Whether for philosophical or health reasons, some people are opting to stop consuming animals and are adopting a vegan diet. This approach to eating eschews all animal products, including meat, fish, milk, eggs and even honey.
Making the switch can be a challenge for people who are accustomed to incorporating dairy and meat in their diet, but it could offer some health benefits. It might even change your body in certain ways.
But how it might change depends on what you were eating before, says Dena Champion, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
“The term ‘vegan’ as it pertains to diet only means that one does not eat any animal products. It doesn’t inherently equal healthy, but it can be a healthy diet,” especially if you’re coming from a less healthful way of eating, she explains.
“If you’re already eating a diet heavy in plants with minimal animal products, you may see very few changes,” Champion says. But, “if you go from eating a diet heavy in animal meat and dairy and change to a diet consisting of high amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” you may see changes in several areas.
Reduced body weight
“Eliminating any major food group, in this case animal proteins, can cause a calorie deficit,” says Kailey Proctor, an oncology dietitian with the Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California.
Many Americans consume a diet that’s heavy in processed, high-fat meats, which also tend to be high in calories and saturated fat. Removing those animal proteins can mean a reduction in calories, Proctor explains.
Instead of high-fat and calorie-dense proteins like bacon and beef, vegans get their protein from plant-based sources such as: Tofu. Tempeh1. Beans. Soy milk. Legumes.
“This can lead to weight loss, and considering that two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, this can have a positive impact on body composition2 and health markers,” such as blood pressure and triglyceride (a type of fat) levels in the blood, Proctor says.
Improved heart and vascular health
“Diets high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can lower triglycerides and cholesterol thereby reducing the risk of heart disease,” Procter says. Plant-based protein sources such as tofu and tempeh have no cholesterol3 – cholesterol is a fatty substance that only comes from animal products. It can build up in the vascular system, leading to blockages that could trigger heart attacks or strokes. Eliminating animal products removes cholesterol from the diet, which could reduce your risk of heart disease.
What’s more, a vegan diet tends to be lower in sodium than some other types of diets because most fruits and vegetables are low in sodium. Because sodium can increase blood pressure levels, lowering your consumption of salt and sodium may also contribute to better heart and vascular health.
Improved blood sugar control
Because being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for developing diabetes, losing weight can lower that risk. One study published in the journal Nutrients in 2018, for example, followed overweight people with no history of diabetes after they switched to a vegan diet for 16 weeks. Those people saw improvements in insulin4 sensitivity and better function of the pancreatic5 cells responsible for producing and releasing insulin. This led to improvements in blood sugar levels.
Reduced joint pain
Fruits and vegetables contain certain compounds called phytonutrients6 that have an anti-inflammatory effect on cells. Also called antioxidants7, these compounds can help reduce the joint pain, swelling and tenderness associated with arthritis and other chronic conditions of the joints.
In addition, if you’re overweight, losing weight can help reduce stress on achy joints in the lower body. The hips, knees and ankles bear the weight of the whole body, so weighing less means less pressure – in some cases, a lot less pressure – on the arthritic joint.
Improved bowel health
Because a healthy vegan diet emphasizes consumption of high-fiber foods like fruit, vegetables and whole grains, that can lead to better gut health and regularity.
High-fiber, whole grain foods contain prebiotics, which are natural, nondigestible compounds that help support the growth of helpful bacteria in the gut – i.e., you need prebiotics to form probiotics, which are those beneficial bacteria.
When you’re consuming prebiotics and probiotics in adequate amounts, that can help regulate gut health, which science is increasingly learning can contribute to overall good health. High fiber foods also add bulk to the stool, which can make for better regularity and improved gastrointestinal8 health.
Reduced cancer risk
There’s also the potential to reduce your risk of developing cancer, Proctor says. “Vegan diets, when planned correctly, are also very high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These plantbased foods have been shown to reduce the risk of cancer due to their high antioxidant and phytonutrient content.”
Covering your nutritional bases
It’s important to make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of certain nutrients that may be more difficult to get when following a strict vegan diet, Proctor says.
“The term ‘vegan’ doesn’t exactly mean healthy,” Proctor cautions. “You can have a vegan cookie,” for example, “but at the end of the day, it’s still a cookie.”
As with any other type of diet, the emphasis should always be on consuming whole, fresh foods as much as possible. Read labels on any prepared or processed foods so you know what you’re eating.
And Champion recommends transitioning to a vegan lifestyle slowly. “It can feel really overwhelming to go from eating animal products at every meal to eliminating them all overnight. Allow yourself time to find recipes and make a plan.”
Proctor also recommends “combining protein sources to make complete sources of protein.” For example, combining rice and beans, or peanut butter and jelly on wheat bread can provide the full complement of amino acids your body needs to keep muscles strong.
Similarly, look to support adequate protein intake by adding soy foods including tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk and soy nuts.
You also need to be sure you’re getting enough vitamin B12, which can be problematic for people who follow a vegan diet because vitamin B12 “is only found in animal proteins,” Proctor explains. “Vitamin B12 plays a role in red blood cell production, synthesis of DNA and RNA as well as keeping our nervous system healthy.”
你还需要确保自己摄入了充足的维生素B12。这对纯素食者来说可能是个问题，因为维生素B12“只存在于动物蛋白中”，普罗克特解释说，“维生素B12 对于红细胞的生成、DNA 和RNA 的合成，以及保持神经系统健康都具有重要意义。”
作者：Elaine K. Howley