Pros and Cons of a Vegan Diet

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A vegan diet is a vegetarian eating style, but it's completely devoid of animal products, including eggs, honey, and dairy products. Some vegans choose the diet for health reasons, but others prefer it for ethical reasons, such as avoiding animal cruelty and consuming more sustainable foods.

While there are documented health benefits of a vegan diet, some find the lifestyle challenging to maintain. Consider each of the pros and cons of a vegan diet before you decide if it is the right program for you.

Pros

  • Evidence-based health benefits

  • Encourages mindful eating

  • Wider variety of foods

  • May lead to weight loss

  • Reduced food costs

  • Healthier for the environment

  • No animal impact

Cons

  • Limited food choices

  • Possible nutrient deficiencies

  • Requires diligence

  • Difficulty dining out

  • Unrealistic expectations

  • Social isolation

Pros

The reason (or reasons) that you choose a vegan eating plan will determine the benefits that are most relevant for you. But advantages to this lifestyle are substantial, regardless of whether you are choosing it for health, environmental, or ethical reasons.

Health Benefits

Since a vegan diet is plant-based, it's easier to load up on healthy whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables that many people on regular diets lack. Studies comparing different types of diets have found that vegan eating ranks highest for nutritional quality. A vegan diet is generally high in fiber, vitamin C, magnesium, iron, and folate and lower in calories and saturated fats.​

The nutritional quality of a vegan diet leads to more significant health benefits. Eating a diet rich in plant-based foods has been associated with a decreased risk of many chronic diseases. A large cohort study evaluated vegetarian and vegan diets. Researchers found that both groups experienced a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases, cardiometabolic risk factors, some cancers, and total mortality. Those who were vegan enjoyed those benefits along with a reduced risk of obesity, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular mortality.

Other studies have confirmed those findings and have also found that plant-based eating may be helpful in the treatment and management of high blood pressure, diverticular disease, and eye cataracts.

Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is a practice that involves paying more attention to our food and increasing sensual awareness and experience of a meal. It requires the eater to be focussed intentionally on eating behavior to enjoy the process of eating rather than any specific nutritional outcome (calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates). Mindful eating practices are associated with a healthier relationship with food and have been used in some weight-loss interventions.

Vegan eating and mindful eating are different. But because vegan eaters need to be careful and conscious about their food choices, certain mindful eating practices are built into their meal planning.

For example, if you consume a traditional American diet, it is easy to grab a meal on the go at a fast-food restaurant, convenience mart, or coffee shop. It is easy to consume the meal without being fully aware of the eating process (i.e.chewing, tasting, and feeling a sense of fullness). But on a vegan diet, you may have to plan meals in advance to find foods that you enjoy and that are compliant on the eating plan. Or you have may have to make careful selections in the moment. The choosing and planning process requires consideration, focus, and thoughtfulness about your food choices—critical components of mindful eating.

Wider Food Variety

An omnivore diet eliminates no foods. The standard American diet is an omnivore diet. But most people who consume a traditional diet eat a relatively limited number of foods or types of food. For instance, many traditional American dinners include meat, starch (potato or rice), and maybe a vegetable. Dairy products are often used as ingredients, side dishes, or toppings.

On a vegan diet, however, many traditional foods are not compliant. Therefore, when you begin this diet, you may have to get creative and experiment with foods that are not familiar.

But there is a caveat to this benefit. Many food manufacturers are creating plant-based versions of traditional favorites. For instance, most grocery stores carry vegan-friendly meatless burgers, processed chicken or turkey alternatives, and dairy-substitutes that are made from soy or other ingredients. Sometimes, these products are no healthier than their meat/dairy alternative, and relying on them can lead to the same limited food palate like a traditional American diet.

Possible Weight Loss

Studies have shown that you may lose weight on a vegan diet. Of course, just choosing to go vegan does not cause weight loss to occur. But when you adopt this lifestyle, you eliminate many foods that are high in fat and calories.

Plant-based eating is often associated with losing weight. In 2018, a limited 16-week clinical trial found that a vegan diet proved to be superior to a control diet (that included animal protein) in improving body weight and fat mass. And a broad evidence review published in 2017 found that plant-based diets are an effective tool in the management and prevention of overweight and obesity.

Even if you have problems staying on a weight loss plan, a vegan lifestyle might be the best choice. Studies have also shown that a vegan eating plan may be more effective for weight loss, even if you don't completely stick to the program.

Reduced Food Costs

Choosing a vegan diet may help you to reduce your food costs. But whether or not you gain this benefit depends on what you eat before adopting this eating style and what you choose to eat after.

There is no doubt that meat, seafood, and dairy products are expensive. Some convenience foods can also be pricey. When you remove these foods from your diet, you eliminate the substantial food costs that are associated with them.

Vegan friendly-grains and legumes are usually budget-friendly. And even though produce and vegan-friendly convenience foods can be expensive, they are likely to cost less overall than a diet rich in animal-based products.

Better for the Environment

Some people choose a vegan diet because they feel it is better for the planet. There is increased concern in the environmental community about the impact of livestock and livestock farming practices on the earth.

By comparison, the farming of vegan-friendly plants requires fewer resources (land and water) than the production of typical western foods such as meat, poultry, and dairy. And cows produce more greenhouses gasses (methane) than plants do, which leads some to believe that eating vegan helps to reduce the risk of global warming.

Several research studies have even suggested that a vegan diet is better for the planet than other diets, including the popular Mediterranean diet.

No Animal Impact

Because no animals are harmed or killed to produce vegan-friendly foods, many choose this diet because of concerns about animal cruelty.

One study showed that the most popular reason for choosing a vegan diet is to support the more humane treatment of animals. These vegans may also avoid clothing or other products that are made from animals, poultry, fish, or bees.

Interestingly, another research study published in the journal Appetite found that people who chose a vegan diet for ethical reasons were likely to stick to the diet longer than those who follow the program for other reasons. 

Cons

Even though a vegan diet may be healthier for you and the planet, this program doesn't work for everyone. Consider these drawbacks.

Limited Food Choices

The vegan diet is often referred to as the most restrictive version of a plant-based diet. Certainly, if you adopt this eating plan, and you currently eat a standard American diet, you can expect to eliminate most foods from your typical weekly menu. For some people, that level of restriction is too severe.

To get a greater sense of the scope of the restriction, remember that not only are animal products eliminated, but any food or product that contains an animal by-product is eliminated. Many of our most traditional home recipes, groceries, and restaurant foods contain at least one animal by-product.

Of course, many vegans will tell you that there is a wealth of food variety in this diet. But because it varies substantially from what you might be used to eating, you may find it to be limiting at first.

Possible Nutritional Deficiencies

A vegan diet can be healthy, but there are a few potential nutritional deficiencies that need to be addressed. Researchers have found that vegan diets are generally lacking in calcium, required for bone formation, muscle contraction, and other essential functions. Vegans can increase their intake by eating calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, pulses, sesame seeds, and some dried fruits.

Vitamin B-12, or cobalamin, is another nutrient that may be lacking because it's found primarily in foods of animal origin. Vitamin B-12 is needed for healthy nerve function and blood cell production. A deficiency can lead to a condition called pernicious anemia. Although some seaweed, mushrooms, and fermented foods can be a useful source of this essential B-complex vitamin, researchers have found that supplementation may be needed for people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Protein can be another issue, but it's one that is easily solved. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids that your body needs to maintain organs and muscles and important functions. Essential amino acids are those that your body does not make so you need to get them from the foods you eat.

While animal proteins contain all of the essential amino acids, plant proteins are usually missing one or more of those amino acids. So, it's crucial to eat a variety of protein sources to ensure you get all those amino acids you need.

Vegan diets can also be low in vitamin D, though to be fair, so are other diets since most of your vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight. Two excellent vegan sources of vitamin D include maitake mushrooms and portobello mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light. Otherwise, a dietary supplement or fortified nut milks will help you get enough vitamin D during the winter months.

Lastly, a vegan diet is also deficient in two omega-3 fatty acids called eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid that your body needs for a healthy heart and eyes and brain function. But, as long as you eat plenty of soy, pumpkin, flax, or chia seeds, you'll get enough of an omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid, which your body converts to the other two forms. If you're pregnant, however, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider to make sure you get enough omega-3s during your pregnancy.

Requires Diligence

Those who follow a vegan diet will need to become accustomed to carefully reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists, especially they choose to consume processed foods. Foods that you might assume to be free from animal by-products may contain gelatin, whey, casein, honey, or other foods that are non-compliant on a vegan diet.

You'll also need to carefully read nutrition labels to stay healthy on a vegan diet. It is important to choose foods that contain important vitamins and minerals to avoid nutritional deficiencies.

Difficulty Dining Out

When shopping for vegan-friendly food, consumers can read product information. But if you eat at someone's home or in a restaurant, you don't have access to an ingredient list. For this reason, dining out can be a challenge for those who choose a vegan diet.

A few restaurants make a note of vegan or vegetarian foods on their menus, but not many. You may be able to create a vegan meal from the salads or side dishes that they already serve. However, you'll need to ask to be sure that no animal products are used in the preparation.

And sometimes, even asking about food isn't helpful. It is not uncommon for well-meaning restaurant staff (or well-intentioned friends and family) to assume that plant-based foods are vegan if they don't contain dairy. But that isn't always the case. Vegetable soup, for example, might be made with broth that used an animal bone for flavoring.

Many vegan experts recommend that when dining at someone's home, bring a recipe that you can enjoy and that you can share with others. And choose restaurants that you know to be vegan-savvy.

Unrealistic Expectations

While consuming a vegan diet is likely to produce health benefits and a healthier weight, it is not a guarantee. For example, if you are trying to slim down, you still need to be mindful of the foods you choose and the amount you eat.

There is an increasing number of heavily processed vegan foods. Many times, these foods are just as unhealthy—containing more fat and calories—as their traditional counterparts.

And health benefits are not a slam dunk either. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology compared a large number of women who ate a healthy vegan diet (including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, oils, tea and coffee) to those who ate a less healthy vegan food (including juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes, fries, and sweets). Researchers concluded that the healthier vegan diet resulted in a substantially lower risk for heart disease, whereas the less healthy vegan diet was associated with a higher risk. 

Social Isolation

People's food choices often come under scrutiny from friends, family, coworkers, and other acquaintances. You may find that you are questioned and challenged about your reasons for choosing this lifestyle. Additionally, those who don't know how to accommodate your diet may exclude you from social gatherings. Or worse, they may invite you and encourage you to eat foods that are not vegan-friendly.

Some vegan blogs address these issues and provide guidance for those adapting to the eating style. Experts advise that you reach out to other vegans in your community and build a network, while also being patient with those who don't understand your choices.

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