Monday, December 8, 2014

To vegetarian or not to vegetarian, to vegan or not to vegan………

Have you ever contemplated a switch-over to a vegetarian or vegan diet? Are you already following a vegetarian or vegan diet? Do you wonder what the differences are and the pros and cons of each? In this post I describe some of the differences between these types of diets. Hopefully this may shed some light on the subject for you too.

So why would one prefer to go the vegetarian or vegan route? Probably, the most obvious reason is to stop the killing and slaughter of animals for consumer products and food. But morality and ethics aside, vegetarian and vegan diets are in general less expensive than a diet in which meats are included, generally lower in saturated fats (the bad kind of fats) and higher in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. There are also some great health benefits to be derived from a vegetarian or vegan diet. These benefits include:

1. Lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and lower risk of heart disease
2. Lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes
3. Lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease
4. Lower risk of obesity and obesity related diseases
5. Lower risk of liver, colon and lung cancer
6. People on vegan or vegetarian diets are generally in better moods, suffer less from depression and anxiety, live longer and are overall happier, healthier people.

There are a number of different types of vegetarianism depending on the preferences of each diet. Lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, for instance, includes the consumption of dairy and eggs and lacto-vegetarianism only the consumption of dairy. Then you get the vegan guys who do not consume or use any animal products whatsoever. Still more types of vegetarianism and veganism exist, all of which revolve more or less around the same concept, the exclusion of meats or animal products from their diets and their lives.

For the human body to survive and thrive, we need a balanced diet which contains the macro-nutrient elements, protein, carbohydrates, fats and water and micro-nutrient elements which include a whole range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. For vegetarians and vegans, adequate protein intake will be a concern, as their diets may be lacking in protein and essential amino acids for optimal health. But, while there is concern for protein intake, daily needs for most people may be met by careful planning and execution.

Why is protein so important for optimal body function? Proteins are the building blocks of our muscles, organs and other tissues of the body. It also plays a role in the maintenance of our bones. Without adequate protein intake, we would lose muscle mass and also the ability of our muscles and organs to contract and move.

What then can vegetarian and vegan dieters do to ensure adequate protein intake? There are a number of essential amino acids that we need every day for optimal function. These essential amino acids cannot be manufactured by our own bodies and therefore we need to consume them in order to stay healthy. Meats and other animal products easily provide all the essential amino acids we need. Thus, for lacto and lacto-ovo vegetarians, dairy products and eggs will be more than sufficient to cover their protein needs. But for vegans (and vegetarians also) enough protein may be obtained from foods like legumes, lentils, soy products, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

Vegans, must also ensure that they eat a variety of protein foods and enough of it during the day in order to get all the essential amino acids they need. One good way for vegans to obtain enough essential amino acids is to combine different plant food sources like brown rice and beans or lentils, or perhaps hummus and whole wheat pita.

Another concern about vegetarian and vegan diets are that they are particularly poor in vitamin B12, calcium and iron, all very essential minerals and vitamins for optimal health.

Calcium is important for strong bones and teeth. Strong bones keep you upright and improves your posture and good healthy teeth gives you a bright smile. Both posture and a great smile will earn you tons of respect and popularity and open many doors for you as you progress through life. Calcium also plays a role in muscular contractions and it is a vital micro-nutrient for the prevention of osteoporosis and deformation of our bones and skeletons.

A normal healthy functioning human being needs approximately 1200 milligrams of calcium per day. Vegetarians may ensure that they get enough calcium by consuming dairy products like milk and cheese. Both vegans and vegetarians can also get their calcium from dark green vegetables, such as turnip and collard greens, kale and broccoli. Vegans should especially eat generous amounts of these foods to ensure adequate calcium intake. Calcium may also be obtained from calcium-fortified foods and foods like soy milk, soy yoghurt and tofu or from non-animal derived calcium supplements, if that’s allowed in your diet.

Vitamin B12 is very important for human body function because it is necessary to produce red blood cells and is involved in the entire lifecycle of a blood cell. Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to anemia and central nervous system damage, the symptoms of which include sluggishness and weakness. The problem with vit B12 is that it’s almost exclusively found in animal products. This makes it very difficult for vegans to ensure adequate vit B12 intake. It is therefore recommended that vegans supplement their diets with non-animal derived vit B12 supplements. Vegetarians, although having more options as to animal foods, will also benefit from a great vit B12 supplement.

Iron, the other concern for vegans and vegetarians is an important component of hemoglobin and myoglobin (read blood) and therefore plays a crucial role in oxygen transport throughout the body. It is also an important active part of enzymes which play a role in cell respiration. Iron deficiency can lead to anemia as well. What makes iron intake difficult is that the bio-availability of iron in vegan and vegetarian foods is low. So while both vegans, vegetarians and non-vegan/vegetarian dieters consume roughly the same amount of iron, less of it is absorbed from vegan/vegetarian foods.

Vegans and vegetarians therefore need to ensure that they eat larger amounts of the following foods for enough iron: dried beans and peas, lentils, enriched cereals, whole-grain products, dark leafy green vegetables and dried fruit. Iron absorption can also be improved by ingesting foods and drinks rich in vitamin C while eating iron rich foods. Foods high in vit C include: strawberries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, cabbage and broccoli.

Apart from these very important minerals and vitamins, vegans and vegetarians need to make sure that they use enough iodized salt on their food to ensure adequate iodine intake and ingest enough food to ensure omega-3 fatty acid intake, vitamin D intake and zinc. Iodine deficiency weakens the thyroid system which slows down metabolism and may lead to a goiter. Iodine, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D may be obtained from soy milk, rice milk, cereals, whole grains, nuts, seeds, wheat germ and a healthy amount of sunshine.

From the above it is clear that, although lacking in some departments, a vegan or vegetarian diet is definitely doable and may be a very healthy option for those looking to lose weight.

The question now becomes, how can one go about planning a vegan or vegetarian diet? For vegetarians planning a diet will be easy. They have more options when it comes to protein and the essential minerals and vitamins the body needs. All they need to do is to ensure adequate portions of protein, vegetables and fats on their plates with every meal, and they're set.

Vegans, on the other hand, must use a little bit more cunning in their planning and construct their meals so as to include different varieties of foods. A vegan wanting to include enough protein in his/her meal must for instance look to combining different foods to ensure adequate protein and carbohydrate intake. For instance, a good meal for a vegan person would include a mixture of brown rice, lentils, chickpeas, broccoli and some nuts and seeds. All of these together may deliver the protein, carbs and fats your body needs for optimal function and health. 

If you want to see how my wife and I constructed meals for adequate nutrient intake, keep following this post for a weekly update of our month long vegan experiment. Yes that's right, as soon as we learned about the benefits of a vegan diet, we took up the challenge and decided to follow our very own vegan diet for one month. If you’d like to see how we did it and what benefits we got from following a vegan eating plan follow this blog for regular updates. You can see feedback from the first week of our vegan experiment here. We have never before attempted a vegan diet and thus are vegan-virgins as it were. Those of you who follow a vegan diet or have been following for quite some time could give a comment and perhaps a tip or two on our vegan experiment.

Find an update of Week 1 here. Weeks 2 and 3 here and here. And week 4's update can be found here.

For now, I hope that this post could help you to find out more information on the different types of diets as well as the pros and cons of some of them.

Until next time friends, STAY TRUE AND TRAIN HARD!

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