Following a plant-based or vegan diet is becoming an increasingly popular diet trend. But is it hype? Or are there health gains to be had?
Eating a vegan diet means giving up all animal products such as fish, eggs, dairy and meat. But going vegan isn’t just about diet - it can be a wider lifestyle commitment to support animal welfare and the environment.
What are the health benefits?
Choosing to eat a vegan diet has been shown to have a positive impact on health. The diet is generally rich in fruit and vegetables, and therefore vitamins and minerals, fibre and antioxidants1. By avoiding meat and dairy products, vegan diets are often lower in saturates so may have a beneficial effect on cholesterol2. Those eating a plant-based diet are also more likely to eat fewer calories than meat-eaters and have a reduced risk of coronary heart disease3.
Dr Ali Khavandi, Consultant Cardiologist at BMI Bath Clinic says, “There is a major burden of disease in the Western world but certain foods have protective effects. Adopting a vegan diet has a lot of positive health crossovers, and by definition will encourage you to eat more of these protective plant-based foods.”
He adds, “Eating a plant-based diet generally means you’re eating a diet that’s high in fibre compared the average modern day diet, which doesn’t tend to contain enough.”
Dr Ali Khavandi is a Consultant Interventional Cardiologist at the Royal United Hospital Bath NHS Foundation Trust and BMI Bath Clinic. He specialises in complex angioplasty and advanced rhythm device implantation. He is part of the Consultant team providing 24/7 emergency treatments for the regional heart attack service at the Bristol Heart Institute.
Additionally, he implants complex pacemakers and defibrillators at the Great Western Hospital in Swindon. He has a special interest in minimising pacemaker scars and the role of diet in cardiovascular conditions. This has lead to appearances on BBC Horizon and he currently writes on the subject of diet and health for the Observer, and on his own website, Cardiologist's Kitchen.
What issues are there with vegan diets?
Many people view veganism as a deprivation diet, fraught with pitfalls and getting caught out. It’s often associated with having much less choice, not getting enough protein, nutrient deficiencies, and difficulties eating out or on holiday. While it doesn't have to be difficult, it does demand careful planning to avoid the risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
“Vegans are more at risk of nutrient deficiencies and need to be more careful with their dietary patterns," says Dr Khavandi. "When you eat animal products, the animal has done the hard work on your behalf, and the dense nutrient profile has been built with relatively little work required from you to access this diverse range of nutrients.
“Eating animal-derived foods allows you to be a bit lazier, but vegans have to be much more conscious about what they’re eating,” he adds.
Nutrients to include
When planning your plant-based diet, be sure to include the following foods to avoid missing out on essential nutrients:
- Vitamin B12 – look for vitamin B12-fortified breakfast cereals, dairy alternative yogurts and milks, and yeast extracts4.
- Iron – Vegans can maintain their iron stores by eating pulses, fortified wholegrains, dried apricots and figs, and green leafy vegetables. Eating vitamin C containing foods at the same time helps with the absorption of iron – try adding peppers or drinking 150ml of orange juice with your meal5.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – the best source is oily fish, but vegans can find these essential fatty acids from some nuts, seeds and oils including flax, chia, walnuts and soybeans6. “Plant-derived omega-3 fatty acids can be converted into the kind we get from fish, but it’s an extremely inefficient process,” says Dr Khavandi.
- Protein – meat and fish are not the only sources of protein. Try tofu, pulses such as chickpeas and lentils, vegan Quorn and nuts7.
“There are several plant-based foods that are complete superstars for health, in particular their cardiovascular-protective properties, such as berries, green leafy vegetables and broccoli," says Dr Khavandi. "Legumes such as beans and lentils are phenomenal additions to the diet.
"Apart from having a really healthy nutritional profile, they’re a particularly good carbohydrate swap and a good natural alternative to refined carbohydrates, which can cause damaging peaks in blood sugars, leading to weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.”
How to maintain a successful vegan diet
Do your research - Knowing what you can and cannot eat is the first step. Luckily, a lot of what you eat may already be vegan. Read the Vegan Society’s website for more information.
Keep it simple - Stick to recipes that use everyday foods like vegetables, fruits and wholegrains. Try making a plant-based version of your favourite meal using meat alternatives or using lentils or chickpeas.
Be kind to yourself - Considering that kindness to animals is one of the core principles of being vegan, it would make no sense to put yourself under pressure all of the time. You may slip up, but nobody’s perfect. Remember, it may be the start of a much longer journey, so start slowly.
Ask for help - Adapting to a new diet can be daunting, but there is plenty of help and inspiration available. Our specially trained nurses can guide you on making healthy lifestyle choices, including dietary changes, to help you minimise your future health risks.
Make it a lifestyle choice, not a diet - “As with all diets, most people find it difficult to maintain restrictive eating habits that go against their natural eating habit,” says Dr Khavandi. “It has to be something you enjoy and part of your lifestyle. Think about the long-term rather than just the short-term.”
Read more from Dr Ali Khavandi at Cardiologist’s Kitchen
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