Good vegan, bad vegan

Good vegan, bad vegan

I have no argument with people who adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet for health, religious, environmental or ethical reasons. But I object to proselytisers who distort science or the support for dietary advice offered to the more than 90% of us who choose to consume animal foods, including poultry and red meat, in reasonable amounts.

Such is the case with a recently released Netflix documentary called What the Health that several well-meaning, health-conscious friends urged me to watch. And I did try, until I became so infuriated by misstatements - like eating an egg a day is as bad as smoking five cigarettes, or a daily serving of processed meat raises the risk of diabetes 51% - that I had to quit for the sake of my health.

The argument

Please understand: I do not endorse inhumane treatment of farm animals or wanton pollution of the environment with animal wastes and misused antibiotics and pesticides. Agricultural research has long shown better ways to assure an adequate food supply if only regulators would force commercial operations to adopt them.

Nor do I endorse careless adoption of vegetarian or vegan diets for their name's sake. A vegan who consumes no animal products can be just as unhealthy living on inappropriately selected plant foods as an omnivore who dines heavily on burgers and chicken nuggets. A vegan diet laden with refined grains like white rice and bread; juices and sweetened drinks; cookies, chips and crackers; and dairy-free ice cream is hardly a healthful way to eat.

Current dietary guidelines from responsible, well-informed sources already recommend that we should all adopt a plant-based diet rich in foods that originate in the ground, "fleshed out" with low-fat protein sources from animals or combinations of beans and grains. However, here too careless food and beverage selections can result in an unhealthful plant-based diet.

A large study recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology examined the relationship between plant-based diets of varying quality and the risk of developing coronary heart disease among more than 200,000 health professionals. The participants, who started the study free of chronic disease, were followed for more than two decades, submitting their dietary patterns to the researchers every two years.

Based on their responses on food-frequency questionnaires, the participants' diets were characterised by the team as an overall plant-based diet that emphasised plant foods over animal foods; a healthful plant-based diet emphasising healthful plant foods; or an unhealthful plant-based diet. Any of the diets could have included various amounts of animal products.

Healthful plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, as well as vegetable oils, coffee and tea, received a positive score; less-healthful plant foods like juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, fries and sweets, along with animal foods, received a negative rating.

A logical conclusion

The more closely the participants adhered to a healthful plant-based diet, the less likely they were to develop heart disease in the course of the study. Those with the least healthful plant-based diet were, on average, 32% more likely to be given diagnoses of heart disease. In a prior study, the researchers found a similar reduction in the risk of Type 2 diabetes. The team, led by Ambika Satija of Harvard's Department of Nutrition, concluded that "not all plant foods are necessarily beneficial for health."

In other words, you don't have to become a strict vegetarian to protect your heart. Simply reducing your dependence on animal foods, and especially avoiding those high in fat, is helpful. In fact, "a diet that emphasised both healthy plant and healthy animal foods" was associated with a coronary risk only slightly higher than a diet based almost entirely on healthy plant foods, the researchers found.

On the other hand, overdoing "less healthy plant foods" and less healthy animal foods like red and processed meats, the study showed, significantly increased the risk of developing heart disease.

The more plants and the fewer animal products you eat, the lower your carbon footprint. But to be truly beneficial, the plants you choose must be nutrient rich.

Short of becoming a vegan, you can improve your diet, protect your health and add variety to your meals with a few dietary adjustments.

Making veganism easier

For most, veganism as a concept, comes from a sense of responsibility: towards animals or animal products and towards the need for a healthier lifestyle. While many have considered turning vegan at some point, the most predominant reason why people don't go through with it, is because they consider it difficult to maintain a vegan diet. However, being conscious and keeping these few things in mind can help you become a vegan:

* Don't forget your proteins: Once you give up the meats, eggs and milk products, you may end up depriving your body of protein. While plant-based foods can provide you the required amount, remember to include adequate amounts in your daily  
diet.

* Don't limit your food choices: Most of us assume that becoming vegan limits our food options. This, however, is a myth. There are alternatives for almost everything. For instance, milk can be replaced with soya or almond milk. Eggs and paneer can be swapped with tofu, and meats can be replaced with soya chunks or nuggets.

* Avoid processed snacks: It is easy to fall prey to the processed food available off the shelves, for mid-meal snacking. However, processed foods are usually high in sodium or sugars, which make them unhealthy. Vegan foods like sunflower/flax seeds and almonds are fuss free, convenient snacks that can be eaten anywhere and anytime.

* Drinking water is not passé: While veganism does increase your consumption of fruits, including those with a high water content, you must still strive to consume at least two litres of water every day. If you get bored or tired of drinking plain water, you can mix it up by adding slices of citrus fruits or add mashed fruits like strawberries, cranberries, or slices of cucumber.

* Start small: Going vegan can be a big adjustment for your body and can make you uncomfortable. Try starting your transition by being a part-time vegan - keep one meal/snack time in a day wherein you will consume moderate servings of non-vegan foods that you have been used to. Gradually decrease your cheat days from once a day to once a week and so on.

Madhuri Ruia
(The author is a nutritionist)

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