Exploring the vegan fad: healthy or hurting

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(Compiled by Iris LoCoco | The Collegian; Photos by George Walker | The Collegian)

Vegan diets have many stereotypes, some positive and some negative, depending on who you ask. But the truth is that this diet has many levels and considerations that can be examined.

Animal cruelty prevention, weight loss and overall health are all popular reasons for the vegan diet trend. With veganism, however, meat is not the only thing cut from the diet. In vegan products there is no milk, cheese, eggs or anything else produced by animals. A diet like this can be an adjustment, simply due to the amount of foods that are actually cut out of it.

Vitamins

The vitamin B12 is only found in animal products and a lack of it can cause an array of effects on your body including weakness, nerve problems, constipation, depression and unhealthy weight loss, according to the Health online article, “12 Things You Need to Know Before Going Vegan.”

For this reason, Health recommends vegans take an artificial form of B12 in order to keep the body healthy. According to an article in the Nutrition Reviews article “How prevalent is vitamin B12 deficiency among vegetarians?,” the risk for B12 deficiency is higher in vegans than for vegetarians.

“(B12 deficiency) is a tough one because it’s sneaky,” Sara Rosenkranz, research assistant professor in human nutrition and a vegetarian, said. “It takes years for it to develop and so if you start on a vegan diet, it might not be something that you are going to notice right away, or even in a year. It might be a few years down the road when you really start to see effects.”

Vegan Madeline Appel, sophomore in architecture, has found other non-artifical options for getting B12.

“I have not started taking any supplements for that,” Appel said. “I do use nutritional yeast a lot, which has a cheesy flavor. A lot of vegans will use it in place of cheese … it’s loaded with B12, so that’s one thing for sure, but I know a lot of vegans take B12 supplements.”

Vitamin D and calcium are two other nutrients to worry about when considering a vegan diet. Even though the most common source of these nutrients are diary products, vegan dairy substitutes often contain these extra vitamins.

“(There are) so many products out there that vegans might use,” Rosenkranz said. “For example, soy milk as a dairy substitute (is) now fortified with calcium and vitamin D and, in addition, there are lots of other factors that surround bone health, not just calcium.”

Appel, in addition to being vegan, is also lactose intolerant, which she said is part of what led her to try a multitude of different diets before settling on veganism. Through her trials, she discovered other types of substitutes and foods that offer calcium as well.

“People are so scared of not getting the nutrients they need, calcium for instance … people think you have to drink milk to get calcium,” Appel said. “That’s not true at all. The almond milk I buy has more calcium in it than a cup of milk, which is kind of crazy. Even broccoli has calcium in it, like greens, which you would not expect.”

Rosenkranz said that in a vegan type of diet, there is also a lot of potassium and magnesium, which are also a large part of bone health.

“If you take a look at American Cancer Society and other health organizations, the consensus is that soy can be a healthy part of a diet and that really in terms of risks, there’s not really a concern there and, in fact, it can be really healthy for cancer prevention and also for treatment,” Rosenkranz said.

As far as vitamin D, Julie Gibbs, director of health promotion at Lafene Health Center, said that much of this could simply be gotten from being out in the sun, even for a very short amount of time.

“They could potentially miss out on some vitamin D unless they are getting that 15 minutes a day out in the sun,” Gibbs said. “It seems like a small amount of time, but a lot of us really don’t get that amount in.”

According to the Health article, vegans can lose not only a significant portion of iron, but also may need to find entirely new sources of proteins.

“You will notice that I did not discuss protein as a potential deficiency in a vegan diet, because there’s really no solid research evidence to suggest vegans are at risk for protein deficiency, at all,” Rosenkranz said. “In fact, the vast majority of Americans get more than recommendations suggest that they require. So, it’s really pretty easy to meet protein requirements and you’ll find that protein is in almost every single thing that we eat.”

Rosenkranz said protein is an important part of a daily diet for many reasons, including cell health, muscle growth and immune functions. Appel agrees and said she has had no problem finding protein in her new vegan diet.

“A bowl of oatmeal in the morning is like, 20 grams of protein,” Appel said.

Despite all the extra ways to get vitamins, Gibbs still suggests research to be sure that no deficiencies occur during the dietary switch.

“I think an easy (mistake to make), would be to not do enough research to be able to get in the vitamins and nutrients that you need,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs recommends seeing a dietitian about any large dietary change you make. They can also help you as you proceed throughout the diet, they can offer suggestions and present reliable insight.

“Dietitians are great for giving you advice on this, what is good in your diet and what’s not,” Gibbs said. “I always say just look for a dietitian. That’s why they went to school, they have that background.”

K-State offers the expertise of Dianna Schalles, a free dietitian through Lafene. Schalles can assist with dietary changes like switching to a vegan diet, and can help make sure that enough vitamins and nutrients are in the diet.

The Soy Debate

Soy makes up a large portion of many vegan diets, because of the high protein levels. There is an ongoing debate regarding the health of soy and how much should be consumed. In fact, according to Kris Gunnars in an Authority Nutrition article, “soy is one of the most controversial foods in the world.”

A common substitute for meat in a vegan diet is a soy-based meat substitute. While there is much debate about the actual health and affects of soy, these processed substitutes often have an overwhelming amount of sodium and preservatives, according to the Health article.

“Soy products are really highly processed, especially tofu,” Appel said. “I eat tofu sometimes, but there are a lot of studies that say soy actually isn’t that good for you.”

According to Rosenkranz, however, there is research saying that soy itself is actually quite healthy. Rosenkranz said she does not believe there is a collective societal decision on what a healthy amount of soy is, but it can be estimated based on other cultural diets.

“The best thing we have to go on really is Asian cultures intake of soy and so right now, the general thought is that we don’t really want to recommend more than 25 grams of soy protein per day,” Rosenkranz said. “Even that would be more than what you would typically see in Asian cultures, so there’s not really research that suggests consuming more than that is dangerous, yet it’s somewhat uncharted territory for people.”

In fact, Rosenkranz also said soy is a great source of protein for vegans and vegetarians, which is why it is often a popular substitute for other foods. For example, soy milk and soy burgers.

“Soy is actually thought to be a complete protein where it has all of your essential amino acids,” Rosenkranz said. “Aside from that, your body does a great job of taking the essential amino acids it needs from various different sources that you would consume.”

Appel said, however, that as a vegan she prefers the other substitutes for milk and that there are also veggie burgers and other meat substitutes besides soy products.

“There are so many milk replacements, like almond milk and coconut milk are awesome,” Appel said.

Although soy has a lot of nutrients, it also prevents the absorption of certain minerals and is very high in Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, according to the Authority Nutrition article. For this reason, and for the high controversy in society, it seems to simply be up to the preference of the user.

Health and energy levels

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition article “Health effects of vegan diets,” due to the amount of vegetables, fruits and legumes consumed by vegans and vegetarians, both are at a lower risk for cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.

Appel said that at the beginning of her vegan diet, it was difficult for her body to adjust to.

“The first few weeks, you feel pretty cruddy, like if you’re detoxing,” Appel said.

Appel said she was feeling nauseous when she first began, and was confused because she was not eating anything new or strange. According to Gibbs, however, this kind of quick change could affect the body and she recommends making a slow transition.

“There are some people who think it’s just an easy, fast switch and that they would be able to do it just by excluding animal products, but there’s so much more to it,” Gibbs said. “You really have to look into what you’re missing when you’re not getting in those animal products. And so I think if you make a big switch like that, you need to do your research … and maybe going about it slowly. Just picking something to take out of your diet and make sure you’re supplementing it with something else, a little at a time, otherwise you might really wreak havoc on your body if you just all of the sudden switch to a vegan diet.”

Appel said once she got past the first few weeks, she began to notice positive changes in her mood and energy level.

“I feel a lot happier,” Appel said. “My mood has improved a ton. I don’t know that people pay a lot of attention to how they really feel, but I just feel so much cleaner and have more energy.”

Once your body adjusts to the diet, Appel said that the cravings for junk foods containing animal products, like ice cream, lessen.

“You do stop craving those foods after you’ve not been eating them for a while, especially once you start eating more fruits and veggies, your body really starts to crave those,” Appel said. “Ice cream and stuff doesn’t sound like that big of a deal.”

There are also physical differences, particularly in body mass in vegans compared to non-vegans, according to Rosenkrantz.

“I think there is definitely resource literature that suggests that vegans, in general, tend to have lower body mass – lower BMI’s – as compared to vegetarians and other non-vegetarians, as well,” Rosenkranz said. “So people like it for the idea of weight loss overall.”

The weight loss and health are two particular reasons that veganism is a growing trend in society, but not the only reasons.

Animal ethics and the environment

Treatment of animals is another reason many choose to go vegan. With the way grocery stores are set up, the products we buy often do not resemble the animals they once were.

“It’s so easy to ignore,” Appel said. “We don’t associate meat with dead animals. We are all compassionate and it’s interesting that we make excuses, just so that we can eat meat.”

Appel recalled the 4 Billion Lives bus that sat in Bosco Student Plaza last spring, paying students to watch a four-minute video on animal and meat production, and said the video affected her tremendously, strengthening her reasons for veganism.

“Everyone knows what has to happen for us to eat meat,” Appel said. “We know that animals are killed for our eating purposes, but to watch even just four minutes of what really happens had a huge impact on me.”

According to Appel, there are three main reasons why people choose veganism: health, environmental and ethical. Appel said that becoming a proponent of multiple reasons helped her begin to believe that veganism was worth continuing.

“Before, it was hard to stick to, because it was just about myself,” Appel said. “But now that I know what a huge impact it can have on other things, it’s a lot easier for me to stick to.”

These ethical decisions also include the preservation of the environment as well, according to Rosenkranz.

“I think with veganism in particular, part of it is the idea that you are protecting the animals and people like that idea, that they’re not causing harm to animals,” Rosenkranz said. “I think that there’s an environmental component to it for sure, with the understanding that it takes an awful lot of land and water resources to raise and grow animals that might be used for other purposes, for that land.”

According to the National Geographic website, an average vegan saves 600 gallons of water per day. Appel said while she didn’t get involved in veganism for its ethical reasons, those have begun to matter to her more than she would have ever thought.

“The ethical reason, I think that’s a huge reason why people go vegan,” Appel said. “I always liked animals and stuff, but I never thought it would really mean a whole lot to me. That wasn’t the reason I went vegan, but I’ve just started educating myself more on it and it’s crazy what a huge shift you can feel in yourself once you start to learn about it and what actually happens and the impact that your choices are making.”

Overall, the choice of veganism includes many facets besides just losing weight or protecting animals. It allows vegans to be healthier in some ways through the food they eat, and potentially deficient in others if they are not careful. But according to Rosenkranz, such decisions and cares are made for every diet.

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My name is Emily Moore and I'm a senior majoring in English and mass communications with a minor in leadership. I love to read, write and edit. During my free time, I enjoy doing crossword puzzles, rock climbing and spending time with my friends.