Is it healthier to be vegan?
Why a plant-based diet is on trend right now and a heap of recipes to try. They’re nutritionally balanced, tasty and there’s not a mouthful of tofu in sight. You can easily prepare them in advance and pack them up for a picnic lunch with friends.
Plant-based foods are part of a health trend that is booming right now. Even among the staunchest of meat-and-2-veg traditionalists, a meat-free meal is far less of a challenge – both visually or in terms of taste. There is now so much choice as to what you can put on your plate, whether you are eating out, or even cooking at home. Supermarket shelves and restaurant menus are packed full of sausages, mince, burgers, and bites, all proudly proclaiming their plant-based status. And if the idea of eating less meat and other animal products once raised a fear that you’d be ‘missing out’, then these familiar-shaped foods should probably hit the spot.
But following a plant based diet goes far beyond eating heavily-disguised or heavily-processed soy products at every meal. If you’re only eating a few plant-based meals each week can you unknowingly fall into bad habits? Imagine if you just “grab something quick” whenever your meat-free day comes around. You might not notice that all of your meat-free meals are heavily refined. If like many people you are cutting back on meat as part of a healthier lifestyle, then wouldn’t it make sense to be a ‘clean veg-lover’ instead of a ‘dirty vegan’?
This article opens a door to the ‘clean’ plant-based world and invites you in. There’s a roundup of some of the latest research on veganism, plant-based diets and health to set the scene. Who do you imagine will have the lower blood pressure – a sedentary person eating a vegan diet or an endurance athlete who eats meat? You’ll also find a selection of recipes for delicious meat-free meals. They’re so versatile and quick to make. You could have them for dinner at home, lunch at work or make a big batch to share with friends when you next meet up for a Summer picnic.
How does a plant-based diet affect your health?
Vegan, lacto-ovo vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, flexitarian, omnivore. There are now so many ways to label diets and the way you might choose to eat. They all have an impact on some aspect of your health, but is there really a ‘best diet’ to eat?
For many people, the drive to eat less meat and more veg is based on a desire to get more nutrition from their food. Non-vegans in particular often want to reach desirable targets for their intake of vitamins, minerals, fibre and healthy fats. Replacing red meat with vegetables, pulses and fish is a way to reach these goals. A fresh, plant-based diet will be rich in vitamins C, B1, B9 and E, the minerals magnesium and potassium, dietary fiber and other plant pyhtonutrients.  However, they have the potential to fall short in other areas. More on this in a moment.
So what difference might a plant-based diet make to your health? The data is pretty compelling. A diet that includes a large proprtion of non-animal foods has a beneficial impacct on a variertty of markers of good health.
Studies have found that:
- when matched for gender age and BMI, vegan subjects had lower blood pressure, blood glucose and fasting blood fats than omnivores 
- sedentary, raw vegans had similar health measures of reduced blood pressure, blood fats, insulin and glucose, BMI, and C-reactive protein (a signifier of inflammation) when compared with a group of endurance-exercising omnivores 
- when compared with omnivorous men, vegetarian men had lower BMI, blood fats and blood pressure, cholesterol and oxidative stress. 
Other studies have taken it one step further and compared different types of plant-based diets, for example the Adventist Health Study-2.
- As you would probably now expect to see, vegetarian diets were more protective against cardiovascular disease, some cancers, metabolic risk factors and total mortality than non-vegetarian diets. Participants who were either vegan, or vegetarian and ate eggs and milk, were more protected that those who ate animal products and meat.
- But it is particularly interesting to find that when compared to vegetarian diets (which included milk and eggs) vegan diets brought additional benefits. There was greater protection for obesity, type II diabetes, high blood pressure. This was more apparent in men than in women. 
Vegetarian diets may be a superior choice to a meat-based diet with research suggesting a positive inlfluence for your heart, metabolic health and for its anti-tumour effects. However, a vegan diet may offer additional benefits – a trimmer waistline, lowered blood pressure and reduced diabetes risk.
Going 100% plant-based? Nutrients to keep an eye on.
While eating a fresh, “clean”, plant-based diet can improve your nutrient status (remember the vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin B1, vo=itamin B9, minerals and dietary fibre that you’ll be eating), there is the potential to create a few nutritional gaps that you will need to fill.
A poorly-balanced, plant-based diet which is based on refined, processed meals, litter variety and lots of repetition in your food choices can result in an insufficient intake of vitamins D, B12 and B2; calcium and the trace minerals iron, iodine, zinc, and selenium; omega-3 fatty acids; and protein (for your essential amino acids).
One way to overcome this is by taking a vegan multivitamin and an algae oil (as an alternative to a fish oil).
What about proteins and the essential amino acids? Eating a variety of plant foods is the best place to start; for instance you could replace rice or potatoes with quinoa, or add nuts or seeds to meals which are based on veg. These swaps increase your intake of complete plant protein. Simply put, they are the type which give your body enough raw protein materials to keep you in optimal health. You can find out more about the best protein rich foods by reading Protein Power
A well-chosen plant-based diet will likely be rich in nutrients helping to improve your nutritional status and benefit your health. However, there is the potent for some critical nutrients to be limited, particularly being a vegan diet particularly when eating a vegan diet. These can include trace minerals calcium vitamin di vitamin B12, the omega fats and proteins. A daily supplement can overcome the shortfall. along with eating a variety of complementary foods which create complete protein.
Ready to eat a bit less meat? Try these recipes.
Over the past year I’ve made the switch from eating meat to eating more veg and lots of plant based meals. These are a selection of some of my favourite Gousto recipes that I’ve returned to time and again.
Spiced Sweet Potato and Aubergine Salad with Tahini
Subtly spiced with cumin and garlic and drizzled with a tahini sauce, this combo of roast aubergine and sweet potato gives the perfect ratio of carbs, protein and healthy fats.
Creamy Coronation Chickpea Salad
Coronation chicken is a British salad but here it’s cooked with a twist and uses chickpeas instead of chicken. Creamy, tangy, crunchy and full of fibre too.
Roast Cauliflower and Lentil Salad with Tahini Drizzle
The dense texture of roasted cauliflower is a delicious alternative to meat. It’s paired here with nutty lentils, a superior source of plant protein.
The idea of eating less meat and more vegetables has gained in appeal, so much so that the vegan food market has grown by over 200% in just 2 years. Many diners are attracted by the idea of increasing their nutrient intake, plant based diets are particularly beneficial when it comes to your health. Who would say no to a trim waistline, healthy blood pressure, balanced insulin and blood glucose levels or less inflammation. It’s even more surprising to lear that non-active vegetarians had similar measures of metabolic health as regularly exercising, fit omnivores. There’s never been an easier time to explore a plant-based diet. But don’t fall into the convenience food trap, and eat lots of processed soy. Instead try creating a home-cooked meal using these nutritionally balanced, tried and tested recipe ideas.
1. Richter M et al (2016) Vegan diet. Position of the German Nutrition Society (DGE).
2. Goff L et al (2005) Veganism and its relationship with insulin resistance and intramyocellular lipid.
3. Fontana et al (2007) Long-term low-calorie low-protein vegan diet and endurance exercise are associated with low cardiometabolic risk.
4. Zhang et al (2013) Attenuated associations between increasing BMI and unfavorable lipid profiles in Chinese Buddhist vegetarians.
5. Tai Le L & Sabate J (2014) Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts
Images at Unsplash
Juan Jose Valencia