I couldn’t imagine living a meat-free life. Between the occasional juicy steak or fresh caught fish grilled to perfection, I just don’t think I could ever give it up.
Sure, I enjoy vegetarian dishes here and there, but I’ve never gone a full 24 hours without consuming meat. For me, eating meat is second nature.
When I plan my meals, I work around the protein first and then I choose my starches and veggies. I’ve always thought that lean meat should be the predominant protein in my diet.
However, on my quest to better nutrition, I’ve learned that there may be a wealth of health benefits to living a vegan lifestyle. Although I don’t plan on going Vegan, I thought they were at least worth sharing with you. So I dove into some research and found out the truth behind the question: does a vegan diet help you live longer?
What is a Vegan Diet?
For starters, many people assume that a vegan diet is the same thing as being a vegetarian. While I can certainly understand the confusion, the main thing you should keep in mind is that vegans follow a much stricter diet than vegetarians.
Vegetarians do not consume meat, but that doesn’t mean animal products are off limits to them. Some vegetarians still consume dairy, eggs, and animal byproducts like milk and honey.
Vegans definitely don’t consume meat. However, they take it a step further and avoid any foods or products made by animals of any kind at any point. This means that everything a vegan eats comes strictly from the earth.
When it comes to milk, vegans opt for varieties such as almond, rice, or soymilk. As for honey, many vegans substitute this sweet ingredient for pure maple syrup. I’ve come to learn that almost anything made with or by an animal can be replaced with a plant-based substitute.
Even eggs can be replaced in a vegan diet by following recipes that use ingredients like unsweetened applesauce, vinegar and baking soda, or even dairy-free yogurt instead. You can also purchase an egg replacer powder. I definitely didn’t know that existed.
But what about the protein?
How do vegans consume enough protein without meat or dairy?
Getting Enough Protein in a Vegan Diet
This is probably the biggest debate among vegans and non-vegan dieters. Many anti-vegan claim that there’s no way to consume enough of the recommended amount of protein each day following strictly plant-based regulations. Yet many staunch vegans disagree.
I was surprised to learn just how many meat-free protein sources are available.
According to Health, the following foods are the best sources of protein for vegans:
- Green peas
- Nuts and nut butters
- Tempeh and tofu
- Leafy greens
- Chia seeds
- Sesame, sunflower, and poppy seeds
- Non-dairy milk
- Unsweetened cocoa powder
As you can see, this list is full of plentiful options–my favorite being the last one–which makes me question the whole protein debate. Seems like vegans have lots of protein sources to choose from. When you think about it, non-vegan eaters only rely on meat and dairy. Seems like we may be limiting ourselves, doesn’t it?
Research on Veganism
Debates aside, I had to see what the research concluded.
First, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition points out that “vegan diets are usually high in dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, and phytochemicals and they tend to be lower in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12.”
That gives us some good news and some not-so-good news. While it’s good to have a diet that’s low in saturated fat and cholesterol, the lower amounts of omegas, vitamins, and minerals have me a little concerned.
Next, we have a study published in the US National Library of Medicine. This study measured the triglyceride and cholesterol levels plus the amounts of both high and low density lipoproteins (HDL & LDL) of 76 men and women. Participants were separated into four groups: restricted vegetarians (vegans), omnivores, lacto-vegetarians (vegetarians who ate dairy), and lacto-ovo vegetarians (vegetarian diet that includes dairy and eggs).
At the end of the study, blood samples were taken to measure the effects of each diet. According to the report, significantly higher levels of triglycerides, low density lipoproteins, and cholesterol were found in omnivores. But get this: vegans had decreased levels of all three.
That gives the vegan corner a plus one.
The study also discovered that there was no difference in high density lipoprotein levels, however, the ratio of high density lipoproteins to cholesterol was much higher in vegans.
Okay, so the vegan diet scores another point.
With this kind of information, I started to wonder if going vegan might help you live longer.
“Researchers from Loma Linda University in California report that vegetarians outlast meat eaters,” according to an article in TIME. I use this example of vegetarians in this case since vegetarians and vegans are both non-meat eaters.
70,000 participants had a 12% lower risk of death as compared with meat eaters.
I know that 12% may seem low, but we’re talking about having the control to lower our risk of death and live longer. That’s a huge advantage no matter how small the percentage is.
Finally, one more study examined 773 participants who were given a dietary questionnaire that determined what type of diet they typically adhered to. Three groups emerged: vegetarian, non-vegetarian, and semi-vegetarian.
Once again, the vegetarian diet surpassed as the winner. The report stated that the participants who ate a vegetarian diet showed “significantly lower means for all MRFs except HDL and a lower risk of having MetS,” or metabolic syndrome. This condition includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, and abnormal cholesterol levels. The MRFs in this case were measurements of triglyceride, glucose, blood pressure, and HDL levels, as well as waist circumference.
Vegan Diet for Weight Loss
Ready to slim down in a natural and nutritious way? Consider going vegan. Of course, you’ll want to seek out the recommendation of a medical professional before diving in head first.
A study from the Arnold School of Public Health examined the effects of a vegan diet as compared to a plant-based diet and an omnivorous one. Individuals were randomly selected and assigned vegan, semi-vegetarian with occasional meat, pesco-vegetarian, vegetarian, and omnivorous diets to be studied over the course of six months.
When the trial ended, the vegan dieters lost the highest amount of weight. They lost an average of 4.3%, or 16.5 pounds.
One thing that’s important to note: the vegan diet was high in carbohydrates that rated low on the glycemic index, according to Gabrielle Turner-McGrievy, the lead author.
And that’s not the only proof that a vegan diet can aid in weight loss.
According to the Physicians Committee, “Observational studies have shown that vegetarians have a body weight that is, on average, 3 percent to 20 percent lower than that of meat eaters…the prevalence of obesity in vegetarian populations ranges from 0 percent to 6 percent. In general, vegans have a lower body mass index (BMI).”
However, similar to the gluten-free hype, vegan diets can create a false sense of “healthy.” Just because something is marked vegan does not automatically make it healthy.
Which means you can still gain weight following a vegan diet if you’re not careful about what you’re eating.
Downsides to a Vegan Diet
Let’s take a look at this list of vegan approved foods from the Huffington Post:
- Pillsbury crescent rolls
- Ritz crackers
- Kraft creamy Italian salad dressing
- Doritos (spicy sweet chili flavor)
- Unfrosted strawberry Poptarts
- Sara Lee frozen apple pie
- Boxed Krispy Kreme glazed apple pie
Not exactly a list I’d call healthy.
You can also find several vegan options in the frozen food section of your grocery store or down the prepackaged foods aisles. But watch out for the ingredients and make sure to pay attention to the nutrition labels. Just like non-vegan options, prepackaged foods are notorious for containing added preservatives and high amounts of sodium in an effort to preserve the food or make “healthy” foods taste more appealing.
This leads me to my first downside. Following a vegan diet may take some extra work. Since meats are off limit, getting your daily dose of essential vitamins and minerals is much harder as a vegan.
As always, the best way to get the full benefits of a vegan diet, or any healthy diet for that matter, is to stick to whole, unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits, and grains such as quinoa. Don’t forget that variety is important, too.
The second downside to a vegan lifestyle is the toll the diet takes on vegans’ mental health.
Unfortunately, the vegan diet is not for anyone with a history of depression or any similar mental disorders.
Psychiatrist Emily Deans of Psychology Today examined a German study of 4,000 participants to help understand this. In the study, individuals were divided into groups of completely vegetarian or predominantly vegetarian dieters and non-vegetarians. The vegetarian groups showed the highest prevalence for depressive disorders and anxiety disorders.
These results are still relevant despite the fact that they reflect a vegetarian diet and not a strictly vegan diet. In essence, those who abstained from meat were affected the most mentally.
Although the vegan diet piqued my curiosity, I recently found another way of eating that’s also just as interesting in the realm of alternative, healthy diets. This one combines the principles of Paleo with vegan undertones.
Introducing: the Pegan diet.
Pegan Diet, a Mix Between Paleo & Vegan
The latest hybrid diet coined by Dr. Mark Hyman combines an abundance of fruits and vegetables with small amounts of white meat, eggs, grains and nuts. It’s almost like picking the best foods from both Paleo and vegan worlds.
According to Dr. Hyman, a pegan diet works by overlapping the two diets in the following areas:
- Consuming an abundance of vegetables and fruits
- Avoiding processed foods and sugar / choosing low glycemic index foods
- No chemicals
- Protein consumption
- Organic, local ingredients
- Grass fed meats
- Quality fats
- Low mercury fish
The pegan diet claims that small amounts of beans, grains, and eggs are okay, which is contradictory to beliefs held by die-hard Paleo supporters.
Unfortunately, the pegan diet is so new that additional studies and research are still needed to prove its efficacy and safety. But the concept sure sounds promising.
Whether you decide to follow a vegan or a pegan diet, you should always consult your doctor first. You should also know a few other key points to remember when considering going vegan.
Going meat-less is a huge step and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Take your time to assess this new menu mentally before you jump in. For most of us, choosing to avoid meat is a radically different approach to how we decide our meals at home or at restaurants. You may be surprised to learn just how limited some of your favorite places actually are when you start picking apart the menu for healthy alternatives.
Here’s my suggestion: start out slow by choosing a few days a week to go completely meatless and see how you feel. I also recommend finding nutritious recipes online from other vegetarians or vegans who have been working out menu options to make sure they don’t miss out on essential vitamins and minerals their bodies need.
If you’re feeling pretty good after a few weeks you can slowly increase the number of consecutive meat-free days until you’re eventually off meat for good.
You may experience an initial sluggish or groggy period as you transition, but rest assured that your body just needs some time to get used to this huge dietary change. This is also why it’s important to check in with your doctor. Feeling too groggy and out of it all the time could be a red flag that you’re not getting adequate nutrition.
I can definitely see why people are drawn to the vegan lifestyle. With weight loss benefits, lower BMIs, and a 12% lower risk of death, it makes perfect sense.
Would I be able to do it?
I’d be more interested in seeing further scientific studies on the pegan diet since it seems like a nicer balance of vegan and Paleo options.
Do you think you could follow a vegan diet?