Fad or full of sense? Find out more about how veganism can help or hinder your weight-loss and health efforts….
I often get asked if going vegan is a good thing for weight loss, or health in general. Veganism used to be restricted to a small group of ‘animal activists’ and attracted more than its fair share of ridicule. It still does, by the uninformed few. And, vegans can sometimes fall into that category of ‘food warriors’ – those people who seem to define themselves by their perfect eating behaviour, of whatever sort, and try to convert everyone else too. They may have a point, but we don’t necessarily want that shoved down our throat when we would rather have a full-fat dairy yoghurt or a juicy steak, thanks very much! But it’s now becoming more mainstream. Why – and is that a good thing?
What is veganism?
Vegans exclude all animal products from their diet – meat, fish, eggs, dairy, honey etc – and often from their whole way of life too. Vegetarians, by contrast, may eat animal products like dairy and eggs but avoid meat and often fish. I’m not here to discuss the ethos – though if we examined the way many animals are treated for our benefit, we may well follow suit. Or at least, make more of an effort to choose properly reared meat, sustainably caught fish and free-range eggs, which we should be doing anyway for many reasons. Choosing smaller portions will reduce the impact on our wallets that responsible food production would otherwise incur. And much research shows that eating the amount of meat we do is unsustainable for the planet. Though there is research, too, showing that industrial scale farming practices – whether animal or plant-based – are far from satisfactory. If we were to revert to more traditional farming, where both livestock and plant-based foods are produced in a more balanced way, we could reduce environmental impact considerably.
But how does it affect us personally?
Veganism can be a really healthy form of eating if undertaken properly…and is certainly much more healthy than ‘junkfoodism!’
In fact, studies show that vegetarian (including vegan) populations tend to be a healthier weight and suffer less from diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and more – living longer as a result. Whether that is from avoiding animal products specifically, or having a generally healthier diet and lifestyle anyway, is difficult to be sure of, but good nutrition almost certainly plays a major role.
However, ‘going vegan’ as a quick weight-loss fad isn’t recommended as it needs care to ensure a fully balanced vegan diet if we want to avoid missing out on essentials like calcium, iron and B12. This is even more important for pregnant women or growing kids / teens. What’s more, useful nutrients like omega3 (which is essential for healthy brain function and may help our addictive tendencies) is easier to obtain from fatty fish than nuts, seeds and plants which contain a different form of omega 3. And, whilst meat provides complete protein, most plant sources of proteins are ‘incomplete’ meaning we need a bigger variety to get all the building blocks we need for our body to function properly. Finally, for any diet to produce long-term weight-loss or better health, it has to be sustainable…or you are at risk of giving up, demotivated and demoralised.
If you are contemplating a full-on vegan diet you should know that many foods that seem to be vegan may have tiny amounts of gelatine, dairy or other animal products hidden in them. As with all processed foods, read the label carefully – or better still avoid foods that need a long label! Instead, cook from scratch so you know exactly what you are getting. That makes sense for all sorts of reasons anyway. And avoid falling prey to unscrupulous processed food manufacturers who are jumping on the vegan bandwagon (in the same way as they did with low-fat or gluten-free) and cashing in on people who are prepared to pay more for these vegan-labelled processed foods which may not be any healthier at all. A big bag of greasy chips is vegan after all (unless cooked in beef fat!) but that doesn’t make it any better for you!
Also watch out for the fact that the delicious range of nuts, pulses, coconut and other foods that can feature heavily in a vegan diet may contain a lot of calories. They may be good calories, from foods full of nutrients, but can add up. Without the calories from dairy, fatty meats and more it is unlikely that they will cause you problems, but if you are struggling to lose weight, even on a vegan diet, do a quick calorie check and watch your portions.
So go vegan or not?
If you are confident you can live without scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, freshly cooked chicken curry, some delicious blue cheese or strawberries and cream (they’d be my downfall) then go for it – but for your health’ s sake, just make sure you do it carefully! And there’s nothing wrong with taking just a few vegan principles on board and cutting back on animal products for a day or two a week – bulk up instead on pulses, veg, nuts and more for a great health boost.