Vegan: Healthy or Crazy?
by Caitlin Reyda
When I first met my college roommate, I was confident that we would get along well together. We had the same freshman worries about failing classes, the same opinions on how to organize and decorate the room, and the same desire to attempt the impossible—maintaining a social life without ignoring our classes. Kelly was just like any of my friends at home. She was friendly and easy to talk with. She liked to shop but would not spend more than fifteen minutes getting ready in the morning. And then I found out she was a vegan.
I have nothing against people who choose to avoid meat or even all animal products. In fact, I admire their self-discipline. They have to go out of their way to pick solely plant-based foods rather than choosing the convenience of an omnivore diet. The news simply came as a surprise to me. Would we be able to cook together? I was not willing to make the switch myself. I am far too fond of yogurt, cheese, and the occasional hamburger. Most of all, I wondered if what she was doing was right for her body. Is the vegan diet healthy?
Creating the Vegan
Vegetarianism has been around since at least the sixth century B.C. when the Greek mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras, founded a society for the study of math and science. His organization served as a precursor to the modern university. But in addition to promising hard work and the pursuit of wisdom, students were "required to take a vow pledging that they would abstain from the eating of animal flesh," according to Ryan Berry (578). Those who chose to follow this diet became known as Pythagoreans, and it was not until the nineteenth century that the term "vegetarian" circulated.
Although not uncommon, vegetarianism was not widely advertised in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since meat was a luxury item in most countries, many families survived without it and opted for the cheaper grains. Even now, a "vast majority of the world's population [exists] on a near-vegetarian diet… though not necessarily by choice," says scholar Myrna Goldstein (47).
In 1906, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle stirred the country and turned many people, including himself, into vegetarians (Berry 580). The muckraking book revealed the horrors of the American meatpacking industry prior to federal regulations. The sheer thoughts of ground humans and diced rats mixed in with tomorrow's stew meat were enough to convince former meat-lovers to pick up extra cabbage and potatoes on their next trip to the market.
The increased support for vegetarian diets in our society has paved the way for a whole new generation of vegetarians. New varieties of plant-based products found their way onto the grocery store shelves in the past decade.
Several decades later, when people were beginning to forget the graphic scenes described in Sinclair's book, the country was motivated once more towards following a flesh-free diet. In the late 1960s, vegetarianism spread due to the impact of Asian religions in America (Berry 581). These religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, stress nonviolence and prohibit killing. They also endorse purity of the mind and promote eating only high-quality foods, which they believe to be connected to personality and mood.
Vegetarianism in the United States really began to pick up with the establishment of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM) organizations in the 1980s. PETA has more than 1.8 million members and supporters and is now the largest animal rights group in the world (PETA, par.1). Similarly, FARM is a nonprofit organization that promotes plant based diets in order to protect farmed animals, the environment, and our health.
The increased support for vegetarian diets in our society has paved the way for a whole new generation of vegetarians. New varieties of plant-based products found their way onto the grocery store shelves in the past decade. Today, you can find soymilk and soy cheese in every major supermarket along with soy hotdogs, soy burgers, soy ice creams. There are frankfurters, cutlets, and patties made from fungus, fake bacon, and Tofurky for Thanksgiving. Fast food restaurants now offer vegetarian-friendly options, and you can ask for soymilk with your coffee at Starbucks. Each added convenience makes the transition from omnivore to herbivore a little bit easier and the diet a little more popular. Among younger generations of Americans "it is very much in vogue to be vegetarian, if not vegan" (Berry 578).
Vegetarianism today is defined as the practice of following any diet that excludes meat. It can be broken down into several subcategories based on the strictness of the diet, which depends on your personal motivation for becoming vegetarian, whether it is out of compassion for animals and the environment or out of concern for their health and well-being. A lacto-ovo-vegetarian eats eggs and dairy products, but excludes meat, poultry and fish. A lacto-vegetarian eats dairy products, but excludes meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. And a pure vegetarian, or vegan, excludes animal products entirely (McNutt 205).
Vegans also choose to avoid wool, leather and all products that are derived from animals. This, they believe, is the only lifestyle that protests the inhumane treatment of animals and the environmental damage from the meat industry. For example, Goldstein describes how laying hens live in cages that are stacked in rows on top of one another, restricting movement and leading to muscles that cannot develop properly. These chickens are often debeaked to prevent them from pecking each other to death. Goldstein also explains how "painful mutilation… impairs the hens' ability to eat normally and to preen," or practice bodily hygiene (56). Factory farming also contributes to water contamination because a great amount of animal excrement is released into rivers (Goldstein 55). According to the PETA website, animals raised solely for their furs or hides such as raccoons, minks, and cows are kept in tiny cages to protect them from scratches that could damage their worth. Then they are killed by electrocution which causes a heart attack, yet keeps the skins in good condition.
With more dietary restrictions, there is a greater chance for a nutritional deficiency. Eliminating meat for a vegetarian diet eliminates a source of many essential nutrients. Eliminating eggs and dairy in addition to meat for the vegan diet makes it even more difficult to find alternate nutritional sources.
Whenever my roommate mentions that she is a vegan, someone will ask, "How do you get your protein?" A common concern for vegetarians is getting sufficient protein in their diet. This idea traces back to the 1930s when nutritionists believed in high-protein diets. Since then, researchers have discovered that we do not need as much protein as we would expect. With enough calories, "even a diet consisting exclusively of bread, pasta, rice, or potatoes will provide adequate protein," say authors Peter Singer and Jim Mason (227). In fact, protein intakes for vegan children are found to be equivalent to non-vegans and higher than the standard, according to scholars Ann Mangels and Virginia Messina (662). Protein is readily found in soy products, grain, nuts, beans, and seeds. However, there is less protein in vegetable products compared to animal products, so vegetarians must compensate by eating more. This means that they must be careful not to eat empty calories, or low nutrient foods, or they will exceed their recommended daily energy intake (McNutt 215).
Whenever my roommate mentions that she is a vegan, someone will ask, "How do you get your protein?"
The only nutrient that exists solely in animal products is vitamin B-12 (Singer and Mason 228). While lacto-ovo-vegetarians can eliminate this problem by drinking three glasses of milk or eating three eggs per day, vegans must turn to other possibilities to insure that their needs are met. B-12 is needed for normal cell activity including DNA replication and red blood cell production, and the nerve damage that can be caused by a B-12 deficiency is most common in vegans (McNutt 217). Vitamin B-12 supplement pills are available as well as B-12 fortified cereals. This means that it is not recommended to pursue a vegan diet in rural areas where B-12 supplements are not easily accessible (Singer and Mason 228).
Another difficulty for vegans, unlike lacto-vegetarians, is the elimination of milk, yogurt, and cheese from their diet. Dairy products are an excellent source for both vitamin D and calcium. Because we need more vitamin D than the sun can provide, additional supplements or vitamin D fortified products are needed to make up for vegans' lack of animal milk (Mangels and Messina 663). Calcium, on the other hand, is common in vegetables such as broccoli, kale, and collard greens. However, studies show that vegan children still lack the recommended amount and should take calcium fortified foods to prevent bone fracture (Mangels and Messina 663).
Those who follow both plant-based and regular diets have trouble balancing iron intake. Although vegan children show no more iron deficiency than average children, nonheme iron, found in plants, is not absorbed as well by the human body as the iron found in meat (Mangels and Messina 664). Vitamin C and various organic acids increase the amount of iron absorbed while a substance called phytate in legumes, soy products, coffee, and grains inhibit absorption of iron (Singer and Mason 228). A German study conducted in 2003 found that a sample of vegan women had an average iron intake higher than the standard, but forty percent were still considered iron deficient. Those who are not getting enough iron are at risk of anemia, while those who are getting too much iron are at risk of cancer or coronary heart disease. The researchers also found that vegans receive most of their iron from vegetables, fruits, and cereals rather than nuts and soy.
All diets also find it difficult to balance the intake of zinc. Again, phytate in whole grains and legumes inhibits zinc absorption and prevents these from being good sources for vegetarians and vegans. However, tempeh and fermented soybeans have been shown to increase levels of zinc absorption (Mangels and Messina 664). The consequences of zinc deficiency are not known for sure, but Goldstein says that "inadequate amounts may cause delays in cognitive development," and "poor appetite and slowing of growth are the most evident clinical signs of zinc deficiency in children" (53). However, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Dietetic Association both confirm that a well-planned vegan diet promotes normal infant growth (Singer and Mason 224).
The plant-based diet is well known for being low in fat and low in cholesterol. The vegan diet has even less fat and cholesterol because it eliminates eggs and dairy. It includes more carbohydrates from grains and vegetables than lipids. Although it is possible for vegetarians to have the same fat intake as non-vegetarians by using nuts, seeds, salad dressing, fried vegetables, and margarine to replace meat, they typically ingest the "better" fats. The fat found in avocadoes, nuts, and olive oil are predominantly monounsaturated fats while the fat found in meat, eggs, milk, and butter are predominantly saturated fats (Margolius 69). Monounsaturated fats have the least effect on raising cholesterol. Since cholesterol is found only in animal products, vegans have an extremely low cholesterol intake. According to the Physician Committee for Responsible Medicine, the vegetarian diet "lowers blood pressure even for those people who are prone to high blood pressure," lowers cholesterol levels, and lowers the risk for some cancers. It has also led to body-mass indexes that are twenty to fifty percent less than average (Goldstein 46).
However, according to Mangels and Messina, it is possible that vegetarians are receiving too much of one kind of fat—the omega-6 fatty acid—and too little omega-3. The omega-3 fats, docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentanoic acid (EPA), are commonly found in fish and flax seed and lead to the healthy development of the brain. The omega-3 fatty acid linolenic acid can also be converted to DHA and EPA, but the efficiency of the process is reduced when the intake of the omega-6 fatty acid linoleic acid is too high. Canola oil and walnuts have more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3, while dark green leafy vegetables have more omega-3 fatty acids than omega-6 (Mangels and Messina 665).
Another characteristic of a meat-free diet is the abundance of fiber. Fiber intakes of those on the vegan diet easily exceed the recommended amounts, and no studies have been conducted to show that there are any disadvantages to these higher intakes (McNutt 213). The only problem with a high-fiber diet is a premature feeling of fullness. While this is an effective method for those who are trying to lose weight by cutting back on calories, it could lead to a lack of nutrition for children. This can be prevented by adding lower-fiber foods such as refined grains and peeled fruits and vegetables to the diet (Mangels and Messina 665).
Non-butter butter, cheese-less cheese, and egg-free eggs—our grocery shelves are loaded with items that are made to look and taste like meat and dairy products without actually coming from animals. These vegetarian- and vegan-friendly options have thrived in a country where more and more people turn to plant-based diets each year. Despite the fancy labels and the technology needed to create dairy alternatives, the substitutes are often less expensive than the originals because the ingredients needed to make them are cheaper. But what exactly is found in these dairy substitutes?
Marion Nestle takes a closer look at margarine, the common butter substitute. Smart Balance claims to "help promote healthy cholesterol balance," while Take Control claims to "significantly lower cholesterol." Major brand name or generic, margarines are all made of soybean oil and additives (Nestle 110). The soybean oil is in liquid form, so it must be hydrogenated in order to solidify it into "butter." Hydrogenation is a process that adds hydrogen to the oil which increases saturated fatty acids and raises cholesterol levels and increases the risk of heart disease (Nestle 111). Soy oil does not have the same taste as butter, so artificial flavorings must be added. There are healthier versions of margarine that are free of trans fat, low in calories, or have extra calcium and vitamin E, but they come at a higher price.
Health: It's up to You
According to the American Meat Institute Foundation, meat consumption is increasing in the United States. Consumption in 1997 was 224 pounds per person compared to 198 pounds in 1976 (Goldstein 43). This is likely due to the increased availability of meat following the rise of fast food restaurants, says Goldstein. Approximately one to three percent of American adults have chosen a plant-based diet, a third of which are designated vegans, and the numbers are growing (Goldstein 45). But can the vegan diet be considered healthy?
Often times, vegans will end up eating potato chips and soda to avoid animal products, especially at parties where food selection is limited. They think that cutting out meat and dairy enables them to overindulge in other foods.
It is already apparent that vegans have a low-fat, low cholesterol, and high fiber diet, leading to lower risks of cancer and heart disease. High levels of vitamins from a large variety of fruits and vegetables result in better immunity from sickness, and fewer vegans are considered obese, a major contributor to increased health problems (Goldstein 50).
Another benefit of choosing a vegan diet is an increased awareness of food intake; it heightens awareness of the effect that foods have on the body's health. By keeping track of food ingredients, you are much more likely to avoid the oil rich salad dressing and opt for a lower calorie vinaigrette dressing. It forces you to be conscious of your meals rather than allowing you to mindlessly eat anything available.
Vegans have to be much more careful about getting the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin B-12, which is not found naturally in substantial quantities in plant-based foods. Often times, vegans will end up eating potato chips and soda to avoid animal products, especially at parties where food selection is limited. They think that cutting out meat and dairy enables them to overindulge in other foods. But these junk foods lack important nutrients that a non-vegetarian would be able to get from meat and dairy foods.
Essentially, the vegan diet has the potential for being both healthy and harmful. It is low in fat, high in fiber, and causes dieters to make conscious decisions about their food intake. In the wrong hands, a vegan diet could potentially be dangerous. Not knowing which extra supplements to take could lead to malnutrition, especially in growing children, adolescents, and pregnant women. Luckily, improved technology has enable researchers to determine recommended levels of nutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin B-12. While the vegan diet would be difficult in rural areas where there is less access to protein alternatives and dietary supplements, it is very possible to switch to the vegan diet in a developed country and still be considered healthy.
After living with Kelly for four months, I realized that her diet is not all that different from mine. Sometimes I will even forget that she does not eat animal products. She keeps a carton of soymilk in the refrigerator for her cereal and coffee, while I keep a carton of regular milk. We both eat plenty of salads and take lots of veggie snack breaks. For our first meal, we cooked pasta with tomato sauce and extra mushrooms, and I was able to add parmesan cheese to my own bowl. For the next few weeks, we cooked stir-fry after stir-fry with different combinations of fresh and frozen vegetables. Now, I even prefer eating tofu over chicken in order to avoid the mess that comes with handling raw meat. While I am still not considering giving up my omnivore diet, living with Kelly has helped me appreciate the health benefits of a plant-heavy diet. Best of all, it has insured that I am still getting my daily servings of vegetables even though I am living away from home.
- Works Cited
- Berry, Rynn. "Vegetarianism." The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. 2004 ed. 578-586.
- Goldstein, Myrna Chandler. Controversies in Food and Nutrition. Westport, Conn. Greenwood Press, 2002: 43-64.
- Hahn, Andreas, and Claus Leitzmann, Jochen W. Koschizke, Annika Waldmann. "Dietary Iron Intake and Iron Status of German Female Vegans: Results of the German Vegan Study." Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism 48.2, 2004: 103-8.
- Johansson, Gunnar K., and Christel L. Larsson. "Dietary Intake and Nutritional Status of Young Vegans and Omnivores in Sweden." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 76.1, 2002: 100-106.
- Mangels, Ann Reed, and Virginia Messina. "Considerations in planning vegan diets: Children." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 101.6, 2001: 661-9.
- Margolius, Sidney. Health Foods: Facts and Fakes. New York. Walker and Company, 1973. 55-64.
- McNutt, David R. and Kristen W. Nutrition and Food Choices. Chicago. Science Research Associates, 1978. 205-218.
- Newby, P.K., and Katherine L Tucker, Alicja Wolk. "Risk of Overweight and Obesity Among Semivegetarian, Lactovegetarian, and Vegan Women." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81.6, 2005: 1267-1274.
- PETA. Path: About PETA.
- Singer, Peter and Jim Mason. The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter. New York. Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2006.