For the context of this discussion, I am referring to a primarily whole food vegan diet.
I am well aware and as a Naturopath, I am NOT in support of the way many people refer to a vegan diet that is free of animal products but loaded with oils, fake meat and processed foods like vegan crackers, cookies, donuts, etc. I often refer to this diet as the vegan version of the Standard American Diet, which is of course a sorry excuse for nutrition. (Sorry, but at least you know you can count on me for the truth. Faithful are the wounds of a friend. Haha.)
A properly balanced, whole food holistic vegan diet is a way of eating that is, full of a broad spectrum of nutrients. A vegan diet is great for all ages including infants, children, adolescences.1 A plant-based whole food diet is a high nutrient-dense diet that is good for all stages of life including adults and the elderly.2
One of the best things about a vegan diet is that it is associated with improving so many conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol issues and cardiovascular disease.3
There are likely a few reasons for this, each potentially being an entire book in and of themselves… But for the sake of brevity, the benefits of a whole food vegan diet can likely be summed up by the following:
- High nutrition- Whole plants are loaded with a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and more. This fact makes veganism better equipped to prevent the nutrient deficiencies that so commonly cause or contribute to diseases and other various ill-health symptoms.
- Improved microbiome- The microbiome plays a major role in strengthening your immune system4 and preventing disease5. One way that they do this is by keeping the pH of the gut acidic so that most potentially harmful pathogens can’t survive.6 Over 70% of your immune cells are found in the gut, so having healthy microbiota is key to good immunity.7 It also helps with proper digestion8 and elimination.9 Good gut flora helps with energy absorption, gut motility, appetite, carbohydrate and fat metabolism, and the liver’s fat storage.10 A healthy microbiome also helps to reduce inflammation in the body.11 For more on this, check out my blog on dysbiosis.
- High fiber- By its very nature, a whole food vegan diet is rich in fiber. Remember that fiber is from plants only, so is not found in animal flesh or animal products. A high fiber diet is associated with the prevention and improvement of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers, as well as helping with high cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar.12 Increased fiber intake is also associated with an improved microbiome.12
Potential nutritional risks associated with this diet?
When referring to a “junk food” version of the vegan diet, as with any junk food diets, there are many potential risks. Many of the myths about vegan deficiencies are either because of a junk food version of the vegan diet or they are issues that aren’t specific to this diet but rather the general population (on any diet). Iron, for example, is often said to be low in vegans; however, in a balanced vegan diet, iron is normally the same or better than others by comparison.13 When looking at a whole food version of a vegan diet there are only a few potential issues. The key word there is potential– they are easy to get around and the benefits of the diet overall far exceed the downside.
Common potential concerns for the vegan diet include:
- Protein– Protein is easy to get on a whole food vegan diet through beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Again, assuming a whole food plant diet, relatively low in fat, you may just need to eat more food to get a bit more of everything that you need.14
- B12– B12 is bacteria derived so it’s not in any certain food so much as on the food. It is created and absorbed by the large intestine and distributed throughout the body.15 Although it is likely that your body can create what it needs, evidence is not yet clear so it may be helpful for vegans to supplement with B12.13 (For more information on this check out the B12 blog.)
Of course, as with any diet, individualization is key. An elite athlete would still thrive on this diet but may need to get more of everything by just eating more food. Someone who wants to lose or gain weight may want to adjust calories, macros, etc. A person who doesn’t have a gallbladder would need a super low-fat version. Fine tuning is important for all diets but in general the whole food vegan diet is a great foundation for all populations if done with a wide variety of whole fresh foods. It’s fun, delicious and will help you feel amazing!
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- Amit M, Cummings C, Grueger B, et al. Vegetarian diets in children and adolescents. Paediatr Child Health (Oxford). 2010. doi:10.1093/pch/15.5.303
- Farmer B, Larson BT, Fulgoni VL, Rainville AJ, Liepa GU. A Vegetarian Dietary Pattern as a Nutrient-Dense Approach to Weight Management: An Analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2004. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2011.03.012
- Tuso PJ, Ismail MH, Ha BP, Bartolotto C. Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. Perm J. 2013. doi:10.7812/TPP/12-085
- Tomova A, Bukovsky I, Rembert E, et al. The effects of vegetarian and vegan diets on gut microbiota. Front Nutr. 2019. doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00047
- Jardine M. The relationship between microbiota and the environment, nutrition and metabolic disease. Pr Diabetol. 2017;36(6):6-14.
- Gill HS. Probiotics to enhance anti-infective defences in the gastrointestinal tract. Bailliere’s Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol. 2003. doi:10.1016/S1521-6918(03)00074-X
- Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S. Krause’s Food and Nutrition Therapy.; 2008.
- Oliphant K, Allen-Vercoe E. Macronutrient metabolism by the human gut microbiome: Major fermentation by-products and their impact on host health. Microbiome. 2019. doi:10.1186/s40168-019-0704-8
- Zhao Y, Yu YB. Intestinal microbiota and chronic constipation. Springerplus. 2016. doi:10.1186/s40064-016-2821-1
- Festi D, Schiumerini R, Eusebi LH, Marasco G, Taddia M, Colecchia A. Gut microbiota and metabolic syndrome. World J Gastroenterol. 2014. doi:10.3748/wjg.v20.i43.16079
- Bocci V. The neglected organ: Bacterial flora has a crucial immunostimulatory role. Perspect Biol Med. 1992. doi:10.1353/pbm.1992.0004
- Kaczmarczyk MM, Miller MJ, Freund GG. The health benefits of dietary fiber: Beyond the usual suspects of type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease and colon cancer. Metabolism. 2012. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2012.01.017
- Craig WJ. Health effects of vegan diets. In: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. ; 2009. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736N
- Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025
- Yoshii K, Hosomi K, Sawane K, Kunisawa J. Metabolism of dietary and microbial vitamin b family in the regulation of host immunity. Front Nutr. 2019. doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00048