Benefits of a Vegan Diet

Benefits of a Vegan Diet
Five years ago, I accompanied a friend to Virginia. We were to spend the four days over Thanksgiving weekend visiting with her family. On our drive from Ohio, we traded stories about family traditions around the holidays. During our discussion, she informed me that this Thanksgiving may be a little different from those I had spent with my own family. A few years prior, her uncle had passed away from colon cancer at the age of thirty. It developed suddenly and took his life swiftly. The medical team had informed her family that the cause of developing such a severe cancer so early in life, was likely his diet. The diet in reference consisted mostly of red and processed meat with little else to supplement. The family responded to this loss by changing their own dietary habits. They became vegans and altering their lifestyle to one they assumed to be healthier. Ever since that trip, I’ve always wondered, how does eating a vegan diet really benefit the human body?

For some people, following a vegan diet is a moral choice. This often extends to lifestyle choices regarding clothing, makeup, furniture, and soaps alongside food consumption. Those that follow this lifestyle do so because they believe consuming animals as food or using them to produce consumer goods, immoral or environmentally unstable. For others, choosing to follow a vegan diet is about the potential health benefits that are associated with the strict nature of the diet itself. With careful consideration to meet nutritional requirements, following a vegan diet can help prevent diabetes and lower cholesterol. Additionally, the diet can improve immune cognitive, immune, and metabolic systems function while decreasing carcinogens within the body. 

In her Medical News Today article, author Jamie Smith lays out the ground rules when practicing this strict diet. Simply put, a vegan diet eliminates the consumption of any animal or animal-based foods (Smith). These consist of all meats, eggs, and cheeses made from animal milk. Some vegans even choose to exclude honey from their diet, for moral reasons, as the commercial harvesting of honey can harm bees.

Lacking any foods sourced from animals, vegans consume plant-based foods consisting of fruits, vegetables, seeds, grains, and legumes. Additionally, foods derived from fruits, vegetables, seeds, grains, or legumes are eaten. These would include breads, pastas, and even plant-based meat substitutes. Examining the nutrients found in these foods, as well as the nutrients absent in them, is fundamental in understanding the diet’s effect on the human body.

In a Healthline article, author Matthew Thorpe writes “research about fat is confusing.” Indeed, dietary fats come in many different forms. Saturated fats are more chemically stable, which is why they appear solid at cooler temperatures. These fats also come in a variety of forms, based on how many carbon atoms they contain. In Thorpe’s article “Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fats: What You Need to Know,” the author references a study of sixteen thousand European adults. The study found that consuming saturated fats with higher counts of carbon atoms was associated with lower instances of type two diabetes. These forms of saturated fats are found in nut and vegetable oils (Thorpe).

Equally as important are the odd versus even count of the carbon atoms found in these fats. Saturated fats with even carbon atom counts were found to be linked to higher occurrences of type two diabetes while an odd number of carbon atoms had the opposite effect. Foods containing even carbon atom counts include meat, dairy, palm oil, processed vegetable oil, coconut oil, and cocoa butter.

Vegetable oil falls under the standard for a vegan diet, however, processing vegetable oil with hydrogen causes it to change from an unsaturated fat to a saturated or “trans” fat. Accordingly, the human body digests it as such. The Journal of the American Heart Association points to studies that show a direct correlation with the consumption of trans fats and heart disease.  These processed vegetable oils are used in baking and to fry popular foods. Additionally, trans fat is found in small amounts, naturally, in meat and dairy products.

The Journal of the American Medical Association has found unsaturated fats linked with a lower risk for heart disease. Unsaturated fats have double chemical bonds. These bonds either occur by themselves, or monounsaturated, or in sets from two to six, polyunsaturated fats. Foods that are high in unsaturated fats include avocados, olive and unprocessed olive oils, nuts, seeds and seed oils, and unprocessed vegetable oils. Omega three fatty acids are a form of polyunsaturated fat and are most prevalent in seafoods. 

Having defined fats and the foods that contain the different types, how do they affect people consuming a vegan diet? Practicing vegan dietary habits would not eliminate trans fats. As previously stated, hydrogenated vegetable oil is considered to meet the standards of a vegan diet. The Journal of the American Medical Association recommends avoiding processed oils as they are associated with heart disease, stroke, type two diabetes, and higher levels of cholesterol. On the other hand, healthy saturated and unsaturated fats are staples in the vegan diets.  Nuts, avocados, and various seeds contain these fats. In Medical News Today Adam Fellmen states that fats are important for energy production, cellular insulation, and aid in the absorption of vitamins and minerals (Fellmen). So, following a vegan diet alone does not exclude unhealthy fats but does include the consumption of many essential fats, deemed to be healthy. 

Fiber stands up to the enzymes used in digestion. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine states that dietary fiber is only found in plant-based foods. Fiber comes in different forms, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and is found in oats, nuts, legumes, and some fruits. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, soluble fiber has been found to lower glucose and cholesterol levels (Harvard). These lowered levels are beneficial in preventing diabetes and heart disease. Insoluble fiber does dissolve in water and aids in digestion by assisting food to move through the digestive system. Foods that are high in insoluble fiber are wheat and whole grains as well as products derived from them. Additionally, legumes, vegetables such as carrots, and some fruits are high in insoluble fiber. 

The National Library of Medicine, in association with the National Institutes of Health, conducted a large-scale analysis of studies regarding the benefits of fiber in preventing colon cancer in citizens across Asia. When analyzing the studies, it was found that those with diets low in fiber consumption were at a greater risk for cancer developed in the colon. This is due to the natural aid in which fiber contributes to digestion. Foods with carcinogens, or elements known to cause cancer, move quicker through the digestive track as a result of fiber intake. This allows these carcinogens less time to absorb through the walls of the colon. Insoluble fiber, from whole grains, was found to be the most beneficial in assisting in this function of digestion (Nindrea).

As previously stated, fiber also plays a role in lowering blood sugar levels. Similar studies indicate that regular fiber intake slowed the absorption of sugar into the blood stream. Diabetes occurs when the level or glucose, or sugar, in the bloodstream is too high. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the human body produces insulin in the pancreas. Insulin allows the body to absorb glucose and process it, creating energy. Diabetes is, therefore, a disease in which your body either doesn’t produce enough insulin or cannot use it properly. Dietary fiber not only slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, but also keeps glucose levels even. This prevents blood sugar levels from becoming both too high and too low, important in preventing and maintaining diabetes (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases).

Now with fiber defined, along with its various health benefits, how does this play a role in a vegan diet? Simply put, fiber is a plant-based carbohydrate that cannot be broken down into sugar. It is only found naturally in plant-based foods which fall under the umbrella definition of a vegan diet. However, the diet would still need to be diverse in order to obtain both soluble and insoluble fiber and reap the benefits associated with them.

Like fiber, Cholesterol comes in two main types. Medlineplus.gov informs, cholesterol is produced by the liver and is fat like in substance. The main types of cholesterol are high-density lipoprotein and low-density lipoprotein. High-density lipoprotein is often referred to as good or healthy cholesterol. This form of cholesterol transports cholesterol from various parts of the body back to the liver. The liver then breaks it down and processes it out as waste (Medlineplus). 

Low-density lipoprotein, conversely, is related to the buildup of plaque in the arteries. When plaque builds up in the arteries it can break open, leading to a blood clot. Blood clots in the arteries restrict blood flow and in the arteries around the heart, this can lead to heart failures. In other parts of the body, plaque buildup in the arteries prevents blood that is rich in oxygen from flowing properly. Preventing the flow of blood to the brain can result in serious illness such as stroke. 

Higher levels of low-density lipoprotein can be caused by the consumption of foods high in unhealthy saturated fats. Not all saturated fats raise this form of cholesterol. The foods that are high in saturated fats which do cause higher rates of low-density lipoprotein are certain meats and most dairy products. Additionally, trans fats, such as vegetable oil processed with hydrogen, are known to increase low-density lipoprotein.

In contrast with fiber, cholesterol is only found in animal-based products and those vegetable fats which are highly processed. In fact, the Mayo Clinic staff indicates that fiber is beneficial in preventing high levels of low-density lipoprotein. In the intestines, fiber binds with this cholesterol and prevents it from being absorbed. Instead, it is processed as waste and removed from the body (Mayo Clinic).

So, fats and their relationship with cholesterol are closely linked. Regarding a vegan diet, saturated fats associated with animal-based products are eliminated. However, the processed vegetable oils or trans fats can still be consumed. Simply eliminating saturated fats from animals is not enough, as those trans fats are associated with higher levels of low-density lipoprotein.

One important aspect of the workings of the human body is proteins. Proteins are combinations of amino acids which your body breaks down for various purposes. The human body does not naturally manufacture amino acids, so they must be consumed. The European Food Information Council informs, amino acids are what give human cells their structure. These amino acids also assist in cell and tissue repair and growth. Therefore, the consumption of protein is vital to the function of the human body as a whole. 

Those foods which are highest in proteins are often in animal-based sources. The University of Michigan Health lists lean beef, turkey, chicken, certain fish, and cheeses as the highest in protein per weight. In fact, some studies indicate that people practicing a vegan diet may lack adequate protein intake required to meet dietary needs. Fruits and vegetables alone do not provide amounts of proteins sufficient to meet the body’s needs.

However, there are plant-based foods with similar levels of protein. Tofu or soy protein, black beans, almonds, and peanuts all have comparable levels of protein. Fruits and vegetables do not contain adequate protein on their own. As protein is a prevalent nutrient in animal-based foods, it can still be found in abundance through plant-based means. Eliminating animal proteins does not mean those practicing a vegan diet are completely forgoing protein intake. Instead, people practicing veganism would need to seek out plant-based proteins as consuming vegetables and fruits alone would not meet dietary requirements. Nuts, beans, and soy and pea proteins would need to be supplemented into the diet in order to fulfill dietary requirements.

Like proteins, the human body does not produce phytochemicals. Standfordhealthcare.org defines phytochemicals as those chemicals which are produced by plants and assist them against naturally occurring ailments. In humans, phytochemicals have been shown to ward off carcinogens and protect nutrients from being lost during digestion. Phytochemicals are often found in fruits and vegetables that share color characteristics. For example, carotenoids are found in fruits and vegetables that display colors of dark green, dark yellow, and orange.

In a scientific journal published through the Multidisciplinary Publishing Institute, researchers found a link between phytochemicals and health benefits. Some phytochemicals such as niacin, choline, and isoquercitrin provided benefits in heart health and cognitive and immune system functions. Relating the chemical makeup to the relationship with molecules within the human body, researchers found phytochemicals may be used to develop medicines helpful in preventing and treating disease in the future. 

Being phytochemicals are only found in plants or plant-based supplements and foods, their consumption falls in line with practicing a vegan diet. The Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center notes that carrots have over a hundred phytochemicals of their own. Following a vegan diet alone does not mean that a person would be consuming large amounts of beneficial phytochemicals. Instead, they would have to choose fruits and vegetables from a spectrum of colors. Phytochemicals are most abundant in those fruits and vegetables with deep colors and strong flavors.

Outside of the fats, fibers, proteins, and phytochemicals there lies vitamins and minerals. In Medical News Today, author Yvette Brazier states that the human body does not produce sufficient vitamin and mineral quantities on its own. Some vitamins, like vitamin D, cannot be found in substantial quantities from food alone. Instead, the human body synthesizes vitamin D from sunlight. For most vitamins, however, the consumption of food is the means by which the human body derives what it needs to maintain health.

Vitamins and minerals are organic in they are made of carbon, and they occur naturally in food. Vitamins can be either water soluble or fat soluble. Water soluble vitamins exit the human body through urine and are not present for long. This means humans need to regularly resupply water soluble vitamins into the body. Conversely, fat soluble vitamins remain in the body’s lipid reserves as well as the liver. As a result, they remain in the body for extended periods of time. Importantly, the body uses vitamins to perform functions such as producing enzymes to break down sugars, managing metabolic rate, cell growth, and maintaining neurological pathways.

A well-known representation of the importance of vitamins can be found in the stories of old sailors. They would often travel long distances without access to Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid. The deficiency of ascorbic acid caused a condition known as scurvy. The United Kingdom National Health Service describes the symptoms of scurvy such as bleeding gums, opening of old wounds, bruising, and severe pain in the joints. These symptoms, brought about from a simple deficiency in one vitamin, show the importance of vitamin consumption.

Similarly, minerals are classified as either major or trace. Harvard Health Publishing insists that major minerals are classified as such because higher amounts are detectable in the human body. Conversely, trace minerals are found in lower amounts. The University of Michigan health lists minerals as playing several important roles. For example, in bone and teeth health, nervous and immune systems function, and balancing fluids.

Mineral deficiency can have serious consequences for personal health. A deficiency of iron is one example. A condition known as low iron anemia is caused by inadequate iron consumption. With anemia, the body cannot produce enough red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout its tissues. This results in symptoms of headaches, fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath. Low iron anemia is common amongst those that practice a vegan diet. Most foods naturally rich in iron are animal-based. Additionally, most plant-based foods do not naturally contain the form of iron that is required to produce healthy red blood cells. Foods such as cereals and grains, however, can be fortified with iron. Therefore, to meet dietary requirements for iron, vegans would need to supplement the mineral or consume plant-based foods that have been fortified with it.

Together, minerals and vitamins are known as micronutrients. Harvard Health Publishing describes that these micronutrients can often act in assistance or detriment to one another. Some vitamins help the body absorb and use minerals without detrimental effects to the body itself. For instance, vitamin D helps in absorbing calcium as it is digested instead of extracting it from the human bone structure. On the other hand, some vitamins block the absorption of minerals. A high level of vitamin C and block the body from absorbing the important mineral copper. 

All foods, even “junk foods,” contain amounts of vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, Harvard Health Publishing insists that a broad balanced diet is the most efficient way of ensuring adequate vitamin and mineral intake. This includes lean meats, fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, seeds, fruits, and vegetables.  For example, the vitamin pantothenic acid is found in high amounts in lean meats, whole grains, avocados, and broccoli while riboflavin is prevalent in cheeses, asparagus, bananas, eggs, and fish (Harvard). 

Relating vitamins and minerals to a vegan diet is important nutritionally. Vitamin B12, for example, is found mostly in meat, eggs, fish, and dairy products. Similarly, iron is most readily found in red meats and is among the leaders in nutrient deficiencies. A German study published through the National Library of Medicine found there were little differences in vegans and non-vegans regarding levels of vitamin B12 (Weikert). This was despite vegans having little dietary intake of this vitamin, hinting that vitamin supplementation was a factor. Iron and vitamin B12 are examples of a possible nutrient deficiency in a vegan diet. While plant-based foods meet dietary needs for most other vitamins and minerals, they fall short regarding iron and vitamin B12. 

Merriam-Webster defines diet as habitual nourishment and habitual as inherent in an individual. Therefore, diet is a personal choice and can be made for several reasons. Social, ethical, and religious beliefs can all play a role in dietary choice and habits. Apart from these choices in diet, there is the food desert. The Annnie E. Casey foundation describes food deserts as geographic areas where access to fresh foods is limited. They are marked by their distance from stores and markets where they can acquire these foods. These areas are often high in poverty rates and home vacancies. Though diet is mostly associated with personal choice, there are instances when choices are restricted.

Outside of these areas, people are blessed with the choice as to the food they consume. As roughly three percent of Americans choose to follow a vegan diet, how does it affect their body? Although consuming unhealthy fats from meats is removed from the diet, consuming unhealthy processed fats is not. High intake of fiber, abundant only in plant foods, may reduce the risk of diabetes, lower cholesterol, and improve metabolism. However, most potato chips are vegan and do not contain sufficient fiber to offset their quantities of trans fats. Phytochemicals are found only in plants and plant foods, but they must be consumed in a variety to obtain their benefits. Vitamins and minerals are found in all foods yet lacking in certain aspects from even a well-rounded vegan diet without supplementation.

Overall, diet is a choice and choosing to follow a vegan diet can have many beneficial effects on the human body if done appropriately. More importantly, as Harvard Health Publishing states, is broad spectrum dietary habits. Reaping the benefits of a vegan diet would require eating in variety while abstaining from unhealthy yet vegan options. Nuts, legumes, seeds, vegetables, and fruits when consumed properly can lower cholesterol, reduce the risk for type two diabetes, improve immune system function, and allow for optimal cellular repair and function. Practiced without care, these benefits for the human body are irrelevant.

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