Making the switch to veganism

December 12, 2017

How to be a healthy vegan by following a balanced, whole-food diet

You may be hearing a lot about veganism these days, whether it’s on social media or in the news. With all of the diet options we have, it’s easy for new vegans to fall into a blurry realm where it’s sometimes unclear about what a truly balanced vegan diet entails. Virginia Alcalde who holds a degree in Dietetics and Nutrition and is currently a dietetic intern from Bastyr University at Swedish Bariatric, Metabolic, Endocrine Center, explains why so many people are making the switch and saying no to animal products, and how to practice veganism in a safe and healthy way.

“Veganism is a diet based on plants and whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. It excludes meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs or products containing these foods and any other animal products. People who adhere to the vegan diet cut out animal products from their diet and some people even from their lifestyle. This means not using any household or beauty items that contain beeswax or lanolin or do animal testing. Also, no wearing of any clothes made from wool or leather. Strict veganism means being vigilant, but it has its benefits,” says Alcalde.

It’s a way of living that has become trendy as of late – and for good reason. “We are seeing a cultural shift in the way people, especially the younger generation, are living,” says Alcalde. “Sometimes, people will start the diet with a health goal in mind and discover that they are also helping preserve the environment by minimizing harm to animals and reducing their carbon footprint. It can also work the opposite way, with someone starting the diet for environmental reasons and learning that it’s made a positive impact on their health.”

The benefits of veganism

It works for all ages

“A planned vegan diet is appropriate for all stages of life,” Alcalde says. “That includes pregnant mothers, children, teenagers, adults and the elderly.”

It sustains our environment

“Veganism is often called the compassionate diet. People make the switch because they want to benefit themselves, protect animals, and protect the environment. A plant-based diet requires fewer natural resources and therefore does less damage to our planet,” she continues.

It can protect against disease

Research and evidence have been made available that shows how a balanced vegan diet can prevent diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Here’s why:

  • Cardiovascular disease – “Published studies have shown that the mean BMI (which is weight in accordance for height) of vegans is considerably lower than that of non-vegetarians. Because obesity is a significant risk factor for CVD, the substantially lower weight observed in vegans may be an important protective factor for reducing the risk of heart disease.”
  • Diabetes Type 2– “Because vegans tend to be at or closer to their ideal body weight and because obesity is a major trigger factor for type 2 diabetes, it may help prevent it,” Alcalde adds.
  • Cancer – “Fruits and vegetables have phytochemicals or antioxidants that may inhibit the progression of cancers. Some studies suggest that consuming certain vegetables may reduce the occurrence of cancer in the mouth, stomach, and throat. Some particular foods have been associated with prevention of certain cancers. For example, legumes may protect the stomach and prostate, garlic may aid colorectal cancer, lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes and other plants protect may against prostate cancer, and soy products might reduce breast cancer and protect against prostate cancer,” says Alcalde.

Starting a new lifestyle

The benefits alone are convincing enough to make any meat eater consider making the switch to veganism. However, there are several ways to approach this new diet.

Change takes time

When it comes to your body, it may react differently to its new meal plan. But don’t fret – initial reactions are temporary and your body will adjust.

Short-term effects

“At the beginning, A change in bowel movement can be expected because a vegan diet is high in fiber, and that affects the digestive system,” Alcalde explains. “You may also feel fatigued or experience headaches and weight loss. This is a typical reaction of your body adjusting to the new diet.”  

Long-term effects

“Once your body adjusts, you could expect to experience more energy and feel more awake,” says Alcalde. “You may experience an increase in bowel movements and overall improvements in digestion. The microorganisms in your gut will also thank you. A highly processed diet that includes animal products can deplete your microbiota, so adding more plants, fruits and vegetables into your diet has the potential to promote a healthy and functioning digestive, nervous and immune system.”

Do your homework

According to Alcalde, a poorly planned vegan diet can lead to deficiencies. “This eating pattern requires due diligence and extra meal planning. I suggest meeting with a registered dietitian first, then reading about veganism to make sure you have the appropriate knowledge of what constitutes a nutritionally adequate diet. It is important to know about potential nutrient deficiencies and what foods to eat to meet all necessary requirements. However, some nutrients of concern include protein, zinc, iron, calcium, vitamin D, B12 and omega-3’s. You can obtain these nutrients from a well-balanced vegan diet and the necessary oral supplements.”

If you are ready to start a new chapter and explore veganism, don’t hesitate to reach out to a Swedish registered dietitian today. To learn more about healthy diet options, nutrition, and whole foods cooking, check out some great classes offered by Swedish.