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In
today’s day and age it seems as though several people are making the switch to
a vegan diet, whether that be for moral, environmental or health reasons. In
discussing the vegan diet from a nutritional or food science point of view, I
think it is important to evaluate the nutritional adequacy of the vegan diet.

Many vegans chose this diet specifically for its health benefits as a vegan
diet lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels, lowers body mass indexes, and
reduces the risk of cancer and several other chronic diseases. Despite these
benefits, the vegan diet has its drawbacks in that it is lacking several nutrients
and vitamins and can often cause hormone imbalances. Therefore, if one choses
to switch to a vegan diet it is extremely important they have professional
consultation to make sure they are meeting dietary needs, as supplements and
diet plans may be needed to ensure one is receiving all their nutrients without
having animal products in their diet.

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     In discussing the nutritional adequacy of
the vegan diet, it is important to note that a vegan diet actually offers more
of some nutrients and increases antioxidant intake. Vegans usually consume a
larger amount of wholesome food such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains,
legumes, beans, etc which are all a good source of antioxidants, an important molecule
for the functioning of the human body. What many people don’t know is that
breathing in oxygen causes the formation of free radicals, which then react
with other molecules in the body to give rise to oxidative damage that could
lead to the occurrence of illness and disease. Antioxidants are important as
they prevent free radicals from oxidizing any other molecules in the body. The human
body naturally produces antioxidants to hamper the effects of free radicals, but
there are usually far more free radicals than antioxidants in the body, making
antioxidants an important part of any diet. In addition to fighting off free
radicals, antioxidants also offer several health benefits such as providing
protection against heart, eye, memory and immune system problems as well as
mood disorders. Due to the numerous benefits of antioxidants, a vegan diet
seems to be good for one’s health as it not only increases antioxidant intake
but also has higher levels of potassium and magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C
and E, and is an abundant source of dietary fiber.

     The vegan diet is a healthy option for
many people because it can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels. There
is a lot of research on the vegan diet that shows on average vegans have lower
cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure, both factors that reduce the risk
of cardiovascular disease. The reason
vegans show this pattern is because, compared with omnivores, vegans consume a
much larger quantity of fruits and vegetables which are associated with lower
blood cholesterol concentrations. In fact, the vegan diet is often suggested to
those at risk of developing type 2 diabetes because vegans have a 50-78% lower
risk of developing this type of diabetes due to lower blood sugar levels and
higher insulin sensitivity. There was even a study done that showed diabetics
participating in a vegan diet were able to reduce their dosage of blood sugar
lowering medication by a much higher percentage than those following a diet
recommended by the American Diabetes Association. The bottom line is that the
vegan diet is extremely effective at reducing blood sugar and cholesterol
levels which can help prevent medical issues from developing such as type 2 diabetes,
cardiovascular disease, hypertension, etc.

     The vegan diet is also known to reduce the
risk of cancer, due to the abundance of cancer-protective foods within the
vegan diet. The vegan diet is able to reduce the risk of cancer because it
increases the intake of phytochemicals, which are chemical compounds produced
by plants that interfere with the cellular processes involved in the
progression of cancer. Fruits and vegetables are reported to be protective
against lung, mouth, esophagus and stomach cancer. The consumption of specific
fruits or vegetables can also help to protect against certain types of cancers,
for example tomatoes are known to provide a protective measure against prostate
cancer. In addition, the consumption of red and processed meat are associated
with an increase rate of cancer which means the lack of these meats in a vegan
diet would also contribute to lower rates of cancer.

     The vegan diet has become popular within
the past few years as a way to lose weight, as it is known to be effective at
reducing body mass indexes (BMIs). There have been many observational studies that
demonstrate that vegans are often thinner and have lower BMIs than non-vegans.

In addition to this information alone, there has been controlled experiments
that report vegan diets as being more effective for weight loss than other
controlled diets. The reason being is that a vegan diet tends to reduce your
calorie intake, which promotes weight loss without actually focusing on cutting
calories. If you are looking to shed excess weight then switching to a vegan
diet may be a good option for you, as your diet will often be lower in calories
and fat even when you are still consuming enough food to make you full.  

     The vegan diet, despite popular belief, is
very good for one’s bone health as it is more efficient at absorbing calcium
and bone metabolism. The vegan diet can be lower in protein and calcium, which
is associated with bone loss and fractures, however the vegan diet is much
higher in certain nutrients that also influence bone health, such as potassium.

Despite the lower amounts of calcium, a diet high in fruit and vegetables has a
beneficial effect on the calcium economy and bone metabolism, meaning greater
bone mineral density. In addition, a vegan diet that is high in soy products
can have a positive effect on bone health as soy inhibits the resorption of
bone tissue and encourages bone formation. As long as calcium and protein
levels are high enough to be adequate, the vegan diet is actually beneficial
for bone health rather than detrimental.

     Despite the numerous advantageous of a
vegan diet, like anything else there are drawbacks to this diet as well. An
important drawback to the vegan diet is that plant foods do not contain real
vitamin A, or retinol, as it can only be found in animal foods. Plant foods
only contain vitamin A precursors which can be converted into retinol by the
liver and intestines. However, this process only occurs if all conditions
within the body are right. Unfortunately for vegans there are several genetic
mutations as well as non-genetic factors that minimize the ability of the body to
make the conversion from vitamin A precursors to real vitamin A. Vitamin A is
extremely important for the body as it is principal for the functioning of the thyroid,
the production of hormones, fertility, a healthy immune system, eye health and
fighting fatigue.

      Another drawback to the vegan diet would
be the reduced levels of vitamin B-12 and the risk of developing a vitamin B-12
deficiency. Following a vegan diet increases ones chances of developing a
vitamin B-12 deficiency because you are not eating any animal products, which
is the main source of Vitamin B-12. Vitamin B-12 deficiency is an important
matter because it can cause abnormal neurologic and psychiatric symptoms as
well as increase the risk of becoming anemic and the several other symptoms
associated with this deficiency such as vision loss or constipation. This is
why it is vital for those following a vegan diet to add fortified foods to their
diet or take the proper supplements to ensure they are meeting their vitamin
B-12 needs.

     The vegan diet also reduces the levels of
zinc within the body which can lead to the development of a zinc deficiency. Zinc
deficiency is an issue when following a vegan diet because it is not plentiful
in plant foods and phytates, which are very common in plant foods, can reduce
zinc absorption. For this reason, it has been suggested that vegans must
increase their zinc consumption by up to 50% in order to prevent a zinc deficiency.

Consuming a proper amount of zinc is crucial because zinc is an element found
in cells throughout the body that is required for the body’s immune system to
properly function and is pivotal for the senses of smell and taste. For those following
a vegan diet is important for them to either increase their consumption of
protein, to promote zinc absorption, or look into taking a zinc supplement if
they are concerned about developing a zinc deficiency.

     The vegan diet can cause trouble for human
health because the body is unable to absorb iron from plants as successfully as
it can from animal products. Again, this raises the issue of developing an iron
deficiency when following a vegan diet as the body is absorbing a significantly
lower amount of iron from the food being consumed. Iron is essential for the
body because you need it to produce the protein hemoglobin, which allows your
red blood cells to carry oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body. Therefore,
it is important for vegans to eat iron rich plant foods as well as vitamin C in
order to improve the absorption of iron in the body and if necessary take iron supplements.

     The vegan diet may lead to several
undesirable side effects due to the hormone imbalances induced by getting rid
of all animal products in one’s diet. Vegans are consuming higher than average
amounts of plant foods, which means higher amounts of the hormone compounds found
in plant foods and are completely avoiding the hormones found in animal
products. What these means for the body is that the levels of certain hormones
may either be boosted or lowered depending on one’s diet. For example, the
vegan diet has been found to affect testosterone levels when one is not eating
a balanced diet that includes the proper amounts of carbohydrates, protein,
zinc, and other essential vitamins and minerals. This is why it is vital for
vegans to ensure they are eating a balanced diet otherwise they may cause their
hormones to go out of whack.

     Before conducting research I believed that
the drawbacks of a vegan diet would greatly outweigh the benefits, due to
witnessing the detrimental effects of this diet on a family member. However,
after conducting research I realized that this person was probably not taking
the correct supplements needed to make up for the lack of animal products in
their diet. A lot of the negative effects from following a vegan diet stem from
deficiencies in important nutrients, which can easily be fixed by taking the
proper supplements. I believe if you are going to make the switch to a vegan
diet, or are already following a vegan diet, it is vital for you to speak to a
dietician in order to ensure you are consuming the proper amounts of any
nutrients, vitamins, minerals, etc needed for the body to function properly.

The vegan diet offers several advantageous to one’s health and I think is a
good option as long as you ensure you are maintaining a balanced diet.   

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