DOES INCREASED VEGANISM MEAN REDUCED CHRONIC DISEASES? Emma Berry Student, University of Aberdeen
Emma has just finished studying for an MSc Human Nutrition. She has an interest in Public Health nutrition and health promotion within the community.
Recently, there has been an increased awareness of alternative diets within the UK. One of the most controversial of which is veganism. Vegan individuals remove all animal products from their lifestyle, including dietary sources such as dairy products, eggs and honey1. There are many reasons an individual can decide to become vegan and remove these products. Some claim that it is better for the environment whilst others are strongly against animal cruelty2. However, there appears to have been a substantial rise in individuals undertaking a vegan lifestyle with a belief that it will improve their personal health3. In 2016, The Vegan Society estimated that at least 542,000 individuals in the UK were following a vegan diet ; 3.5 times more than in 2006 3. In this article, we will discuss if a vegan diet does improve an individualâ€™s health compared to the average diet, the effects on the environment and the stereotyping of vegans. BENEFITS OF A VEGAN DIET
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There has been an increasing amount of pro-veganism media available for the general public. Films, such as the Netflix documentary â€œWhat The Healthâ€? discuss current food production issues and the links of animal-based products to chronic diseases. This film promotes a vegan diet to help prevent and even reverse chronic diseases 4 by using shocking imagery and medical professionals to back-up their claims. This film has been rather controversial, with many advising that its views are biased and does not accurately reflect scientific study results 5. However, is there any truth in the statement that a plant-based diet can improve your health? Previous research on veganism and vegan diets is quite limited as there have been a limited number of individuals following this diet until relatively recently, therefore the research required to determine long-term health benefits is currently lacking 6. However, even with the limited amount of research, a recent review by Dinu et al,6
found that following a vegan diet could reduce the risk of all-cause mortality and risk of cancers compared to an omnivorous diet. Vegans were also shown to have a significantly lower BMI, lower total cholesterol, lower LDL-cholesterol and lower blood glucose levels when compared to omnivores. These results are not surprising given that vegan diets tend to consist of foods which are lower in certain fats and energy than their omnivorous counterparts. However, the review also discussed the health benefits observed when following a vegetarian diet. This review determined that the vegetarian diets seemed to have all the health benefits from the vegan diet findings as well as a reduction in HDL-cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels. In terms of disease risk, vegetarians had a reduced risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular diseases, ischemic heart disease, and also various forms of cancer. The differences between the results of the two diets may be due to a higher level of research having been conducted on vegetarian diets compared to vegan.
However, if both have the potential to reduce the risk of chronic diseases then why are people choosing the more extreme option? One potential reason for individuals choosing a vegan diet over a vegetarian diet is for sustainability. Diets which are based around animal-products have been shown to be resource intensive. The energy and resources required to feed, raise, house and transport animals for food production results in a high level of energy required â€“ with often more energy being needed to produce animal-derived foods than the energy gained from them7. Production of this food aids pollution due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions during the farming process. These come from the farm animals themselves through their emissions, such as methane gas, and from various farm processes, for crop lands producing gasses such as nitrous oxide. Therefore, adopting a vegan-based diet helps to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions seen from farming practices. Sabate and Soret7 estimated that if a vegan diet were to be adopted in the UK then this would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% compared to the normal UK diet. This study also determined that adopting a vegetarian diet (which includes dairy products) would reduce the emissions by 22%. Although it is important to improve efforts to reduce pollution levels, many individuals would struggle to change their diet so drastically to adopt a vegan lifestyle. However, the current food system is not sustainable, as the energy required to produce animal-derived products is more than the energy gained. Therefore, those willing to adopt a vegan lifestyle are aiding in reducing current pollution levels and restoring energy balance. POTENTIAL ISSUES OF A VEGAN DIET
Although adopting a plant-based diet has various health and environmental benefits, there are also potential risks seen with this type of lifestyle. Despite numerous health benefits, there are also some possible health risks with undertaking a vegan diet.
Due to vegans excluding all animal products from their diet, there is a risk of them developing various different nutritional deficiencies if they do not have a carefully balanced intake offering alternatives to provide these nutrients. Potential nutritional deficiencies include Vitamin B12, Vitamin D and calcium, as well as low levels of n-3 fatty acids8. These deficiencies have also been linked to an increased risk of bone fractures and lower bone mineral density8. Vitamin B12 deficiency is often observed when individuals have limited animal product intakes as dietary sources are primarily meat, fish and dairy. Deficiency can take years to display, and depends on the levels stored within the body of an individual. Recent evidence suggests that 11% of vegans within the UK are B12 deficient â€“ which can cause infertility, impaired cognitive abilities, taste impairment, depression and various other symptoms9. Although these are some of the potential health issues surrounding a vegan diet, there is still a lack of research on the long term effects of this lifestyle â€“ and therefore there may be further health risks which are yet to be discovered. The health risks which we have discussed can be overcome through a balanced vegan diet, however due to the high number of individuals adopting a vegan diet, it is likely that they do not have the support or awareness in creating a balanced intake to ensure they are not at risk of these issues. Although some individuals have opted for vegan diets to improve their own personal health, vegan diets do not guarantee a healthy diet. Cutting out animal products from a diet can reduce the levels of fat and overall energy an individual may consume 6, 8. Vegetarians and vegans often have a higher intake of fruits and vegetables compared to omnivores, and therefore they may have a higher individual fibre intake10. All of this is linked to a healthier diet, and a reduced risk of various different chronic diseases. However, vegans are still able to consume sugar-rich foods as part of their daily diet.
The most recent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) guidance on carbohydrates has advised that the consumption of free sugars should make up no more than 5% of an individual’s daily energy intake, to help reduce dental cavities and the high levels of obesity11. Although the UK’s average daily consumption of free sugars is much higher than this currently12, swapping to a vegan diet will not mean that an individual’s sugar consumption will drop dramatically. Again, it is dependent on the individual and their ability to plan a balanced vegan diet. STEREOTYPING OF VEGANS
Although there are many benefits and potential drawbacks of following a vegan diet, the recent increase in people adopting a plant-based lifestyle has suggested that there may be a shift in perception and stereotyping of these individuals. Research has previously shown that these individuals are often associated with negative characteristics such as being “weak” or “lacking nutrients” - suggesting that individuals following this lifestyle may have been socially stigmatised - especially vegan males13, 14. There could be many reasons for this shift in public perceptions of veganism, but one may be an increasing promotion of veganism through celebrity supporters. Many celebrities have promoted their own vegan diets, often phrased as “plant-based” to help avoid any related stigma15. These famous faces have been explaining why they have become vegan and the benefits they believe it has to their health and wellbeing to the public. There have also been more vegan athletes coming forward into the public16. This has been thought to help reduce stigma for vegan men, as it showed that being vegan did not impact their masculinity and that being vegan did not mean they were “weak”16. This public promotion of veganism and their perceived benefits has made this lifestyle more socially acceptable and for some it may appear more desirable.
Overall, there are numerous benefits which could be adopted from following a plant–based diet. However, these benefits may not outweigh the potential risks of an unbalanced vegan diet. It is important that - given the growing trend of veganism within the UK - individuals who are wishing to follow a vegan diet are aided in understanding how to develop a balanced diet which captures a range of nutrients and helps prevent deficiencies. Pro-vegan bias media is not beneficial in promoting vegan diets, as it does not adequately address the potential risks of such lifestyles. Films such as “What The Health” could be dangerous to an individuals if they believe that it is the whole truth. Individuals must be fully aware of the risks and benefits of adopting a vegan lifestyle. Although there is still further research required to determine the full range of long-term health effects from a vegan lifestyle, eating more plant-based foods could be beneficial to all. Although many individuals would not want to swap to a vegetarian or vegan diet fully, increasing the number of vegetarian or vegan meals consumed during the week could help improve sustainability and health for the UK. Improving the perception of plant-based foods through celebrity endorsement could encourage more individuals to adopt more of these into their regular diet.