Is Vegan Healthy?
We all know that person who is a fanatic about what they eat. A little too fanatical. Irritatingly fanatical. I used to be that person. I was restrictive, picky, and obsessed with the control this brought to my life. This behavior was devastating to my physical and mental health. It brought isolation, depression, anxiety, and the inability to enjoy what life had to offer.
Restriction is often correlated with veganism. Ahh, veganism. A diet sure to bring up some controversy, opinions, and criticism. There are those who swear by it and those who say they could never eat that way and think it’s completely unsustainable. Veganism, if you are unaware, is abstaining from consuming and/or using animal products or products that may jeopardize the welfare of an animal. I am focusing primarily on the food aspect of veganism.
Now, before I take a stand, there are a few known facts about eating vegan. One is that we as humans can survive without meat, dairy, and fish. Another is that there are certain nutrients you must be sure to supplement like vitamin B-12 which comes primarily from animal products. Most people are worried about protein and I must say, let’s settle down with the protein obsession already! Americans in general eat high protein diets from high amounts of animal products. We are feverishly counting the grams we consume each day and grab every product that claims to have high protein. Just beware, most processed vegan foods have soy protein isolate as their main source of protein and soy is not always healthy. It’s often highly processed and some experts believe can act as an estrogen in the body because it’s chemical makeup is similar to the estrogen molecule. As with everything in nutrition, your needs will be different than the next person so there is no magic number, but it is possible to get enough without animal products. Whether this results in good health and longevity is another discussion altogether. One fact I find incredibly interesting came from an article written by Dr. Mercola of mercola.com on veganism and claims that there are 90,000 centenarians in the U.S., but none of them are vegetarian or vegan. All things to consider.
There are many variables that determine how someone will tolerate a diet. One is bioindividuality, a.k.a. we are all different. We all metabolize food differently because our biochemistry is not exactly the same. Our activity and lifestyles also vary dramatically, but we can all be can be categorized into one of three body types: Protein type, Carb type, or Mixed type, which is a combination of the two. Some believe that blood type can also affect the diet that fits us best.
I am a Carb type all the way. I don’t do well on a low carb diet. I get moody, fatigued, and just plain miserable. During college and in my first job I ate really bad carbs. Lots of sweets (low fat though!!), sugar-free drinks for energy, and granola bars. I was what you would call a “junk food vegan.” I had been a vegetarian for many years, but had dabbled with veganism here and there. I didn’t cook very much at the time so I relied on processed soy products and bars. I wasn’t getting enough of a lot of things. Calories, nutrients, minerals, and healthy fats. I also over exercised so my muscle mass and energy suffered. Sounds like a recipe for success, right!?! I was struggling through a lot in my life at that time so like I said before, my sense of control came from what I chose or didn’t choose to eat.
Before you decide if a vegan diet is right for you, I would recommend that you consider what your motivation is to make this change. Some people make the choice for animal rights or religious reasons and I can totally understand this. Some people believe it is the healthiest for their body and I can also understand the want to experiment with eliminating animal products. I felt great for the first several years after making the switch. Being mindful and making a conscious change is important so that you can do your research and make sure you are getting enough of what you need.
Now, I will divulge my stance on veganism. Now keep in mind that this is only my opinion from my own experience which is all anyone can ever say about whether or not a diet is healthy. In my opinion there is no such thing as “the healthiest diet” and that’s the way it should be. Food is an intimate and complex thing. It feeds us in more ways than one and our behavior around food is a result of experience and biochemistry. The diet I stick to today has a foundation in veganism, but I don’t restrict anything except red meat and I wouldn’t even call that restriction. I have chosen not to eat red meat for about seventeen years because I don’t enjoy it and it doesn’t make my body feel good, period. If I am craving an egg, I’ll have an egg. It will be a free range organic local egg, but an egg nonetheless. If I am craving meat I’ll have some turkey or chicken. It usually amounts to a few times a month, but this is how my body works best. I haven’t met many people that can sustain a strict vegan diet and those who sustain it longer tend to be a bit too obsessed (in my opinion) with eating this way. There is a medical diagnosis for this by the way. It’s called orthorexia. An obsession with eating too healthy. Really, you can be too healthy? I was a bit suspicious too, but as with everything, too much or too little of a good thing is NOT a good thing!
Eliminating animal products doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. If you’re eating hoagies every day (sans meat and cheese), you’re just getting a bunch of processed empty calories from the white bread and little protein. We all need adequate protein, just not copious amounts of it from processed foods. Carbs should primarily come from vegetables and whole grains. The closer the food is to it’s natural state the better. Once I started eating this way my blood sugar levels evened out, my mood stabilized, and my energy improved. You can’t completely eliminate sugar from your diet because vegetables are technically sugars, so shoot for eliminating processed sugars and decreasing natural sugars.
I always encourage people who want to try veganism to give it a try. I think it can be a good way to cleanse the body for short periods of time. It’s also a great way to learn about yourself and what you need. My only recommendations to consider when making this decision is to abandon any previously held beliefs or convictions you have about this way of eating and listen to your body. We get in trouble when we only listen to our minds. Your mind may want to be vegan, but your body may not. Be honest with yourself and give your body what it wants. Restriction can be dangerous and can adversely affect your health for the rest of your life. I am still suffering the consequences of poor nutrition and illnesses that resulted from that. So pay attention to your energy levels, hunger signals, cravings, and make sure you’re getting enough calories, healthy fats, and nutrients especially if you are more active. Remember, our bodies always want to be restored to health and will do so if we give them a chance. The only way to do this is to honor the signals they give us.
If you’ve tried going vegan, we’d love to hear about your experience, good or bad. Please comment below!
Shawn Clavelle holds a bachelor's degree in nursing and is a Certified Holistic Health Coach and Certified Yoga Instructor. Drawing from her clinical nursing experience and own personal journey, Shawn has a passion for identifying the obstacles to good health and guiding others in their own journey. She has created a yoga and nutrition program which is accessible and sustainable for those wanting to make changes that last. Shawn believes that what you put in your body and how you move it are crucial to living the most fulfilling life possible.