January is Veganuary month. Veganuary is a UK non-profit organization that promotes veganism by encouraging people to follow a vegan lifestyle for the month of January. It started in 2014 and has grown rapidly since then, with over 450k people taking part worldwide in 2020. Veganuary offer daily email support to participants, helping them to successfully complete a vegan month. The Vegan Society became an official Veganuary partner in 2020 and is partnering with them again for the 2021 campaign.
To be vegan you really need to omit all animal products and not just those in your food. Veganuary focuses on changing people’s diets, allowing participants to move onto avoiding animal products in other lifestyle products more gradually.
What do vegans eat?
Although the diet does centre around plant-based foods, and for optimum health you should still try to eat a good portion of fruits and veggies, there are now thousands of alternative vegan versions of animal products, including cheese, meat, and milk, meaning that vegans can continue to eat all the things they love such as pizza and ice-cream without eating animal products. Many restaurants now offer exclusive vegan menus meaning that you don’t need to sacrifice taste or experience to follow a vegan diet.
Why try Veganuary Month or consider going vegan?
People try going vegan for Veganuary Month for a number of reasons but the three most common, as stated by the founders of the event themselves, are:
1. To improve their energy levels and personal health. We all know that we should be eating more fruit and veg and perhaps the easiest way to ensure we do so is by giving up animal products and replacing them with plant-power. Even highly processed vegan alternatives to cheese and meat are often lower in saturated fat and other nasties and people tend to feel better almost immediately.
2. For the animals and their welfare. Veganism is undeniably the most animal-friendly and ethical way to live and many people choose to go vegan purely for animal rights reasons.
3. To help the environment. Finally, the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment are now widely understood and so for those looking to reduce their carbon footprint, veganism is the way to go.
Although these are the three most common reasons why people choose to celebrate Veganuary Month, there are many other reasons to give the month a try, including to help you lose weight, to detox from all the food you ate over the holidays, and to ward off diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
What are the health benefits?
1. Better heart health.
Vegan diets can boost your heart health in several ways.
A large scale 2019 study has linked a higher intake of plant-based foods and lower intake of animal foods with a reduced risk of heart disease and death in adults. Animal products are the main dietary sources of saturated fats. Eating foods that contain these fats raises cholesterol levels, and high levels of cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Plant foods are also high in fibre, which the AHA link with better heart health. Animal products contain very little or no fibre, while plant-based vegetables and grains are the best sources. Also, people on a vegan diet often take in fewer calories than those on a standard Western diet. A moderate calorie intake can lead to a lower body mass index (BMI) and a reduced risk of obesity, a major risk factor for heart disease.
2. Lower cancer risk
According to a 2017 review, eating a vegan diet may reduce a person’s risk of cancer by 15%. This health benefit may be due to the fact that plant foods are high in fibre, vitamins, and phytochemicals (biologically active compounds in plants) that protect against cancers.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer report that red meat is “probably carcinogenic,” noting that research has linked it primarily to colorectal cancer, but also to prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer. The agency also report that processed meat is carcinogenic and may cause colorectal cancer. Therefore eliminating red and processed meats from the diet removes these possible risks.
3. Weight loss
People on a vegan diet tend to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those following other diets. The researchers behind a 2015 study reported that vegan diets were more effective for weight loss than omnivorous, semi-vegetarian, and pesco-vegetarian diets, as well as being better for providing macronutrients. Many animal foods are high in fat and calories, so replacing these with low calorie plant-based foods can help people manage their weight.
It is important to note, though, that eating lots of processed or high fat plant-based foods (which some people refer to as a junk food vegan diet) can lead to unhealthful weight gain.
4. Lower risk of type 2 diabetes
According to a large 2019 review, following a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. The research linked this effect with eating healthful plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes.
What are the potential health risks of a vegan diet?
A vegan diet removes some sources of nutrients from the diet, so you need to plan your meals carefully to avoid nutritional deficiencies. You may wish to talk to a doctor or dietitian ahead of adopting a vegan diet, especially if you have existing health conditions.
You can consume plenty of macronutrients in a vegan diet. These are carbohydrates, fats and proteins, which are all essential for energy and healthy living.
1. Carbohydrates are found in fruits and vegetables, and are also high in fibre without being calorie dense. They also provide small amounts of fat and protein too.
2. Fats are essential to health. Most of your brain is composed of healthy fats. A good source would be from nuts, seeds and healthy oils. However, the best sources of omega 3 are found in animal products such as fish and eggs.
3. Protein is available from plants, but unless you buy protein powders, it comes packaged with carbohydrates. If you are looking to reduce weight this can make balancing adequate protein intake without excessive carb intake challenging (but not impossible).
Key micronutrients that may be low in a vegan diet include:
1. Vitamin B12 is mainly present in animal products. It protects the nerves and red blood cells. Plant-based sources of this vitamin include fortified cereals and plant milks, nutritional yeast, and yeast spreads.
2. Iron is important for blood health. Beans and dark leafy greens are good sources.
3. Calcium is crucial for bone health. Eating tofu, tahini, and leafy greens will help keep calcium levels up. Many plant-based milks are fortified with calcium.
4. Vitamin D3 protects against cancer and some chronic health conditions, and it helps strengthen the bones and teeth. Regularly eating vitamin D-fortified foods and spending time in the sun can boost vitamin D levels.
5. Omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart, eye, and brain function, there are three types of omega-3 fatty acid: EPA, DHA, and ALA. Walnuts and flaxseeds are good sources of ALA, but seaweeds and algae are the only plant sources of EPA and DHA.
6. Zinc is important for the immune system and the repair of DNA damage. Beans, nutritional yeast, nuts, and oats are high in zinc.
7. Iodine is important for thyroid function. Plant-based sources include seaweeds and fortified foods.
Will a vegan diet improve your health?
This depends upon your health status before changing your diet. A healthy balanced diet, low in saturated fats, high in fibre, containing adequate protein and without ultra-processed foods can be achieved with omnivorous, vegetarian, pescatarian and vegan diets. A vegan diet takes a bit more work, and usually some supplements, to ensure sufficient micronutrient intake. However, your consumption of red and processed meats is halted, and you will be improving your fibre and micronutrient intake.
Remember a vegan burger and chips, may be a vegan meal, but if you eat this type of vegan meal everyday you will not improve your health!