals and meat alternatives presents reduces this and promotes an increased consumption of salt, saturated fats and artificial sweeteners, that could cause long term health risks similarly to the reliance of any ‘junk food’ (Chat 2018).
68% of those who participated in Veganuary 2019 were women, yet vegan women are at a greater risk of anaemia
Women are generally at greater risk for anaemia regardless of the dietary model adhered to, therefore those who eat a diet low in haem iron (haem iron has the highest bio-availability in the human body) maybe at risk of further increasing deficiency. The use of biotechnology in the creation of synthetic versions of haem-iron for example could be an area of great development for protecting vegan health.
In general, the findings from the scientific literature suggest that the vegan diet can contribute to a health promoting lifestyle providing long as diets are well-planned, balanced, and include a variety of foods, in particular fortified and enriched products. The vegan society insist that the need for supplementing a vegan diet is paramount to maintain health (Kolasa 2017). While specific vitamin and mineral intakes may be of concern for vegans, there is mixed evidence suggesting that vegans are at an increased risk for nutritional deficiencies, this is due a lack of long-term clinical tudies into the nutritional status of vegans to determine such, however, long-term analysis of vegetarian diets has presented an increase of long-term deficiencies if a dietary strategy isn’t planned effectively and with care.
To conclude, it cannot be said for certain which diet is the best for you. There are pros and cons to each, however, a happy medium of the both is usually recommended by the experts. A reduction in meat consumption and an increase in vegetable consumption is recommended, with careful consideration given as to whether all the necessary nutrients are being consumed.
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